Senegal ferry disaster reveals need for psychological support

Published: 3 March 2003 0:00 CET

Jessica Barry in Dakar

When the Joola ferry sank off the Senagalese coast in late September 2002, with the loss of an estimated 1,800 lives, it was recognised as one of Africa’s worst-ever maritime disasters.

Two official inquiries revealed that the ferry - which was on a night-time voyage from Casamance province to the capital, Dakar - was overcrowded and the crew failed to observe rescue procedures. Bad weather was also to blame.

When news of the tragedy broke, more than 150 Senegalese Red Cross first-aiders were mobilised to help in the rescue effort. Together with soldiers, firemen, scouts and other rescue teams, they comforted people who had gathered at the port seeking news of missing relatives, and later helped to recover, identify and bury the dead.

"Some of those waiting for information were hysterical," remembers 30-year-old Red Cross team leader Aziz Diop, "and it was difficult to know how best to help them."

Realizing the need to train rescuers how to respond to stress and trauma, the Senegalese government, through the Ministry of Health, recently organized a training workshop at the Creativity Centre attached to the 'Centre Hospitalier de Fann' in Dakar. Many of the participants, who included 25 Red Cross first-aiders, had taken part in the Joola ferry rescue.

The two-day workshop, which began on the 19th February, included discussions and group work on stress management, counselling and mourning. In addition it examined the rescuers' own reactions to living through what, for most of them, had been their first exposure to a major disaster.

Commenting afterwards on the workshop's success, Abdoul Aziz Diallo, Executive Secretary of the Senegalese Red Cross, remarked: "one of the greatest benefits was that it identified the need to provide psychological support not only to survivors and victims' families, but also to rescuers, so that they can be better prepared to provide assistance during disasters and cope with their own emotions at the same time."

Related links:

News story: Maritime safety ignored in Senegal tragedy
Senegal: appeals, updates and reports
Psychological support