AA Gill: Welcome to Death Island
On the morning of October 3, a fishing boat leaves Tripoli. It is a small wooden boat, like a child’s drawing, with a high wheelhouse. It is old, worn out, no one can remember its name. Fish are scarce, and its owner would have been happy to get rid of it for a handful of sticky notes. On board are 520 passengers; they pack every inch of the hold, a biblical human fish, and they stand crammed on deck. Each has paid about $1,600 for the one-way trip. It is a calm, warm day, the tideless Mediterranean is blue, the rickety engine warbles and chokes, slowly pushing north. Its destination is Lampedusa.
This is the last journey, whatever the outcome. The boat is a disposable bark with a disposable cargo: Eritreans, mostly, some Somalis and Syrians, with a couple of Tunisians, men and women and children. There are 41 unaccompanied minors — the youngest is 11. They look back at their last view of Africa. The distinction between an economic migrant and a refugee is simple: are you running from or to? All these souls are escaping.
Lampedusa is a crumb of an island that has fallen off the end of Sicily. It is closer to Africa than it is to mainland Europe. It is our Ellis Island, where the huddled masses — the tired, the poor, the wretched, refugees, hopeless and tempest-tossed — come to be free.
On a rocky southern shore above a crumbling coastal gun emplacement there is a modern sculpture, a slab with a door called, grandly, the southern gateway to Europe. It’s not a very grand monument; it’s not a very big door. Lampedusa is the year-round home of about 5,000 people. Once it lived off fishing, but the fish are all eaten, the coral dead. Now it catches tourists. A baking hot summer getaway, 1½ hours from Rome, set in the most iridescently clear sea. Someone with nothing better to do has designated one of its beaches as one of the most beautiful in the world. You reach it down a long, rocky path surrounded by wild thyme, marjoram and fennel. A kestrel darts overhead. It’s a short curl of soft white sand, where the turtles lay their eggs and the dolphins and whales come up for air. Next to the beach is another bay. This one is surrounded by a steep wall of cliffs and it was here, on the night of October 3, that the old fishing boat, with its exhausted passengers, ran out of steam and fuel.
They wouldn’t normally have expected to get this far: as a practised rule, the Italian coastguard tracks and picks up the trafficking boats at sea and transfers the refugees to the small port in the town. These arks usually call ahead on satellite phones or short-wave radios. It is an organised and familiar run, except not this time. There was no call and somehow no one noticed the blip of 500 Africans on the radar. The boat began to drift towards the cliff. Someone set fire to a blanket to attract help. They could see lights on the shore. The passengers were tired and frightened and so close to the promised land they panic and move to one side of the ship, which swayed, yawed, lost its slippery balance and capsizes: 368 Africans drown.
Giusi Nicolini, the mayor of Lampedusa, spares me a couple of minutes. She’s on her way to Rome to talk to the prime minister about the refugee crisis. She smells strongly of nervous cigarette smoke and the frustration of someone who’s not been listened to. “This is not a new crisis. It is not a crisis at all,” she says, emphatically. “We have been taking in refugees every week for 15 years. They are not the problem. They are not the fault.”
Nicolini is exasperated with Rome’s maudlin and politically opportunistic reaction to the sinking. “It’s all very well to be moved by nearly 400 coffins,” she says, “but how do you deal with the survivors? That’s what matters. It’s not tears for the dead, but tears for the living.”
Lampedusa has a remarkable and surprising relationship with its immigrants. They care about them, they wish them well, they hope for the best. They don’t resent them or complain that they don’t learn the language or customs. When, at the start of the Arab Spring, in December 2010, around 5,000 Tunisians turned up uninvited, outnumbering the indigenous population, stealing chickens and setting fire to the reception centre, the locals called the rocks on which the Tunisians camped the Hill of Shame. Not the Tunisians’ shame, mind, but the Italians’ shame: the shame of making the desperate and the needy sleep out in the open.
