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Lampedusa, October 3rd, a year later

[twitter_share]Fabrica and UNHCR Italia remember the tragedy with a reading[/twitter_share]

At 3am, 500 people set off from Misurata, on the Libyan coast. The boat, Giraffa, was just 20 metres long with seven berths and one toilet. The men in command had called Libya at dawn to say that everything was all right, the journey had gone well and land was in sight. It only took a moment and a λαμπάς (torch) for the Giraffa to become the greatest tragedy ever to have taken place on Italian territory not in a time of war. Three hundred and sixty-eight perished, among them many children.

Close to the coast, water began to leak into the Giraffa. In order to attract attention, the men in command soaked a blanket with diesel and set it alight. Lampas, λαμπάς, a torch shining bright.

As the fire spread from the blanket to the deck, the scared migrants pressed themselves together, causing the heavy fishing vessel to overturn. The sea became an inferno of water and diesel. “The cries sounded like seagulls”, was the account of the first rescuers on the scene, a group of friends who had come together on their friend Vito’s boat that evening to relax and fish. The first to realize that people were in the water, they pulled out 47 people from the sea. Lampedusa is the first strip of Europe for migrants desperately seeking civilization, fleeing from poverty and war. It is a refuge for them, an island far away from the noise and traffic, where wind and sea hold sway for those who want to find nature again.

(From the book Lipadusa by Calogero Cammalleri. Texts of the video readings are by Michela A.G. Iaccarino. Video are in Italian)

Alfie Nze reads Zerit’s story

Lidia Schillaci reads the piece Lampedusa

 

 

Semret, sold and raped

Semret, 25 years old, is Eritrean. When 20 members of the religious congregation she was part of were arrested and imprisoned, Semret realized that she was in great danger and decided to turn to a smuggler to cross the few kilometers that separated her from the western frontier of Eritrea and get to Sudan. What Semret could not imagine was that her journey would turn out to be a long and terrible nightmare.

Semret fled at night, on foot, in the company of four fellow-nationals who like her were seeking a safe place to live. After walking all night, they reached Sudan and stopped to rest in a vast desert area next to the frontier. It was then that the woman was assailed by a terrible doubt, noticing that their smuggler was making telephone calls and making sure not to be heard. When the small group saw a jeep arriving with three men aboard, it was immediately clear what was happening: they had been betrayed and sold and the traffickers had come to pick up the goods they had just bought.

“We scattered in all directions,” she says , “I was the first to be caught. I tried to get away but they got hold of me again. At which point they beat me and dragged me to their vehicle.” Semret was taken to a small isolated village made up of a brick house and some huts made from straw and mud. She didn’t have anyone to pay her ransom so she remained there for months, at the mercy of her jailers, sinking deeper and deeper into a nightmare from which there was no awakening, in which sexual violence and beatings were the daily norm.

“They came to me any time they felt like it, sometimes they brought me a Cola and a piece of cake and that was how it went on for seven months. When I became pregnant they stopped locking the house and that was when I planned my escape.” Semret covered 40 kilometers on foot before reaching the town of Kassala where finally, thanks to the help of UNHCR she was given a dignified place to stay and above all a psychological support scheme to help her through the dramatic trauma she had undergone.

Today Semret lives in the Kassala refugee camp. Her daughter, who was born in January, she has called Heyabel, which means “Gift of God”.

“I left to avoid marrying my brother, now I help other displaced women”

Mwavita comes from the Democratic Republic of Congo and lives in a Tanzanian refugee camp where she is president of the direction committee. In the last 11 years almost three million people have escaped from the DRC because of the continual violence that has made life in the eastern part of the country impossible, but Mwavita’s story is another kind of escape story, another war, that blew up within the four walls of the house. She was a young girl of 14 when her parents told her that she had been adopted and ordered her to marry her brother. Mwavita couldn’t do that; her brother, even if not of the same blood, was still her brother, and she would never marry him. So what had until a moment before been her family showed themselves in all their true cruel colours: either she married who they said or she would be killed.

