Inquest Into The Lampedusa Migrant Boat Disaster

lampedusa boat disaster

The tragic boat accident of October 3, 2013, which claimed the lives of 366 young Eritreans off the coast of the Sicilian island of Lampedusa,has been coming for a long time. Warning signs, in the form of human skeleton, have been piling up in the Mediterranean Sea bed for years. Fed up with the prospect of an indefinite and wretched existence in the refugee camps they ended up after fleeing from multi-depriviation in Eritrea, tens of thousands of young Eritreans have been taking the long, perilous, and illegal migrant routes northwards in search of a better future in Northern Europe. The majority have succeeded, but hundreds have died, and still continue to die, turning this sea into the unmarked grave for hundreds of Eritrea’s youth.

On more than a few occasions, we have been witnesses when European leaders expressed- belatedly and awkwardly – their shock, disbelief, and indignation at how such a tragedy could have happened with in European territory, in the Mediterranean Sea, a sea with a sophisticated system of monitoring movements and dealing with boats in trouble.

And, throughout these protracted period, the on-screen visual narrative had remained the same:  gruesome, distressing and depressing images of dead young corpses captured on camera soon after their long journey was rudely and prematurely interrupted by death. But the Lampedusa tragedy was overwhelming, both in terms of the body count and the unsettling graphic images of the dead. It was also the worst boat disaster to have occurred in this sea after the Second World War.

Just four months after this latest tragedy, the different faces of the dead and the memories they evoked are gradually fading and receding from our memory. Now only weak and blurred impressions remain, feebly and unsuccessfully trying to hold on against the unrelenting and ceaseless onslaught of time on our collective memory. (The struggle of man against power, wrote one departed Czech novelist, is the struggle of remembering against forgetting. How true! )

Our collective response throughout these tragic and protracted years had also remained familiar, the same, and predictable: reactive. We wait and then howl when calamity strikes. This is what we have come to do best: wait and then wail. We have become too accustomed to waiting, and then wailing when disaster strikes…plus, of course, that illogical clinging to hope and messianic deliverance.

Our collective instinctual reaction to the series of unfolding tragedies had also followed a predictable and familiar pattern of acting and re-enacting a deeply ingrained cultural routine. Attired in mourning black, assuming a sombre and grave appearance, shedding what are mostly fake and insincere tears of grief, we find it easy to take up- briefly- the roles of actors in a tragic theater. We attempt to outperform and outshine each other, sometimes trying to score political points on the way, while doing what is basically the same thing: unleashing an internalized, automated, and routinized cultural behavior. What we all do best: love and honour the dead. It is a sort of fetishism or celebration of the dead…while, at the same time, forgetting the suffering of the living and dying.

(Please disregard those minority who behaved out of the norm, those who acted in a culturally and morally objectionable manner. So unbecoming of them. I do believe, though, that they too did feel the pain and the sorrow, but have become too fervid and impassionate in their obstinate and misguided ways. This too has become a familiar pattern. A pathological manifestation of the seeds of discord sown in the midst of us.)

The response from the despotic regime had also been predictable. A familiar pattern of denial. This was followed by a belated press release from the official mouth piece which tried, unsuccessfully, to make amends by mourning the losses while at the same time lamenting the senseless death of so many young lives, the sheer size of the loss being compared to that of a war casualty. Yes, the magnitude and scale of the loss was compared to that which can occur only in wars. No wonder, the demented cognitive faculty of the regime can only comprehend such loss of lives in terms of labour camps and wars.

Such an outpouring of grief! A whole month of requiem masses, candle vigils, impassioned sermons, speeches, denunciations, and demonstrations. The virtual space of social media was chaotic with activity. Photos of the deceased were mercilessly thrown in front of our faces, lest we forget their terrible ordeal, their last struggling minutes and seconds before they drowned-slowly- to death.

Who is responsible?

On May 2011, The Guardian revealed that a small rubber boat left Tripoli on 26 March 2011 with 72 young people (50 men, 20 women, and 2 children) on board. It was washed up on the shores of Libya 15 days later with only 11 survivors. Two more died soon after for lack of immediate medical care. In all 63 migrants died from hunger, thirst, and exposure to the elements. A slow, wilting, and painful way to die. The struggle up to death by drowning is by far much faster and better.  Amongst the dead and survivors were Eritreans.

