Mosul ferry disaster illustrates Iraq’s wider problems

Mosul does not have many divers to search for the missing bodies. Help arrived from other Iraqi cities and Turkey.
Sunday 31/03/2019
A tragic blow. Iraqi rescue team members are seen at the site where an overloaded ferry sank in the TigrisRiver near Mosul,  March 22.  (Reuters)
A tragic blow. Iraqi rescue team members are seen at the site where an overloaded ferry sank in the TigrisRiver near Mosul, March 22. (Reuters)

MOSUL, Iraq - The sinking of a ferry in the Tigris River in Mosul, which caused the death of more than 100 people, sparked outrage across Iraq but observers said the swift punishment of local officials in this case only scratches the surface of the country’s wider problems.

The accident occurred March 21 while families were travelling to Umm al-Rabeein Island to celebrate Nowruz and Mother’s Day in Iraq. A ferry, reportedly overcrowded with more than 265 people — five times its capacity — on board capsized.

Lamees Mahmoud al-Bachari, who was on board the ferry, said a 20-year-old man saved her from downing but two of her sisters died and two of her nieces were missing. “It was very crowded with passengers and we asked the man who runs the ferry to stop loading more people but he replied: ‘Do not worry, it’s safe’,” she said.

“Soon after the ferry moved, water quickly entered the ferry… We could not see anything. We just heard men screaming and children crying,” she said.

Protests in Mosul called for those responsible to be punished. Iraqi Prime Minister Adel Abdul-Mahdi asked parliament to vote on the sacking of Nineveh Governor Nofal al-Akoub because of alleged negligence and abuse of power and public funds.

Akoub and his two deputies were fired by parliament on March 24. Protests continued and an Iraqi court issued an arrest warrant for Akoub on corruption charges.

Although many protesters had called for the firing and punishment of Akoub, they said the problem goes beyond the responsibility of local officials. They welcomed charging the former governor to set an example for other politicians.

“Firing Akoub is not enough. We want him to be judged in court so that he can be a lesson for others,” said one protester who did not wish to be identified. “We want to live in peace. Yesterday it was the Islamic State. Today it’s the ferry disaster and we’re afraid of what will come tomorrow. We can’t accept any more disasters.”

Laith al-Rashdi, a journalist who was present when Akoub visited the river near the site of the ferry disaster, said the governor was chased away by protesters and family members of the victims. “They began to circle the car so he drove away and (his car) hit me in the process,” he said.

People in Mosul are complaining about infrastructure problems in the city, said Rashdi. “Before the ferry accident, bridges were collapsing,” he said.

Mosul, Iraq’s second largest city and which is divided in two by the Tigris, does not have many divers to search for the missing bodies. Help arrived from other Iraqi cities and Turkey.

Mohammed al-Janabi, a humanitarian aid worker who was sent to look after survivors and the families of the victims, said: “We set up a tent to provide assistance to family members of those who have drowned or are still missing.

“The shortage of divers and rescue boats in Mosul prompted us to coordinate with the Turkish IHH Humanitarian Relief Foundation. They swiftly responded to our request of sending five divers. The Turkish divers started research to identify sites they believe contain the missing bodies. The search will continue for two weeks.”

Divers from other parts of Iraq volunteered to search for bodies.

“The ferry incident encouraged me to go to Mosul as a patriotic duty to help anyone in need,” said Rami Sinan, a diver from the southern city of Basra. He said three of his friends volunteered to go with him to Mosul.

“On [March 27], we started our mission of searching for missing victims. We faced many obstacles, like bad weather, lack of visibility in the water and strong currents of water but because we are

experienced in deep diving, we managed to find the bodies of two children. We will continue our search for the missing.”

Help came also from people who weren’t divers. “We appealed to authorities to rescue the victims but the river police directorate had only three boats, which is not enough, prompting owners of private boats to intervene to save some of the victims,” said Yousif Mudhaffar, a student at the University of Mosul.

“Despite the pain and sadness, I am happy to see Iraqis from all the provinces rush to come to Mosul to show their support and give their condolences,” said Mudhaffar.

9