Mwavita decided that the only choice she had was to run away. She left her country and sought refuge in Tanzania. In the camp at Lugufu, where she had to re-start her life all over again, by herself, while the community in which she lived had become her new family, she began to show her qualities of leadership and soon with her character and courage had become a point of reference for the other refugee women living in the camp.

Mwavita has been the representative and leader of the refugee women for more than 12 years. “As their leader,” she says, ‘ I always listen to everybody, I organize meetings and share information with the others. I like it when everyone works together to resolve the problems of the community.”. Despite her success, she has had to continually fight against the cultural reservations that the male community have against women: “At meetings, even if I have a good idea, the men always say: Who cares what you think? You haven’t even been to school. So now I am trying hard to make the girls study so that they won’t have to go through what I’ve been through.”

“Believe in yourselves,” is Mwavita’s advice to the young girls listening to her, “I’m a leader above all because I felt that I could be one. In the same way, always remember to have faith in the community and treat everyone with respect because we are all human beings after all.”

Today Mwavita is 47 and is living in the camp at Nyarugusu, She works together with UNHCR, who are responsible for bringing her story to light, in creating emancipation strategies for refugee women.

Lassad in the Cie of Ponte Galeria: “In a lager with 41 euros a day”

It was December when in the Rome Ponte Galeria CIE protest suddenly turned to silence. A silence of black and green threads being pulled out of the issued blankets and thrust into flesh. A mute cry stopping any attempt to turn words into chat, forcing you at least to look, to ask yourself why.

In the CIE that day there was also Lassad, a Tunisian citizen who has lived in Italy for 22 years, who refused to turn his eyes away and who has tried to respond and tell what happened. Lassad’s life hasn’t been simple. He had been detained before Ponte Galeria, but if they had told him then that there was a place like this in Italy he wouldn’t have believed them. Lassad has decided to fight to have the Ponte Galeria CIE monitored, and was present on 28 March at the Lazio regional council offices to support a specific motion.

«I’ve been living in Italy for 22 years. Most of my life I’ve lived here. Lots of things have happened to me and I’ve done many things wrong, but I paid for everything. One day I was going back home with the shopping when I was stopped by the police: they asked me for my papers and then took me straight to Ponte Galeria, to that place you call a CIE. I woke up in the morning, it was cold, it was December and I found myself with thirteen men who had their lips sewn up in protest. Something like that leaves a mark, you don’t shake it off very easily. You realise that you are in a kind of concentration camp, a camp that exists because every life has a price. What do they give those who are inside? I think it’s 41 euros. Our lives are worth 41 euros. What is 41 euros, is it its value on the Stock Exchange, the size of a pair of shoes, calculated according to our weight, the space we occupy? I don’t know. Tell me why I can’t find the words to understand it. A price for our suffering. You’ve been inside, you saw first hand the product that is given a price. As for me, nothing surprises me, I feel as though I’m living in the Forties after hearing what they tell me and after what I’ve read. I can feel an icy wind from the right blowing strong and from all directions”.

“I don’t know what to say. The world is beautiful outside, as long as you don’t trample over the rights of the people next to you. I feel like a kind of fish out of water. I haven’t got a country any longer, I’m neither here nor there, where is my home in your opinion? And how can I forget those scenes, those screams… I was open-mouthed. These things I knew happened 70 years ago. And I think of History. It’s supposed to go down in books and be remembered, you have to give a knock and show the world you are there. Today I was at the Underground station of Rebibbia, near the prison, there were fine posters of people going over a wall and the words “All free”. Sure, I agree. And yet I hear so much rubbish being said, I hear people say that slavery has been abolished: I think great people like Abraham Lincoln would turn in their graves. How many centuries more do we have to wait before we don’t have to put a price on a human life? God creates a person and that person is bought and sold, is quoted on the market. Who could have imagined that we would end up like this?”

