The Lampedusa Tragedy: A Chronicle

[This was first published on October 2, 2014 @14:33]

Tomorrow, Eritreans all over the world will observe a day of remembrance for the victims of Lampedusa, the tragedy that shook their being on October 3, 2013. The tragedy was not the first incident where Eritreans died, but it was the first of its kind considering the fact that 366 people lost their lives in one day, escaping from an “independent Eritrea”. And it is not going to be the last as long as Eritreans continue leaving their country and heading to wherever their feet leads them while they escape from the oppression that has been raging in their country for two decades. They will die and suffer as long as the repressive Eritrean regime is in power, as long as the ruling party enslaves the people and monopolizes the economy. As long as an unelected leader continues his brigandage and runs Eritrea as a military garrison. As long as the youth are kept in endless servitude and as long as citizens are denied basic freedoms, Eritreans will flee away from their country and face great risks in the process.

A few weeks ago we found out that the Eritrean ruling party (PFDJ) was planning to use the first anniversary of the Lampedusa tragedy to absolve itself for its callous attitude in facing the tragedy when it happened. It has been preparing for the first anniversary commemoration and it had prepared a speech that was leaked to Gedab News a few days ago. A translated version of the innocent sounding PFDJ’s Tigrinya speech is attached below.

On the occassion of the Lampedusa incident, several Eritreans came out vocally criticizing the Eritrean regime for being the cause for the suffering of Eritreans. An Eritrean commentator, Haile TG, says, “The regime has undoubtedly suffered its worst single exposure in both the event and its callousness towards the lives of Eritreans.” Talking about the leaked paper he adds, “Members of regime Embassy in Rome may well feel the sadness but the system and the way they are using to express it will remain to be remembered along the black day of Oct 3. I hope they think twice.”

A Catholic priest said, “if we chose to close our eyes, we cannot see anything, but what is happening to Eritreans is so tragic that even the blind can see.”

A relative of one of the victims from Barentu said, “My brother was not swallowed by the sea, he was swallowed by the PFDJ.”

For the last decade, tens of thousands of Eritreans have left their country and thousands have died on the way. Tens of thousands of new refugees have been added to Eritreans refugees who have left their country over four decades ago. They still remain stranded in desolate refugee camps in the neighborhood, particularly in Sudan. Tens of thousands more are stranded in Yemen and Ethiopia, their miseries made worse by the unjust, irresponsible and repressive regime ruling Eritrea which has been manufacturing death and mayhem for a long time.

It is against this backdrop that Eritreans are commemorating the first anniversary of Lampedusa.

The following is the chronicle of the Lampedusa Tragedy:

OCTOBER 3, 2013:

  • In the very early hours of October 3rd, a 20-meter, 3-deck boat en route from Libya to Italy experienced mechanical problems just a couple of kilometers off the shores of the island of Lampedusa, Italy.
  • The boat, like all transports managed by human smugglers, was overcrowded: it had almost 520 passengers.  Nearly all of them were Eritreans.
  • The passengers could not call for help because their mobile phones were confiscated in Libya.
  • Survivors say that they used their flashlights to draw the attention of other boats and that they cried for help, but they received none. At one point, two boats came nearby, one even circled them, but there was no help.
  • At about 2:00 am, the captain, a Tunisian, in an effort to draw the attention of rescuers, set some bed sheets on fire. But he did this without first securing a safe, isolated place and without communicating his intentions.
  • The fire he ignited, combined with fuel leakage from the boat, expanded.
  • To avoid the fire, the passengers moved to one end of the boat and, as they noticed that this was capsizing the boat, they would move to the opposite direction, all while fighting the now raging fire.
  • While this back-and-forth movement was occurring, some of the passengers (especially the very young) fell of the rails to the sea; still others jumped to the sea.
  • Those who jumped off the boat, those who were jerked into the sea, who could swim and were fortunate enough not to be dragged down by those who couldn’t, or by the weight of the boat, swam for four hours to the shores.
  • Nobody had life jackets which is prohibitively expensive in the bazaars the human smugglers manage.
  • 153 people survived: 152 Eritreans and one Tunisian (the captain). Almost all of the survivors are male (only 5 were female) and the average age of the survivors is 22: the youngest is 11 and the oldest is 44.
  • Survivors report (interviewed by Assenna radio) that of the 520 passengers, about 6-8 were Ethiopians but the rest were all Eritreans.
  • About 370 passengers, presumably Eritreans, and disproportionately female and couples, died.
  • The survivors, in co-operation with Italian immigration office, took the initiative to compile a list of the dead and to call their families in Eritrea and convey the sad news.
  • Late into the week, according to Abba Mussie Zerai (interviewed by Voice of America radio), the rescues were still trying to find 80 un-accounted for bodies.

