Tuesday, 22 September 2015

Bodies of 15 sailors recovered after boat sinks off southern Vietnam

Rescuers on Tuesday recovered the bodies of two sailors, the last among the 15 missing after their fishing boat sank off the coast of Ba Ria-Vung Tau Province in southern Vietnam last week.

The bodies were found at 8:30 a.m. in the waters near Con Dao Island.

At around 3 a.m. last Wednesday the boat was heading back to shore after a fishing trip off Con Dao Island when the gas cylinder on the boat reportedly exploded.

The boat sank immediately.

Fifteen sailors were allegedly injured and fell into the water. They allegedly drowned and their bodies drifted away.

Three sailors, who were standing far away from the gas cylinder, escaped the blast. They were saved by rescuers afterwards.

With the two new bodies, all of the missing sailors have been recovered.

Tuesday 22 September 2015


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The debris of the desperate: Finding life jackets and passports off the coast of Turkey

It was a beautiful day of clear skies and light winds when Gordon Walker and his family set out on their final sailing trip of the summer. Strong gusts from the north had delayed their departure, but by the end of August, the weather was perfect and the boat was stocked. There was meat for the barbecue and beer to wash it down, along with an assortment of other supplies for a three-day sail.

Their destination was Turkey’s Karaburun Peninsula, about four hours away across a stretch of the Aegean Sea. Once the sails were set, Mr. Walker, a Canadian who lives in Spain, revelled in the quiet. His wife, Sonja, and young daughter, Nikita, spotted dolphins swimming off the port bow.

They spent two nights anchored near Karaburun, snorkelling in the turquoise waters and swimming into the nearby harbour for lunch. Late in the morning of Sept. 2, they began their return journey to the Turkish town of Foca, where they spend every summer.

The sun was shining in a cloudless sky, but the wind had vanished. In the near total calm, Mr. Walker, 55, turned on the motor and took the helm. About four nautical miles later, he spotted what he thought were fishing buoys floating in the distance.

As the boat drew closer, he became puzzled. The buoys were orange, an unusual colour, not the clear or white plastic normally used by fishermen. There were no other boats nearby and no sign of nets or divers. It was almost as though the buoys were in a line, stretching across the glassy sea.

He slowed the boat and moved nearer. With a start, he understood what he was seeing: life jackets, more than 30 of them, in every direction. His mind raced. Life jackets are light, he thought – maybe they had blown off the shores of Lesbos, the Greek island to the north, where thousands of refugees are arriving every day and discarding them on the beach.

Then he saw large forms in the water and his chest grew tight. There were bags, backpacks so wet they barely floated. He realized that they had discovered a field of debris – the “debris of the desperate,” he said. “That’s when I thought, ‘Jesus, maybe I should send Nikita below deck.’”

His 11-year-old daughter surveyed the scene around them. “Why are there so many life jackets, and why are their backpacks with everything they have in the water?” she asked. He had no answer for her.

Mr. Walker manoeuvred the boat toward some of the backpacks. Edgar Lockhart, a retired geologist who lives in Vancouver and was also travelling with the family, helped lift three of the heavy, waterlogged bags out of the water and onto a small platform at the stern.

As they arrived back in Foca, the mood was sombre. The familiar sights and sounds of the harbour – the palm trees, the pines, the boats, the calls to prayer – only underscored the difference between their journey and the one taken by the people whose bags sat, dripping, on the edge of their boat.

Unable to shake what he had seen, Mr. Walker wrote an e-mail to friends and relatives urging them to sponsor refugees and help them come to Canada. While he and his family had returned to the welcoming bays of Foca, he feared that “no arms awaited the backpack owners other than the cold, blue arms of the deep.”

The Missing

How many migrants and refugees go missing on the long journey to Europe? No one truly knows. More than 440,000 people have already arrived this year by crossing the Mediterranean, according to the United Nations, most of them originally from Syria, Afghanistan and Eritrea. Almost 3,000 have died, including at least 76 this month, 29 of them children. They include three-year old Alan Kurdi, whose body washed up on a shore in Turkey – an indelible image that shocked the world.