The people of Lampedusa are good — if slightly unusual — Europeans. When the refugees turn up dead, and an awful lot of them do, the locals bury them next to their own fathers and grandmothers in their little cemetery, as unnamed sub-Saharans, with numbered wooden crosses, and year after year, each has flowers laid beside them.
It’s not a sentiment that’s shared by the Italian authorities in general. When the refugees are brought ashore they’re given a medical check and their names are taken, then they’re bused to a camp on the outskirts of town that’s been pushed into a thin, dead-end valley: two-storey blocks of dormitories and an administration building, surrounded by a chain-link fence. There are Italian soldiers with sidearms and clubs guarding the door and it’s patrolled by riot police. The dormitories are packed, there is barely enough room to walk between the beds, the walls are covered in hopeful, religious graffiti and names, the place smells of sewage and sweat. There are no dining facilities; refugees squat in the open or eat on their beds. There is a small area set aside for nursing mothers, otherwise there is only one lavatory for 100 women.
A Syrian complains that she hasn’t been able to go to the loo for days because the door doesn’t have a lock and there are always men there. Sanitary towels are difficult to get and are handed out, two at a time, usually by a man. There is no sewerage system on the island and no standing water. A bowser comes daily from the desalination plant. This facility was built for 200 refugees who would spend no more than 48 hours here, but it is now inhabited by more than 700. Most have been here for nearly a month.
The men sleep on sodden foam rubber in caves outside, under shreds of plastic, wrapped in paupers’ blankets, dressed in the bright polyester tracksuits that are given to them. They look like a school production of Montagues and Capulets. They also have a coat, a child-sized blanket and cigarettes. The fags are a bribe to forestall arguments. The North Africans seem, in particular, to suffer nicotine withdrawal, according to the camp’s bureaucrat. But they don’t get detergent. It’s wet and it’s cold, the wind snaps and flaps at the hastily tied plastic tents. There is nothing to do. Boys cut each other’s hair into silly shapes out of a deathly boredom. Technically, they are not confined, despite the presence of soldiers and the police — they have committed no crime. However, the authorities won’t open the gates, so the inmates escape through a convenient hole in the fence, to walk aimlessly around the blustery, paperblown, bordered, pedestrianised, wet town, dreary in the off-season — Margate on the Med, without the slot machines. Little knots of Eritreans and Cameroonians huddle over their mobile phones in the empty streets, or stare at the brown football pitch beside the graveyard of dead and splintered freedom boats piled in a tangled, rusting pyre of flip-flops, life vests, like the sad bones of beached sea creatures.
The Africans stamp their feet and shout and wait without explanation or expectation. This is as bad and ineptly septically organised a camp as I’ve seen — worse than Syrians can expect in Jordan, worse than the Sudanese camps in Chad, or for Afghans in northern Pakistan. It’s not run by the UN, because technically it’s not a refugee camp, it’s a reception centre. The UN is here, but only to inform the newly arrived of their rights and how to claim political asylum.
The Italian bureaucrat in charge is young, blinking, bad tempered, self-important and further out of his depth and disorientated than his charges. He insists I sign a waiver agreeing that I will identify no one and nothing, see nothing, say nothing. I refuse. We compromise on something that says I have understood what he is asking.
Newspaper headlines constantly refer to these people as illegal immigrants. They’re not, they’re refugees. They are already victims, most in ways that sear you with pity and shock. A group of Eritrean boys in their twenties, survivors of the shipwreck, lounge on their beds, flicking lighters, sharing fags, and they tell me how they got here. Natneal Haile carefully writes his name in my notebook. He is a delicate and handsome boy with a bright smile. He speaks good enough English. He left Eritrea, like his friends, to escape the army. The paranoid military dictatorship conscripts all men from the age of 15 up until they’re 50. You could spend your entire life in uniform waiting for a war or a coup, for barely $20 a month. After five years, Natneal deserted, crossed into Sudan and worked his way down to Juba, capital of the new Southern Sudan, where he laboured for two years. Then he paid traffickers to smuggle him into Libya across the Sahara. In Tripoli, he was jailed for being the wrong person with the wrong religion. “They are terrible people, the Libyans,” he said. “So violent. It was very frightening. Everyone has guns. People have guns in their own homes, can you imagine that?” His eyes are wide with astonishment. His friends nod and smile ruefully. “They have no pity.”
