Life on the frontline – Lampedusa more than a month after the 3 October shipwreck

Grigion, Meltingpot – One and a half
months after the dramatic night of October 3, we return to Lampedusa to tell
the story about the reality of life on this last scrap of land at the
southernmost extremity of Europe now that the media spotlight has faded and
life has gone back to how it always is: where schools do double shifts; where
it is not possible to give birth in the hospital; where petrol prices are the
highest in Europe; living the uncertainty of a life in which destiny and
decisions are made elsewhere.

With us on
the aeroplane from Palermo is Giusi Nicolini,
the mayor, returning from Brussels
where she has been speaking on behalf of the islanders. The other passengers
are largely made up of volunteers who will upon arrival join the swelling
numbers of small associations that have set up projects on the island.

The place
where we are staying is behind a huge blue hangar which is inside the airport,
where for many (too many) days the coffins of the shipwreck victims were held.
From there we start off for the port. With the port in front of us, a strong
wind begins to blow. The sea is very rough, making it impossible to sail so,
for the moment, the arrivals have diminished, closing the curtain once again on
the show that plays itself out within these confines. The impression, however,
is that this will only be a temporary respite for the island, which awaits the next
wave of those who are fleeing from poverty to crash against the powerful
machine that seeks to encage them – a drama that has now become part of everyday life at Lampedusa.

We approach
the quay where the dead bodies rescued from the sea were laid out on October 3.
Now empty, the high waves are washing over it, as if wanting to remove all
signs of that tragic night in which it took so many human lives. Much like the
sea, politics is also able to erase the traces of its brutality in an instant.
For the island, however, this is not the case. Wearily taking up daily life
again, the local businesses are gradually closing, the summer is long gone and
the winds at sundown are blowing in a first taste of winter. Memories of those
tragic days are not forgotten but somehow assimilated. Lampedusa seems able to absorb the rain of blows it receives,
as only those who are used to taking it can. One after the other. At least as
many as the rotten boats hauled from the sea and piled up in the scrap yard
that are no longer possible to count.

residents of the island populate the
streets for a few hours during the day but the bulk of those present are
military personnel. On every street corner there are vehicles belonging to
police, carabinieri, finance police, airforce, navy and the Red Cross. Everyone
is here. But the occupation of Lampedusa is not just for show. Normality has
become like living inside an enormous barracks. A great military bandwagon upon
this island garrison, which at this latitude no longer makes any noise. A
normality which does not however manage to make life any more peaceful for the

Sunday night at the port around 60 people are landed, almost all are Nigerian
nationals. Meanwhile the Mare Nostrum fleet, the operation sent in by the
government in response to the tragedy of October 3, patrols the Strait of Sicily. But despite the arrival of the migrants they have dispersed.
The latest boat, like the ones over the past few weeks, has eluded naval
detection; proof of the total impotence of the patrols in contrast with the
nightmare journey of hope embarked upon by those who are forced to escape from
war in the lack of a sure and legal entry.
The fragility of the Mare Nostrum targeted response has also been highlighted
by Giusi Nicolina.

We met her in the local council office where there was a
long queue of people from Lampedusa waiting to see her. She sees everybody. The
day before at St Giovanni she had collected an award from Michele Boscagli,
which could mean a new echography unit for the island’s women. Today, however,
she is talking about the itinerary for the coach used to take people to the
clinic, discussing an initiative for refuse differentiation, and deliberating
over acts and from previous years which must be annulled. The direct line with Rome and Brussels
is not broken, but at the same time the islanders demand resolutions to all of
those small big problems that have been inherited from the previous
administration. “The landings are fewer for now”, she says, “but it’s clear
that the problem goes all the way to the top, within European politics and the
way in which Europe intends to manage its frontiers”. The same applies to the conditions in which
the asylum seekers are accommodated. “Now the centre, in an unfit condition for
its purpose, has been almost emptied and this is an excellent result. But if we
do not equip ourselves to manage differently the situation of war refugees
arriving here the problem will present itself again in the same way as soon as
the landings begin again.

It was, in
fact, the immigrant reception centre itself which had been at the centre of a
controversy in the days running up to the October 3 tragedy, when there had
been hundreds being held there. They were sleeping outside, many without beds,
and bathroom facilities in deplorable conditions. Amongst them there were many

A short
while after our arrival we met some workers from an international organisation
on the island whose descriptions gave us an idea of the situation. At the
moment there are no longer any minors in the centre. They were all taken away
after the report made by Save the Children. For many, they have already lost
track of them. “During these last few months – say the workers – we’ve been
working in a situation that has been very chaotic”. Getting in and out of the centre is a
complicated and lengthy operation which involves obtaining authorization and
going through the checking procedures,
made even worse by the this recent period of uncertainty on the island.

