One year later, migrants who cheated death off Greece seek justice

Desperate hands clutched at Ali Elwan’s arms, legs and neck and screams misted his ears, as he spat out saltwater and fought for three hours to keep afloat in the night, dozens of miles from land.

Although a poor swimmer, he lived — one of just 104 survivors from the wreck of a dilapidated old metal fishing boat smuggling up to 750 migrants from North Africa to Europe.

But the sinking of the Adriana a year ago on Friday in international waters 75 kilometers (45 miles) off Pylos in southern Greece was one of the worst.

Only 82 bodies were recovered, so hundreds of families still lack even the grim certitude that their relatives are dead.

Elwan, a 30-year-old cook from Egypt whose wife and children are in Cairo, says he still gets phone calls from Egypt from mothers, brothers and wives of the missing.

He says he lost his best friend in the boat and that he still remembers every second of the incident.

After a year, there are only hazy answers as to why so many lives were lost, what caused the shipwreck and who can be held answerable.

Migrant charities and human rights groups have strongly criticized Greece’s handling of the incident.

The Greek coast guard, migration ministry and other officials did not respond to requests for comment ahead of the shipwreck anniversary.

Authorities had a coast guard boat on the scene and merchant ships in the vicinity during the trawler’s last hours.

They blame smugglers who crammed hundreds of people into an unseaworthy vessel — most in an airless hold designed to store a catch of fish — for a nightmare voyage from Libya to Italy.

They also say the Adriana capsized when its passengers — some of whom wanted to press on for Italy after five dreadful days at sea, others to seek safety in Greece — suddenly surged to one side, causing it to lurch and turn turtle.

And they insist that offers to take the migrants off the ship were rebuffed by people set on reaching Italy.

Elwan — who says he was on deck with a clear view of what happened — and other survivors say the lurching followed a botched coast guard attempt to tow the trawler.

He claimed that the coast guard hurriedly cut the towline when it became evident that the Adriana would sink and drag their boat down with it.

He said that if the ship was found at the bottom of the sea, the rope would still be attached to it.

But the logistics make such a feat nigh-on impossible, Greek authorities say, as the ship rests some 5 kilometers (more than 3 miles) down, at one of the Mediterranean’s deepest points.

The coast guard has denied any towing attempt, and allegations that its vessel tried to shift the trawler into neighbouring Italy’s area of responsibility.

A naval court launched an investigation last June but has released no information on its progress or findings.

Separately, in November Greece’s state ombudsman started an independent probe into authorities’ handling of the tragedy, bemoaning the coast guard’s “express denial” to initiate a disciplinary investigation.

Last month, a Greek court dropped charges against nine Egyptians accused of crewing the Adriana and causing the shipwreck.

Without examining evidence for or against them, it determined that Greece lacked jurisdiction as the wreck occurred in international waters.

Zeeshan Sarwar, a 28-year-old Pakistani survivor, said he’s still waiting for justice.

“I may be looking fine right now, but I am broken from the inside. We are not getting justice,” he told the AP.

Additional sources • AP