Stop conferring citizenship on the dead, start giving rights to the living.

Dall'Eritrea Dall'Eritrea

I was born under the heel of the Ethiopian dictatorship in my country Eritrea, and arrived in Italy in 1992. Not in a boat, but comfortably seated in an aircraft; I left with a regular visa. While power was being concentrated in the hands of a few, and mutual suspicion was growing in the eyes of many, I decided, having been warned by those signs of a war that was growing from the ashes of another one, with fortune on my side and a father in Italy, to try and see what is the destiny of free men. When you are allowed to say what you think, to decide what life you will lead, make your choices without having a gun to your head. I left one Eritrea behind and I found one million and a half, far from Asmara. They crossed the desert on foot, the sea on leaky boats, in the sights of machine guns always ready to shoot. Fugitives escaping from a regime that with one hand keeps them in chains, with the other leads them to the frontier. There are members of the Eritrean government that are involved in the traffic in human beings. Their names have been written, black on white, by the UN, maybe no one has read them. In that corner of the desert that is my country, where we had already celebrated the Liberation in 1991, the battle has never been over. After a history written with 30 years of war and three hundred thousand dead who had fought for the Independence, without knowing that they would win it at the price of liberty, the conflict between Eritrea and Ethiopia was concluded in 2000. Thirteen years have passed and four million and a half people think that the war is still on. “We are under attack”, says the regime. “Ethiopia is about to invade us”, says the voice of the one State television station. “Take up your weapons, men and women, from 18 years of age until death”, says the dictator, for whom that frontier that no one has ever erected is a shield and an excuse. The UN has written it, black on white, maybe no one has read it. In Eritrea today, if your son has escaped, either you pay or you are thrown into prison. If you do not practise the official religion, either you pay or you are thrown into prison. If you are a dissident, you go to prison. If you are a conscientious objector, you stay in prison. The regime finances and trains Somali shababs in Eritrea. The UN has also written this, black on white, in a dossier, maybe no one has ever read it. 

Sometimes I receive questions from those from whom I would like a reply. I told the Italian government: “Stop conferring citizenship on the dead, start giving rights to the living”. Stop all this salam halek in front of a bloodthirsty tyrant. There is a UN dossier that speaks of the not-too-limpid relations between Italy and Eritrea. Names have been put down, black on white, maybe no one has read them. I told the European government. “If you really want to help them, start from their country of origin”. There is a more blind person than he who does not want to see and that is he who has already seen. If the West writes treatises and is also finding ways of getting round them, it would be better to stop publishing these dead letters of yours altogether. “Five hundred irregular Africans died while trying to reach Italy”, said the regime seven days after October 3rd. They didn’t call them “sons”, they didn’t call them “fellow citizens”. And when the eyes of the world spoke of an Eritrean massacre at sea, the voices of the supporters and financiers of the power machine decided that a little bit of the truth must appear. So the official voices of Eritrea in Italy, important figures of the State, emerged from their Chinese boxes of the political game and were officially invited by the Italian government to participate in the funeral ceremony at Agrigento. Two plus two always makes four, everywhere in the world. It wasn’t relatives of the dead, but sustainers of the regime from which the migrants had been fleeing, who placed fake flowers on their coffins. On the day of the State funeral there were also some young Eritreans present, born in Italy, Sweden, Germany, their heads bowed before the tragedy. These young people, second-generation Eritreans, a European cell indoctrinated by a dictator from whom others of their same age had been desperately fleeing, recited their part. That day they said they were relatives of the victims, instead of simply the victims’new and younger executioners. Brought up in the comfort of democratic Northern Europe, then trained every year in Asmara, living the high life in a land that for others is only dust and death, they believe in those who say you are the new kadri, the new hope for our land. Deceiving also authorities and institutions, bilingual or often trilingual, they pretend to be migrants, mingle with those waiting to apply for asylum, enter the reception centres and draw up lists of fugitives, then file them with a photograph, and send everything off to Asmara. Where the families that have remained behind will be threatened with death lists. This time I have written their names, but no one has read them.

Don Mussie Zerai is a Catholic priest born in Eritrea in 1975. He has lived in Rome since 1992. He has founded an association called Habeshia and helps fugitives who have managed to reach Europe. He is the only person in Italy to have given names to the collaborators of the regime who have filed refugees seeking asylum in Italy in order to keep a hold over families left behind in Eritrea. He has been attacked on various occasions for his declarations. He has never stopped making them.

Text and photograph: Michela A. G. Iaccarino / Fabrica