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Vol 2, No 32
25 September 2000
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Grave Diving
Mel Huang

As people around the Baltic Sea mark the sixth anniversary of the tragic sinking of the ferry Estonia, overzealous adventurers and unscrupulous entrepreneurs are compounding the horrors and pain felt by survivors of the tragedy and the families and friends of those who perished on that dark night. Instead of letting the hundreds of victims rest in peace along with the ferry's debris, people are insistent on violating that sepulchre.

American millionaire Gregg Bemis, known in the past for funding and organising other controversial explorations, took it upon himself to prove his theory that an explosion brought the ferry down en route from Tallinn to Stockholm on the night of 28 September 1994. When the expedition planning became more serious, countries most affected by the tragedy—Estonia, Finland and Sweden—voiced anger and tried to convince Bemis to cancel the planned dive to the wreck. They failed.

Massive anger

Knowing full well that many countries around the Baltic Sea have signed a treaty protecting the wreck site as a mass grave, Bemis took advantage of the most significant country not a party to that agreement, Germany, and based his operations from there. As the Estonia wreck lies in international waters, signatories of the treaty cannot stop the attempt, unless the perpetrators enter their territorial waters. Instead, all that Swedish, Finnish and Estonian officials could do was to keep an eye on the expedition.

Finnish officials called the late-August, early-September expedition a "very unfriendly act" towards Finland, calling on Germany to sign the treaty and to prosecute the people involved in the violation of the grave. Swedish officials added that perpetrators of this crime are subject to arrest and a prison term in Sweden. Swedish cabinet ministers, including Prime Minister Göran Persson, became seriously involved in the entire affair, attempting to pressure Bemis off the dive.

More public anger came when it was revealed that part of the expedition was to be funded from the sale of film footage of the dive, co-ordinated by a German crew. Estonian public television station ETV entered the fray controversially by purchasing the footage for USD 1000, in a way supporting this illegal endeavour. Even if the purchasing of the post-dive video is not strictly illegal by Estonian law, the spirit of the treaty protecting the ferry wreck was violated—and was done so using taxpayers' money. Shame on ETV and other stations for propagating this. It is about as shameless as the showing of video footage from the Columbine school shooting. As a person who has seen too many guns in schools with his own eyes, such ratings-driven moves are reprehensible.

The anger increased further when journalists found out that the German company that had the most to gain from the expedition—the shipyard accused of the dodgy construction—was linked in the latter part of the expedition by providing equipment to the diving crew. This discovery has compromised what little objectivity the expedition had.

A frightful discovery

Experts from the international commission that blamed the sinking on shoddy construction viewed the aforementioned video, but said it showed nothing new that would suggest a "hole" in the hull of the ferry. Despite that assertion, the Bemis team still insist they found a "hole" and is promising further investigation into the matter. Collusion with the accused shipbuilder has not been commented upon further, of course.

However, what is turning out to be the most worrisome aspect of the entire dive is the report by divers of discovering bodies outside of the ferry's hulls. Previous sanctioned dives have ensured that there were no bodies outside the ferry, as all others have been retrieved. The suggestion of bodies has alarmed the Swedish government, and it has moved to discuss possibilities of an expedition, which needs to be sanctioned by all signatories of the protection treaty, to investigate the claim. Angry families and friends have also called on expeditions to retrieve the bodies of their loved ones.

A failure in international law

International law fails on issues such as this, since the entire concept of international law is voluntary and not a violation of any country's sovereignty. As this tragedy affected so many countries in the region, there was never agreement on adequate protection of the wreck site. The treaty signed by regional countries pledged to protect it as a mass grave, but the Bemis dive showed the impotence of the treaty if the object is in international waters and the violation originates from a non-party to the agreement.

Should the countries have agreed to cover the wreck in concrete as suggested by some, or have performed a full recovery of bodies? If suggestions that the site has been tampered with are true, then both of those suggestions may be revisited by governments, which will only reopen the delicate wound that has ever so slowly began to heal over the last six years.

Since the treaty to protect the wreck was adopted by Estonia, Finland and Sweden, several other regional countries, including Russia, have also signed onto it. Shame on Germany and others for not doing so. Would Germany have taken the same stance if 500 of their citizens had died and a Swedish shipyard had built the ferry?

Reopening wounds

The most damaging aspect of the dive and subsequent events is how it disturbs the healing process. Though families and friends of victims remain angry at aspects of the investigation, the report's conclusion, the handling of the crisis by governments and other issues, it is a common situation with such mass tragedies. Look at the crash of flight TWA-800, for example. There will never be an answer that will satisfy everyone hurt by the tragedy. Prolonging the period of anger and denying the process of healing to the families and friends is turning into yet another tragedy for the peoples around the Baltic Sea. These few weeks have turned upside-down the lives of so many people who have begun to heal and move on. Their testaments to the media are heart-breaking.

Some will immediately accuse me of speaking out because I did not lose many family members or friends in the tragedy. True, I did not know many people on board the ferry that night, however, one of my personal heroes was indeed a victim of the tragedy. And I do not want his grave disturbed, just like I do not want my father's disturbed. The grave is a sacred place, and the living should have enough respect for the dead to adhere to that. There are many people who should be ashamed of themselves, even if they convince themselves they are seekers of truth. What they seek is controversy, with no respect to the living of the dead.

Mel Huang, 21 September 2000

Moving on:


Seán Hanley

Andrew Kotas
Steel Structures

Jan Čulík
Czech Depression

Andrew Stroehlein
Online Journalism

Mark Preskett
Moldova's Bad Luck

Gusztáv Kosztolányi
Fuelling Hungary

Mel Huang
Grave Diving

Sarah Whitmore
Ukraine's Constitution

Wojtek Kość
Jerzy Giedroyc (1906-2000)

Benjamin Halligan
Miloš Forman

Sam Vaknin
Dreamworld and Catastrophe

Press Reviews:
Oliver Craske
UK: Velvet Demonstrations?

Andrew Mrozek
Left Hanging

Culture Calendar:


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