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After a Tragedy at Sea, a Wrecked Ship Becomes a Powerful Symbol in Italy

ROME — To most eyes, the scruffy, sun-faded ship that left Venice for Sicily last week might have looked like a junkyard-ready wreck.

Instead, as the ship embarked upon what may be its final voyage, via barge and tugboat, and arrived in Sicily on Tuesday, others were hoping it would become a monument to the devastating toll exacted by the trafficking of people across the Mediterranean from Africa to Europe by unscrupulous operators.

The ship, the relic of the deadliest wreck in the Mediterranean in living memory, is a symbol of contemporary migration in Europe that has become part of its cultural heritage, said Maria Chiara Di Trapani, an independent curator working on future projects for the vessel.

On April 18, 2015, the unnamed ship — originally built as a fishing vessel for a crew of around 15 — capsized off the coast of Libya, becoming the watery grave for the more than 1,000 people, many from Mali, Mauritius and the Horn of Africa, crammed onboard. Only 28 passengers survived.

Missing Migrants Project run by the International Organization for Migration has recorded a minimum of 12,521 deaths or disappearances during migration across the Central Mediterranean route.

The ship sank after colliding with a Portuguese freighter that had come to its assistance. An analysis of the shipwreck has been treated by migration activists as a case study on the perils of inexpert assistance at sea. The ship was later used as evidence in a case against the Tunisian captain who piloted the ship and in 2018 was convicted of human trafficking.

“The story of the boat is very complex, involving many people,” said Enzo Parisi, the spokesman for the Comitato 18 Aprile, a citizens’ group in Augusta, Sicily, that wants the boat to become a monument, “a testimony to tragedies at sea.”

In June 2016, the Italian government decided to raise the wreck 1,200 feet from the bottom of the sea to identify the victims. The ship was taken to a naval base in Augusta, and the victims were extracted.

laboratory at the University of Milan for the laborious task of cataloging and possible identification.

The ship’s destiny, at that point, was to head to the scrap yard, like hundreds of ships that have been seized by Italian authorities.

But the wreck’s symbolic power had become apparent. In 2019, supported by the Comitato 18 Aprile, Augusta’s municipal council was granted custody of the ship. The region lobbied to have it declared a monument of cultural interest and the committee came up with proposals for a memorial that would have the ship as the centerpiece.

“As a seaport, Augusta has always been welcoming,” said Giuseppe Di Mare, the mayor of the Sicilian city, which is a first landing spot for many migrants rescued in the Mediterranean, before they are processed and shunted off to other Italian cities. Because of the coronavirus, the sea rescues now include an interim stop on quarantine ships, and currently there are two such ships in Augusta’s harbor.

“Barca Nostra,” or “Our Ship” in Italian, the vessel was presented at the art exhibit as a “monument to contemporary migration” and restrictions on personal freedoms.

2019 documentary about the disaster and the attempts to identify the victims, Ms. Mirto counted headstones in a cemetery that read: “Unknown Immigrant Deceased in the Strait of Sicily on 18.4.2015.”

The project to identify victims continues, sponsored by Italy’s special commissioner for missing persons. Dr. Cattaneo, the forensic pathologist who is responsible for the university laboratory in Milan, said that funding shortages had hampered the work, and that, so far, only six victims had been identified using their methodology, which involves comparing the DNA extracted from the victims to the DNA of family members, as well as anthropological and dental traits.

She is hopeful that progress will be made this year, as the university is now working with other academic institutions, as well as Italian law enforcement authorities, but she cautioned that the condition in which researchers had found the bodies after a year under water made everything “extremely complex.”

The International Committee of the Red Cross and other national affiliates have also been involved in identifying the victims of the tragedy. They have adopted a different, complementary, approach, attempting to draft a list of the passengers onboard by cross-referencing the accounts of survivors, witnesses, relatives, friends, as well as from the objects that were recovered from the ship. Currently, they are calling some of the nearly 1,500 phone numbers — which have been tracked to 56 countries — that were found in the wreckage in hopes of gleaning new clues.

have died in the first months of 2021.

