Anatomy of a Tragedy
On 16 March 2018, a refugee boat sank near the Greek island of Agathonisi. Sixteen persons perished including seven children and two babies and at least three are missing. Only three refugees survived and have lost all their loved ones. In their harrowing testimonies, the survivors say that they remained from early morning until before it got dark into the sea and no one came to rescue them. Meanwhile, one of the deceased refugee’s relatives had notified the Greek authorities about the boat in distress in the morning of 16 March. The young refugee who was in Samos hotspot had called the authorities immediately after he received a message with the coordinates of the boat from his sister who was in the boat. Still, the Greek coastguard denies that the day of the incident was 16 March, and claims that it happened one day later (17 March). Let’s see how this tragedy unfolded.
In the early morning of 16 March 2018 (around 5:30 am), a boat reportedly carrying twenty refugees from Afghanistan and Iraq including seven children and two babies and two boat drivers leaves from the small coastal town of Didim, in Western Turkey. The refugees are trying to reach Agathonisi island in Greece.
Between 6:20 and 7 am, the boat breaks down off the coast of Agathonisi. Freshta, a 26-year-old female lawyer from Afghanistan manages to send a message with the boat coordinates to her brother and a distressed voice message to her fiancé. Her brother is in Samos hotspot.
In her desperate voice message, Freshta says:
“The boat is sinking! We sink!”
Listen to the voice message here:
Shortly after, the boat capsizes and the passengers fall into the sea. Sixteen people including seven children and two babies lose their lives and at least three persons are missing. Freshta is among those who perish.
Only three refugees survive (an Iraqi male, an Afghan female and an Iraqi female). All lose their children and two of them, their spouses.
The survivors describe to Refugee Support Aegean how they stayed in the water from the morning until before it got dark but no one came to their rescue and witnessed their children and relatives perish in front of them. They say that they believed that they would be rescued when they saw a boat passing but it stopped in some distance and remained steadily there without proceeding to their rescue.
“We were all wearing our life jackets. We tried to stay close (to each other). Sometime later, a boat appeared to be coming from the island. We started to call for help. My son started to whistle. My nephew tried to reach the boat. The waves carried us away. We realized that it would not rescue us. As the hours passed, we saw one by one sinking in the sea and not coming back to the surface”
Fahima, 45 year-old Afghan refugee. Fahima lost her four children in the shipwreck
“(…) Until the early afternoon, the adults were still alive. The boat was still there. We could not swim. There were waves. But we could see the others’ life jackets around us. The only thought on our mind was that we were freezing because of the water. There was sun. Around 3 to 4 pm, I thought that we must do something because (they) would not rescue us. We were seeing our children dying from the cold. Everyone was crying. My niece and I were holding our dead sons. I was holding my son and the Afghan woman her son, who was also dead. At that moment, we were three persons alive and three dead (our kids)…”.
Qasim, 55 year-old Iraqi refugee. Qasim lost his wife and two children in the shipwreck
Freshta's brother frantic efforts to find help
Meanwhile, Darab, Freshta’s brother starts calling and notifying the Greek authorities about the boat in distress immediately after he receives his sister’s message. First, he calls 112 (the international rescue number) and informs the operators about the boat in distress. He speaks many times that morning with the Greek Coastguard Search and Rescue Coordination Center and gives them his personal details and the boat coordinates. He also calls other coastguard officers and sends them the boat coordinates on a whatsapp number provided to him by the Search and Rescue Coordination Center. Throughout the day, the young man asks repeatedly for help from the Samos police and hotspot authorities. Even during the next day, Freshta’s brother continues his frantic efforts to find help.
In the late evening of 16 March, the three survivors – exhausted by their ordeal and fight with the waves – manage to reach Agathonisi. Both female survivors also carry one of their dead children in their arms.
In the early hours of 17 March 2018, the male survivor manages to find some of the island’s residents and asks for help. The two women also find one resident who leads them to the islands’ police authorities where they find the male survivor.
In the same morning – after the survivors reached the Greek authorities and a day since the refugee boat sank – the Greek coastguard conducts a large search and rescue operation into the sea area near Agathonisi. Sixteen dead bodies are traced and no other survivors are found.
Investigating the Agathonisi Tragedy
The three survivors are transferred to Samos hospital by a coastguard boat –the bodies of their loved ones piled up on top of each other on the boat deck.
While the harrowing testimonies of the survivors and evidence of phone calls prove that the shipwreck occurred on 16 March 2018, a statement by the Greek coastguard says that the incident happened on 17 March 2018. According to the statement, a search operation took place on 16 March near Agathonisi but it concerned a different incident. A preliminary criminal investigation into the circumstances of the shipwreck is on-going and at the same the Internal Affairs Directorate of the Greek Coastguard started a disciplinary investigation on a possible liability of the coastguard following the Minister’s order. In addition, the survivors and a relative have filed a complaint against the Greek coastguard for failure to act promptly and save the lives of their loved ones. Refugee Support Aegean met the survivors and their family members a few days after the tragic incident and provides legal and psychological support up to date.