Natneal remained in jail until his family back home paid a £1,000 bribe to have him released. This is a common story. Most of the Eritrean men I spoke to have been imprisoned in Libya or held hostage in the Sahara, all beaten, all tortured. They knew others who had died of thirst, of beatings, of starvation, the girls who’d been raped, whole families abandoned in the desert, disappeared under the sand. They tell the stories with a matter-of-fact fatalism. “Please,” says Natneal, “tell the world about our people in Libya. They are dying in prison.”
He got a place on a boat to Lampedusa. The boat sank. All told, the journey from home cost $6,000. This figure is corroborated by others. On average, it takes four years to make this journey. Natneal wants to be a civil engineer. Where would he like to go? “Norway,” he says. “Or Switzerland.” He smiles with a shy optimism, as if admitting the name of a girl he fancies. Really? “Yes,” he beams. Switzerland has taken a high proportion of those escaping military service in Eritrea for asylum, but you have to claim asylum in Switzerland. Norway is the most popular country at the reception centre, deemed by Africans a country of liberal opportunity and safety, if not friendliness. Some say England, because they can speak English, and it’s partly, I think, out of politeness to me.
These journeys are far more intrepid and dangerous than climbing a mere mountain or trekking to a pole. They are made by some of the poorest people in the world, who leave their villages, communities, cultures and families knowing, in all likelihood, they will never see them again. They are funded by parents who understand they are sending their children away for ever, that they will never hold their grandchildren, and that they may hear nothing but silence for ever. But still, no one wants to stay in Italy, and that’s a problem. The EU Dublin convention stipulates that people claiming political asylum must remain in the first safe country they land in — you can’t pick and choose (although Greece, Spain and Italy claim this is unduly onerous on them). Refugees have to be fingerprinted to be processed, and most of them refuse. Not being criminals, they can’t be forced, so there is a stand-off. Some of the refugees have gone on hunger strike, and not all nationalities are treated the same. Syrians are now almost automatically taken in by other countries because the civil war is hot politics. There is a group of Syrians camping in a makeshift tent underneath rocks: they’re cold and furious; each buttonholes me with his grievance then shows me a bullet wound. Everyone has been shot. It is left unsaid that they are deserters from Assad’s army. France is very keen not to encourage any more North Africans, while Britain doesn’t want this UKIP dinner-gong subject on the agenda.
A few years ago, prime minister Silvio Berlusconi came to an agreement with Colonel Gadaffi that the Italian coastguard could simply tow migrant boats back to Tripoli, even though this was illegal and deeply immoral. No other European raised a complaint, or even an eyebrow. The reason the refugees don’t want to stay in Italy is because this is the most overtly, casually, critically, racist country — at the least opportunity. It is also operatically sentimental. The sinking of the boat was the cause of a hand-wringing bout of pathos in the Italian press. The centre-right interior minister, Angelino Alfano, famous for instigating the law that put the holders of the top four government posts above prosecution, decreed a state funeral for the tragedy that had befallen Italy and held it in Agrigento, which happened to be his home town and constituency. But he wouldn’t permit the survivors, their families or friends to be there, nor the coffins either. He did, though, invite members of the Eritrean government from which they had fled. It was a state funeral without any bodies or mourners, a photo opportunity for a politician and an allegory for Europe’s engagement with its most needful neighbours. The people of Lampedusa were embarrassed, upset. They held their own service with the survivors and the seekers of asylum on a rocky bit of their island, which looks out to sea. Each planted a tiny tree for every drowned soul.
Mohammed is still angry. His delicate Eritrean features are set in a worried frown of sorrow, shock and a sharp, righteous ire. He’s come to tell me what happened that night in the bay. He speaks halting but good English, softly. He would like to be a translator.
