Iden­ti­fy­ing Body No. 421, pulled from mi­grant ship­wreck

Malta Independent - - MIGRATION - Tr­isha Thomas

Body No. 421, bagged in mid­night blue, is heaved from a re­frig­er­ated truck onto a metal stretcher and wheeled into the tent that serves as a morgue. It joins other pu­tre­fy­ing corpses that fill the air with a pun­gent scent that clings to the cloth­ing and hair of the liv­ing.

The body is that of a young man, one of hun­dreds who drowned 77 nau­ti­cal miles off the coast of Libya in the dead­li­est known mi­grant dis­as­ter. Eigh­teen months later, vol­un­teers are try­ing to find out who he was.

A vol­un­teer reaches into the body bag and pulls out the dark, slime-cov­ered re­mains. An­other uses a sharp, black-han­dled knife to cut out sam­ples for fur­ther study. Oth­ers ex­am­ine the mus­cles and bone struc­ture, pho­to­graph the skull and teeth and take notes on a clip­board.

The team’s leader, Univer­sity of Mi­lan foren­sic pathol­o­gist Cristina Cat­ta­neo, emerges with a slimy pair of chil­dren’s jeans read­ing “Manch­ester United.” She hoses them down care­fully. The jeans, and the per­sonal ef­fects found in the pock­ets, are among the most use­ful of clues.

It is the first time that foren­sic sci­en­tists have tried to build a full ac­count­ing of vic­tims in a mi­grant dis­as­ter.

It was early evening on April 18, 2015, when the dis­tress call came. A fish­ing boat packed with hun­dreds of peo­ple was in trou­ble, the caller said. The Ital­ian Coast Guard ra­dioed a nearby freighter and told it to pro­vide as­sis­tance.

When they saw the ap­proach­ing ship, the fran­tic mi­grants rushed to one side of the deck, caus­ing the boat to list and then cap­size. The boat sank to the bot­tom.

Twenty-eight peo­ple made it to safety. Hun­dreds more were locked be­low deck.

A year later, the Ital­ian Navy re­turned to the site and used a com­pli­cated pul­ley sys­tem to bring the wreck to the sur­face. As the boat emerged from the water, the hor­ror of what had lain be­low be­came clear.

“Water started com­ing out of var­i­ous open­ings that the boat had on the side, we also saw hu­man re­mains com­ing out of these open­ings,” said Rear Adm. Paolo Pez­zutti, who was in charge of the oper­a­tion. “It was a spec­tral vi­sion we saw com­ing out of the water.”

Back at port in Si­cily, fire­fight­ers in pro­tec­tive suits, rub­ber gloves, gog­gles and hel­mets cut into the rusted hull with hatch­ets and saws.

They found bod­ies packed in al­most unimag­in­ably close quar­ters. There were five bod­ies for ev­ery square me­ter. Two hun­dred were locked in the en­gine room alone.

Metic­u­lously, the fire­fight­ers filled 458 body bags. Many con­tained the re­mains of more than one per­son.

The team ex­pects to com­plete the au­top­sies this month. Cat­ta­neo pre­dicts the vol­un­teers will an­a­lyze some 700 bod­ies, maybe as many as 800 or 900. So far, all of the vic­tims have been men and boys, mostly be­tween the ages of 12 and 27.

When they are fin­ished with their ex­am­i­na­tion, the vol­un­teers zip the bag back up and load body No. 421 into a metal con­tainer that will go in­side a wooden cof­fin.

Us­ing a black marker, Cat­ta­neo care­fully writes PM3900421 on the con­tainer — PM for “post mortem” and 39 for Italy’s tele­phone coun­try code.

That’s the code that will mark the grave un­til the body is con­nected to a name.

Euro­pean rules re­quire that asy­lum-seek­ers regis­ter in the first coun­try they en­ter. Be­cause few of them want to end up in Italy, many leave their IDs back home.

That means Cat­ta­neo’s team must rely on DNA sam­ples from the bones, teeth, and the ob­jects found on the bod­ies.

At Cat­ta­neo’s La­banof lab­o­ra­tory in Mi­lan, plas­tic bag­gies and small card­board boxes con­tain­ing

items found in the mi­grants’ cloth­ing sit in neat lines along the ta­ble. Cat­ta­neo goes over them one by one.

