According to reports, Abou was just 15 years old when he died on Monday. A migrant from Ivory Coast, he was rescued by the Open Arms ship in September and spent 12 days quarantining on the ferry Allegra off Palermo. Now questions are being asked about his death. An investigation is underway in Sicily.
On Tuesday, October 6, a candlelit vigil was held in Sicily’s main city Palermo for Abou, a 15-year-old Ivorian who died in hospital there on Monday.
An activist in the field of migrant rights tweeted pictures of the event and explained why people had turned out to commemorate him. "This evening, in Palermo, we will pull Abou into that hug that we didn’t know to give him earlier. Abou, from the Ivory Coast was 15 years old. No, we won't give up," said Alessandro Luparello on his Twitter feed.
"Lots of us were there for you, with candles, with tears and with our voices," continued Luparello in a tweet later that evening. Luparello said that they didn't just want to cry for Abou, but also understand why he had died, find his family and get the rest of the minors off the quarantine ships as soon as possible.
It is a sentiment that is echoed by Alessandra Puccio, a sociologist and the voluntary tutor (social worker) who was assigned by the Youth Tribunal (Tribunale dei Minori) in Palermo to look after Abou’s case. According to the newspaper Secolo d’Italia, she said that when she arrived at the hospital in Palermo, it was already too late to speak to Abou as he had had a tube inserted into his throat to help him breathe.
Puccio told Il Secolo d’Italia on Tuesday: "I regret the fact that I couldn't speak to him by the time I arrived. I want to get to the bottom of this case and why it happened. They told me that for days on board the Allegra quarantine ferry there was just one doctor for 600 migrants. Today another one arrived."
According to events reported in several Italian newspapers, including La Repubblica’s Palermo edition, Abou spent 12 days in quarantine on board the Allegra, moored off Palermo. He had been rescued by the Spanish-flagged humanitarian rescue ship Open Arms towards the beginning of September.
Rescued by Open Arms
Open Arms Italy in conjunction with the medical charity Emergency issued a press release on October 6 to give "some more details about Abou’s state of health whilst he was on board Open Arms."
The statement says Abou was picked up on September 10 by Open Arms. According to the doctor from Emergency who was on board the Open Arms, "Abou didn’t display any particular symptoms. Apart from hunger and malnutrition, which was the case of most of those on board the boat."
The press release continues: "On September 17, at around 9 pm, Abou developed a fever and a strong pain in his lumbar spine. He was taken into the boat’s clinic and tested for COVID-19, which it turned out he didn’t have. The medical staff re-hydrated him intravenously. They gave him paracetamol and antibiotics, thinking that the cause of his infection could be a urinary tract infection. When he left the clinic, his fever had receded."
According to the medical staff, the marks on his body were not consistent with torture, or at least recent torture. They said that a friend of his acted as an interpreter and said that the scars on his limbs "dated from his childhood."
Because of language problems, however, Emergency said that all communication went via this friend in French. On September 18, says the press release, Abou still had a light fever but seemed to be generally better. The doctor gave him some more antibiotics and more re-hydration and also administered an ultrasound to his abdomen which didn’t find anything abnormal. They tested him once again for COVID-19, and again he was negative.
Abou was kept under observation for two hours, he didn’t show any particular signs of discomfort and asked for something to eat. At 2 pm on that day he was transferred to the Allegra ferry with his drip (for re-hydration) still attached. The Emergency doctor passed on his report on Abou’s condition and the checks carried out to the Red Cross doctor on board the Allegra.
According to Emergency, when Abou transferred to the Allegra "he seemed to be feeling better. He walked on to the transfer rib without assistance and communicated with staff and the other young boys on board."
The details from the Emergency Press release stop after that and Italian newspapers take up the next stage in an attempt to reconstruct what happened to Abou.
As Emergency stated, Abou was transferred on to the Allegra on September 18. He was transferred off on September 30 after being visited by two doctors on September 28 and 29. The day after being transferred to hospital, Abou fell into a coma. Two days after he was transferred to a second hospital in Palermo, due to lack of space in the first, he died.
'Signs of torture'?
According to La Repubblica, Abou was suffering from malnutrition and had "lots of signs of torture on his body." "The doctor only realized this on September 28," his tutor Puccio said, "but by then it was too late."
According to Puccio, "Psychologists and mediators tried to communicate with him before the medical intervention but he refused to talk."
"Abou’s story is extremely sad," said Rosario Lio, the coordinator of the voluntary tutors for unaccompanied minors in the Palermo area, to Repubblica. The tutors are there to try and help unaccompanied migrant children find their way to a study program or work and to make sure that they have a home and can navigate the bureaucracy.
Sadly, as the Repubblica journalist Salvo Palazzolo points out, "Abou died before anyone could find out what his dreams were, let alone before he was given the chance to realize them. No one even ever understood why he had decided to remain silent."
The Emergency press release concludes by saying their organization and Open Arms are "hugely pained by Abou’s death and we would like to find out the reasons why. The people we rescue tend to display various health problems, or have suffered abuse or violence, and then often wait for days at sea."
Emergency reiterates the fact that "it is important to be given a safe port as soon as possible and to spend the least time possible in quarantine in structures which are adequate for the purpose and where their rights are respected."
Other activists at Abou’s vigil in Palermo held up signs which said "borders kill."
Raffaella Cosentino, a former human rights reporter and now a reporter with the Italian national broadcaster Rai in Sicily, said on Twitter that even though Abou had "survived Libya and the sea, the infinite wait reserved exclusively for migrants" had eventually killed him.
Her report for Rai on Wednesday was posted on Facebook.
Cosentino added that the prosecutors in Palermo were now investigating his death and that an autopsy was expected to be conducted on Wednesday on Abou's body.