Italy: Lost at Sea

A frame from La Repubblica's video of what they claim is the "phantom shipwreck" (Photo: AFP).

Recent revelations of a 1996 shipwreck off the coast of Sicily, long kept secret by local villagers, have made the front pages of the Italian press after an investigation by a reporter for the Rome-based liberal newspaper La Repubblica.

On the night of Dec. 26, 1996, a ship carrying at least 283 Indian, Pakistani, and Sri Lankan undocumented immigrants sank 19 miles off the Sicilian coast. Eleven survivors were rescued by a ship on its way to Greece, where they reported the calamity. Because neither the wreckage nor the bodies were ever found, maritime authorities discounted the survivors’ tale that smugglers forced the illegal migrants off their freighter and onto a rickety ferry that then collided with the larger ship and sank. It was derisively dismissed as the “phantom shipwreck” by the press and authorities alike.

La Repubblica reporter Giovanni Maria Bellu, who broke the story in the paper’s June 15 edition, had followed up on leads about fishermen in the Sicilian village of Portopalo who routinely found human remains in their nets but threw them back into the sea, keeping the information from authorities to hold off prying outsiders. In April, after a fisherman discovered an identity card belonging to a 17-year-old Sri Lankan, La Repubblica hired underwater photographers to search the area off Portopalo’s shores for the ferry’s wreckage. They confirmed the worst Mediterranean maritime disaster since World War II.

Corrado Maiorca reported in Milan’s centrist Corriere della Sera (June 17) that Yousef el-Hallal, the captain of the Yiohan, the freighter that carried the immigrants from Asia, may have then rammed the Maltese vessel, onto which he had just forcibly off-loaded his human cargo. El-Hallal, a Lebanese national, was indicted in the Sicilian port city of Syracuse on manslaughter and other charges, but skipped bail.

Before his disappearance, El-Hallal defended himself by stating that the vessel sank in rough seas. But the video produced by La Repubblica revealed a gash along the side of the vessel, evidence that the ferry had been rammed.

The La Repubblica revelations prompted much soul-searching about the tragedy and Portopalo’s silence. Giacomo Galeazzi, writing in Turin’s centrist La Stampa, quoted Giuseppe Vassalli, head of the charity Caritas in the city of Noto (June 16): “We must know the causes of what happened.” He decried the low value placed on the lives of immigrants. Their problems, Vassalli said, “are not resolvable by constructing barriers and borders, but instead by an international policy which should promote development everywhere, and help those people who seek refuge in other countries.”