A year later, migrants who cheated Greece’s death seek justice and struggle with life


ATHENS, Greece (AP) — Desperate hands clutched the arms, legs and neck of Ali Elwan, and the screams fogged his ears as he spewed salt water and fought for three hours to stay afloat in the night, dozens of miles of country.

Although he was a poor swimmer, he lived – one of only 104 survivors the wreck of a dilapidated old metal fishing boat smuggling up to 750 migrants from North Africa to Europe.

“I was so lucky,” the 30-year-old Egyptian told The Associated Press in Athens, Greece, where he is doing odd jobs while waiting for the outcome of his asylum application. “I have two babies. Maybe I will stay(d) in this life for them.”

Thousands have died in shipwrecks in the Mediterranean in recent years as migrants from the Middle East, Asia and Africa sought a better life in the prosperous European Union.

But the sinking of the Adriana a year ago Friday in international waters 75 kilometers off the coast of Pylos in southern Greece was one of the worst. Only 82 bodies were recovered, leaving hundreds of families still without the grim certainty that their relatives are dead.

Elwan, a chef whose wife and children are in Cairo, says he still receives calls from Egypt from mothers, brothers and wives of the missing.

“We (left) home to get the best life for our family and so far (their families) don’t know anything about them,” he said.

And after a year, there are only vague answers as to why so many lives were lost, what caused the shipwreck and who can be held responsible.

Migrant charities and human rights groups have strongly criticized Greece’s handling of the sinking.

The Greek Coast Guard, Ministry of Migration and other officials did not respond to requests for comment ahead of the anniversary.

Authorities had a coast guard boat on site and merchant ships nearby during the trawler’s final hours. They blame smugglers who crammed hundreds of people into an unseaworthy vessel — most of them in an airless hold designed to store a catch of fish — for a nightmarish journey from Libya to Italy.

They also say that the Adriana capsized when the passengers – some of whom wanted to continue on to Italy after five terrible days at sea, others to seek safety in Greece – suddenly went sideways, causing the ship to lurch and turn into a turtle. And they claim offers to take the migrants off the ship were turned down by people wanting to reach Italy.

Elwan – who says he was on deck with a clear view of what happened – and other survivors say the lurching followed a failed attempt by the coast guard to tow the trawler. He claimed that the Coast Guard hastily cut the tow line when it became clear that the Adriana would sink and drag their boat down with it.

“When you find the ship (at the bottom of the sea), you will see that this rope is still attached to it,” he said.

But logistics make such a feat virtually impossible, Greek authorities say, as the ship is located some five kilometers away, at one of the deepest points in the Mediterranean.

The coastguard has denied any towing attempt, claiming its vessel attempted to move the trawler into neighboring Italy’s area of ​​responsibility.

A Navy court began an investigation last June but has released no information about its progress or findings. In addition, the Greek State Ombudsman started work in November an independent investigation at the authorities’ handling of the tragedy, complaining of the coast guard’s “express denial” to launch a disciplinary investigation.

Last month, a Greek court dropped the charges against nine Egyptians accused of crewing the Adriana and causing the shipwreck. Without examining evidence for or against them, it determined that Greece had no jurisdiction because the wreck had occurred in international waters.

Effie Doussi, one of the Egyptians’ lawyers, argued that the ruling was “politically convenient” for the Greek authorities.

“It saved the Greek state from exposure over the actions of the coast guard, given their responsibility for the rescue,” she said.

Doussi said a full hearing would include testimony from survivors and other witnesses, and that attorneys could request additional evidence from the Coast Guard, such as possible cell phone records.

Zeeshan Sarwar, a 28-year-old Pakistani survivor, said he is still waiting for justice, “but apparently there is nothing.”

“I may look good right now, but I’m broken inside. We are not getting justice,” he told the AP. “We are not receiving any information about the Coast Guard people… that the court has found them guilty or not.”

Elwan, the Egyptian, said he is still only able to sleep three to four hours a night.

“I remember every second that happened to me,” he said. “I can’t forget anything because (I) lost friends on this ship.”

The journey leading up to the wreck was also terrible.

Survivors said Pakistanis were locked in the hold and beaten by the crew if they tried to move. But Arabic-speaking Egyptians and Syrians enjoyed the relative luxury of the deck. For many it meant the difference between life and death when the ship capsized.

“Our condition was very bad on the first day as it was the first time in our lives that we were traveling at sea,” Sarwar said.

“If someone… tried to throw up, they always said you have to do it here on your lap, you can’t come (outside),” he said. “On the fifth day people fainted from hunger and thirst. One man died.”

Elwan said he secretly left for Europe and told his wife he would be away for months to work at an Egyptian resort on the Red Sea.

He is angry that he should still be granted asylum, unlike many Syrian survivors who, he said, have moved to Western Europe.

“Only people from Egypt cannot get papers,” he said. “I have been trying to send money for my family for ten months… If someone says: come pick up trash, I will move this trash, no problem for me.”

If he receives residence papers, Elwan wants to work in Greece and bring his family over.

Anders: “I’m going to Italy, maybe Germany. Don’t know.”


AP journalist Lefteris Pitarakis contributed to this report.

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