The port of Kalamata: Many of the dead still haven't been identified.Foto: Stelios Misinas / REUTERS
A three-meter-tall chain link fence separates the two worlds: Inside the complex, in the white containers, are the survivors of the shipwreck that took place in the Mediterranean Sea on June 14. Outside are the others, those hoping they will be able to see their relatives again here in the Malakasa camp. Or that the men inside will at least be able to tell them what happened to their sons, wives and nephews in their last few hours on the water.
For the past week, Malakasa has no longer been just a village in the north of Athens. It has been the center for thousands of relatives searching for their loved ones. Every few minutes, taxis and rental cars pull up in the small square in front of the camp. Men get out and walk past security to the fence.
Shirwan Sayed* reaches the camp in the early evening. The Syrian traveled from Düsseldorf, Germany, to look for his brother. In 2015, he fled to Germany himself, and at the end of May, his brother also left Syria. The last time they met, he was still a teenager. They hadn’t seen each other for eight years – until yesterday. Now Sayed has a blue plastic bag with him full of T-shirts and pants for his now grown-up brother Azad, who survived. Until a just a few days ago, Sayed thought they would never see each other again.
The June 14 shipwreck is the worst such accident that has taken place in Greece in several years. In the early hours of June 14, an old fishing boat sank around 80 kilometers southwest of the Peloponnese region. Photos show three overcrowded decks, people crammed in shoulder to shoulder. The International Organization for Migration estimates the number of passengers to have been between 400 and 750, most of whom appear to have come from Pakistan, Syria or Egypt. So far, only 104 people have been rescued. Just 82 bodies having been recovered, but most are still missing.
A picture of their final hours emerges from photos, ship data and videos – though it is fragmentary.
Once again, the disaster is raising agonizing questions for the European Union: Does it condone shipwrecks in the Mediterranean, delaying rescue operations until the last minute? Or does it perhaps even provoke them, because countries like Greece are desperate to keep refugees from landing on their shores?
There has also been massive criticism leveled at the Greek coast guard. Survivors have alleged to DER SPIEGEL and other media that the fishing boat only became unstable after an attempt to tow it by the coast guard before then capsizing. Some have said it was even intentional.
The Greek coast guard denies the allegations. It claims to have arrived at the ship hours before the accident, and says the passengers refused offers to be rescued. The coast guard did not, however, deliver a plausible explanation for why the vessel then capsized And while it is clear that the ship could easily have become quickly unbalanced due to the sheer number of people on board, the coast guard has still come under criticism for its actions after the vessel’s sinking.
A Greek lawyer from Kalamata is calling for an investigation into negligent manslaughter. Members of the European Parliament are also calling for clarification of events. And in several Greek cities, people took to the streets to protest the migration policies of both the EU and the government in Athens. The accident occurred just days before Greek parliamentary elections set to be held this Sunday. Even after the seemingly unending string of scandals over illegal pushbacks of migrants to Turkey, a new nadir has been reached with the sinking of the fishing vessel.
Many questions remain unanswered, and the accusations against the Greek coast guard are still just that. However, there is much to suggest that, at the very least, it may have made serious mistakes.
Five-Thousand Dollars for Passage
For Azad, Shirwan Sayed’s brother, the journey began at the end of May. The 22-year-old from Kobane, Syria, spent two weeks in Libya before boarding the fishing boat in the port city of Tobruk in the early morning hours of June 9.
"We advised him against getting on that boat," Shirwan Sayed recalls. But his brother was more afraid of being tortured by Libyan militias than a shipwreck. He says he paid $5,000 to smugglers for the crossing to Italy. From there, he had wanted to continue to Germany. In Düsseldorf, his brother Shirwan Sayed has built a new life for himself as a nurse.
Fadi Yousef’s relatives had a similar dream. He tells the story of his family in front of the Malakasa camp. LIke Sayed, he too is from Syria - from the village of Karfa in the south. He says the Assad regime tortured two of his brothers to death. He managed to flee to Germany, while a fourth brother ended up in Jordan. "Nobody wants to get on a smuggler’s boat," he shouts angrily. "But Syria has a shit dictator." He says his brother was afraid of being deported from Jordan. So he also paid the $5,000 for passage to Europe. Four other relatives boarded the boat with him.
At the camp, Yousef spoke with men who know his relatives. They were apparently standing together during the crossing. But after the ship sank, they say they didn’t see his relatives again. Fadi Yousef pulls a handkerchief out of a small shoulder bag. He has nothing else with him.
On the fishing boat, about 30 meters long, the brother had initially been given a spot in the cold storage room, and was only allowed on deck in exchange for more money. Many of the boat’s passengers had not been wearing life jackets. The smugglers had apparently prohibited passengers from wearing them to save space - and to sell them once people were on board. Passengers also allegedly had to pay extra for food and water.
Four survivors described to DER SPIEGEL how the situation came to a head after only a few days. They say the ship had run out of food and that some had started drinking seawater out of desperation. At some point, only a handful of dates were left. "We were all like zombies fighting over food," Azad Sayed, Shirwan’s younger brother, says.
Survivors say that freighters later came to their aid. They say sailors from merchant ships provided them with water and also food.
The Growing Disaster
According to accounts from survivors, the engine failed several times during the five-day journey. The Greek coast guard noted in a public update dating June 14 that an activist had already alerted the agency about the endangered vessel on the morning of June 13. The EU border agency Frontex also sighted the ship and informed the Greek authorities.
