Senegal mourns those lost in deadly ferry mishap

Saturday, September 27, 2003

ZIGUINCHOR, Senegal -- Thousands of Senegalese wearing black sashes gathered Friday in this port city to mourn those who died a year ago in one of history's worst maritime disasters, the sinking of an overloaded seagoing ferry that killed nearly 2,000.

President Abdoulaye Wade placed bouquets of flowers on the tidal river in this southern provincial capital, cut off from the markets of the north after the vital state-run MS Joola made its final departure.

The Joola -- built for 500 but carrying about 2,000 -- capsized hours later in a gale off tiny Gambia, a sliver of a nation separating producers in Senegal's tropical, agrarian south from consumers in the arid, industrial north.

"A year has passed in our hearts but nothing from that horrible night has been erased," Wade told the 3,000 Senegalese in white T-shirts and black sashes standing at the empty slip that once housed the Joola, the sole ferry between north and south.

Some 1,863 died in the accident -- deadlier than the Titanic -- and only about 60 survived, many by clinging to the upturned hull for hours as screams from the trapped and drowning faded below.

Many of those aboard hailed from Ziguinchor and depended on the Joola to convey their fruit, rice and other products to the bustling markets of Senegal's capital, Dakar.

Senegal's roads are rutted and in the south near Ziguinchor, threatened by bandits. The ferry cost about half as much as a bus ride to Dakar. Flights between the regions are far beyond the means of most citizens of Senegal, among the world's poorest nations. Since the Joola sank, Ziguinchor has been cut off, residents say.

Anna Mane, the chairwoman of Ziguinchor's fruit sellers' association, said she lost many family members and her life savings in the accident.

"I took all the money I had saved and invested in palm oil, honey, fruits and vegetables," to send with her three children on the Joola, bound for Dakar, she said.

With a crucial link to Senegal's capital cut, income has dropped in Ziguinchor, while prices for goods from Dakar have increased.

Senegal's government has arranged a fund for families of survivors, and this month the transport minister announced a new boat would be running between Ziguinchor and Dakar sometime in October.

In Ziguinchor, some said they would have to conquer their anxiety before embarking again for the north of Senegal, which gained independence from France in 1960.

"I have to beat my fears," said Ben Bechir Badji, 27, one of the survivors. "Otherwise, my whole life would just be a total wreck."

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