On Erasmus Zinking’s coffin there is an impersonal phrase, in Spanish, that means little to his family in Cameroon. “You have been love and joy for all your family. You will always live in our hearts. We love you, your relatives,” reads the text, which contains dates of birth and death: December 18, 1992 – February 15, 2023.
The date of death also resonates with the date The biggest tragedy for migrants crossing the Darien Forest between Colombia and Panama. The message on the casket is a symbol of frustration for his family who, five months later, are still fighting to get the remains home.
The last time Jude Zinking spoke to his brother was on February 14, 2023. Erasmus, a lawyer and the youngest in a Cameroonian family, was at the Lajas Blancas de Darién (ERM) immigration reception station in Panama after crossing the jungle. On the phone, he told her that the next day he would take a bus authorized by the Panamanian government to take the migrants to the north of the country, on the border with Costa Rica.
Having escaped from the jungle, Erasmus felt closer to the United States, where his brother Jude was already. It is a longing similar to the thousands of immigrants who cross this dangerous road This year alone, 200,000 people crossed.
The vehicle left for the Los Blanes Immigration Reception Station (ERM), in the town of Gualaca, in the province of Chiriqui. Upon arriving at dawn, however, it crashed, for reasons that remain obscure. 39 people died, 37 of them immigrants of different nationalities and two Panamanians.
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Now 31 immigrants from Venezuela, Ecuador and Colombia, including survivors and relatives of the deceased, are grouped in two court cases, one demanding payment of the bus insurance fee and the other against the Panamanian government. Janeth Vasquez, the attorney defending this group, said the car was crowded, had a capacity of 44 people and was carrying 66 people. “Everything indicated it was a mechanical failure,” Vasquez says.
Two weeks ago, a group of survivors participated in the reconstruction of the accident and gave clues before continuing on their way. The defense is awaiting the results of the experts and the progress of the economic mediation with the insurance company. “The government’s treatment of the migrants has been disastrous. There are still three migrants from this incident in a shelter and it is difficult for them to treat them as victims.”
Relatives of the Haitians who died in the accident gave power of attorney to a lawyer, but did not become plaintiffs. Alone, there are Africans, like Jude. For him, the first from Cameroon to immigrate to the United States, everything has been chaotic and depressing ever since. “The way the Panamanian government handled my brother’s body and handled the situation was inhumane, without compassion. I went through a lot of paperwork, about 45 days to get to Erasmus’ body and found that they didn’t keep it,” he says.
When the accident occurred, no one confirmed whether Erasmus was among the injured or dead. As best he could, he contacted the Department of State, Immigration, and local hospitals. But he did not dare to do so with his embassy, for fear of being persecuted by the government, he said. My brother has been involved in politics in our country, as there is armed conflict in the English-speaking regions. He is captured and attacked. When they released him, he felt it was time to leave because his life was threatened and so he went through the jungle, ”says Jude over the phone. Days passed until the Cameroonian embassy in Brasília (Brazil) published a statement confirming the death of two Cameroonians who were on the bus.
Still, silence followed, Judd says. Weeks later, he received a call from the Panamanian government: he had until March 14 to carry out the necessary procedures and return his brother’s remains to Cameroon. In the heat of the duel he had to prove his kinsman, and as he could not find a lawyer to represent him, he rented the funeral home, Memorial International, who gave him power of attorney to claim his brother and repatriate him.
The problem is, the remains were in such a state of decomposition that the airlines wouldn’t accept them. Judd claims it was improper storage of the corpse. My problem is with the government, which did not preserve the body and handed it over to the funeral home when it was already decomposing. By then, he says, he had already paid $7,500 in repatriation attempts.
The hardest part was telling his parents that the youngest member of the family was buried in a cemetery in Panama and without their traditions. Judd insists that they get them back and that someone give them answers for all the money they paid. “My brother didn’t choose to die. The government of Panama decided to take the migrants on those buses and pay, it’s not that they took them for free.”
The cause of the accident has not yet been determined, says the prosecutor in the case, Melissa Navarro, that no one has been formally linked and that there has been an official burial for 13 people who died in the accident who have not been identified or claimed. The prosecutor explains that this is not the case of the young Cameroonian, who was arranged directly with the funeral home. Our job as a public ministry was to collect and identify the dead bodies. “We do not deal with airline policies,” he added. Until closing, the funeral home did not respond to questions sent by this newspaper.
Five months after the incident that marked the emigration to Panama, the Erasmus family is still in limbo. “My life has never been the same since that day. I spent over a month trying to get his body from the government and they had no communication or sympathy which made me depressed. Erasmus was my only brother.”
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