OCTOBER 4, 2013:

The Reaction of Europe

  • Lampedusa was shut down in respect for the dead: shops, schools, businesses were closed and the Italian flag was flown at half-mast;
  • Italian citizens questioned the policies of their government and officials who came to visit Lampedusa were jeered;
  • In public events– football games, meetings –- Europeans observed a minute of silence to honor the dead;
  • France called for a conference on refugees and how Europe should respond collectively;
  • Pope Francis had already taken a leadership issue on how Europe treats refugees even before the incident: to symbolize the importance of the refugees issue, he had made sure that his first papal visit was to Lampedusa. Now, he set aside his prepared notes to talk emotionally about the shame and how outrageous it is for the world to be indifferent to the plight of refugees.
  • Italy proposed to provide posthumous Italian citizenship to the dead.

The Reaction of the Eritrean Regime

  • On October 4th, while Diaspora Eritreans were in a state of shock and grief, Eri-TV (State TV) referred to the incident as a case of “illegal African immigrants” who are said to be of “Horn of Africa nationality.”
  • While some may have given the regime the benefit of doubt for being uncertain about the nationality of the victims, on October 4th, Yemane Gebremeskel, the director of the President’s office, tweeted (posted on Twitter) “Condolences to the families who have lost their dearest ones in the Lampadusa disaster. Time 4 urgent action 2 ensure this never happens.” This line was featured prominently on without disclosing that it was a re-write of the tweet.
  • Yemane Gebremeskel then went on to have twitter flame wars with Leonard Vincent (AFP) because the latter had asked “Has anyone thought of asking #Eritrea’s top official if he still thought the Lampedusa tragedy is “not a big issue”? Vincent was referencing Yemane Gebremeskel’s interview with Fox News/AFP a month earlier when, asked about the exodus of Eritreans, he had replied “It’s not a big issue.”

OCTOBER 5, 2013

  • On Sunday, Italy’s largest daily paper, Republicca, published a list of survivors compiled by the immigration office of Italy. This is what the list shows:

Of the 153 survivors, all but one (Tunisian) are Eritreans.
Of the 153 survivors, 5 are female and 148 are male.
The youngest of the survivors is 11 and the oldest is 44.
The median age of the survivors is 22.
The mean (average) age of the survivors is: 22
The mode (most frequently appearing) age of the survivors is: 20.

 OCTOBER 6, 2013:

  • In Eritrea, the state media still did not cover the news that everybody in the world was discussing. This wall of silence blanketed the state media from October 5th to October 9th. Flags were still flying at full mast. Its supporters, at Paltalk sessions, website comments section were either implying that the Eritreans are actually Ethiopians, or that they have nobody but themselves to blame for the tragedy. Some were writing entirely irrelevant issues to deflect attention.   As the loved ones of the dead were receiving phone calls from Lampedusa, the Eritrean regime and its media had no words much less words of comfort.
  • On October 6th, a religious service was held for the dead. Videos show rows of coffins, including four tiny ones of children.
  • Eritrean civil society, facebook pages, in the Diaspora initiated a petition to pressure the Eritrean regime to repatriate the dead. Taking the initiative, they reached out to Italian authorities who provided details on the process of repatriation.

OCTOBER 9, 2013:

  • European Commission chief Jose Manuel Barroso, while touring Lampedusa, disclosed that the EU will give Italy 40 million to deal with its refugee crisis.
  • On October 9th, an unsigned statement from the Eritrean embassy in Italy, posted to regime-friendly websites only, acknowledged that the dead are mostly Eritreans, that it was working with authorities to repatriate the dead Eritreans back to Eritrea, and that it would provide financial support to the survivors. The Eritrean flag at the Eritrean embassy in Italy was lowered to fly at half mast (five days after a flag that Eritreans have no allegiance to, the Italian flag, had been lowered.)
  • On October 9th, the Eritrean regime issued a press release where it, for the first time, gave its condolences to Eritreans and the bereaved family members, but most of the press release was dedicated to deflecting blame to the United States for being behind human trafficking whose sole purpose is to empty Eritrea of its youth–this was, according to the regime, after all previous American campaigns of instigating border conflicts and illegal sanctions had failed–and that the regime has facts and is willing to make its case.   This press release was also read on Eri-TV.
  • On October 9th, Eri-TV newscast attempted to explain why it was reporting on something that happened a week earlier–because the government was conducting a “careful study”–but then had nothing to report about the alleged “careful study.” In fact, other than reporting that news had been reported, it failed to disclose the magnitude of the tragedy.
  • On October 9th, Yemane Gebreab, political director of the ruling party and presidential advisor, was interviewed by Voice of America. He indicated that for Eritreans who die in exile, to be repatriated home for burial is “their right.” And in this regard, particularly since it is all the wish of the bereaved families, his government is in discussions with Italian officials to make it happen.