“When everyone moved to the side of the boat, it went over quite fast,” he says. “They said on the news we set fire to the boat on purpose, but that’s not true. People fell and slipped into the water. They were holding onto each other, grabbing your legs, standing on top of each other. I had to push people away. It was terrible. The noise, the sound of screaming and crying.” He pauses. In the silence, he is hearing it again. “It went on and on, the shouting, the screaming, for five hours. Five hours. We swam and swam. Parents held up their children till they couldn’t hold them any more. We could see the lights in the distance but no one came. It was cold, so cold we were numb. People beside me in the dark said, ‘I can’t swim any more, tell my family.’ We didn’t know them, so they said the name of their villages. ‘They’ll know me,’ they said. And they would stop swimming and weren’t beside me any more. Do you know how hard it is to swim for five hours? You’re thinking you can’t go on, there is no end. You can’t go on so you drown. And then there was a boat. Two boats came and they saw us and went away. One sailed right round us and went away. How could someone do that?”
He pauses and looks at me for an answer, as if it might be a European habit. I don’t tell him that it is. The identity of these boats is a mystery. There will be an inquiry, but sailors in the Mediterranean are instructed not to stop for refugee boats. There was no call, no message to the coastguard. Mohammed was finally pulled from the sea by a local fisherman. He needs to find the man to thank him. We are joined by Costantino, 56, a local construction worker, originally from Puglia. He has a pleasure boat, and he went fishing with friends at 7.30am and he sailed into the bay at about the same time as the coastguard got there and there were bodies everywhere. He picked up 11 survivors and thought there was no one else alive. “And then I saw this girl in the water, dead, but her hand seemed to move. She was covered in diesel oil. Almost too slippery to pull into the boat… I cleaned her face with fresh water. She was alive. She was the last person to be saved.
Costantino is very affected by her; she was very young. He went to the hospital to see how she was. Her name is Luam. He gave her some money and a phone, made sure her parents knew she was alive. She had damaged lungs and was transferred to a hospital in Sicily, from where she discharged herself and slipped away, disappeared into the great Diaspora of refugees in Europe. This is what most of them do: vanish to continue their journey illegally in the hands of traffickers and gangs who exploit, enslave, rape and bully. Costantino says he knows where she is, but he won’t say. She asked him for one last favour. Her friend, a girl she travelled with, perished in the sea. Could Costantino make sure she was remembered at the service? He took the number recording her death off the small tree and replaced it with the girl’s name, Sigerreda.
Mohammed and Costantino make an unlikely couple, sitting side by side, tensely distracted by the unresolved horror and sadness of that night, the bodies floating beside one of the most beautiful beaches in the world.
“Knowing what you know, would you do it again?” I ask Mohammed. Misunderstanding, he says people are doing it now. “They are at sea right now.” No, would you go through it again? He looks at me with a pitiful disbelief. “No, no, I couldn’t.”
“I can’t help thinking about it,” says Costantino. “You know, we were meant to go out fishing at 6.30am, but I was late, so we went at 7.30. I can’t help thinking how many more could have lived if I’d been on time.”
The reason the Lampedusans are kind and good to these desperate visitors is because they can be. They’ve met them and they see them; the reason we can talk about “them” as a problem, a plague on our borders, is because we don’t see them. If any of these refugees knocked on any of our front doors and asked for help, we would give it. We would insist they be protected and offered a chance to be doctors and civil engineers, nurses and journalists. We would do it because we are also good and kind. It is only by not looking, by turning our backs, that we can sail away and think this is sad, but it is not our sadness.
The divers went down to the deep wreck and the boat revealed its last speechless, shocking gasp of despair. The body of a young African woman with her baby, born to the deep, still joined to her by its umbilical cord. In labour, she drowned. Its first breath the great salt tears of the sea. The sailors who formed a chain to bring the infant to the light, used to the horror of this desperate crossing, sobbed for this nameless child of a nameless mother that was born one of us, a European.
Written by A. A. Gill.
Originally published in the Sunday Times.