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‘Pain is dulled but I will never forget’

Simon Bugeja, the sole survivor of the 2008 Simshar tragedy, attempted to kill himself five times to end his misery. Ahead of the release of the film based on his story, he tells Ariadne Massa it took four years for him to regain a semblance of normality.

Simon Bugeja, left, on the set of Simshar with actor Lotfi Abdelli, who plays him in the filmSimon Bugeja, left, on the set of Simshar with actor Lotfi Abdelli, who plays him in the film

Simon Bugeja sits on a wooden chest staring blankly out of the window, absently caressing his four-month-old son sitting quietly on his lap, as if grasping his father’s reflective mood.

Snapping out of his daydream, Mr Bugeja’s face wrinkles with a half-smile, his face wizened by years out in the sea and sun, and his blonde locks greyed.

The past six years have aged the 40-year-old man who made headlines when he survived seven days at sea without food and water after an explosion on his fishing vessel, Simshar, on July 11, 2008.

The tragedy left four people dead: Mr Bugeja’s father, Karmenu, 61; Noel Carabott, 33; and Somali Abdulrahman Abdala Gedi, 21. The body of Mr Bugeja’s 11-year-old son Theo was never found.

The mysterious circumstances surrounding the tragedy inspired Rebecca Cremona to shoot a film, also called Simshar, that will premiere next Sunday, opening the floodgates of emotions for Mr Bugeja and his wife Sharin.

“I don’t think I want to watch the film,” he says, fearing it will resurrect painful emotions.

Mr Bugeja has lived with the twisted pain and solitude of being at the bottom of a precipice and after the media spotlight shifted elsewhere he was left grappling – and failing – to come to terms with the loss of his son, father, colleagues and livelihood.

He confesses that he tried to kill himself five times, praying to Our Lady to end his misery.

It took four years of antidepressants, sleeping pills and intense therapy for him to regain a semblance of normality.

Tattooed on the inside of each wrist are two inscriptions that sum up the painful healing process: Theo li tani l-ħajja (Theo who gave me hope to live), and Aidan ngħix għalik (Aidan I live for you).

Sitting at his kitchen table, flanked by his 38-year-old wife, and film director Ms Cremona, Mr Bugeja agrees to give one interview to recount his story six years on.

The man has divided people’s emotions because so many questions remain unanswered and the inquiry had remained inconclusive, even though it lent credence to Mr Bugeja’s account.

The inquiry, conducted by maritime expert Ann Fenech, had highlighted four areas that cast some doubt on Mr Bugeja’s recollections, but failed to seriously challenge the most important parts of the sole survivor’s evidence.

The lack of clear answers further fuelled hearsay, but Mr Bugeja quietly shrugs off this antagonism, and refuses to get sucked into the conspiracy theories.

“I encounter many of these people, but it’s easy to pass judgement on others.

“They don’t understand or appreciate what we’ve been through... I don’t hold it against them but I pray for them,” he says.

The film, which is dedicated to Theo, taps into one of the conspiracy theories that Mr Bugeja was fishing illegally when the explosion happened, but he flatly denies this.

“I had a monotonous life. I didn’t do anything different that time. Who on earth would take their son and father, or anybody else they treasure, and put their lives at risk?” he asks.

Ms Cremona points out that when she wrote the script she saw several interesting themes, especially the restrictive tuna quotas imposed on fishermen, and weaved them into the plot.

And although she collaborated with the family on the film, Mr Bugeja had never mentioned anything about tuna.

The film, a slick combination of true events and fiction, does highlight a very real problem Mr Bugeja encountered that persists to this day – nobody will applaud you for rescuing people out at sea.

Simon Bugeja speaking to Times of Malta shortly after the dramatic rescue in 2008. Photo: Darrin Zammit LupiSimon Bugeja speaking to Times of Malta shortly after the dramatic rescue in 2008. Photo: Darrin Zammit Lupi

“Several ships passed us by when our boat exploded and I have no doubt they saw us.

Several ships passed us by when our boat exploded and I have no doubt they saw us

“At times we would tell Gedi to duck underwater so that we would not be confused with immigrants, but nothing worked,” he says, adding that if only one had stopped, everybody would have been saved.

Although saddened by what happened, Mr Bugeja is resigned to accepting this reality: “It doesn’t pay you to rescue people out at sea.”

Two years before the tragedy, Mr Bugeja had rescued 31 irregular immigrants who were stranded out at sea and when he came ashore he was repeatedly questioned by police on suspicion of human trafficking.

“I had my mobile phone taken and I lost two weeks of work because I had to keep going to the police station to answer questions,” he says.

Focusing on the big framed photo of Theo, which has pride of place on the fireplace, Mr Bugeja admits how hard it was to deal with questions of “what if”, let alone understand what his wife was going through.

This drove a wedge between the couple, who were teenage sweethearts, and they separated for a few months soon after the tragedy.

Ms Bugeja says: “It was an extremely painful time for us and we couldn’t seem to understand each other but thanks to the Neocatechumenal Way, he grasped the suffering I was facing as a mother and it helped bring us back together.”

Mr Bugeja admits he only turned to this organisation within the Catholic Church when he had nothing more to lose and was desperately seeking a lifebuoy.

He laughs as he remembers how he would tell his father, who was a member of this organisation for nine years, that he was crazy when he sang hymns when they were out at sea, or reprimand him for swearing.

“I guess you have to first hit rock bottom before you open your mind and find God. I followed my father’s footsteps because I wanted to discover what was wrong with me,” he says.

For months after the tragedy Mr Bugeja tormented himself with questions, often waking up in a sweat to realise he was doomed to relive his nightmares.

