Dr. Mazen Dahhan lost his wife and three children on Oct. 11, 2013. Photo: private. All rights reserved

Dr Mazen Dahhan (46) is a survivor of the shipwreck on 11 October 2013, the day 268 people died off Lampedusa, including his wife and three children. He has a message for the officers of the Italian coast guard and navy who ignored their distress calls and are thus responsible for the deaths of the people.

Mazen, you fled Syria with your fami­ly in 2013. How did your decis­i­on to cross the Medi­ter­ra­ne­an sea come about?

My wife Reem She­ha­de and I had to lea­ve Syria, just like mil­li­ons of Syri­ans sin­ce the war began in 2011. My eldest child Moha­med was eight, Tarek four and Bes­her one year old. Sin­ce we had nowhe­re else to go, we went to Libya first.

We never inten­ded to tra­vel to Euro­pe – cer­tain­ly not ille­gal­ly, on one of tho­se »ships of death«, as they are cal­led. At the time we assu­med that the war in Syria was only tem­po­ra­ry and that the­re would be a poli­ti­cal chan­ge and we could return soon. But we were wrong. With each day it beca­me clea­rer that the­re was no way back for us.

What was it like in Libya?

The­re was con­stant armed con­flict and fight­ing in Libya. Libya is not a safe place to rai­se your child­ren. We tried to get to ano­ther place. I am a neu­ro­sur­ge­on and I tried to get a work per­mit for Dubai. I even found a sui­ta­ble job the­re, but becau­se I am from Syria, my visa was denied.

I knew that we could get asyl­um in Euro­pe. But the Euro­pean asyl­um laws are very unfair and – I would say – evil. Becau­se you can only app­ly for asyl­um on the spot, even though it is known that no one will issue a visa to any euro­pean coun­try. That forced us to take the wrong rou­te – the sea route.

How did you prepa­re for the crossing?

At first, I wan­ted to tra­vel alo­ne, but my wife did­n’t accept that. Peo­p­le keep asking me: How could you take such a risk? But the peo­p­le on board were not nai­ve. The­re were about 15 doc­tors among us, neu­ro­sur­ge­ons like me, ortho­pae­dic sur­ge­ons, radio­lo­gists, anaes­the­tists, gene­ral sur­ge­ons, who know how to deal with emer­gen­cy situa­tions. Of cour­se, we thought about what could hap­pen. But we sim­ply had no other option.

We tried to prepa­re our­sel­ves well: We knew that we could reach Lam­pe­du­sa within 20 hours. The­re were life jackets (alt­hough not enough for ever­y­bo­dy) and we had a satel­li­te pho­ne with us. We thought that if some­thing hap­pen­ed – God for­bid – we could call the coast guard, and they would help us.

Just like when you go to the hos­pi­tal when you are inju­red, but you know you are in safe hands and that someone will take care of you. But tha­t’s what beca­me our pro­blem – that we trus­ted peo­p­le who should­n’t be trusted.

How did it hap­pen that the ship sank on 11 Octo­ber 2013?

It was a real­ly big ship, about 33 met­res long with three flo­ors and rooms. We were about 500 peo­p­le on board, about 30 per­cent of the peo­p­le were women and the­re were at least 100 children.

A com­bi­na­ti­on of cir­cum­s­tances cau­sed the boat to sink: The boat was over­c­row­ded becau­se the smugg­lers let too many peo­p­le on board. Short­ly after we left, Liby­an militi­as cha­sed us and shot at us with machi­ne guns, crea­ting holes in the ship and allo­wing water to enter. And the Ita­li­an coast guard did not res­cue us when we cal­led them, alt­hough they are obli­ged under inter­na­tio­nal law to help peo­p­le in distress at sea.

In the end, it’s like all acci­dents: You can be as careful as you like and do your best to give your fami­ly a bet­ter life, and then cir­cum­s­tances come up that you can’t foresee.

»If the coast guard and the navy had done their job, if they had been huma­ne, if they had trea­ted us like human beings or even like ani­mals – my life would be com­ple­te­ly dif­fe­rent today.«

Dr. Mazen Dah­han, Sur­vi­vor of the shipwreck 

What did you do when you rea­li­sed that the ship has a leak?

My fri­end Dr Moha­med Jam­mo, he is an anaes­the­tist, cal­led the Ita­li­an coast guard with a satel­li­te pho­ne. The recor­ding of the con­ver­sa­ti­on is public. He told them, »We are dying. We have women and child­ren on board«. But their respon­se was, »Call Mal­ta«. We sent them our GPS loca­ti­on, they knew exact­ly whe­re we were. But they igno­red our distress calls and told us we were out­side their juris­dic­tion. For five hours we wai­ted in vain for rescue.