Some con­tain ID cards that were sewn into cloth­ing. Sev­eral bags con­tain lit­tle wooden sticks used for clean­ing teeth. One has a photo of a saint.

An­other con­tains what looks like a small brown candy in a pink wrap­per. On closer in­spec­tion it’s a spoon­ful of dirt, bagged by the trav­eler as a mem­ory of home.

The tragedy has done lit­tle to slow the busi­ness of traf­fick­ing in hu­man lives. Smug­glers in Libya con­tinue to reap a for­tune by tak­ing mi­grants’ cash and pil­ing them on top of one an­other in rick­ety ves­sels un­fit to cross the Mediter­ranean.

So far in 2016, more than 316,899 peo­ple have reached Europe by sea, ac­cord­ing to the In­ter­na­tional Or­ga­ni­za­tion for Mi­gra­tion.

An­other 3,611 set out but never made it.

In De­cem­ber, the sec­ond stage of the process will be­gin: con­tact­ing rel­a­tives of those who had IDs on them, and search­ing for oth­ers who are look­ing for miss­ing kin.

That won’t be easy. The dead came from So­ma­lia, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Guinea, Su­dan, Sene­gal, Mali, the Ivory Coast and Bangladesh, among other places. Some of those coun­tries have re­pres­sive gov­ern­ments; oth­ers have poor pop­u­la­tions with lit­tle ac­cess to in­ter­net or phones.

Cat­ta­neo is work­ing with Italy’s of­fice for Miss­ing Per­sons, run by High Com­mis­sioner Vit­to­rio Piscitelli. The of­fice has built a database of in­for­ma­tion gained from the au­top­sies.

When fam­i­lies search­ing for their loved ones reach out, the in­for­ma­tion they give will be com­pared with the data on file. Gath­er­ing that in­for­ma­tion will be per­haps the big­gest chal­lenge. The Red Cross has signed up to help.

“If we don’t have peo­ple to show the data to, or any data to com­pare it with, we risk do­ing all this work in vain,” Piscitelli said.

De­spite the chal­lenges, Cat­ta­neo is de­ter­mined to carry on. In a plane or train crash in­volv­ing Euro­pean and Amer­i­can vic­tims, she notes, foren­sic ex­perts rush to the scene and iden­tify all the bod­ies. That isn’t the case in mi­grant tragedies.

“These bod­ies be­come no­body’s busi­ness,” Cat­ta­neo says. “This is the largest mass dis­as­ter in Europe af­ter the Sec­ond World War and it is the largest hu­man­i­tar­ian cri­sis in terms of dead, uniden­ti­fied bod­ies . but noth­ing has been hap­pen­ing for these peo­ple.”

Body No. 421’s fi­nal des­ti­na­tion is a ceme­tery in Cata­nia, on the is­land of Si­cily. In an un­kempt field lined with mounds of dirt, small black plaques list the codes associated with the bod­ies buried be­low.

Some day, the vol­un­teers hope, the young man’s rel­a­tives may be able to put a name to the num­ber and come to find him.

His dream of a new life in Europe was dashed, but at least he would have the chance to go home.

Cristina Cat­ta­neo col­lects post-mortem data from ship­wreck vic­tims to ob­tain in­for­ma­tion for a fu­ture iden­ti­fi­ca­tion at the Nato base in the Si­cil­ian town of Mellili, Italy. Cat­ta­neo, a pro­fes­sor at the Univer­sity of Mi­lan, is lead­ing a team of foren­sic pathol­o­gists who have vol­un­teered to iden­tify and cat­a­logue roughly 800 mi­grants who lost their lives in one of the worst tragedies in the Mediter­ranean mi­grant cri­sis. Her work is a unique, his­toric pro­ject ex­pand­ing the field of hu­man­i­tar­ian le­gal medicine and also a mul­ti­mil­lion euro ef­fort on the part of the Ital­ian gov­ern­ment to shame Europe into pay­ing at­ten­tion to mi­grants lost at sea and help Italy face the in­un­da­tion. Pho­to­graph: AP

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