“It’s my lucky day today. I’m sitting in the chair of the President of the Region, I’ve met a lot of good people, what you are doing gives a sense to my life and yours. Otherwise we are all useless, we end up in a mean, miserable world. It’s thanks to people like you that I manage to sleep at night. You people are replacing Fanon. Do you know what he used to say? He said that in the world there are those who are for and those who are against, and the main cause is called racism. Maybe these are not fascist times yet but we have to be careful. We have to realise that diversity is a resource and we must be able to take advantage of it and listen, not brand it. Distrust is the mother of all the mistakes in the world. Sorry if I’m saying everything all confused, but this way I can say everything that I have inside me. I have escaped so many times in order to live, Ponte Galeria, Trapani, Regina Coeli and then Trapani again, I walked along a railway track for 80 miles in order to get as far away as possible from here. Then they caught me in Rome and that’s when I went off my head”.

“The time would never pass and I had to keep my head busy and so I began to count. The cage we were in had 206 bars, if you walked round the cage the lights made you go crazy, at night you couldn’t make out any colours, everything looked grey. And I went on counting: the length of the cage is 18 steps and a half, the corridor is 128 steps. Isn’t that enough for you? At night I hoped that they would turn off the lights so that I could see the stars, I can read them, I tried to make out The Great Bear and Orsa Minor instead of looking at the surveillance cameras that were everywhere. They tell me that a CIE is not a prison and they called us guests. But I was just a bloody number that they used to call me with every day. Is that what guests are? Why didn’t they just tattoo the number on me instead of talking about values that exist only on paper and that have nothing to do with us. I couldn’t believe it – there I was calmly walking along the street and I find myself in an open-air madhouse”.

“I also owe a lot to journalists, and some of them are here present. I heard that in 2011 the Minister of the Interior had issued a circular to stop you from entering: how come? Didn’t they want you to see what I had lived through? What all the others have lived through? Usually if a civil servant makes such a big mistake you go and check if he has made any other mistakes. Did that happen with this Minister? I don’t think so, because otherwise you could have adjusted the laws, changed them, filled them with values. But we are only objects, goods for business, and in between there is the economy which in my opinion is corrupt. It seems as if in Italy too many people are happy just to leave things as they are, but we are still in time to stop things getting worse, we can prevent further tragedies. Find a solution, you find it, let’s find it together, it’s not my fault that I am a Tunisian and that I was born on the wrong side of the Mediterranean.

It’s obvious that CIEs, these detention centres, don’t work, the doctor who spoke before me was right (Alberto Barbieri, of Medu ed.), he spoke of injustice and waste of money, of an institution that is useless. If others don’t understand that or don’t accept it, that’s not right. We’ll just go on producing more suffering for everybody, for those who are inside, for the relatives of those who are inside – many have wives and children in Italy – for all those who are afraid of being caught and locked up without having done anything wrong.”

“Life for people like me is a continuous Russian roulette that we can’t escape from. Let us lead a normal life, work, let us give you a hand to make this country grow. One day you’ll thank us. But today, let me say this as a last thing: you’ve given me hope. If you keep the Centre continually monitored you’ll be able to help lots of people inside Ponte Galeria and you’ll discover many things that are not right. You’ll discover for example, and it might seem unimportant but inside there is no psychiatrist, while people are going crazy. There’s one in a prison, at times also in army barracks, but why isn’t there one in a place where so many people are so distressed?”

Today Lassad has left the Ponte Galeria CIE thanks to a suspension and he hopes to go back to being a free man. His precious testimony in favour of the motion presented by the regional councillor Marta Bonafoni has been published by the Corriere delle migrazioni.