The whole of Europe was shocked and disbelieving when the ordeal of these illegal migrants was reported. An inquiry, launched by the Council of Europe into why a boat in distress- which had been supplied with food and water by a helicopter and photographed by a military aircraft- was left to drift unaided and helpless for over two weeks, implicated many national and international actors, including the United Nations, NATO, Italy, Malta, Libya, and the smugglers. The inquiry established that a collective failure at the human, institutional, and legal levels had contributed to the death of the 63 people.

The author of the report wrote in his conclusion: We need more answers and I will continue to look for them. These people did not need to die and those responsible have to be called to account. If different actors had intervened or had intervened correctly, they would have been rescued on several occasions.

Likewise, the October tragedy could easily have been averted if the findings of the above report were taken seriously and its recommendations enacted. Equally and over again, the same set of proximate and direct factors responsible for the earlier tragedy were to be blamed for the latest one too. And, as before, nobody has been called to account yet. And justly, as before, the 366 young Eritreans who perished near Lampedusa did not need to die either.

This time, at least, the well-meaning bureaucrats at the Council of Europe had the common-sense to spare us (-and their tax-payers) another expensive, lengthy, and useless audit report. The Lampedusa victims were ‘given’ Italian citizenship, in its place. A less expensive way of dealing with the incident in an increasingly thrifty budgetary times in Europe.

Immediately after this latest boat accident, posted an online questionnaire which asked its readers to assign blame for the root cause of the tragedy. Around 10, 000 dutifully responded, and the result showed 83 percent squarely putting full accountability on the Asmara regime’s doorsteps, 9 percent on the West, 5 percent on the Diaspora, and the remaining 3 percent blaming the fleeing refugees themselves.

As already alluded to above, the regime’s instinctual and immediate response had been denial followed by shoving full culpability to the usual perennial regional and international enemies. And the opposition’s reactive finger-predictably- pointed towards Asmara.

The pattern remains thus faithfully the same. The latest tragedy has only succeeded in adding yet many more unanswered questions to what was already a massive list. This is no comfort at all for the families of the departed and it doesn’t in anyway assuage their profound sense of loss and grief. The expeditious way the tragedy had been dealt with by the international and national actors is largely self-serving and self-delusional, and it leaves an uneasy calm hovering over the sea. And this does not portend well for the uninterrupted flow of illegal refugees, and it is only a matter of time before another tragedy strikes again.

A loud thinking is necessitated here among all Eritreans, in general, and our politicians, in particular. What happened near Lampedusa is a powerful warning that the precarious existence of Eritrean refugees and the overall humanitarian situation is beginning to spiral out of control. The recurrence or avoidance of another such catastrophe will to a great extent be determined by the actions that Eritrea’s different national players- political, civic, religious, or whatever- take in the present and near future. But, so far, these actors seem too preoccupied and locked in a vicious cycle of talks and meetings that collapse, restart, and collapse again, a kaleidoscope of shifting alliances, rivalries and mergers; an approach leaving time only enough for post-crisis opportunistic political posturing while largely relegating the colossal humanitarian crisis to the backseat.

What happened near Lampedusa can be compared to the tip of an iceberg, that visible top portion of a hidden and gigantic submerged mountain. Though remote and isolated, the latest tragedy is a potent sign that the deeper, unappreciated, and colossal national malady has severely deteriorated. Logically, a solution to a problem is crucially dependent on the cognitive effort expended to analyze and thoroughly understand it; and the more complex the problem, the more rigorous the effort. The set of proximate and direct factors identified above as the major underlying causes for the disaster are just too weak and too shallow to address and explain the whole dynamics of the problem. The current approach has utterly failed, over and over again, to fully appreciate the magnitude of the problem. It remains deficient, conceptually and analytically, to fully grasp the whole context and dynamism underneath the unfolding series of tragedies.

