Numbers on coffins: Lives and dreams lost in the deadly Mediterranean Sea

Survivors of a shipwreck near Cutro, Italy that claimed at least 94 lives last year reflect on the dashed dreams of loved ones who died making the treacherous sea crossing.

A capsized boat in the Central Mediterranean Sea at night.

A boat that capsized in in March 2024. The MSF search and rescue teams rescued all 45 passengers. | Mediterranean Sea 2024 © Stefan Pejovic/MSF

At least 94 people died off the coast of the Italian village of Steccato di Cutro on February 26, 2023, when a wooden fishing boat carrying between 150 to 200 people crashed into rocks during bad weather.

Doctors without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) provided mental health support to survivors of the shipwreck, as well as to relatives and friends of the victims, with the objective to help address their trauma. A year after what has been called "the Cutro massacre," the exact number of people who died is still unknown. 

An Afghan girl’s last words

Maida, 16, from Afghanistan

"I can see the lights. I can see the land! The captain told us that we’ll be in Italy in an hour.” 

These are the last words Maida sent to her family on the night of February 25, 2023—her final message before the sea snatched her up and claimed her life 500 feet off the beach of Steccato di Cutro in Calabria, southern Italy. After four days of sailing on an old fishing boat crammed with almost 200 people who had set off from Türkiye, Maida’s dreams of an education finally seemed within reach.

"She set off on her own,” said Farid, Maida’s uncle. “She decided she didn't want to tell anyone in our family because she knew they would try to stop her. She wanted to have a future; she wanted to study and become a lawyer. But girls like her in Afghanistan have no choice. To study, she had to come to Europe.” Farid arrived in Germany 14 years ago, after a 10-month journey from Afghanistan via Greece and the Balkans. He had become Maida's rock as she chased her dreams of reaching Europe for a better future. 

She was so determined to reach Europe and accomplish her dream that she didn’t want to think of all the journey’s risks.

Farid, uncle of Maida, who died in the Cutro shipwreck

"I knew she had set off, but I didn't know what boat she was on,” Farid continued. “I was very worried about her because I know the route and I know how dangerous and difficult it is. She was so determined to reach Europe and accomplish her dream that she didn’t want to think of all the journey’s risks." 

Farid was ready to take care of Maida once she arrived in Europe, guiding and orienting her through her first months in a new land. Instead, he was faced with the most difficult task of his life: identifying his niece's corpse. 

A ship dangerously overloaded with passengers in the Mediterranean Sea.
On April 3, 2023, the MSF's Geo Barents received a distress call for a boat in distress in international waters off Malta. MSF headed to the vessel, and after an 11-hour operation, 440 people, including 8 women and 30 children were safely aboard Geo Barents.
Mediterranean Sea 2024 © Skye  McKee/MSF

Maida died at dawn, after the fishing boat hit rocks on the seabed and sank. 

While Farid desperately searched for the body of his niece among the shipwreck's corpses, another man tried to find the courage to call his sister.  

A dreaded call 

Ahmad, 6, from Syria

"After we fell into the water, we put Ahmad on a piece of wood to keep him afloat,” said Firas, who was among the nearly 200 people aboard the same fishing boat that wrecked in Cutro. Firas was 6-year-old Ahmad’s uncle. 

“We stayed in the water for at least two or three hours before help arrived,” Firas explained. “Ahmad started to have chest pain. He was cold. He stopped talking and died. When [rescuers] came to help us, they tried to resuscitate him, but it was too late.”

Firas and his nephews, Hassad and Ahmad, left Syria in 2014, when the civil war put their lives at risk. “We had been in Turkey for the past few years, but the discrimination and violence against Syrians had become unbearable. We dreamed of reuniting our family in Europe. We wanted Ahmad to go to school. Instead, I had to tell my sister that her 6-year-old son died at sea.”

We dreamed of reuniting our family in Europe. We wanted Ahmad to go to school. Instead, I had to tell my sister that her 6-year-old son died at sea.

Firas, uncle of Ahmad, 6, who drowned at sea

"Making that call was a dramatic moment,” said Mara Tunno, an MSF psychologist who is part of an MSF search and rescue team that provides psychological assistance to survivors of shipwrecks off the Italian coast. “[At first] Firas didn't have the strength to call the child's mother to tell her that he had drowned.”  The day of the wreck, Tunno had rushed to Cutro with intercultural mediators to assist the survivors and victims’ families, particularly during body identification in the days following.

"I have never seen so much pain in one room. All those coffins, with numbers on them. Each of those numbers was a life, a story, a dream." 

I have never seen so much pain in one room. All those coffins, with numbers on them. Each of those numbers was a life, a story, a dream.

Maria Tunno, MSF psychologist

The shipwreck on February 26 marked the start of one of the bloodiest years in the Central Mediterranean. Over 4,100 people died or went missing attempting to cross the Mediterranean to Europe in 2023, according to the UN Refugee Agency.

MSF staff wait to help survivors of a ship in distress in the Mediterranean Sea.
The MSF team aboard the Geo Barents waiting to receive survivors from a boat in distress on April 4, 2023.
Mediterranean Sea 2024 © Skye  McKee/MSF

Harmful European migration policies continue to cause harm

"A frightening average of seven lives are lost every day in the desperate attempt to cross the Central Mediterranean,” explained Marco Bertotto, director of MSF programs in Italy. “We would have expected national governments and European institutions to put the protection of human lives first, but the Italian authorities have not taken a single concrete initiative to prevent other tragedies, and has further weakened [search and rescue operations] by obstructing the role of civil society.” Instead, Bertotto said there has been “nothing but the [senseless] continuation of deterrence policies, which continue to prevail over safe and legal pathways.” 

"The Italian government has put in place increasingly restrictive rules to limit the capacity of search and rescue non-governmental organizations [NGOs] to conduct rescues,” added Bertotto. “People continue to die at sea while NGOs are instructed to reject requests for help, prevented from carrying out multiple rescues, and assigned distant ports of disembarkation.” 

A wooden boat on fire in the middle of the Mediterranean Sea.
On June 8, 2023, a wooden boat was set on fire after being intercepted by the Libyan Coast Guard in the international waters of the Central Mediterranean. The boat had around 50 people onboard, who were moved to the Libyan vessel before the wooden boat was set on fire.
Mediterranean Sea 2023 © Skye McKee/MSF

Instead of preventing people from dying at sea, the authorities enacted the Cutro Decree after the shipwreck, which threatens survivors with detention, reduces their rights as asylum seekers, restricts protection services, and facilitates expulsions. “These measures have the clear objective of deterring and preventing landings on Italian shores, even if this comes at the cost of human lives,” said Bertotto.

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“Detention threats and denying people their rights will not prevent deaths at sea. They did not stop Maida and Ahmad, victims of inhumane political choices. But what if they had had an alternative to the dangerous sea crossing? What if they had had safe and legal channels to reach Europe? Perhaps today, Maida and Ahmad would not be numbers on coffins—they would be pursuing their dreams," added Bertotto.