Making peace with his feelings of guilt and loss was a huge challenge but he lauds the Neocatechumenal organisation for helping his family face the crisis head on.

“When I moved closer to God I found strength. I was so selfish that all I could see was my pain, not my wife’s... I now compare her pain to that suffered by Our Lady of Sorrows, except Sharin never had the chance to hold her dead son.”

The fact Theo’s body was never found cheats the family of closure, but Ms Bugeja wonders if it would have been a bigger blow to see him dead.

“I think the Lord spared me. I could be saying this to console myself but that is how I feel,” she says, adding that, unlike her husband, she had shunned tranquilisers because they made life a blur.

The only thing that helped her cope was their younger son Aidan, who was just five when the incident happened.

For years the boy refused to let his parents out of his sight and it was only two weeks ago that he felt safe enough to return to sleeping in his own bed.

“Before, he was so anxious he slept with us. He’d ask lot of questions nobody could answer. He was too scared, but he doesn’t speak about his fears,” Ms Bugeja says.

Aidan is especially watchful over his mother, always ready to protect her from any harm. Whenever the trailer of Simshar flashed on TV in the past days, his eyes always focused on his mother as he tried to read her emotions, quick to change channels if he felt the moment was too painful.

Mr Bugeja adds: “He’s had to grow up quickly. It pains him to see his mother cry.

“When he had a minor operation he didn’t want her by his side because she ‘has suffered enough’.”

The loss of their eldest son is tangible and Mr Bugeja says that whenever he walks into the house the first things he seeks are what he does not have: his son and his father.

The couple tried to make some minor changes to the house to obliterate some of the memories that kept popping up, but nothing could achieve that.

It took more than 18 months to venture back into Theo’s room and start moving things around. They painted the walls a different colour, changed the bed cover, but left his pillow.

“The pain is dulled but you can never forget,” he says.

Apart from the emotional turmoil, his finances were affected. Since he was not in a position to go out to sea his licence was taken away by the authorities and if his wife had not sought work “we would have starved”.

I don’t think I want to watch the film

Her income – coupled with the charity of the organisation and fellow fishermen who donated supplies and helped raise funds – helped prop up the family.

Did living in such a tightly knit community work in Mr Bugeja’s favour or did the fishermen turn against him?

“To better understand the situation you have to appreciate the life we share out at sea – this is what unites us,” he says, adding that the way fishermen’s vulnerability was exposed out on the open seas created a bond.

What prolonged Mr Bugeja’s pain was the inability to find work and ironically it was the film Simshar that led him to his current job, captaining a supply boat.

“The Lord sent me my father in the form of Jimi Busuttil [who plays the part of his father in the film]... I now love him nearly as much as my father,” he says.

The two met on set and Mr Busuttil was so moved by Mr Bugeja’s story that he promised him he would give him a job the next day.

Mr Bugeja returned home excited by the prospect but not fully believing Mr Busuttil would deliver on his promise – too many had been broken in the past.

But the next morning, at 8.30am, he received a phone call from the 64-year-old man who invited him to go for a trial run. He got the job on the spot.

Mr Bugeja was thrilled to be back at sea – “I was practically born at sea and I want to be buried out at sea” – even though now he now no longer goes off for days on end.

“I’m still mad about the sea. When I’m out on the boat and it’s stormy I have a conversation with Theo, asking why he’s so angry and urging him to calm the waves.

“I pray for him. I feel his presence all the time, especially when I’m out at sea; I feel he and my father are watching out for me.”

Contrary to her husband, Ms Bugeja is now scared of the sea and she refuses to even go swimming. One of her biggest fears is that Aidan will want to join his father’s profession and although she knows it would be hard to stop him, she does her utmost to steer him away from the lure of the water.

Theo and Aidan were both passionate about the sea and they would spend hours along the coastline catching crabs.

They would then organise crab ‘races’ along the streets of Marsaxlokk, much to the consternation of villagers, who sometimes mistook them for cockroaches.

Aidan is now looking forward to playing with Teyron, the brother he never dreamed he was would ever have after losing Theo.

“Theo can never be replaced but Teyron has injected us with fresh hope, he has helped us refocus our pain and filled us with joy,” Ms Bugeja says.

Simshar, the film

Produced by Kukumajsa Productions, the film Simshar is rooted in one of the biggest tragedies in Malta in recent years.

It recalls the dramatic events in the summer of 2008 when the fishing boat Simshar blew up. Its crew of four and a young boy who was with them survived, but one by one they succumbed to the sea and the scorching sun.

Simon Bugeja was the only survivor and he was rescued – barely alive – after an inten-sive search.

Written by Rebecca Cremona and David Grech, and directed by Ms Cremona, Simshar is feature-length fiction film that is aimed for a worldwide audience.

Ms Cremona, 30, started working on this project soon after she met the Bugeja family in December 2008.

The film was shot over 29 days between November 2012 and April 2013 and filmed entirely on location in Malta: at the Mediterranean Film Studios water tanks, in open water and on 21 locations around the island.

Combining local and international talent and crew, Simshar is the first Maltese feature of this scale and scope, making it a groundbreaking work for the fledgling indigenous film industry.

More than 20 nationalities were involved in making the film, with three quarters of the crew made up of Maltese. Mr Bugeja plays a small role, as do several refugees and African migrants living in Malta.

Shot in Maltese and English, the film stars both local and foreign actors, with Tunisian award-winning Lotfi Abdelli playing the lead role of Simon Bugeja.

Simshar was a beneficiary of the Malta Film Fund and the financial incentives offered by the Malta Film Commission.

The Simshar tragedy and film will be the main topic of discussion on Times Talk, presented by Times of Malta on TVM this Tuesday at 6.55pm.

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