Satish Sweraj: “When I go to court, they look at me and I see no remorse in their eyes.”

Avec le soutien de
Satish Sweraj, father of Shaymal, who died at Le Domaine de Chazal four years ago.

Satish Sweraj, father of Shaymal, who died at Le Domaine de Chazal four years ago.

It was the most painful interview I have carried out in my whole career. I met a father who, four years ago, buried his only son and has stopped living since. We had to stop the interview several times as the interviewee was overcome with emotions. It is the story of a family who went out for a day at Le Domaine de Chazal and came back with one member less. Read his story and apportion the responsibility…

You lost your son in the most dreadful conditions four years ago but you refused to talk about it publicly. There has been a second death since in more or less similar circumstances. Today, you decided to talk to the press. Why this change of heart?
I initially refused to talk as there was a judicial inquiry so I was told to wait until it’s over. It has been going on since.

Has there been any progress since?
I was summoned at the end of last year on three occasions and it was the first opportunity for me to talk about what happened. It was a moment I had to wait nearly four years for. I have decided to talk because I am mortified with guilt. My son lost his life due to carelessness. It wasn’t an accident. 

Is the sense of guilt you are feeling in relation to the death of Akilesh Gopalsing, who died in similar circumstances in the same place?
Yes. He died in almost the same way and he was meted out the same treatment as we were. His family was left on their own on that day just as we were. I vividly recall when the tragedy occurred at around 11.30 and my wife and I were roaming in the jungle for hours: no help, no signs, nobody came to our rescue. Put yourself in our shoes: we fleetingly overheard a phone conversation where a guide was told that our son and probably our daughter too had drowned, the guide ran off immediately and we were left trying to find out what had happened in the middle of the jungle, the cascades, forest etc. We had no idea where to go or how to get there. So when I heard about Akilesh’s death and read the details in the press, I could see that his family went through the same ordeal. I managed to identify many shortcomings which I should have made public earlier. That would have avoided a second tragedy. That is what I am feeling guilty about.

If I understand properly, you were on one side of the zip line while your son and daughter were on the other side…
Yes, my daughter had come here from Toulouse, where she was doing her master’s, to enjoy some quality time with the family and we happened upon this trip on the internet and we booked it. And we went there together as a family. But as you know, I have had a bypass for three blocked arteries, so I thought it would be too risky for me to go on the zip line. So my wife also stayed with me at the lobby. The children decided to go zip lining and we accompanied them until the final zip line.

Explain to us the procedure for zip lining please…
One guide on this side pushes the client towards the other guide and the latter catches him. 

“My brother-in-law got stuck in the middle of the zip line and it became V-shaped. So the guide tried to shake it, which made things worse.”

Did this happen without any incident?
No. As a matter of fact, my brother-in-law, who also went with us with his family, got stuck in the middle of the zip line and it became V-shaped. So the guide tried to shake it, which made things worse. Plan B was for the guide to use a rope and go and pull my brother-in-law back to safety, which was never going to work. So both my brother-in-law and the guide remained hanging on the rope. So, a tourist and I had to go to another platform nearer to the end of the zip line and we helped pull them back to safety. This was the harbinger of things to come.

And what happened from that point on?
From there on, my children went with the group and one guide to partake in the other activities advertised on the website, such as walking and swimming in the various ponds and cascades. As this was going to take a long time, we went back to the reception and waited. Suddenly, we overheard the guide talking on the phone, basically repeating what the person at the other end was saying, “Kin arrive? Sa garson mauricien la ek so ser in noyer?” (What happened? The Mauritian boy and his sister have drowned?) Then he darted out and left us right there with no information and as there was no network, we had no way of contacting anyone. There was no transport. The only jeep available was on the other side of the zip line. There was no road and no road signs. On one side, there is the cascade and the gorges and on the other side, there are sugarcane fields. So for two hours, we had no idea where to go and there was no network. We were shouting and crying. I was even prepared to jump into the river and swim until I found the lake they were talking about but I could not leave my wife alone. After about two hours of agony, we finally made our way to the reception. 

How did you find your way to the reception?
By getting lost and taking a different route every time. There was nothing to guide us. It’s a complete jungle.  

Did the receptionists help you find the way to where your children were?
No, the two old ladies there didn’t know the way themselves. They were cooks in fact. 

What about the owner?
The ladies told me they had called him and that he should be coming soon. 

Later you talked to your daughter and brother-in-law. What did they say was happening on the other side when you were going crazy trying to find them?
My daughter told me she couldn’t call us as there was no network so she climbed up a tree and at some point she managed to get us and tell us, “Papa, Shyam in noyer!” I learnt later that Shyam had asked the guide if he could go for a swim and the latter agreed. My son is tall and the water was just below his knees so he wanted to go a bit further in to take a dip. After a few seconds, he told his sister, “Mo pe noyer.” The lake apparently becomes deep abruptly. So my daughter first tried to pull her brother out and then my brother-in-law and an Irish tourist jumped into the river and started trying to pull him into safety. 