Comedy writers in ancient Greek invented what they called deux ex machina, a creative artistic tweak designed to give an implausible solution to a complex theatrical plot. An insightful detached observer might have been forgiven for discerning an uncanny resemblance between the former and our current misshapen affairs.

Re-conceptualizing ourApproach 

Who, then, can we hold accountable?

If you look too closely at the tree, goes an old and wise saying, you will lose sight of the forest. The answer for the above question can only be found, I will argue, by using a comprehensive and all inclusive set of lenses with which to peer into, gain insight, and systematically analyze our multi-faceted and intricately interwoven and complex national ailment.

Eritrea’s greatest day arrived one day, on Friday, the 24th of May 1991. Eritrea’s finest day saw also the dawning of another dilemma, a dilemma that faced dozens of new African countries soon after they have unshackled themselves from foreign domination and subjugation. It was a simple and genuine test for dozens of past and present (… and surely future) newly declared Independent states in Africa: delivering to the dispossessed, deprived, and persecuted mass the promises of Independence, which was to bring to an end the system and conditions that created and nurtured injustice, persecution, fear, terror, inequality, arbitrary rule, impunity from law, etc.

The challenges Eritrea faced in 1991 were also the same- undisputedly daunting- challenges of post-colonial Africa and its numerous offspring: The challenges of building new state and civic institutions where none existed before, resurrecting (or building anew) a devastated socio-economic infrastructure, lifting the population out of the pervasive darkness of illiteracy and poverty, while coping with the ever present dangers of neocolonialism and geopolitics.

And contemporary Africa’s bitter irony can be discerned easily in the current scenery which is littered with the carcasses of many dysfunctional and failed nations. For many, the post-colonial reality has been shoddier, a downhill course into an uncharted and dark terrain: an ugly and incestuous relationship between power and politics; blatant and total disregard for the democratic rules of governance, rule of law, and universal human rights; cronyism, corruption and nepotism; misuse of natural resources and an imploding economic system; parochial politics and mismanagement of religious and socio-cultural cleavages. The net effect has been socio-cultural fragmentation of nations across religious and ethnic fault lines, civil war, deteriorating humanitarian condition, colossal refugee crisis and the vast tent camps that dot the African landscape.

What Africa’s post-colonial reality underscores is that the project of nation building can indeed become a dangerous fantasy. The nation is not an objective reality, Eugene Weber had warned, but a work in progress. These words were written in an entirely different context, but remain relevant to this day. And Africa’s experience is a stark and grave reminder that a regressive course and disintegration is not only a theoretical possibility, but a very real and present danger.

Just over two decades after its Independence, Africa’s second youngest nation has also entered the same murky and troubled grounds. Lampedusa and other more significant and credible international indicators (e.g., the 2013 UNHCR and IOM data on Eritrea) show that a critical juncture has been reached and that the national vessel is perilously reaching the tipping point. So far nobody seems to heed; and the collective response remains very much akin to that of the actions of the crew of a sinking ship, who are too busy blaming and fighting against each other to bother plugging the leaks.

The problems that bedevil societies and nations, like the myriad diseases that afflict the human body, are never static. They are dynamic and progressive. And they usually affect and change the perceptions, attitudes, behaviour, and interaction of the very societies in which they have arisen and evolved. The stability, harmony and normal functioning of societal and political systems is very much hinged on how and when these problems are addressed and tackled.

A careful consideration of the above basic factors is important if one is to grapple with the current political predicament and impasse. Our problems have been neglected and allowed to accumulate through an extended period of time, carried over from one historic time to another, with newer-real and perceived-sources of cleavage added to older and historical ones, reinforcing each other, and giving rise to the current hyperpolarized and raucous political atmosphere polluted by mistrust, intolerance, bigotry, cynicism, hostility, frustration and resignation. The current approach leaves no room for empathy, tolerance, reasonableness, prioritizing among issues, and the political arts of give-and-take which are the most essential prerequisites if the accumulated aches and pains of the masses are going to be transformed into a shared vision and collective political action that makes an impact.

