We all went to sleep relatively early Friday night, but were awoken around 4am Saturday morning to a lot of yelling. Ashley (my bungalow-mate) and I, assumed people were being loud and drunk and went back to sleep. When we finally got up and went outside later that morning (much later), we learned that the over-night ferry from Dar es Salaam sunk on its way to Pemba Island. The sinking occurred 14 miles off the coast from where we were staying in Nungwi so most of the rescue operations were launched from here. UNICEF arrived, South Africa sent divers, the Brits sent helicopters, the local military police and even the President showed up. Throughout the morning locals were seen carrying bodies on stretchers through the villages to waiting ambulances, buses and taxis. Zanzibar itself is a very small island (about 67 miles long and 20 miles wide). The communities are interconnected and, as a result, almost everyone we know or met this weekend knew at least one person on the ferry. Many people lost several friends and family members.
The story as to what happened is still somewhat unclear. Many different accounts have been reported in the news and by the locals. Journalists were actually told not to report the incident by local government officials. We believe the ferry hit a reef and began to slowly leak water in. When the passengers saw the water they panicked, rushing to one side of the boat and it capsized in the early morning hours. Several of the passengers on board used cell phones to call the mainland which alerted first respondents to the sinking. We also know that the ferry had a capacity of 600, but officials likely boarded nearly 800 ticketed passengers (some reports are up to 1000) including many children who had boarded that do not require tickets and were therefore not counted. The death toll is unofficially at 240 right now with approximately 500 rescued. Among the rescued were only 20 children.
As merely an observer to these events it is difficult to come to terms with what has happened here in Zanzibar. Many small injustices appear to have added up to one indescribable tragedy that has affected hundreds of thousands of people. The overnight ferry is the cheapest route from one island to the next and, therefore, the "local" ferry. While the ferries are always crowded, I can say with confidence that one of the day ferries filled with western tourists would never have been filled so far beyond capacity. And even if one of these ferries did sink, it is likely there would have been more survivors simply due to the fact that most westerns can swim and could have tread water until help arrived. Not to mention the fact that the daylight alone would have helped rescuers locate passengers.
We've all spent a lot of time discussing what happened here this weekend...and we have come up with more questions than answers. What I do know is that we have been warmly welcomed by the local Zanzibari people during their time of mourning. They have handled this tragedy with a quiet spirit of sorrow. Despite the horror of this avoidable event, they mourn in near silence, moving through their daily routines with a sense of somber pride. They have shown me how to handle adversity with grace and they are all in my thoughts and prayers. I hope they will be in yours, as well.
|UNICEF tent providing support to locals|
|Locals still waiting for news of loved ones 36 hours after the sinking|