An African refugee drowns in Venice's canal while onlookers shout insults


A young Gambian man threw himself in Venice's Grand Canal on Sunday January 22, probably in a bid to commit suicide. Onlookers travelling on the public transport boats filmed him with their smartphones, while some people shouted insults and racist jibes at the dying man. No one jumped in to save him.

Videos of the drowning circulated on social media, sparking controversy. In the video the man can be seen bobbing in the waters of the Grand Canal, clearly unable to keep his head above the water. Hundreds of people watched the scene, with some filming. In one of the videos, someone can be heard shouting, "Africa! Africa!", and someone also shouts, "Throw him the life jackets!"

Two buoys are thrown to the man from one of the boats, and the man in the water flails an arm helplessly — whether to try to grab on to a buoy or not, it is impossible to say. Italian media said that the man was trying to commit suicide.

The team at France 24's The Observers has made the decision not the publish videos of the incident in respect for the victim. We have only published a screengrab from one of the videos.

"Let him die"

Passengers on the boats shout insults at the man, "Piece of shit", "Go back home", "Let him die!", "He's stupid, he wants to die".

A second video, filmed from another angle, captures a conversation between tourists as the man is drowning. Some of them say that they want to jump into the water while others stop them, saying that it is too dangerous.

When emergency services arrive moments later, the man is already dead.

The man was later identified in Italian media as Pateh Sabally, 22 years old, from Gambia. He fled his country into Italy, where he has held refugee status for two years. He only arrived in Venice, where he had travelled from Milan, that same day.

An investigation underway

"I don't want to accuse anyone, but maybe something more could have been done to save him," Dino Basso, the director of the local  lifeboat and sea rescue organisation Société nationale de sauvetage, told the newspaper Corriere del Veneto. According to him, the water in the canal would be around 5 degrees celsius – making it useless throwing a buoy to the man, as he would have been paralysed by the cold and unable to grab hold of it. He also added that a lifeguard was about to jump in before being distracted by a woman on one of the boats who shouted that the drowning man was only "pretending". "By the time he had checked, [the man] had disappeared," he explained.

"It gives pause for thought. This wasn't a shipwreck, but a death in a canal, in front of hundreds of people," wrote Francesca Zaccariotto, head of construction and public works in Venice, on her Facebook page. The city's prosecutor has opened an investigation into the public drowning.

A Facebook event to pay tribute to the young man has been organised for January 27 in the city.