The nation has come under the intense focus of an assortment of actors crowding its political spectrum. The multitudes of organizations with their discordant messages are all determined- in their uniquely obsessed and myopic way- on saving the same nation. But their eyes are looking from different ends of dissimilar lenses- either inclusive or exclusive, depending on the peculiarities of the beholder and respective lens. The reasons (real or artificial), historic interpretations (or re-interpretations), and ideals (fragments thereof or mostly regurgitated nonsense) that form the shaky foundations of the different organizations and their actors have evolved and morphed into inflexible fundamental principles, with each coming to view the other not as a potential partner- but as a moral and mortal enemy, to be thrashed and silenced.

The reality out there is sobering: indifference to the ongoing huge humanitarian crisis, total lack of an effective mechanism that can integrate and bring coherence to the competitive agendas of the varied actors, and a bogged down political process that has failed to adapt to newer socio-economic, political, generational and global realities and developments. There is an urgent need for a new architectural structure- a conceptual and analytic framework which situate things within a new context and provide a new set of lenses that can help understand the complex, interwoven, and interdependent reality and how these different parts can interrelate and interact, if our organizing and energy is to be converted into a meaningful political activity that brings about the much needed change that all are striving for.

Messages and Opportunities

The 366 young Eritreans who drowned near Lampedusa left behind a rare chance to break free from our complacency, step back, reflect, and take the time for doing a self and national audit. Their brutally interrupted life’s journey and death bequeathed on us- in a sort of odd way- a dignified road to redemption- to give our life a meaningful existence: by ending our almost audible silence and indifference in the face of the ongoing human suffering, by coming together and stopping our drifting apart, and through taking a collective action to highlight, ameliorate, and bringing to an end the ongoing humanitarian disaster.

Lampedusa and its hundreds of dead also opened a window of opportunity to shrug off and dissipate the pall of political inertia and resignation that hung over the bogged down process for political change. The positive epidemic of citizen activity that followed this latest tragedy was an opportune moment for taking pragmatic and bold initiatives that prioritizes and addresses the current plight of the masses. And the few practical and purposeful steps taken towards the realization of this worthy and compassionate endeavour might have laid down the foundations and initial building blocks for yet further fruitful and practical political engagements.

Finally, this tragedy also provided an opportune moment for a hapless political leadership to redeem its image and demonstrate to a largely disenchanted local audience (at home and in the diaspora), regional and international community that it is a compassionate, credible, and relevant political force of change with an ethos of serving (rather than ruling) the public. There is still ample time to desist from the petty political squabbling and haggling, and to come together for a sensible political action around a shared humanitarian platform that cross-cuts across the confounding multi-cleavages.


In Lampedusa, back in October 2013, it must been another routine-but busy,day at the overcrowded mortuary where the recovered corpses of the refugees have started to arrive. Over the years, that small island town has become so used to such similar accidents and deaths. Likewise, the coroner, who was tasked with filing the death report for each arriving victim, ought to have felt bored and dejected while ‘dismissing’ each corpse with a same post-mortem note: death by accidental drowning. But the arrival of corpse number 288 and 289- Mum and newborn baby linked by an umbilical cord, must have elicited a little pause and consternation. And a final citizen tally of almost 400 Eritreans must surely have roused about enough curiosity to ask and look for the underlying causes of the tragedy in the country of origin of the corpses, in Eritrea.

A nation is sometimes likened to a human body, a sort of social organism or construct; and its afflictions, though dissimilar, can also be likened to the myriad pathogens that are the scourge of the human body. The scientific approach of a pathologist – who is trained to dig deeper and unravel the mystery behind human sickness and death, and his/her sharp knife may also be of great help in our quest to understand the current national sickness too.

Pathologic services represent a complex series of activities that provide a rational and scientific base by which clinical care can be audited, corrected, guided, and kept appropriate. It is an action plan that encompasses the four domains of cognitive, normative, communicative, and medical conduct which involves, among others, the processes of memory, perception, rational argument, rational choice, and consensus among peers.

And- with your usual help and patience (…and, of course, the extra- help of seminal works on the topic), I will write a follow-up article that tries-modestly- to tackle the raised challenges.


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