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Saturday, 28 September, 2002, 15:31 GMT 16:31 UK
Eyewitness: Senegal weeps for ferry loss
survivor of ferry disaster
Survivors said the boat sank in a few minutes

Abdoulaye Sylla had spent the whole of Friday down at the quayside, waiting for news of the passengers on the Joola.

"I stayed until midnight, then I went home," said Mr Sylla, a teacher based in Dakar.

Senegalese fireman helps survivor
Only a few survivors have been rescued

On Saturday he sat in the shade outside Dakar's railway station.

A huge crowd stretched down the road towards the port. Many of the men held small transistor radios, waiting for the next bulletins. Local police and soldiers kept a careful watch on the crowd barriers. "More boats are due in," explained Mr Sylla.

The boats coming in have been delivering victims and survivors of the Joola shipwreck.

The authorities have compiled lists of survivors, but the vast majority of the 796 crew and passengers remain unaccounted for.

Desperate for news

Mr Sylla says it is the lack of information which hurts most.

"I'm here because one of my neighbours was on the Joola. We have been told absolutely nothing. I can't go back home and tell this woman's family there is simply no news. I'll wait, because what else am I meant to do?"

Senegalese fireman helps a survivor

Djibril Top said he was there to find out about his friend, Jeannot, a crew member on the Joola.

He had come with Jeannot's sister, who was waiting in the car, fighting back tears.

"We got the news from the radio," said Mr Top. "There has been no information about the crew or the passengers from the authorities."

While the Joola went down at around 2300 on Thursday night, it was not until the early hours of Friday that the news spread in Dakar, triggering a huge movement down towards the port.

Quayside anguish

Crowds packed the quayside and queued outside the police and port authority offices, or simply at the waterfront, where a group of Diola women prayed, chanted and wailed.

Whole families have been wiped out by this and it's down to some serious mistakes

Jean-Marie Diatta

The booth for third class tickets on the Joola, which had done a strong trade over the past two weeks, was closed.

Jean-Marie Diatta was among those waiting for news. He had heard the explanations given by Prime Minister Mame Madior Boye on how the Joola had capsized, but wanted a lot more information.

"See for yourself," said Mr Diatta. "Everyone is in a situation of suffering and sadness. We are talking of human lives lost, of people who have gone to another world. I am trying to find out if two of my relatives were among the crew."

Mr Diatta blamed the shipwreck on negligence. He said an earlier sailing from Ziguinchor had also experienced problems, with one of the ship's motors damaged in a storm.

"When that damage became clear, the ship should have been put out of commission," said Mr Diatta.

"What we are seeing now is the result of irresponsibility."

That theme has been taken up by opposition politicians and by sections of the press.

Media anger

The media's accounts of the tragedy have included highly critical reports on the Joola's operations, with suggestions the vessel was both overloaded with passengers and cargo and not in a fit state to make the voyage to Dakar.

The independent daily newspaper Le Sud Quotidien voiced some of the harshest criticism, stating on its front page: "This ship should never have taken to the water."

The government has decreed a three-day period of national mourning for the tragedy.

Jean-Marie Diatta says the gesture means little.

"You can have a month's national mourning. It's not going to bring back our loved ones. Whole families have been wiped out by this and it's down to some serious mistakes."

The BBC's Chris Simpson
"Senegal has never experienced this kind of disaster"
See also:

10 Jul 02 | Country profiles
01 Aug 01 | Africa
27 Mar 02 | Africa
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