Reggio Calabria, Italy – June 2001

Castrense Militello
Deputy prefect of the police of Reggio Calabria

We are on board the Yiohan, a ship that has was confiscated in 1997 because of its extensive use in the transportation of clandestine immigrants.
The ship, built in Poland in 1961, started out as a fishing boat under the name of Mammari.
After several misdemeanors, it was, around 1994, bought by a Honduran society, but its real owner is a Greek citizen, called Zervudakis. We identified and pointed him out to the courts of Reggio Calabria
because he was the owner of both the Yiohan and the small Maltese fishing boat that shipwrecked on Christmas of 1996, as well as one of the bosses of the organization.
From inquiries made abroad, in Greece, Malta and with the police forces of other neighboring countries, we discovered that the ship was at a standstill in the port of Athens on December of ’96.
During the first days of December '96, she sailed from the port of Athens - the Piraeus - with the excuse of shipping wood to Odessa. It was used instead to embark clandestine immigrants, Pakistanis, Indians, Singhalese, rounded up in their countries of origin for different reasons, the main one being that they wanted to come to Italy and Europe with the hope of finding work and leading a better life.
These young people have declared to have made the first part of their journey - from their city of precedence to the different cities of the Mediterranean, in Syria, Turkey and Egypt – by air.
They were then gathered in a port near Alexandria in Egypt, and from there departed in a ship, larger than this one, called the Friendship.
They begin traveling in the Mediterranean in the Friendship, a so-called “mother boat”, that is a ship used for the longer part of a journey. When the destination is near, in order to make the final transfer, smaller vessels, boats or even tenders, are used instead so as not to risk the larger ships that have greater value.
After some weeks traveling on board the Friendship the clandestine immigrants, who were to go to Italy, were transferred onto the Yohan, while those who were destined for Greece were transferred onto a boat called Ira.
We have found out that this ship was commanded by a Lebanese captain, married and resident in Greece, and already quite well known: El Hallal Youssuf.
The formation of the crew was very heterogeneous: a Lebanese captain, a Syrian cook, a Russian machines officer and so on…These are people who know the Mediterranean well, know the ports and the routes, have a lot of seafaring experience, and at some point in their lives, for different reasons, make themselves available to the organizations that arrange these voyages that take advantage of people’s despair.
The trips are very expensive: the equivalent of 4000-5000 American dollars, an incredible amount for a journey made in such miserable conditions.
We discovered that after the transfers from the Friendship to the Yiohan and the Ira, it was decided that the final part of the journey and landing would be made on Christmas eve of 1996.
The decision was taken by the leaders of the organization - El Hallal Youssuf and Zervudakis – that imagined that on Christmas eve the police forces would be either busy or celebrating and that the coasts would therefore be less patrolled.
But the weather is bad, there is a storm, and yet in spite of this they make the terrible decision: they force 300 young Singhalese, Indians, Pakistanis to descend from the Yiohan onto a small Maltese boat, property of the same Zervudakis.
It is a small boat, only 18 meters long, that can barely hold 80 people. They oblige, according to some of the survivors, 300 people board, threatening them with force.
The young boys, scared, board the boat, which is small, at open sea, during a storm, and has problems: water is leaking in.
The boat departs towards the coasts of Sicily, to the area of Cape Passero near Syracuse, but, because of the bad weather, continues to flood and the motor breaks down.
They call the Yiohan for help. The Yohan returns but, I don’t know if because of the terrible weather or because of lack of skill, tragedy occurs: the Yohan and the small boat collide.
We are right at the point of the collision. The small boat is lifted several meters by a wave and hits exactly this point of the ship. You can see that this part of the ship is completely slanting forward. This was once straight.
See this column?…The damage is very large, it means that the impact was terrible.
You can also see it here, it continues until here: this whole part was involved in the crash.
The damage to the Yiohan is evident, but this is a big ship and therefore resists. The Maltese boat was a lot smaller and made of wood. It basically breaks in two and tragedy strikes: almost 300 people fall into the water and very few manage to grab a hold of ropes or lifejackets. Only some survive.
Of the 450 people that were on the Yiohan, only 150 people actually leave the scene of the disaster.
The survivors ask to stay so as to help their friends and family but the crew says that it has sent an SOS and that the coast guard will soon arrive. They then escape for fear of being arrested.
They leave the people in the sea. Many were already dead, but maybe many, or some, could have been saved if they had stayed to point the rescue teams to the exact location.
Instead they escaped, making their way towards Greece where they disembark 150 Indian, Pakistani and Singhalese fugitives.
After a few days many of these fugitives are traced by the Greek police. The first official news of the shipwreck are, in fact, from the Greek police.
The fugitives, that have different nationalities, speak different languages and are questioned in different places, all coincide in saying that on Christmas eve a tragedy took place, a shipwreck in which hundreds of their companions died.
At the beginning, because the corpses and the remains of the small boat are not found, many express their doubts about the story that is, however, later confirmed in part also due to the recovery of some of the bodies at some of the beaches close to Syracuse.
Today, there is an on going process in the courts of Syracuse and next October a very important hearing will take place.
The incident, as far as we are concerned, is very clear. We have reconstructed the whole event and sent the names of those responsible to the different police headquarters. We have confidence that the court of Syracuse will make things even clearer and that those who have responsibilities in this matter will be called to respond.