They have
been particularly struck by the type of people who have been arriving recently:
“There were many Syrian families with children who were highly educated, people who in Syria occupied distinguished and important positions. They
are escaping from the war but are able to bring their social status with them.
They were actually able to afford to stay in a hotel, in a decent place, but
were forced instead to live in the conditions at Contrada Imbriacola”. During this same period many people also
arrived from the Horn of Africa, for example,
the Eritreans who survived the shipwreck. Amongst the younger ones the most
unlikely of strategies come into play in coming to terms with the trauma they
have undergone: “They make jokes amongst themselves whilst recalling those
moments” – one of the workers tells us –
“even this is a way to come to terms with the experience: teasing someone who
was saved only thanks to an adult, or someone who had arrived on the quayside
without their trousers because a person beneath him in the water had pulled
them off to save himself from drowning.

The centre
tries to keep these stories hidden. Now the number of occupants inside has
fallen considerably and there are no more than 150 people. Some of these will
be transferred shortly. The tension, for the time being, has been offloaded
onto Sicily,
where new informal centres are continually being set up thus rewriting the map
of confinement. At Contrada Imbriacola, however, the conditions within the
structure have not changed. At the gates the airforce and army guards control all entrances and exits . To make their work simpler, a well-established
way in and out has been excavated which is visible at the back. It is here that
the migrants come and go without disturbing the soldiers at the gate busy with
their tablets and smart phones, therefore relieving some of the pressure. Thus you
can see groups of young Eritreans, waiting and hoping that they will be
transferred to the mainland, hanging around along the roads. We meet some of
them in front of the Historical Archive centre in Lampedusa, a cultural
association that has reconstructed the island’s memories through decades of
work of recovering images and material. On the screen in the window there is a
film being shown in Eritrean, downloaded especially for them. The bench in
front of the building has become a place where they can spend some time outside
the walls of the reception centre. Nino Taranto, the founder of the
association, explains to us that after seeing the migrants frequently stopping
in front of the TV, curious about the documentaries being screened, he decided
to provide them with a few hours of distraction: “Culture is a sea that unites
us”, he is keen to point out.

We speak to
some of the young men there. They are not minors but it doesn’t take much to
see from their faces that very few of them are over 20 years old. Some of them
have only been here a few days, others from the beginning of November, while
sixteen of them have been here since October 4. They are survivors of the
October 3 shipwreck the whole world has been talking about. More significantly,
they are actually key witnesses for the open inquiry into the events of that
night, which is being conducted by the Agrigento Public Prosecutor. Amongst
them there is also the young man who identified the crew members – a Somalian
and a Palestinian – who, together with
some Libyan soldiers were the protagonists of the raping of some of the women
and the violence against some of the men. They are not very keen to speak, but
when they realise why we are there on the island they become less reluctant.
Yoseph (a pseudonym) described to us his journey towards Europe.

Setting off from Eritrea in
2009, he lived and worked for two years in Ethiopia
where he put together the money for his journey; after that he moved south to Sudan
where he found employment for another two years until the time to leave
arrived. His story is one that we have heard repeatedly over the past few
years: of the violence and the brutality inflicted upon those caught up in the
human trafficking circuit – the organised buying and selling of human beings –
which continues to prevail in Libya,
despite the fall of Gaddafi. Crossing the border. The traffickers, to whom he
paid a handsome sum of $4000, then sold him on to the military. From
within prison in Libya he then paid another organisation for his
release and permission to reach Benghazi
where he then boarded a ship. Now, after leaving many of his friends at the
bottom of the sea, and being separated from the other 89 travelling companions
who transferred to Rome and of whom there is already no trace, he hopes only to
leave Lampedusa, his new prison. He has provided a witness account against the
crew members and finds himself confined to the inhuman conditions of the
reception centre. He wants to leave the island but the authorities fear that he
will aim to cross the Italian border, thus rendering the inquest useless. But
surely there is another way to secure his testimony?

The lure of
the northern countries of Europe are by no means to be underestimated, however,
the conditions imposed upon the refugees by the Italian immigrant reception
system certainly make his flight even more likely. For this reason many are
willing to pay and take further risks, he says – even once upon Italian soil –
and embark once more on yet another journey.

catching our plane home we meet up with Giacomo Sferlazzo again. We had been
staying with him over the past few days. He is the point of reference at
Askavusa, the cultural association which over the past few years has never
given up telling the world about the suffering taking place on Lampedusa. He
asks us to breathe the air on the way to the centre, to go into the bars, to
live the everyday life of this tiny piece of land that is closer to Africa than
Europe… We say our goodbyes and arrange to see
each other again in January when the Euromediterranean movements will meet to
write the “The Lampedusa Charter” in order to breathe life into the campaign
against the politics of immigration currently in place.

having listened to him for a while, we set off feeling more sure.

arguing for the rights of the migrants escaping from persecution is not so
different from reclaiming those of the inhabitants of Lampedusa who likewise
are forced to live in insecurity, from different angles, certainly, but united
by one perspective regardless of colour of skin: the need for a change to be
made in the geometry of Europe.

Translated by Denise Wesley