OCTOBER 10, 2013

  • After much criticism, the YPFDJ, the youth satellite of Eritrea’s ruling party, PFDJ, visited Lampedusa, a south Italian island whose shores were visited by victims of a shipwreck: 154 barely alive, and 369 dead Eritreans.   YPFDJ’s statement begins with this: “The Y-PFDJ team has been in Lampedusa for almost 24 hours and the facts and situation on the ground is nowhere near hyped hysteria and propaganda depicted in the media since the unfortunate tragedy unfolded.” This is what happens to people whose loyalty to a man and party trumps their humanity: protecting the party, protecting its image is priority one; everything else is delegated to a secondary position.   Let’s see if we can help them, and others who think like them, to understand why Eritreans were in a state of hysteria, overwhelming grief, rage, and righteous indignation. Let’s see if we can help others see that the Eritrean journey has always been for dignity and when it is denied the path has always been the same: fight or flight.

Memorable Audio/Video from the Lampedusa Tragedy

1. Eri-TV talks about the death of “illegal immigrants who are citizens of the Horn of Africa.”
2. Italians declare Friday Day of Mourning.
3. Tesfai Mehari (Fihiri) song Bahri (“the sea”) suddenly finds new meaning.
4. Eritrean ambassador to Italy, Zemede Tekle, speaks 11 days after the Lampedusa tragedy with BBC’s Focus on Africa. He blames human traffickers and Ethiopia as being the root causes of Eritreans exodus.
5. Eritrean asylum seekers in Israel hold a memorial for those who perished in Lampedusa.
6. Deacon John Ghebrehiwet cites Ezekiel 37:3 (“And he said unto me, Son of man, can these bones live?”).
7. Lwam grieves for her brother Aman: “Amaney kindi shiH”.
8. Assenna radio interviews the survivors.

9. The PFDJ leaked speech (translated by Awate Team).

Dear families and parents, and all of you respected people, participants in this day of conscience and remembrance.

Firstly, we are grateful to you for accepting our invitation to be part on this day of conscience and for coming here to this event that is organized by our community association.

The issue for which we are gathered today disturbs all Eritreans; our youth and children are deceived by foreign conspiracies, by false hopes that cannot be realized, they are leaving behind their country that they love, and their families and people behind, in trying to reach the Western countries through insecure shortcuts, and yearly they are becoming victims of human traffickers, exile, and disappearance in high seas, [we are here] to remember them in prayers of conscience and all of us Eritreans in one voice, together, to stop the perishing of our youth and children, we are here to call on those who are trading with the blood of their Eritrean brethren and transporting them, those who have become the tools of enemies, we are here to advice them to desist.

Since the sea accident that happened in the island of Lampedusa last year, the perishing of 365 Eritrean youth in one moment was an incident that saddened and angered the families and parents and the entire Eritrean population, it horrified all of us Eritreans. And on the third day, October 6, all community associations and houses of the faithful, in unison, announced a day of mourning and lighted candles, wailed and delivered prayers of conscience; and we all remember that on October 9, 2014 (sic) through its embassy in Italy, the Eritrean government issued a proclamation stating that all the remains would be returned to their country and be buried there, and that it will cover all the expenses. But the Italian government, with the pretext of DNA verification, and with the excuse that it will conduct a study, is still holding the remains of our children and is still in a debate with the Eritrean government. The community association in Italy and the youth of YPFDJ in Europe, on top of the support and condoling the bereaved families, and the moral and material support they provided to the surviving victims by sending their youth to Lampedusa, [that] was an expression of their sorrow. Also after that, on the day the Italian government announced the Day of Mourning, by organizing all of Europe and Italy, [YPFDJ] prepared buses and stood in line in the town center of Argento in Sicily, lighted candles and held flowers and went to the Piazza, in the presence of many priests and sheikhs and mourners, and carried out their prayers; they returned to their respective places after throwing the flowers into the sea of death.

Ladies and gentlemen,

Even if the Lampedusa accident is painful, it is important to remember it is not the first one. Many times, many Eritreans and thousands of Africans have become victims of death and sources of the human organ trade, and perished in deserts and seas without salvage. This is the policy of all occupiers and oppressors, they do not need the people of Eritrea or Africa except its land, in order to monopolize its resources, based on their hidden policy they want to implement, they are there to waste the minds and energy of the youth; and the Eritrean youth are found to be the victims of this secret policy of the West. Particularly in this year, underage youth from the confines of the Eritrean-Ethiopian borders, are leaving their education and the shepherding of their animals, selling their properties and herds and leaving through Ethiopian territories and [made to] cross to Tigray [Ethiopian], with the intent of denying Eritrea from their contribution in the future: some of them, with unknown financiers organized by the enemies, are leaving through Sudan and the Libyan Coast, and in a short time reaching Europe. The USA consulate in Asmara also, by pretending to be caring, is granting Eritreans a free visa and is inviting them to disappear from their country. Therefore, in this anniversary, increasing our consciousness, in one voice, all of us must say, enough to deceiving the youth; enough to exile, enough to disappearing, enough to death, enough to the trading with the remains of our brethren, and on this occasion, we must renew our call, and make our voice heard by standing against human trade.

Heaven for our brethren the victims
Victory to the masses
Eritrean community association in Italy


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