At 3:35 p.m., a helicopter located the fishing vessel carrying the migrants. The coast guard said it then called on surrounding vessels to change course and check the ship’s condition.
GPS data shows that on the evening of June 13, two freight ships stopped at the presumed position of the fishing vessel, but that they continued their journey after a few hours. Another oil tanker passed the fishing vessel in close proximity without stopping. DER SPIEGEL contacted the shipping companies and asked whether the ships provided assistance to the fishing vessel. Only one shipping company responded, writing of water and food deliveries. But the company didn’t want to be directly quoted. The Greek coast guard also confirmed these deliveries in its report.
At 5:13 p.m. local time, Alarmphone, a marine rescue NGO, received a distress call from the fishing vessel. The boat reported having 750 people on board. At that point, the fishing vessel was floating in the vicinity of the Calypso Deep, at 5,200 meters, the deepest part of the Mediterranean Sea. The Greek coast guard is responsible for sea rescues there. Alarmphone forwarded the emergency call to the the coast guard by email, while at the same time sending it to the refugee agency UNHCR and NATO.
The email, which DER SPIEGEL has obtained, says the people on board "are urgently asking for help."
The Greek coast guard, on the other hand, wrote that as late as 6:30 p.m., a person on board had refused by satellite phone a rescue at sea. The person told them, they say, that the "just wanted to continue to Italy."
At 10:40 p.m., the Greek coast guard document states, a Greek coast guard vessel arrived at the fishing vessel and didn’t see any problems. If this account is to be believed, then at 2 a.m., the fishing vessel steered sharply to the right and then to the left, for no reason, which caused it to capsize.
But survivors have described developments rather differently. They claim that instead of rescuing them, the Greek coast guard actually caused the boat to sink. According to their account, the fishing vessel’s engine again failed in the early hours of that Wednesday morning. A little later, they claim, the coast guard approached the boat and attached a tow rope to it.
"After that, their ship went first to the left and then to the right and our boat capsized," one Egyptian passenger who survived the journey told DER SPIEGEL. Three others offered similar accounts. Their accounts back reports from the German public broadcaster WDR that at least 10 survivors are accusing the coast guard of having capsized the vessel with the tow rope. Around a dozen relatives told DER SPIEGEL that their family on board also described the situation similarly.
The Greek coast guard has denied these accounts, and the government’s spokesman later explained that a tow rope had temporarily been used to stabilize the boat, but had already been cast loose by the time the boat capsized.
What is certain is that panic broke out after the boat capsized. The people in the hull of the overturned ship – which, according to numerous accounts, included many women and children – likely had little chance of escaping. And those who fell from the deck into the water had to struggle with the suction of the sinking vessel.
"When I fell into the water, I thought that was the end for me,” one Syrian survivor told DER SPIEGEL by phone. "Then I thought about my family and started swimming.” The Greek ship was several hundred meters away at the time. "Other migrants tried to hold on to me, so I tried to avoid them.”
After about 20 minutes, he reached one of the inflatable rafts the coast guard had launched from its vessel. A Greek man in uniform pulled him on board. Geodata suggests that another vessel, called in to help, arrived at the site of the accident about a half an hour after it capsized. "I don’t know how many dead people I passed," says the Syrian, who does not wish to be quoted by name out of concern for his asylum case.
Survivors, relatives and activists are now accusing the coast guard of deliberately acting too late. Others believe that the authorities responsible were simply ill-prepared. The coast guard did not respond to a request for comment.
The Coast Guard’s official update posted online does not provide details or time of day for the "broad search and rescue operation." What is certain is that on June 14, only a small number of the passengers reached the port of Kalamata alive, even though the Greek coast guard had been tracking the dilapidated boat for hours.
The survivors see little of the city’s promenade on the beach or the sailboats in the marina. The city has set up a temporary camp for them in an industrial hall.
In Germany, Fadi Yousef learned of the accident that Wednesday through social media. His brother’s mobile phone was switched off. Yousef grew nervous. He decided to fly to Greece with two relatives. In the meantime, the coast guard had compiled a list of the names of the survivors in Kalamata. None of Yousef’s relatives are on it.
Since the Yousefs have known about the list and since their relatives back home have known that it is unlikely any of them survived, someone from Syria has been calling every day, he says. The family would at least like to bury the bodies, but the chances of even that are uncertain. No one knows how many people were trapped in the ship’s hull. Of the 82 dead recovered so far, only a few have been identified. "We were turned away at the morgue," Yousef recounts.
A disaster team is currently in place to analyze DNA samples. The Yousefs haven’t received an answer yet.
Like Yousef, Shirwan Sayed initially heard nothing from his brother after the accident. Azad had lost his phone in the water. When he finally landed on shore, he wasn’t able to inform anyone he was alive. It wasn’t until Thursday evening that Shirwan Sayed received a WhatsApp message. His brother was alive. "That’s when I burst into tears," he says. The next day, his brother was taken from Kalamata to the camp near Malakasa. Shirwin Sayed then boarded a plane in Düsseldorf.
The two brothers reunited among the white containers after eight years apart. Visitors are not allowed to enter the camp, but Shirwan Sayed filmed the meeting. In the video, the two brothers look exhausted but happy. "We hugged each other over and over again," says Shirwan Sayed. "It was like being thirsty. You can’t drink enough."
*For the protection of their relatives, the names of all refugees have been changed.
With additional reporting by Asia Haidar