INVESTIGATING THE AGATHONISI TRAGEDY
On 17 March 2018, the Greek coastguard issues a statement where it said that a large-scale search and rescue operation took place since the morning hours in the sea area north-east of Agathonisi. The operation was launched after three survivors managed to reach to the shores of the island and said that they were in a boat that sank in the area. The bodies of 16 refugees were recovered off the sea. Later that day, the three survivors and the bodies of those who perished were transferred by a coastguard boat to the island of Samos
Few days after the incident, a preliminary criminal investigation commences by the Kos public prosecutor in relation to the conditions of the shipwreck and the resulting deaths. There is an on-going investigation.
On 23 March, Dimitris Vitsas, the new Greek Minister for Migration Policy, during his scheduled visit to Samos meets the three survivors at Samos General Hospital and hears their testimonies. The Minister reportedly promises to the survivors that they will soon be reunited with their families in Germany.
On 25 March, Panagiotis Kouroumblis, Greek Minister for Maritime Affairs and Island Policy, meets with the three survivors at Samos General Hospital. In the meeting, the three survivors repeat that the incident took place on 16 March and that there was a delay in search and rescue. After the meeting, the Minister for Maritime Affairs states that there will be a thorough investigation and if it is found that there were omissions, “heads would roll”.
On 26 March, Der Spiegel magazine publishes an article with the testimonies of the survivors and relatives of those who died that speak about a significant delay in the search and rescue operation. The survivors also describe how a boat came towards them, stayed in some distance but did not come to their rescue. According to the testimonies presented in Der Spiegel, the brother of one of the refugees had contacted the Greek authorities several times since the early morning hours on 16 March in order to notify them about the shipwreck.
On 28 March, the Greek Coastguard issues a statement responding to the press articles reporting failure to conduct a prompt search and rescue operation despite being notified about the shipwreck. According to the statement, the incident happened on 17 March 2018 and a large search and rescue operation took place to find more survivors. The statement also refers to a search and rescue operation that took place on 16 March near Agathonisi but clarifies that it concerned a different incident.
On 29 March, 13:06, Der Spiegel magazine publishes a second article presenting evidence of the communications dated 16 March 2018 between Darab, Freshta’s brother, and the Greek authorities. The communications include the exact location of the shipwreck as sent to the coastguard. The article presents the print-screens of the communications (phone calls, messages and voice messages) exchanged between Darab and the coastguard and National Coordination Centre for Search and Rescue.
On 29 March, a few hours later, the Ministry for Maritime Affairs announces that following the request of the survivors for an investigation into the rescue procedure conducted by the coastguard, the Minister ordered an investigation by the Internal Affairs Directorate of the Ministry. There is an on-going investigation.
On 3 April, the three survivors and a close relative who lost four family members in the shipwreck file a criminal complaint against the Greek coastguard for failure to conduct a prompt search and rescue operation and that this had as a result the death of the complainants’ relatives. The complaint was filed before the Prosecutor of the Piraeus Naval Court and a preliminary criminal investigation starts. There is an on-going investigation. Refugee Support Aegean provides legal support to the survivors and other relatives of those who perished.
On 2 July, Darab, Freshta’s brother, gives an interview to Demetris Angelides, journalist in EfSyn where he poses strict questions about the shipwreck and the subsequent stance of the Greek authorities. “I want to know why my family was not saved” is his tragic question that still waits for an answer….
“It wasn’t an accident, it was a crime”
“It wasn’t an accident, it was a crime”
On 4 April, a large group of organizations, movements and collectivities called for a protest for the Agathonisi shipwreck in Syntagma Square. “It wasn’t an accident, it was a crime”, they wrote in their call. The call also stressed that 16 people could have been saved if: the Coast Guard officials on Samos had heard the pleas for help by relatives of the victims, who had been notified by phone since the morning of 16 March; the shipwrecked weren’t left alone to fight with the waves; and the shameful EU – Turkey Deal wasn’t a mechanism for death, pain and brutality. “Silence kills” and “Denying help at sea is murder” were some of the protesters’ picket signs. Relatives of the victims also took part in the protest, holding their photos. “Why didn’t they save my family, why didn’t they save my 7-year-old brother? What was their fault? That they came here because they wanted to save their lives?” – that was the heartbreaking question of a young woman who lost her family to the shipwreck.
