Survivors of the Adriana: ‘The captain lost the way ... That’s when we called for help’

Testimony from terrified passengers on the doomed migrant ship which sank near Greece last June suggests hundreds of deaths may have been preventable. For survivors, their ordeal was just beginning

For Yazan, the only way was out. The 33-year-old is originally from Daraa, a city known as the cradle of Syria’s revolution and which has been devastated by 12 years of war. Hundreds of thousands of people are thought to have died – the vast majority of them at the hands of the still-ruling regime, according to a recent report by the Syrian Network for Human Rights.

And Yazan was wanted, ordered to serve in the regime’s military: a role that can involve killing other Syrians, for a force implicated in war crimes and crimes against humanity.

So he found an escape. A smuggler helped him cross from the Syrian city of Homs to Lebanon. He flew out of Beirut, legally, to Libya.

“I wanted to go to Germany where I have family,” Yazan explains. He had heard horror stories of Syrians travelling to Turkey, with the hope of crossing the sea to Greece, and instead being forced back to Syria. “That’s why I had to choose that way, through the plane to Libya, then Italy.”


In Benghazi, Yazan and his cousin were picked up from the airport by another smuggler, who subsequently held him among a large group of people. “At first, [the smuggler] promised I would only stay for two days in Libya, but he lied – I actually stayed there for two months. He continued to move us from house to house,” he says.

When the time came, there was no warning. “I was surprised when they took us to an isolated house, which was not like the usual ones. There were other people there when we arrived, including women and children. We stayed there for about one hour. After that they put us in this big refrigerated truck,” he recalls.

Yazan says there were about 130 people inside the truck, and they stayed there for two hours. Then they were ordered to walk “until we reached the water”.

Everyone was put into rubber boats, in groups of up to 25 – “whatever it would fit” – and taken to the main ship. The smuggler had promised them that there would be a maximum of 400 people on board.

“On the big ship, there was a person there whose job was just to organise people and put them in lines. After we entered the ship, he put me, my cousin, and some other people into a fridge that was used for fish. It wasn’t working any more, but the bad smell of the fish was still there... It was underneath, inside the boat.”

Yazan says he paid a bribe so they could leave and go on the top deck, a move which likely saved his life.

“The first two days, I don’t know what was happening because I was asleep. It was my first time at sea. Then problems started. There was no water any more, and no food. The captain lost the way. That’s when we called for help,” he says.

The shipwreck came next. “I remember when the ship flipped. It flipped over once, and then a second time,” he says. “I had been on top holding the bars of the ship. When it flipped upside down and the ship fell down, I felt like the ship fell into my chest.”

The next thing he describes was the Greek coast guard taking him on board. “I was crying like a baby. And they didn’t ask how are you, what can we do for you. They never said anything or asked me anything like that. Ever since the moment we were on board the military ship, ever since the moment they picked us up, there was no good treatment. They were always treating us very badly.”

I interview people about border violence all the time... but sitting there in front of him and hearing it in detail was something else

—  Niamh Keady-Tabbal, legal researcher

As many as 750 people were said to have been on board the overcrowded Adriana which sank on June 14th last off the coast of Greece. Only 104 survived – none of them women or children. Almost two months later, just 82 bodies have been recovered.

New testimony from survivors, as well as marine tracking data and distress calls in the final hours, suggests the scale of death was preventable. For hours the boat appears to have lost power and drifted off the Greek coast.

Some survivors claim the Greek coast guard had attached a rope to the boat and tried to tow it, which led to it destabilising. Officials denied this, though a government spokesperson later said the coast guard had “used a rope to steady themselves, to approach, to see if they wanted any help”.

Alarm Phone, a hotline which receives distress calls from people on the Mediterranean Sea, says it was in communication with terrified passengers on board who were pleading for help from about 11 hours before it sank. A plane operated by EU border agency Frontex was also monitoring the boat.

The Greek coast guard initially claimed those on board refused assistance, saying they wanted to keep sailing to Italy. Officials said the Adriana was keeping “a steady course and speed”. However, data released later, which showed the movement of ships in the area, suggests the vessel had not moved for about seven hours before it sank.

Yazan was one of three survivors who gave testimony to legal researcher Niamh Keady-Tabbal and lawyer Amanda Brown in the aftermath of the tragedy. The two have been documenting and taking litigation related to human rights violations at Greek borders. They provided some of their interview details and transcripts to The Irish Times.

The pair carried out the interviews at a roadside shop near Malakasa camp, outside of Athens, where survivors had been transferred. “I interview people about border violence all the time... but sitting there in front of him and hearing it in detail was something else,” said Keady-Tabbal.

Brown felt she had seen a lot of coverage about the shipwreck, but it hadn’t included “all the jarring details from before and after”.

Survivors now feel “they have been completely abandoned by the Greek state”, she said, and have found themselves in “psychological purgatory”.

“The two most urgent priorities that I understood, from the people who we interviewed,” she says, are identifying bodies recovered from the shipwreck, and facilitating family reunification within Europe, so that those who survived can travel to live with their existing relatives.

My parents were trying to reach me to find out if I had survived and if I was still alive. But I couldn’t reach them, and they couldn’t reach me

—  Yazan, shipwreck survivor

When the shipwreck survivors were first disembarked in Kalamata, southern Greece, Yazan remembers lying on the ground, appealing for medical help. It took three hours for him to be taken to hospital, he says, and he stayed for a week. Those admitted were not allowed to see or talk to anyone, he recalls, despite the fact that contacts of those on board the Adriana had rushed to the region, desperately trying to discover whether their loved ones had made it through.