Experts add that some bodies are never found, and when they are, not all of them can be identified. “The major challenge that we face is that not only do people go missing or end up dying on some of these terrible journeys, but the families are usually left in limbo for many years because there is no proof of death,” said Frank Laczko, who heads a global data analysis centre at the International Organization for Migration. “And that creates problems for them both emotionally and legally, in terms of moving on.”

Dutch researchers at VU University in Amsterdam compiled a database of migrant deaths on Europe’s southern borders between 1990 and 2013. In the more than 3,000 cases they examined, fewer than half of the bodies were successfully identified.

For families whose loved ones go missing, there are few options. The IOM has tried to help with such inquiries in an ad hoc way, referring families to local authorities. The International Committee of the Red Cross also works to trace people who have disappeared. Two years ago, it launched a new project directed specifically at migrants and refugees travelling to Europe. People searching for missing relatives can send photos of themselves, which are then distributed online and on posters. As of this week, there were more than 344 people searching for lost family members.

The Passports

As he returned to Foca, Mr. Walker thought about possible scenarios. His best guess was that a boat or boats carrying refugees had set off from the Turkish coast for Lesbos on one of the preceding days when the winds were blowing strongly from the north.

The waves would have been high in the strait between Greece and Turkey, he thought. Maybe the bags had been dumped overboard to help the boats ride higher in the water and the passengers had reached Lesbos. In the worst case, the vessel was swamped and sank somewhere along the crossing. Even then, it’s possible those in the boat were rescued by the Greek or Turkish coast guards, he told himself.

After arriving in Foca and unloading the boat, Mr. Walker went straight to the local police station. They told him to contact the coast guard, which called over to Karaburun to inquire if there had been any recent rescues or sinkings nearby. When the answer was no, the coast guard referred Mr. Walker back to the local police in Foca, where the officers took down his story without much interest.

Mr. Walker and his family opened the bags and began to sift through their soaked contents. One bag contained two large water bottles, cigarettes and clothes, some of them never worn, including new pairs of socks.

In the other large bag, they found clothes for a small child: T-shirts, pants, a hat, a pair of shorts printed with the word “Smile.” The bottom compartment of the backpack was filled with diapers. Nestled above the diapers, there were three Iranian passports: a 33-year-old man with close-cropped hair and a direct gaze; a 30-year-old woman, presumably his wife, with wide eyes and wearing a black head scarf; and their son, a round-faced little boy just 16 months old.

In the smallest of the three bags, there were clothes, cellphones, charging cables, toiletries and a large container of hair gel. There was also a Turkish visa for a 35-year old Iraqi man born in Baghdad. A piece of paper, folded and refolded repeatedly into a small square, contained Arabic handwriting in blue ink. It included two verses from the Koran and prayers asking for protection – “May God bless you and his blessings surround you,” part of it read.

Mr. Walker returned to the police station the next day with the identifying details and this time the reaction from the officers was more attentive. They took possession of the bags and their contents. Meanwhile, Mr. Walker and his family began getting ready to return to Seville, where he is a senior manager at a company providing laboratory services to mines.

When he left Foca, he said, town residents were talking in grim tones about the upcoming fishing season. During the summer, big vessels are barred from the nearby waters, but they return in the fall. The larger fishing boats drop their nets down to the sea floor and drag up everything, usually fish and other sea life but also, often, ancient amphora. “As they start dragging in any of those crossings, people believe they’ll start to bring up bodies too,” he said.

A note containing a prayer for protection was found in a backpack believed to have belonged to a 35-year old Iraqi man.

The Search

Over the past week, The Globe has attempted to track the people whose bags Mr. Walker found. The Greek and Turkish coast guards did not respond to inquiries about boating incidents involving refugees and migrants. The Greek authorities on Lesbos, believed to be the destination of those on the boats, said they were overwhelmed and didn’t have time to search for possible arrival records for those four individuals.