In the first days after the shipwreck, the majority of the Greek media focused on the survivors’ harrowing testimonies and what they went through after they fell into the sea and those of fishermen and divers who witnessed the lifeless bodies of refugees in the water. Despite the gravity of the survivors’ and the relatives’ complaints regarding the Coast Guard’s stance, as presented in the German magazine Der Spiegel, this tragic shipwreck was considered by most of the Greek media as just another “unfortunate incident in the Aegean”. Very few Greek media went on to further investigate the causes of the tragedy as well as any liability.
In its article of 26 March 2018, Der Spiegel points out that the Coast Guard confirmed receiving a call for a shipwreck on Friday morning, 16 March , yet claimed that when they subsequently called back the caller, there was no answer. However, Der Spiegel claims that Darab, the Afghan lawyer, who was in Samos’ Hotspot and whose sister perished in the shipwreck – was the one who contacted the police and the Coast Guard multiple times on 16 March , by phone and texts through a mobile phone, from early in the morning until late on the same day.
In a second article three days later, Der Spiegel presents evidence showing that Darab contacted the authorities on 16 March and he provided the coordinates of the refugee boat in any possible way. With regard to the causes of the shipwreck, the German magazine refers to testimonies by survivors that the traffickers who were on the boat increased the speed because they felt that the Turkish Coast Guard was after them, the engine probably didn’t hold and the boat stopped moving, waves battering it, all of which resulted in people panicking and the boat sinking. Furthermore, it published claims from survivors that shortly after the sinking of the refugee boat, a boat approached and stopped at a distance without proceeding to any rescue.
In response to the magazine’s first article, the Coast Guard continues to place the tragic shipwreck on 17 March 2018. It also claims that – regardless of the shipwreck – on the previous day (morning of 16 March) it received notice from 112 (the European emergency number) and an NGO regarding a boat in distress near Agathonisi and that three patrol boats as well as the local Coast Guard responded immediately. It was found that unauthorized persons arrived on the island, boarding 2 boats. The Coast Guard press release underlined: “There was an extensive search of the wider sea area, despite the fact that the disembarked stated that no one was missing”. As mentioned in the German magazine, it was probably one of the patrol boats that the Agathonisi tragedy survivors speak about in their testimonies as passing near them. The German magazine’s article also mentions that “Coast Guard officers, while speaking off the record with Der Spiegel journalists, said however that they had no knowledge of a rescue operation on that day”. The same article also stresses that even during the preliminary stage of the investigation, survivors were asked to testify that the shipwreck took place on 17 March and not on 16 March which was the true date according to their statements.
Just a few hours after this second article in Der Spiegel, the Ministry of Shipping & Maritime Affairs announces the commencement of an investigation by Ministry’s Internal Affairs Service.
Among the Greek media, “Efimerida ton Syntakton” (the Editors’ Journal) extensively followed the subject and highlights that, apart from the Coast Guard’s stance on that day, there are also questions regarding the subsequent actions of the authorities, “which point to silence if not cover up”. It also mentions how striking it is that, while the meeting of the minister of Shipping& Maritime Affairs, Panagiotis Kouroumblis, with the survivors took place on Sunday, 25 March, the Ministry’s accredited editors were officially informed four days later (29 March).
On 2 July, EfSyn returns with an interview with Darab, Freshta’s brother. The interview was given to Demetris Angelides and poses strict questions regarding the shipwreck and the subsequent stance of the Greek authorities. “I want to know why my family was not saved” is his tragic question that still waits for an answer….
In a third article published by Der Spiegel on 5 July 2018, Fahima, one of the three survivors who lost her four children in the tragedy speaks about her quest for justice and her hope to be reunited with family in Germany. Fahima’s mental health is particularly vulnerable after the tragedy while a new diagnosis is pending following new tests for a recent health problem regarding cancer. She tells that only two things keep her alive: Justice for the dead. And the prospect of being united with her family.
Her sister Zarghona and two of her children Darab and Mariam also spoke to the magazine. Zargona’s husband, older daughter and two of her sons also perished in the shipwreck. The family hopes that they will be able to be reunited with the two children who are in Germany. Two weeks before the article’s publication, the Greek authorities send a take-over request to the German authorities for family reunification under the Dublin Regulation and the request is pending before the German authorities.
- The piece received more than 1,2 million views (excluding video and photos) and was widely shared and commented on social and traditional media in Germany and Greece.
- Both I and Nico (Nicolai Kwasniewski) received dozes of e-mails from readers expressing their thanks for the piece, their sorrow for the victims and their shock that such tragedies still happen in Europe. We also received several e-mails from activists, employees of authorities and NGOs, with comments and hints
- We were invited to speak at breakfast in German Parliament (I attended this) organised by Save the Children and Care, to inform policy makers about the situation of migrant minors in Greece.
Reporter for Spiegel Online / Der Spiegel