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‘Where are they?’ Hope fades among relatives of missing after Greek shipwreck | Greece

‘Where are they?’ Hope fades among relatives of missing after Greek shipwreck | Greece

Hope dies last and for Kassem Abo Zeed it was running out fast. Hope was the force that had led him to board a plane from Hamburg and fly to Greece after he heard that a boat carrying his wife had capsized off the country’s southern coast.

But by 2pm on Thursday, 36 hours after the blue fishing trawler packed with migrants and refugees had sunk in one of the worst maritime disasters in recent Greek history, hope was fading in a way he had prayed would never happen.

“Why put us through such anguish?” the 34-year-old Syrian asked, holding back tears, as his friend Hamza Ayash – whose brother Ayoub had also been onboard the doomed vessel – tried to comfort him outside Kalamata’s coastguard building.

Hamza Ayash, whose brother Ayoub was onboard the boat. Photograph: Helena Smith/Guardian

“We’re hearing that hundreds of people were on the ship,” Ayash said. “Where are they? We’re beginning to lose hope.”

The two men were among the first relatives to have arrived in Kalamata, the port town that has become the nerve centre of the search and rescue operation.

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Of the estimated 700 men, women and children believed to have been on the vessel when it left the shores of Libya last week, only 104 have been found alive since it sank in waters described as some of the deepest in the Mediterranean at about midnight on Tuesday.

Like all but one of the 78 dead found floating in the sea, all of the rescued are men. Syrians, Pakistanis, Afghanis and Egyptians, the survivors are now the only link to a chain of events that unfolded on the vessel as its smuggler captain, determined to reach Italy, negotiated seas that lie beyond the domain of any country. Almost all were described as exhausted and in a state of psychological shock.

“It was difficult because the boat was in international waters,” said Greece’s acting civil protection minister, Vangelis Tournas, outside the harbour’s warehouse where many survivors spent their first night back on land. “Our coastguard approached the vessel and offered help as soon as it was informed by Italian authorities … but they [the smugglers] didn’t want to respond. We ought to deplore those who for a few dollars exploit people in this way.”

Addressing reporters as an unusual summer rainstorm broke, Tournas said the search for survivors would continue, with a frigate, coastguard vessels, three military helicopters and merchant vessels combing seas off the Peloponnesian coast. “Our goal is to save what can be saved. We will conduct the operation despite the weather.”

But by late on Thursday, officials were acknowledging the unpalatable: progress had been negligible.

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The ship had gone down in a matter of minutes, Greece’s coastguard said, noting that none of the smugglers’ human cargo were wearing lifejackets. When the 30-metre fishing trawler’s engine stalled, the boat listed almost instantaneously, which officials attribute to the movement of the large number of people inside. And then the seas opened up, taking the capsized vessel in. Almost no one believes the ship will ever be found.

“The chances of finding more people alive are minimal,” Nikos Spanos, a retired Greek coastguard admiral, told the country’s state-run broadcaster ERT. “We have seen old fishing boats like this before from Libya. They are not at all seaworthy. To put it simply, they are floating coffins.”

Kassem Abo Zeed
Kassem Abo Zeed: ‘Why put us through such anguish?’. Photograph: Helena Smith/Guardian

Abo Zeed and Ayash, natives of Deraa, the ancient Syrian city close to the Jordanian border, spoke of the long journey their loved ones had made to board the vessel in Libya’s eastern region of Tobruk.

“My wife Esra is 21. She had travelled with her younger brother Abdullah, crossing from Syria into Jordan and then on to Egypt and Libya,” said Abo Zeed, who had previously made his own odyssey to Germany.

“They paid 4,500 US dollars each for the passage,” Ayash said. “We just want to know what happened to them. And if they are dead, as Muslims we want to bury them.”

In the rush of relief action, the shock for Greek officials and volunteers has been hard to ignore. Few disasters have cast such a pall over a community that while dealing with an emergency of such unexpected scope has also been left with questions that many thought they would never ask.

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“Kalamata hasn’t really seen anything like this,” said Giorgos Farvas, the town’s deputy mayor. “We had an earthquake many years ago and some people died but here we’re talking about possibly hundreds of deaths.”

Increasingly, Greek authorities believe women and children were below deck, crammed into an area more normally used to refrigerate hauls of fish.

“It worries us that no more [survivors] have been found,” said Nicolaos Spanoudakis, a police chief dispatched to Kalamata from Athens to help coordinate an inquiry otherwise overseen by the Greek coastguard. “We are working on the assumption that as many as 500 are missing. Women and children, it seems, were in the hold.”

Athens’ caretaker government, which assumed office after last month’s inconclusive election, has called three days of national mourning and political leaders have suspended electoral campaigns before fresh polls due on 25 June.

The tragedy has raised unsettling questions that are bound to resonate beyond Greece and criticism of its former government’s hardline stance on migration. Like few incidents before, it has shone a light on Europe’s failure to provide safe routes for asylum seekers fleeing conflict, persecution and, increasingly, the effects of the climate crisis in Asia, Africa and the Middle East to seek opportunity in the west.

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“The policy that Europe has been following is greatly to blame,” said Alexis Tsipras, Greece’s main opposition leader, as he visited Kalamata on Thursday. “It’s a policy that has turned the Mediterranean into a watery grave.”

Helena Smith in Kalamata

Published: 2023-06-15 19:14:09

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