Two decades after the Joola tragedy, Senegal recalls the wound that won't heal

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Twenty years ago today, the coastal ferry Joola capsized off the coast of Senegal, drowning nearly 2,000 passengers. The Senegalese town where half of the dead lived will on Monday hold commemorations for a "wound that never heals".

The Joola shipwreck was the world's worstst civil maritime disaster. The vessel sank drowning more victims than perished on board the Titanic. A total of 1,863 people drowned. The ferry had a capacity of 536 passengers, and had been condemned as unseaworythy by the Veritas Maritime Assessment agency.

The majority of the dead, of 12 different nationalities, were under 30 and came from the southern Senegalese enclave of Casamance.

In the middle of the night, 40 kilometres off the coast, as tropical rains fell and strong winds raged, the hugely overloaded ship capsized.

It took more than 16 hours for help to arrive. Sixty-four passengers survived.

Causes of the shipwreck

The causes of the disaster are multiple: the Joola, managed by the Senegalese navy, was in poor condition. The ship was overloaded, with four times more passengers than the maximum allowed. The vehicles in the hold were not secured and the captain probably made a navigational error.

The families of the victims tried to establish the truth, some filing a complaint against the Senegalese state for negligence, but the case was closed in Senegal in 2003.

A procedure was also initiated in France by relatives of the 18 Frenvch nationals who died on board, but a court in Paris dismissed the case as being outside its jurisdiction in October 2018.

Twenty years later, the families of the victims are still fighting to ensure that the Joola disaster is not forgotten.

Twenty years later

Senegalese and French victims' associations want the raising of the wreck of the Joola, which sank to a depth of just 20 metres, and is thought to hold many bodies.

They also want a memorial erected. One was promised five years ago but the site in Ziguinchor is still nowhere near ready.

Senegalese victims' relatives have been compensated but President Macky Sall has not attended the annual anniversary remembrance since he took office.