TUNIS – “Ten are said to have arrived according to the Red Cross,” or, “They told us the boat was in Malta.” There are people who have been left waiting for over a year and a half now. They are being deluded on a monthly basis by all the rumours and news that arrives. For example, the mother who spreads word that her son has made contact after a year and a half as another of her children cannot marry until there is news of him. Many are worried, maybe they have not been waiting long, maybe only since the last sinking which occurred between the 6th and 7th September just off the island of Lampione, a couple of miles from Lampedusa.
Yet, in the absence of official information, there is no respite from the waiting and no positive outcome to both the ongoing personal and the political fight. There is no way to extinguish the idea of death which lingers in the minds of the families of those who are missing. Realistically speaking, it is perhaps necessary to refer to them as dead, rather than missing. They are dead without a name and without a body. No official list of bodies which have been found or of the survivors has actually been supplied. They are just Tunisians, North Africans, as usual. Four bodies have been found, along with fifty six survivors and seventy six missing. It is too late now to start looking for them. No trace of the boat was even found. But the families are here and they are asking if there is a cemetery on Lampedusa where it is possible that some of their brothers are resting.
On Tuesday 11th Spetember the Tunisian radio station, Mosiaque FM, read out a list of survivors which it had received via telephone from a Tunisian on Lampedusa. The same day, the Tunisian Foreign Minister published a list of names and photos of those saved in the rescue operation which took place between the 6th and 7th September. The list had been supplied by the Italian authorities (the Police Headquarters of Agrigento). The two lists are not identical and its possible they include information about people who were travelling on two different boats.
The ones who did survive have since been able to phone home where they have passed on some information. They find themselves still closed within the Centre on Lampedusa without permission to go out. Last Saturday, 6th October, exactly a month after the tragedy occurred they went up on the hill behind the Centre to protest about the fact they were still locked up on the island. During that night a further 166 migrants arrived. They all risk being deported or being sent to a CIE (Immigrant Detention Centre) where they would have entire days to remember the images of those who they travelled with, drowning in the waters next to them.
Imad hasn’t received any news from his brother. The only information he has comes from one of their neighbours who said he saw him swimming away. Imad, who lives in Hamburg, travelled to Palermo to find out more information and to request that the search for the missing continue. His other brother, Karim, has instead gone back to Tunisia to mourn the unofficial bereavement with his parents and family. Their brother Bilal had taken the boat in an attempt to make his way to Hamburg. Today, in Ibn Sina, an area on the outskirts of Tunis, next to the Kabbariyya slum (known as the ‘area of the mothers of the missing’), his sister is asking me for an explanation. But there can be no hope. There is nothing to believe in except destiny, who has already given Bilal his final sentence. There is no appeal. On the outskirts of Tunis, I find the courage to say that there is no hope left.
In fact, in Wardiyya sitta, Wardiyya sei, another area which borders the Kabbariyya slum, relatives are still searching for answers after another tragedy which occurred on 14th March 2011. I go to photocopy the documents of one of the missing and get the signature for the lawyer’s mandate. These power of attorneys, from the outskirts of Tunis and Sfax, could help to further advance the investigation. These documents would allow, for example, the lawyer to ask the Tunisian telephone company to trace the call Ahmed made on the 14th March in order to establish its precise location. Going from one place to another, dealing with post-revolution disappearances in 2011 to the most recent sinking, everything seems clear to me- and it has done for a long time now. Radars, satellites, rescue boats, GSM cover, the coast guard -they are all there and they know. Maybe they don’t know what it is to queue at the town hall in Tunis after a day’s work in order to authenticate the power of attorney for the lawyer, so that the phone call made by a brother 19 months ago can be located. They might not know what it means to survive on next to nothing, but they know how all of the equipment to keep the Sicilian Channel under constant surveillance works.
Yet it is the citizens who have to ask, it is the mothers who cry and the brothers who have to come from Germany, taking a week off work, in order to ask what happened. In Arabic it is called Irada, which means to be willing and it is what is severely lacking in those comfortable headquarters in Rome and Tunis, as was witnessed in mid September when Moncef Marzouki, the president of the Tunisian Republic, came to Lampedusa. It was easy to say ‘yes’ in the run up to the elections, to make a trip to Lampedusa and throw flowers in the sea. He strolled around the island with some of his family completely unaware of what it actually means to set foot on Lampedusa.