What was the guide doing at that time?
He was just standing there. My daughter screamed for him to come and help and he replied, “Mo pa kon nazer.” So for some 15 minutes, my daughter, brother-in-law and the Irish gentleman were trying to save my son but they couldn’t. Then they lost sight of him as he sank into the muddy water. 

“We overheard the guide talking on the phone, basically repeating what the person at the other end was saying, ‘Kin arrive? Sa garson mauricien la ek so ser in noyer?’”

Still no news from the guide?
No news. He seemed stunned. He had a rope with him and when my daughter asked him to throw it in, he answered, “Me lin fini noyer. Ki nou pou al roder a ceter?” So my daughter asked him to at least phone the police. He said he had no network. So for three hours, she was running up the mountain trying to get network to be able to contact us and we were without news of either of them. This was the hardest thing for us. In the end, my daughter managed to get the police and when they came, I thought I was finally going to go with them and see my children but the police themselves could not go there as there were no roads. So they went back to the police station and we were again on our own. Then, around 3.30 p.m., we saw Drishta coming, drenched and without shoes. I let you imagine the scene. 

What about the owner of Le Domaine de Chazal, did he come in the end?
Yes. I saw him pop into his office but he never came to see us. Then my brother-in-law and the rest of the family came to meet us but we couldn’t do anything. My son was in the water somewhere but we had no means to get to him out. 

Then how did you take your son’s body home?
We didn’t. I phoned a friend of mine who is a coroner and he told me there was nothing I could do, to go home and let him take care of everything. So I took what was left of my family and drove back home. On the way back, we were told they had found the body and taken it to the morgue. 

Did you have to go back there for the reconstruction of events?
Yes, unfortunately. It was one of the worst experiences of our lives for us and for my daughter who had to go back to Toulouse the next day for her studies. The police forced her to go into the water and show them what had happened. So we relived the tragedy once more together. This was made worse by the fact that we were made to wait for one hour for the owner who never came. 

Did you notice any changes when you went to Le Domaine de Chazal for the reconstruction of events?
Yes, roads were being repaired and warning signs had been put up on all the trees. Not a single warning sign had been there when my son lost his life. Now there were signs everywhere and people were being warned not to swim. 

Did you manage to get in touch with the group of people who were there that day?
I tried. When I went to the Domaine de Chazal, I looked in the registration book where everyone signs and to my surprise, the pages for that fateful day and the eve had been torn out! I told the police about that. I was hoping there would be a police investigation but nothing came out of it. 

What about the Irish tourist you mentioned earlier? Did you get in touch with him?
He was the one who got in touch with me. He was supposed to leave the next day but he postponed his departure and came to the funeral with his wife and daughter. We are still in touch with him and he said he would come anytime we need him as a witness. It wasn’t an accident. It was criminal negligence. There were so many shortcomings. We all saw that. 

Tell us about the shortcomings?
The company is interested only in profit. There were only two guides taking care of a large group of 19 people. In fact, there was only one on each side of the zip line. Besides, they don’t seem to be experienced or well prepared, nor to know what to do when things go wrong, which is bound to happen in a place like that.  One of the guides supervising the outing admitted he didn’t even know how to swim so how was he supposed to help anyone. I am not even sure the owner even had a licence at the time. Besides, there were no signs to alert people to the various dangers there. Worse, there is no accessibility. If someone feels sick, how do you get him out of there and how do you reach a hospital? I asked myself, assuming they managed to get my son out of the pond alive, how would they have got him to the hospital?

Four years later, what are your feelings?
I feel a deep sense of guilt as because of the grief and the judicial inquiry, I didn’t talk about the shortcomings. I know what I have been through as a father and I don’t wish that upon anyone. 

What would you like to say to the parents and relatives who have lost one of their own in the same way you lost your son?
For them I have no words. It is a shattering experience and unfortunately, it doesn’t get better. When I am having breakfast, I can still see my son across the table from me. I have been on a lot of medication but the pain is still the same. And I am still asking myself how it all happened. We are responsible parents so how did this happen in front of our eyes and we didn’t see it coming?

Who should give you the answers?
The owner of the Domaine de Chazal. He is the one ultimately responsible. Had he taken the necessary measures, our son would have been alive today. And up until now, not a phone call, not a note, no nothing. When I go to court, they look at me and I see no remorse in their eyes. I will continue to fight. I am not going to get my son back but I don’t want another father to go through what I am going through. 

How far are you in your fight?
It has taken four years already and it is only now that the hearings have started. When are the deliberations going to take place? When are those responsible for my son’s death going to be held to account? I don’t know. What I do know is that someone else has sadly lost his life unnecessarily. It is one death too many!  

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