At the time I did­n’t know that they were only 17 nau­ti­cal miles, about 30 kilo­me­t­res away from us. This was later reve­a­led by the inves­ti­ga­ti­ve rese­arch of the Ita­li­an jour­na­list Fabri­zio Gat­ti. So they could have been with us within 40 or 50 minu­tes. If the coast guard and the navy had done their job, if they had been huma­ne, if they had trea­ted us like human beings or even like ani­mals – my life would be com­ple­te­ly dif­fe­rent today.

The child­ren of Mazen Dah­han. They did not sur­vi­ve the ship­w­reck. Image: pri­va­te / all right reserved
The child­ren of Mazen Dah­han. They did not sur­vi­ve the ship­w­reck. Image: pri­va­te / all right reserved

But no one came, and your boat capsized.

When the boat tur­ned 180 degrees, I thought I was in a night­ma­re. I was in shock. My wife and child­ren imme­dia­te­ly peri­s­hed. I wish I had died that day too, becau­se my life has never been the same ever since.

I saw a life jacket in the water and swam to it. But it was­n’t a life jacket, it was a dead woman. The­re were bodies all around me, a real night­ma­re. When the coast­guard arri­ved after about an hour, it was alre­a­dy too late.

In Decem­ber 2022, the­re was a land­mark ruling by the Court in Rome. The court con­cluded that the Ita­li­an coast­guard and navy were guil­ty of wilful fail­ure to res­cue, and thus respon­si­ble for the deaths of 268 people. 

Yes, the inves­ti­ga­ti­on con­firm­ed that at the time of our distress call we were twice as far from Mal­ta as we were from Lam­pe­du­sa. The Ita­li­ans should have saved us. The court has con­dem­ned their (non-)action as a crime – not negli­gence, human error or the like – but a crime. I call it murder.

The defen­dant has appea­led against this decis­i­on. I will take the case to the end tog­e­ther with the lawy­ers Ales­san­dra Bal­le­ri­ni and Emi­lia­no Ben­zi to see how much jus­ti­ce can be achie­ved in this world.

The ver­dict did not come until more than nine years after the ship­w­reck, alt­hough you, tog­e­ther with others, went to court just a few months after 11 Octo­ber. Becau­se the pro­cess had drag­ged on for too long, the two defen­dants, Cap­tain Leo­pol­do Man­na and Fri­ga­te Cap­tain Luca Lic­ciar­di, were not sentenced.

I have not­hing to gain from the­se peo­p­le get­ting sanc­tions or having to go to pri­son. And what good will it do me to get mate­ri­al com­pen­sa­ti­on? It won’t give my fami­ly back. Not­hing can com­pen­sa­te me. I feel like I have been living in a night­ma­re for ten years. Except that you usual­ly wake up from nightmares.

I don’t think the­re is jus­ti­ce in this world. Jus­ti­ce would be if they gave me back my child­ren. But I belie­ve the­re will be jus­ti­ce in the afterlife.

The­re were two main cul­prits brought to jus­ti­ce, but the fault is in the sys­tem. The navy left us to die. And the­re were a lot more than just two peo­p­le invol­ved in that.

»I don’t think the­re is jus­ti­ce in this world. Jus­ti­ce would be if they gave me back my children.«

Dr. Mazen Dah­han, Sur­vi­vor of the Shipwreck 

What else would you like to share?

I have a mes­sa­ge for the Ita­li­an Navy and Coast Guard.

To the offi­cers who igno­red our distress calls and thus their respon­si­bi­li­ty: Ima­gi­ne your son has a life-threa­tening inju­ry to his hand or leg. They come to the emer­gen­cy room whe­re I work as a neurosurgeon.

I have the medi­cal know­ledge to stop the blee­ding, but I am tel­ling you: I’m sor­ry, but it’s not my job, it’s ano­ther doc­tor’s job, he’s in ano­ther hos­pi­tal right now, you should bet­ter call him yours­elf. In the mean­ti­me, your son could die. What would you do if I igno­red your emer­gen­cy call and did­n’t stop the blee­ding? It’s the same situa­ti­on, not much difference.

Ten years after the ship­w­reck, after that crime, it is real­ly heart­brea­king to bring all the­se memo­ries back again. I could never have ima­gi­ned that some­thing like this could hap­pen to me.