The ship will now undergo urgent maintenance, after two years exposed to a north Italian climate.

The city of Augusta has envisioned placing the ship in what the authorities describe as a “Garden of Memory,” that “will have to be in the open, because that boat gives a sense of the sea, the air, the skies. To enclose it in a building would clash with its’ story,” said Mr. Di Mare, the mayor.

“Certainly, the ship has attained an international dimension and we want this garden to become a place of reflection for the world, so that all people can ponder,” he said.

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In Orban’s Hungary, Some ‘Migrants’ Are Treated With Reverence

BUDAPEST — Ever since migrants from the Middle East, the Balkans and Africa began trickling over Hungary’s borders in early 2015, Prime Minister Viktor Orban has made a name for himself as a firebrand populist by demonizing them.

But there are limits to disparaging migrants in Mr. Orban’s Hungary.

A prominent journalist discovered that last week when Hungary’s Supreme Court ruled that he had offended the dignity of the nation by describing nomadic Magyar tribesmen known for their raids across Europe a millennium ago as “stinking” migrants. The Magyars settled in the region that has become modern Hungary, and have long been a touchstone of Hungarian nationalism.

The reference to the Magyars was in a 2018 opinion piece by Arpad W. Tota published by HVG, a current affairs weekly that is one of the few remaining independent online and print news sources in Hungary. In the article, Mr. Tota lambasted Hungarian prosecutors for not pursuing an alleged case of corruption involving European Union-funded projects and a member of Mr. Orban’s family. Hungarian law enforcement officials said they found no evidence of wrongdoing.

The court ordered the removal of the text and a public apology from HVG and awarded damages of around $1,000 to two private citizens who initiated the lawsuit.

Hungarians Don’t Steal, They Go on Adventures,” playing on the word in Hungarian for “adventures,” which can also imply the act of raiding.

Mr. Tota said he wanted to make the point that Hungary no longer had the rule of law under Mr. Orban, who has an iron grip on the country’s politics and has steadily eroded the independence of the justice system. That meant, he said, that liberal Europe needed to be firm in addressing corruption in Hungary.

To make his point, he used the allegory of what he referred to as the “stinking Magyar migrants,” or “bandits,” who were eventually confronted and defeated by German forces at the Battle of Lechfeld in A.D. 955. It was there, Mr. Tota said in the article, that European “knights with broadswords” dismissed the Magyars’ “rules of the game and illiberal worldview.”

Upholding a lower court’s decision that the article had caused injury to the dignity of the Hungarian nation, the high court took issue with the words “stinking” and “Magyar bandits,” also making note of the pejorative connotation carried by the word “migrants.”

Tamas Gaudi-Nagy, a former far-right politician, and the attorney representing the two plaintiffs in the case, Zoltan Degi and Laszlo Racz Szabo, said in a TV interview on Friday that such “hurtful, insulting, and unacceptable” language had injured the dignity of his clients as members of the Hungarian nation, because national consciousness was so closely tied to the legacy of the Magyar tribes.

Mr. Tota disagreed, saying that the court either “became very lost in the labyrinth of literary comprehension,” or “they had the ruling before they came up with the reasoning.”

The lawsuit against Mr. Tota was a landmark case that built on two legal provisions adopted during Mr. Orban’s tenure that give legal recourse to Hungarians who feel their national identity has come under assault.

Petra Bard, a professor and researcher of E.U. law at Central European University in Budapest and Vienna, said that the law set a dangerous precedent that could be broadly applied to journalists whose writings on politics were deemed provocative.

“There is certainly a danger of it having a chilling effect,” Professor Bard said.

Kata Nehez-Posony, HVG’s lawyer, said the publisher was still deciding whether to appeal the decision.

Mr. Tota also said that a recent initiative by the European Union, of which Hungary is a member, to tie funding from the bloc to the rule of law was a welcome one.

“It’s not knights with broadswords, but here we definitely see some pressure,” he said. Asked if he knew the two plaintiffs who initiated the lawsuit, Mr. Tota said he didn’t. “They’re probably adventurous Magyars,” he added.

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