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.