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‘The scar is reopening’: relatives return to site of Italian shipwreck

<span>A memorial on a beach near Cutro. Some people are still missing a year on from the tragedy.</span><span>Photograph: Tiziana Fabi/AFP/Getty Images</span>
A memorial on a beach near Cutro. Some people are still missing a year on from the tragedy.Photograph: Tiziana Fabi/AFP/Getty Images

Relatives of the 94 people killed in a shipwreck off a beach in southern Italy say they are still seeking “truth and justice” one year on from the tragedy.

A series of events are being held in Cutro, a small beach town in Calabria, to commemorate the dead, including a demonstration on Sunday and a torchlit procession at 4am on Monday, the time of the shipwreck, along the stretch of coast in Steccato di Cutro where many of the bodies washed up.

The overcrowded wooden vessel fell apart in stormy seas just 3 metres from the beach on 26 February 2023. The boat had departed from Turkey four days earlier carrying about 180 people from countries including Afghanistan, Syria, Iran, Pakistan and Iraq who were seeking refuge in Europe.

Related: People smugglers recruiting skippers from central Asia on Turkey to Italy route

Eighty people survived, some of whom were among the group of 50, including relatives of the deceased, who travelled to Cutro this weekend for the commemorative events.

An investigation by prosecutors in Crotone into the alleged delays in Italian rescue operations after the authorities were alerted is ongoing. The EU border agency, Frontex, said it had warned the Italian coastguard about the presence of a boat in difficulty about 45 miles off the coast, but patrol boats sent to intercept it were allegedly returned to port due to bad weather.

“It’s not easy to return, the scar is reopening,” Alidad Shiri, a journalist of Afghan origin who lives in the northern Italian city of Bolzano, said on behalf of the victims’ families during a discussion organised by Noi Non Dimenichiamo (We Don’t Forget), a collective of social organisations. “We are asking for truth and justice for a massacre that was avoidable.”

Shiri’s 17-year-old cousin, Atiqullah Khalili, was on the boat but his body has not been found. “He had the dream of living freely, and after a year I still don’t have the courage to tell my aunt that we haven’t found his body,” said Shiri. “If there was a European law on family reunification, massacres like Cutro would stop. We have asked for a reunification [policy], but all we get from the [Italian] government is words.”

It was the deadliest migrant shipwreck to occur so close to the shore in Italy since 368 people lost their lives after their boat sank off the island of Lampedusa in October 2013.

After last year’s shipwreck, the Italian prime minister, Giorgia Meloni, who met some of the survivors, pledged to crack down on people smugglers, including handing out tougher sentences and giving preferential quotas to workers from countries who help fight smugglers. Earlier this month, a court in Crotone sentenced a 29-year-old Turkish national, Gun Ufuk, to 20 years in prison for his involvement in the shipwreck. He was one of four people smugglers on the vessel. One died and two others are facing trial.

Some of the wreckage of the 20-metre-long vessel, which was called Summer Love, remains on the beach at Steccato di Cutro.

Vincenzo Luciano, a fisher, was the first to arrive at the scene, at around 5.30am, after receiving a call from a fellow fisher who described seeing a boat breaking up in the waves. Luciano, who pulled several bodies from the sea, told the Guardian at the time: “It was still dark, but when I arrived I could see many bodies on the beach, those of children too. Using the light from my phone I tried to find others in the sea. Nothing like this has ever happened on this stretch of coast before, and I hope it’s a memory I’m able to forget quickly.”

Since then, Luciano said, he had not been out to sea and it still troubled him that he did not arrive sooner. “What I can’t forget is the child who died in my arms,” he said during the Noi Non Dimenichiamo discussion.

A football match and a concert were also being held over the weekend, while a photo exhibition dedicated to the tragedy opened at a museum in Crotone.

Italy is one of the main landing points for people trying to enter Europe, with the “central Mediterranean route” considered one of the world’s most dangerous.