03 March 2011

Freedom is the most beautiful thing in the world

“It’s not so much for the conditions at the centre, it’s for freedom. What do I care about how we eat, you see here everything is fine, but why do they have to keep us locked up like animals?” Ali is an electrician from Zarzis; his uncle was waiting for him in Paris. But at this point, not even he knows if and when he will get there. “Nobody understands anything. Some say they keep you in for six months, others that they send you back to Tunisia”. Detention centre of Modena. It is Friday morning, 25th February. There are still two days to go until Sunday’s riot. And the Prefecture authorized me to visit the centre. By insisting a little I finally managed to get access to the sections where the Tunisians have been transferred to and from Lampedusa in the past weeks.

They are 42 over a total of 59 men locked up inside here. And they all come from the town of Zarzis, apart from someone from Sfax and from Ben Guerdane. It is sufficient to look at the walls in the common room. They had just recently repainted them white. But just a few days later they were full of graffiti. “Zarzis” is the most common word, written both in Arabic and in Italian. Alternated on one side with the words of anger from someone who swore in broken Italian against the Italian government, on the other with the nostalgia of someone who has engraved his love declarations to a certain Maria, with the hope of those who repeat “Allahu Akbar”, God is the greatest, and with the cocktail of all those emotions collected in a drawing of a big heart in flames.

Ali shows me the room. There are two beds. Everything is clean. The wall is a collage of photographs of naked women worthy of a Playboy fan. But between the two beds, on that same wall there’s white cardboard with the first surah of the Quran written on it with a green felt-tip pen.

He shows me in which direction they pray, towards Mecca. “Insha’allah nakhruju”, he says. God willing we will get out of here. It is only then that I realize that behind him, in the corridor, on the wall there is another writing which I had not noticed. It is in Italian, it says: “Freedom is the most beautiful thing in the world”.

But do we remember how much freedom is worth? If we have forgotten it maybe it would do us a world of good to to spend some time behind the bars of the expulsion centre of Modena, where last Sunday “freedom” was the word shouted from the cages during the riot, when the Tunisians detainees threw the mattresses out of the sleeping quarters and burned them. For most of them, this is the first time they are detained. And what they cannot comprehend is why they are kept behind bars whilst their fellow travelers with whom they landed in Italy are by now already in France.

Abdelshafi, for example, has got friends from Zarzis who travelled with him, on the same boat, and who have been transferred from Lampedusa to the expulsion centres in Bologna, from which however they have been released with a travel warrant. The last time he called them they told him that they were already in Paris. Why them and not him? He who before the voyage without papers had managed to find a legal way to travel by requesting a tourist visa from the Polish embassy in Tunis. He thought it would be easier, from Warsaw he would have gone by car to France. But he was refused the visa and he finds himself lockep up in here.

Jed instead is from northern Tunisia, from Cap Bon, and he landed at Pantelleria in mid January. They were six of them on board, all friends. And all six of them were taken to the expulsion centre of Modena. Later, however, three of them were released, to make room for the new arrivals. And the other three still ask themselves why their own freedom is worth less. The same question that Karim has been asking himself for days. He is a forty year old man. A good man who for the first time finds himself detained and cannot understand why. He who had left thinking that he would easily have found a job to find a cure for his son. A 9 year old boy, suffering from a genetic disorder to the nervous system, who needs treatment and constant care, and who now instead finds himself more alone than ever. The other night his father started crying thinking about the circumstances in which he finds himself and thinking that he has to spend six more months locked up in here.

Ayadi on the other hand will soon become a father himself. His girlfriend is waiting for him in Belgium. She is Moroccan and lives in Brussels. She is five months pregnant. He had just been expelled, but as soon as the landings started again he seized the opportunity to return to Europe to his family. But now he faces six months locked up in here and possible forced repatriation. His child will have to be born without his father being present.

Even this happens in Europe, that is that in 2011 a law forbids a father to live next to his child and his companion, in the name of the superior interest of the burocracy and of the stamps on the passports. But we, do we remember how much freedom is worth?

translated by Alexandra D'Onofrio