You Are My Brother and My Sister

Leggi in Italiano

Published by MH-Press on 08/06/2021

The feature “A Glimpse from the Border” is curated by the team from Mediterranean Hope (MH), the migration project of the Federation of Protestant Churches in Italy (FCEI). This week’s “Glimpse” comes from Lampedusa and has been written by volunteer Giovanni D’Ambrosio

Lampedusa (NEV), 8th June 2021 

How are you?  I’m Giovanni, pleased to meet you.  I’m Tareq.  ’m Amina.  I’m Muktar. I’m Mahmud. I’m Samira. Me?  I’m Italian, from Turin.  Yes, it’s in the north, near France.  I’m Tunisian.  I’m Ethiopian.  I’m Syrian.  I’m from Bangladesh. I’m Egyptian.  I’m Somali. You’re on Lampedusa, in Italy.  It’s a little island in the middle of the Mediterranean but soon you will be transferred to Sicily.  Thanks be to God.  Alhamdulillah. 

We have seen hundreds of faces and heard hundreds of names.  Humanity which crosses more than twenty countries, three continents, one or more deserts, one or more seas, one or more wars.   And humanity arrives on Lampedusa, at the edge of Europe but in the middle of the Mediterranean.  And it’s there that we meet them.

It is impossible to remember all the faces, stories or moments in which some of them have decided to share a piece of their story with us.  Stories, like names, pile on top of one another and become confused, especially when hundreds of people reach the island within a matter of hours.

Most of them, however, speak of the same fears and on their faces is the same joy at having arrived alive.  The traumatic experiences lived in Libya and in the sea just crossed, the terror of being pushed back.  Many carry the scars on their own bodies. 

Birhan arrived on Lampedusa during the night.  Together he and another one hundred fellow travellers left their boat on a beach and walked towards the lights of the town.  There we met him in the darkness.  It takes me a while to make him out.  When I see him, I get a fright.  He is completely burnt. Before the ambulance takes him away, we discover that he and another twenty or so people who arrived that night had survived a shipwreck around ten days earlier off the coast of Libya.  Apparently a man had got too close to the petrol cans stacked close to the engine while smoking a cigarette and had caused an explosion leaving many dead and tens of people missing.  Around two weeks later, Birhan, who found himself close to the explosion, was rescued, put out to sea again and arrived in Lampedusa on the day of his eighteenth birthday.  Now he is in Italy, where he can be treated.  

Others, on the hand, don’t arrive.  Some weeks later, 17 people are rescued by a tugboat working at the oil platforms between Libya and Lampedusa, which brings them to the island.  They disembark surrounded by journalists who have come to document the thousands of people who arrived in a matter of hours.  The hotspot (detention centre) is packed.  Around 1700 are crammed inside, far exceeding the 250 available places.  They are the last to arrive and, as they wait for the Covid test, they are gathered outside the gates in a tent by the civil protection force.  Aware that they were rescued whilst clinging onto the base of the platform, we approach them to ask if they are all okay.  Unfortunately, two people died during the crossing.  So one of the shipwreck survivors tells us.   

They leave from the Libyan beaches of Al-Zawiya.  During the night a huge ship crosses their path.  It does not see them and passes so close to them that it clips the rubber boat on which they are travelling, throwing out two young Nigerian women.  A mother and daughter.  Nothing else is known about them, no one knew them.  They disappear into the night and the others can do nothing other than go on.  On the following day, they come across the platforms and, by tying the clothes they are wearing together, heave themselves onto one, from which they are rescued by the tug. 

As I was saying, notwithstanding that all of them have different stories and pasts, everyone who reaches Lampedusa is agreed that Libya is absolutely not a safe country.

Mariam is witness to that.  A young Somali woman, aged 24.  We meet her on the Favaloro quay.  Her boat is the twenty-first to disembark in the last 36 hours.  In less than two days, 2,000 people have reached the island’s little port.  The hotspot cannot contain them all and, because bad weather prevents the quarantine ship from mooring at the dock, hundreds of migrants are forced to remain for hours on the Favaloro quay, waiting for the hotspot to be emptied.   

We notice Mariam because she’s still sitting on the ground in the same spot where she disembarked just a few hours earliers along with her travelling companions.  She is unable to walk.  We start chatting with her.  She speaks English perfectly, as well as some Hindi, thanks to the numerous English and Indian TV series which, she affirms smilingly, she is mad about.  Then she looks at us and decides to tell us why she can no longer walk.  

She had scarcely arrived in Libya when, on the border with Sudan, she was raped for the first time by the Libyan militia and taken to a prison in the Libyan city of Beni Walid.  They ask thousands of dollars for her freedom.  The film her and her sister whilst they are beaten and tortured for hours.  A video to be sent to her family in order to seek a ransom.  But they do not have money, not that kind of money.  Mariam’s sister is killed in cold blood as Mariam looks on incredulously.  She stops herself.  She is upset.  We hug her and we thank her for her willingness to tell her story.  “Akhi wa Akhti”, she says to us in Arabic  You are my brother and my sister.  She calls us brother and sister as she thanks us for listening to her and consoling her.  Then she continues.

They beat her so hard that they think her dead and they throw her onto the street.  There she is found and rescued.  Taken to hospital and treated.  Then she manages to find somewhere to stay, a refuge where she believes she will be safe.  Unfortunately that’s not the case.  She tells us that six months before taking to the sea, uniformed Libyan soldiers broke into her house, beating her terribly on her back once more, again asking for money, money.  She gets upset again but doesn’t want to stop telling her story.  From that point onwards she is no longer able to walk and begins to suffer epileptic fits. The Libyan doctors cannot understand where the problem lies.  Risking the sea, and Italy, could be her only hope of being treated.  

We go together to the island clinic.  In the waiting room we meet other witnesses who carry on their bodies signs of torture suffered in Libya.  Malik, a young man of 23, also Somali, stops to speak to Mariam, telling her that he was violently beaten.  Like her, on his back and on the rest of his body, in a prison in Libya.  In hospital in Tripoli they decided to amputate his leg below the knee, as well as various fingers and toes.  Despite all this, he smiles.  He is pleased to speak to us, to be in Italy, to have his injuries treated.

Mariam, Birham and Malik, like the shipwrecks we have known, are only some of the thousands of people arriving on Lampedusa.  People who could tell very similar – or perhaps very different – stories to those reported.  The importance of listening and gathering the testimonies of those who arrive can perhaps be summed up in that phrase used by Miriam as she told her story: “Akhi wa akhti”.  You are my brother and my sister.