Ahmed: “From Somalia to Malta, a 16-month long nightmare”

Ahmed, 31 years of age, decided to leave his country, Somalia, because of the violent clashes caused by the Al Shabab militia in the region of Medina. On leaving, Ahmed was just searching for a safe place to live in; he could never have imagined that he was about to go on a journey of 5,000 kilometres and lasting 16 months, nor that he would be risking his life crossing the desert and the sea.

“There were many reasons why I left my country, the ethnic violence, because it wasn’t safe. The nearest place was Kenya, so there I went.

I lived in Nairobi for two months, but without any papers I couldn’t do anything to survive and I was worried that the Kenyan police would arrest me. So I decided to move down towards the border with Uganda and from there towards Kampala, where I stayed for a month, but life was very hard there too and I didn’t know anyone who could help me. One day someone told me to head for Libya because it was easy to get across to Europe from there and I thought it was a good idea.”

It’s already three months since Ahmed left. Getting to Libya from Kampala means having to get to South Sudan and cross it, enter Sudan by going up the Nile on a boat and going on as far as Khartoum. Then, finding a way of crossing the Sahara, which almost always means getting involved with human traffickers. The journey from Khartoum cost 360 dollars. When for Ahmed is time to leave, the group was made up of 80 people, all piled up in 12 big jeeps. The journey in the desert lasted three days and three nights, but didn’t lead to Libya. It stopped in the middle of the desert where a rich-looking man bought the whole group and fixed a new price for their freedom: pay 800 dollars, or be left to die in the Sahara, one day at a time, of heat and thirst.

“I fell ill – says Ahmed – I could feel myself close to death. There were about 200 of us at the beginning, five of us died right there. Thank God a fellow national gave me 200 dollars to make up the sum I needed. We left from there and headed towards Libya but just before reaching Kufra we ran into a group of Libya soldiers who arrested the traffickers in charge of us and left us there in the desert with no water, no food and no shade. They came to pick us up 24 hours later, loaded us up on a truck and took us to Kufra, into prison. There I remained for 4 months, and they beat us up every other day.”

Taking advantage of a moment when the guards weren’t looking, Ahmed and three other detainees managed to escape and hid in the ‘African’ part of the town. Here he found help and managed to contact his family and get them to send him 500 dollars, in order to reach Bengazi and then Tripoli.

“The first time the police stopped me at Tripoli to check my papers I made the mistake of answering in English instead of Arabic. They beat me with their truncheons and their gun-butts, took my money and told me to get the hell out of it. The second time I was thrown into a cell, where I stayed for two months; two months after my release I decided to get a boat for Europe, Libya was just hell, I didn’t want to live there. The others paid the sea traffickers with 400 and 500 dollars for the crossing, but I didn’t have any money. So I made up the story that I knew how to navigate, that I knew how to use a nautical compass and they believed me. Actually I knew no such thing, but I had read something about the GPS system on the Internet.”

The boat that left Tripoli, destination Malta, carried 55 people. Ahmed was handed a satellite navigator and given the direction to follow, but the weather conditions were bad. Soon the boat began to fill up with water and the crew were panic-stricken. They fought against the bad weather for 10 hours, drifting helplessly with the wind, trying to bale out the water as best as they could, hoping for a ship that would rescue them.

“The sea had taken us to within a few miles of Tripoli, towards the coast of Tunisia. The Tunisian patrol that intercepted our boat wanted to know if we were heading for Italy, then they beat us and took us to a detention centre where we remained for three weeks. There were also pregnant women in our group. Some of the guards were sorry for them so they let us go but they told us that if they saw us out at sea they would kill us. I returned to Tripoli and after a month I found another trafficker who had a boat, an inflatable dinghy actually, and we had just biscuits and a little water, which finished after two days at sea. The last day I drank seawater because I was so thirsty, but luckily after 3 days and 3 nights we arrived at Malta, safe at last.”

Today Ahmed lives in Malta, where he has been granted refugee status and where he has a part-time job as an interpreter and translator. His dream, he told them at UNHCR, is to emigrate to the United States and re-start a new life there.

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