“There were people waiting outside for their relatives and friends who were in the hospital. We were talking to them from the window from the second or third floor. My parents were trying to reach me to find out if I had survived and if I was still alive. But I couldn’t reach them, and they couldn’t reach me,” Yazan says. “I was shouting my name from the window. They took my name and published it on social media, and that’s the only way my family could find out I was alive. I asked [the authorities] for my phone and they said ‘No, we will give it to you when you go to the camp.’”

Away from the hospital, phones were confiscated from survivors who had managed to keep them that long, according to Keady-Tabbal and Brown’s interviews. Several days later, after constant begging, Greek officials gave survivors new phones, without returning the ones they had taken. Anecdotally, some survivors say the confiscated phones may have held video evidence of how the shipwreck had taken place.

During this time, two other interviewees say different survivors were selected to speak to the police. One says he was pressured not to mention the Greek coast guard attaching a rope to the Adriana; he, as well as another man, also say they were shown photos and forcefully encouraged to name the people pictured as the captain of the ship or members of its crew, despite their fast denials.

When they were moved to Malakasa camp, Yazan says he was taken to a psychiatrist who asked him only two questions. “One was, ‘Do you take any drugs?’ and then, ‘Have you tried before to commit suicide in your life?’ That’s all. Then the doctor signed a paper saying we were each okay and had nothing wrong.

“We are asking for psychological support. We are asking for it because we need it. I’m not sleeping well, like sometimes one, two, three days pass and I don’t sleep,” Yazan continues. “But when we ask in the camp for psychologists, there’s no response. There’s no response.”

I am concerned by reports of pressure having been exercised on survivors and by allegations of irregularities

—  Dunja Mijatović, Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights

On July 19th, Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights, Dunja Mijatović, wrote a letter to Greek prime minister Luriakos Mitsotakis, saying Greece had a legal obligation to carry out effective investigations into the shipwreck, and that must extend beyond the smugglers.

“I am concerned by reports of pressure having been exercised on survivors and by allegations of irregularities,” she added, while also saying she was worried about the lack of freedom of movement experienced by the survivors in Malakasa camp, and reports that phones were confiscated.

“In addition, the conducting of asylum interviews, most of them remotely via videoconference, very shortly after the traumatising episode these people had just experienced, raises questions regarding the conditions in which the survivors were able to prepare these interviews and expose their claims.”

In a response letter dated July 26th, and seen by The Irish Times, Greece’s migration minister, Dimitrios Kairidis, said the shipwreck had led to a “frenzy of criticism”, which was “politically motivated” by “advocates of an open border agenda”.

He said Greece had conducted thousands of search and rescue operations and saving lives was the Greek coast guard’s “top priority”.

In the Malakasa camp, he said survivors had “received all the privileges of an asylum seeker and benefited from fast-track asylum processes”. Family reunification requests had been processed and were pending in other European countries, he said. An independent judicial investigation had been launched, while the Greek coastguard would be investigated by the Naval Court prosecutor.

Greek authorities did not reply to an emailed list of questions.

Keady-Tabbal says she wants to see accountability for both the June 14th shipwreck itself, but also the broader “pattern of pushbacks that the Greek coast guard have been carrying out”.

“The structure of EU migration and asylum law kind of relies on Greece to carry out border violence,” she adds, with the EU effectively using Greece as a “shield”.

“It’s hard to really fully separate the culpability of the Greek authorities versus the European authorities when it comes to border control because the Greek authorities are also so heavily funded by the EU,” says Brown. “They’re inextricable in a large sense.”

She says European citizens have a duty to challenge what is happening. That means they shouldn’t just be reacting to tragedies, but proactively calling for more safe and legal routes. “If there were safe legal pathways, people wouldn’t have to risk their lives in these ways,” Brown says.

I am sure that my cousin is one of the corpses they have

—  Yazan, shipwreck survivor

Many of the survivors are mourning people they lost in the shipwreck. One interviewee describes them sitting together daily in the camp; even crying together.

“I think they’re, at the very least, being punished the way that all asylum seekers who enter Greece are treated, with a kind of hostility,” remarks Keady-Tabbal.

She says the camp management encouraged the new arrivals to claim asylum. Some survivors refused, saying they wanted to leave Greece, and it would prevent them from doing so. In return, they say, Greek officials threatened that they would be deported to the countries from which they escaped.

“So we signed the form. They took our fingerprints. We did the first interview in the camp,” Yazan explains. He requested that his name was changed in this article because he fears repercussions by the Greek authorities. He describes attending his asylum interview without a lawyer, while the translator was remote, visible only through a laptop screen.

Yazan explains that he still wants to be reunited with his sister in Germany, but has been told that it is unlikely and will take six months to get an answer. In the meantime, he hopes he can be allowed to see the bodies of the dead from the shipwreck to identify his cousin, who he believes is among them.

“I am sure that my cousin is one of the corpses they have...He was right beside me, very close to me, when the ship flipped, and when we were in the water I lost him,” Yazan says.

His cousin had a pouch hanging from his neck, with a passport inside, Yazan says, so should be easy to find.

Many bodies have not yet been identified, according to Brown, “despite families petitioning very strongly, both from within Greece and outside, to try to identify them”.

“There are a lot of people in the same situation,” Yazan says. “But nothing has happened until now. We’re still waiting for a response.”

Meanwhile, there are clear reasons why survivors are longing to be reunited with family members elsewhere in Europe. “If we stay here, we will never forget what happened to us, and we will never forgive,” says one interviewee. “People who leave... will be busy with their cousins, their family members, so it’s not like they will forget, but they will try to not think about it so much.”