An Italian professor of forensic pathology and anthropology at the University of Milan is on a mission: to try identifying or at least putting names to the graves of mostly African migrants buried anonymously in a graveyard in Italy.
Dr Cristina Cattaneo and her team are working to honour the dead who perished on April 18, 2015, as a boat carrying 1,000 migrants from Libya through the Mediterranean sank that moonless night.
“There are so many tombstones in European cemeteries with ‘unknown’ written in Italian in place of a name, and the date of death. And that’s it. I think this is tragic. It’s the ultimate insult that someone can receive,” Cattaneo told the BBC.
She said people who die in plane crashes are named, so why not migrant travellers? She and her team have opened files for more than 350 missing persons whose families believe they may have died on the shipwreck.
“This means 350 families have approached some sort of authority looking for their dead in this incident. Five years have gone by and these people are still looking for their loved ones.”
On that old boat in Libya were people from Senegal, Mauritania, Nigeria, Ivory Coast, Sierra Leone, Mali, Gambia, Somalia and Eritrea. There were Bangladeshis on board too. The man steering the boat, a Tunisian, together with a Syrian, survived. Both were later convicted of manslaughter and human trafficking in an Italian court.
The ill-fated voyage began at dawn on the beach at Garabulli, east of Tripoli, aboard a nameless 20m-long fishing boat painted a jaunty sky blue.
A Senegalese man who had paid people-smugglers to be on the boat narrowly escaped death.
“We were in 10 groups of 100 people,” he told reporters. “Seven of the groups boarded. I was in the eighth group. More people arrived in a refrigerated truck. They got on the boat too. We could see it was heavily loaded, and then the traffickers announced the boat was full. I said, ‘That’s impossible.’ I insisted I had to go too.”
He had paid the equivalent of $1,000 dollars but in local currency; the smugglers prioritized those who paid in US dollars.
Abdurisaq, a Somalian who survived the tragedy being an excellent swimmer, said as the boat began to take on water, its captain put out a distress call for rescue. A large rescue ship arrived close to the boat, which had become unbalanced as passengers gravitated towards the side close to the ship. Then the ship accelerated.
“Our boat crashed into the large ship head-on,” says Abdirisaq. “We hit the ship more than once. Then we scraped along its side. After that, we couldn’t stay afloat and we capsized.”
“When we were thrown into the sea, people were holding on to me. My clothes were ripped off as I tried to free myself and swim to the surface,” he says.
“I could hear a lot of shouting and screaming. People were still trying to hold on to me, so I swam away from the crowd – I was so tired, and I still had so much water inside me. I tried to swim after the big ship. I was about to give up when they threw down a life belt.”
Many were rescued by the big ship—in all 28 survivors; hundreds of bodies were later found, the rest never.
Cattaneo, who was also on the pathology team that later worked on the bodies, recalls the tragedy.
“Just imagine a floor which is covered with bodies. They looked like dressed dummies. There were about five or six strata of bodies, one on top of the other. And I remember my first impression was that I had never seen – I could never have imagined – a similar scenario.”
Cattaneo remembers her team then had “to be very careful to see what was connected. For example, if there are a head and a torso, see if there’s any sort of tissue or string of tissue connecting them, and not to lose anything in the collection. We’re talking about bodies that are decomposed, very slippery.”
She had conducted the autopsies, working on over 30,000 dismembered human parts, trying to match them the much she could for the records. But five years after she is now on another duty to the dead.
“Identifying the dead has to be done, not only to solve criminal cases or for respect for the dignity of the dead, but it’s something that has to be done for the health of the living. I think it’s easy to imagine that not knowing is worse than knowing that he or she is dead. If you have the certainty they’re dead, you can start grieving.”
It is unknown how many Nigerians drowned in the incident.