The police, the gendarmerie and the coast guard in Foca had no further information about the whereabouts of the four people. Last Friday, a police detective there recommended checking with Turkish immigration authorities in the days and weeks to come. A week earlier, he said, the coast guard had rescued 124 refugees from the sea.

Initial efforts to trace the four people on social media and in telephone directories in Tehran and Baghdad were not successful. A Facebook appeal in Arabic by a newspaper editor in Iraq also did not yield results. The newspaper contacted a local arm of the International Committee of the Red Cross to begin a tracing request, but was informed that only family members can initiate such a search.

Mr. Walker, meanwhile, has asked everyone he knows in Iran for help locating the family whose passports he found. He remarked with some bitterness that Turkey has an efficient network of buses which could safely transport migrants and refugees over land to the border with Greece, but that frontier is closed. Instead, those who want to get to Europe must play a cruel game of “sink or swim,” he said.

“You can’t just say to people … if you risk your life, then we might do something for you, slowly,” he said. “You have to tackle it seriously.” He noted there are precedents for such efforts, including the way Canada sent officials to Asia to process tens of thousands of Vietnamese refugees in the late 1970s.

A native of Deep River, Ont., Mr. Walker has spent all of his life around water, from the Ottawa River of his childhood to his years sailing the Mediterranean Sea. Most of his memories of the sea are fond ones, he said.

But what he saw in the Aegean earlier this month “is sticking with me like a tattoo,” he wrote in his e-mail to family and friends. In the days that followed, when he was tired enough to sleep, he would close his eyes and see a sea littered with backpacks and life jackets.

Tuesday 22 September 2015


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Why allegations of human sacrifice in Tamil Nadu are too hard to probe

The little village of E Malampatti in Madurai district, Tamil Nadu, has been all aflutter this past week. The media’s spotlight has been turned squarely onto this village, now notorious as the site of alleged human sacrifices conducted around 12 years ago. A jeep driver formerly employed with a large granite firm PRP Granites, reiterated, after several years, his allegation of human sacrifice having been conducted by his former employer PR Palanisamy and his henchmen.

The jeep driver Sevarkodiyan claimed, in a petition to IAS officer U Sagayam four months ago, that he had picked up a few mentally ill persons in neighbouring Pudukottai district and brought them to his boss PRP’s office, when he was employed with the granite firm between 1998 and 2003. He claimed that those mentally ill persons had been sacrificed as part of a ritual and buried near E Malampatti village. Sagayam, who is the legal commissioner appointed by the Madras High Court to probe into a Rs 16,000 crore granite scam in Madurai, decided to push for investigations into these astonishing allegations. Exhumations were ordered at the burial site last weekend and the gripping drama began.

“Sagayam was worried that the evidence at the burial site might be removed overnight by vested interests and so he camped there for a night last week to ensure that the bones would be protected,” said a source in Sagayam’s team, on condition of anonymity. Police dug 5 feet deep and recovered 4 bodies on the 13th of this month. Sagayam ordered police to dig upto a depth of 10 feet. Two more bodies were recovered, all of which have been sent for forensic analysis, with results on the first four bodies likely to arrive this week and on the last two bodies next week.

The biggest eyebrow-raiser appears to be the actual spot being dug up by the police. The area has been used as a graveyard by villagers for the past 10 years. “If you dig a graveyard, what are you going to find there?” asked a police officer on condition of anonymity. A retired police officer likened the situation to a witticism – “A small two-seater Cessna 152 plane crashed into a cemetery early this afternoon. Search and rescue workers have found two survivors and recovered 300 bodies so far and expect that number to climb as digging continues into the evening,” he quipped.

Police now have the onerous task of matching DNA samples from the bodies with those of villagers, to see whether the dead are relatives of the villagers or unknown persons, as claimed by Sevarkodiyan.

