Monday, 26 September 2011 16:40(AFP) – The families of more than 1,800 people who died when a Senegalese ferry sank nine years ago gathered for anniversary ceremonies Monday with renewed hopes of a trial in France over one of history's worst maritime disasters.
The overloaded ferry Joola capsized on the night of September 26, 2002, off the coast of Gambia as it sailed from Ziguinchor in the Casamance region of southern Senegal to Dakar. Between 1,863 and 1,935 people were listed dead or missing, and 64 survived.
Ceremonies were held Monday at cemeteries around Senegal and in Gambia where some of the victims were buried.
Relatives of those who drowned have long called for "truth and justice" over the disaster, especially after Senegalese justice officials declared the case closed saying the ferry captain was responsible and he perished in the accident.
But an inquiry launched in France at the request of an association of victims' families there is expected to release its findings soon.
A court in Evry in the Paris suburbs opened the inquiry in April 2003 and "it has been very well handled," said Alain Verschatse, head of the victims' families association.
"We are today near the end (of the inquiry), we must go next to a trial," he said.
In 2008, a French judge issued nine international arrest warrants against senior Senegalese officials at the time of the sinking for "involuntary manslaughter".
Two warrants were later dismissed since the officials had immunity, but seven warrants against civilian and military officials in Senegal remain valid and so far one person has been arrested.
The ninth anniversary of the ferry sinking also brought renewed calls to raise the ship so the families can bury their loved ones and to fund a long discussed memorial museum in Dakar.
Others raised concerns about providing for some 1,900 orphans who lost their parents on board the Joola. In 2002 President Aboulaye Wade had declared the Joola orphans "wards of the state."
But representatives for the families in Senegal say nothing has been done to help with regard to the children's education, health, food and clothing.
Fatou Kine Sali was 13 when her father drowned in the Joola disaster.
"They told us that the state was going to take charge of us" until we were no longer minors, but "we haven't seen anything," she said, now 22 and working as a housemaid to pay for her studies.
In Senegal, the majority of families accepted 10 million CFA francs (15,000 euros) offered by the state for each victim, but others have refused, still hoping for successful legal action.
The toll in the Joola disaster surpassed that of the 1912 sinking of the Titanic in the Atlantic Ocean when around 1,500 people died.
The greatest maritime disaster on record was the torpedoing of the German liner Wilhelm Gustloff packed with refugees by a Russian submarine in the Baltic in 1945, when more than 9,000 people died.
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