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.«
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.
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.«
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.