The second red flag is in the complaint filed with the Madurai police by the jeep driver Sevarkodiyan. His complaint does not specify when he had actually picked up the mentally ill persons from Annavasal in Pudukottai district. The written complaint with the Madurai police simply states that between 1998 and 2003 Sevarkodiyan was working as a jeep driver with the granite company PRP. He states that he went to Annavasal, picked up 2 people and left them at the PRP office. A month and a half later he came to know that the same people were found dead on the riverbank. The three accused named in the complaint, he states, buried the body in the specified location. Police say that this complaint is too vague to be of much help.

“We have to further verify the complaint made on this issue,” Madurai Superintendent of Police (SP) Vijayendra Bidari told Firstpost. “We need to find out specifics of when the incident took place and identify the deceased. We have sent the skeletons for forensic tests to establish the time of death. Once we get the reports we will have a clearer picture,” he said. Other questions that the police would like to ask Sevarkodiyan are whether he was asked to bring in the mentally ill persons or whether he did that on his own, and details on how he managed to lure them into his vehicle along with a detailed description of the alleged victims. Sources within the investigation team probing the human sacrifice angle told Firstpost that the bodies exhumed had a specific coloured cloth with a decorative border wrapped around them. These bodies have also been buried in a specific north-south direction as per village practices. Police say that local villagers have come up to them stating that their relatives were buried at the same spot in a particular coloured cloth. “Some bodies had been buried with coconuts tied to them,” said the source requesting anonymity. “Villagers tell us there is a practice prevalent amongst certain communities here of burying unmarried persons with coconuts tied to their bodies,” he said, debunking media claims that the coconuts indicated ritualistic sacrifice.

All six bodies have been sent to a team of three forensic doctors for testing. The Polonium 210 test will be used to determine the closest time of death – this test can show time and year of death up to a margin of 138 days before or after the actual date of death.

Another team of police has fanned out across Madurai district hunting for occult practitioners who may have knowledge about the rituals of human sacrifice. Yet another team is scouring through the database of missing persons in and around Madurai district.

“If Sevarkodiyan’s claims are true, then the mentally ill persons that he picked up could have come to Pudukottai from anywhere in the country,” argues a senior police officer, pointing out the daunting near-impossibility of the task of identifying the victims, if any.

This process was in fact already carried out in 2012 by then SP of Madurai V Balakrishnan and his team, who had originally carried out the raids on the granite mafia, freezing their accounts and shutting down their businesses. “We made extensive inquiries in hospitals in MDU and Melur about deaths in quarries,” Balakrishnan, who is now Deputy Commissioner in Mylapore, Chennai, told Firstpost. “We also checked with the injured admitted from quarry sites. We analysed all unnatural death cases reported under Section 174 of the CrPC (Criminal Procedure Code) 15 years before 2012 and we couldn’t find anything fishy in any of those cases. Based on a general complaint on suspected human sacrifice, we did all this. There was no specific complaint from any relatives of missing persons when we looked through the missing persons list,” he said.

Interestingly the Supreme Court has already dismissed in toto a Special Leave Petition in December 2013 – an intervenor petition by activists along with Sevarkodiyan had pled for investigation of these same allegations of human sacrifice. “That many innocent Dalit bonded labors from Orissa and Bihar and poor workers and insane people in the area have been barbarically slaughter on human sacrifice called ‘Nara Palli’, that is killing a human being as a sacrificial offer to please bad demons to further the business at every new quarrying site secretly by the Granite mafia,” says the intervenor petition in the Supreme Court filed in 2013. All of these have been dismissed summarily by the apex court.

Legal commissioner Sagayam remains tight lipped. His job, he says, is to report findings to the court. “I will submit my report on illegal granite mining to the court in two weeks,” he told reporters last week. “I do not wish to say anything beyond that.” His team, though, is convinced that they have stumbled onto a big revelation.

So did a human sacrifice happen or not? There are no easy answers to this and there never may be. The astounding allegation by one jeep driver could well remain just that – an allegation. With next to nothing to work on, police continue to plod on with their investigations. But at the end of all this, E Malampatti certainly has had its 15 minutes of fame.

Tuesday 22 September 2015


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