04 July 2011

Guantanamo Trapani. We entered the Cie of Chinisia

Yellow, red, blue. From Tarros, from Ttl. Who knows from which merchant ship they were disembarked from, and who knows which sea routes all those containers came along before getting beached in the countryside of Trapani, built one on top of the other in what from far away looks like a Lego construction, but which close-up is nothing more than an improvised perimeter fence of yet another cage, perhaps the worse in the panorama of the beginning of the century of this Italy, inhospitable and ferocious with the most unwanted of travellers: the harraga. We find ourselves in front of the new centre for identification and expulsion (Cie) of Chinisia. No journalist is allowed to enter. The circular n.1305 of 1 April forbids it. But we decided to try anyway. We park the car in the lot, and with extreme self-assuredness we draw close to the cage, as if it were the most natural thing to do. No agent asks us to identify ourselves and in a few steps we are under the iron cage.

Three metres at the base by five in height, welded between to columns of containers. It’s the entry to the camp. The fingers of those who hold tight to the gate the entire day, to let the gaze breathe come out through the mesh. Because inside all you can see is the perimeter fence of the containers and the white sky of this torrid summer, crossed only by the fighter bombers bound for Libya and the Ryanair flights to the extremely close airport of Trapani Birgi. Looking through the gates you can catch a glimpse of the tent city set up on the asphalt of the shabby runway of the old military airport of Chinisia, it’s exactly like in the video shot by mobile phone which one of the detainees sent me via bluetooth.

Like the containers that hold them in a trap, the detainees also come from the sea. They are 83 young men in all, mostly Tunisians, except for one Libyan and a couple of Moroccans; they disembarked in Lampedusa in the past months. Common folk, with the exception of a few convicts who escaped from the jails of Ben Ali and four homosexuals who arrived via Tripoli to ask for asylum. Twenty five of them have direct relatives in France and in Italy, and three are married to European women who every day go back and forth between the questura (police headquarters) and the Cie to try to get them out of there.

Parked in front of the gate is a police van and a team of law enforcement agents. Someone has brought in a tray of cannoli siciliani, and the agents are licking their chops in front of the cage, they seem happy but it’s just a way to break the tension. Because the revolts now happen on a daily basis, and daily are the escape attempts, the searches and the beatings. To the point that the agents who take the detainees outside the cage for the validation hearing, keep their gun in the holster with no cartridge, probably because they’re afraid that someone might take hold of the loaded weapon.

Inside the cage, though, no one enters anymore. Not even the social workers or the cultural mediators of the co-operative Insieme, the managing organisation, of the Connecting People consortium. The meals are distributed through an opening obtained/extracted between the iron bars, large enough to pass a plate through.

Keeping everything that is happening under control are the closed circuit cameras inside the camp. The images flow 24 hours a day on a flat-screen TV in a trailer outside the camp. The inspector in service checks the images, while an agent cuddles a puppy that the team has adopted after having found him abandoned near the Cie. Not far from there, two colleagues climb a wooden ladder above the fence of the containers, to inspect the spotlight that the detainees broke by throwing a rock at it last night. Nothing strange, it now happens every night. That’s what the long wooden ladder leaning against the external side of the enclosure is for.

As soon as the cameras show suspicious movements, the agents climb on top of the roof of the containers and order everyone to get back in the tents. When it’s too late and the detainees are already on top of the containers, the order is to throw rocks at them. That’s right. The agents pick the rocks up from between the rows of vineyards around the Cie and they throw them at whoever climbs the enclosure. Evidently a hand-to-hand fight at five metres above ground would be too dangerous.

Not all the detainees, however, want to flee. About ten of them ask, conversely, to return home, because they can’t take it anymore. Others try to get by while awaiting to see what happens, and to gain the favours of the workers and agents, once in a while informing the police of escape preparations. In that case the agents come in anti-riot gear, like they did in mid-June, and they search each tent, one by one, taking way the DIY ropes put together by the detainees to escape. Yes, because it’s not easy to climb over a five-metre high container wall.

There are those who tie together bed sheets, and those who prefer to tie together belts, trousers and other clothes. The rest is taken care of Zarga. A Tunisian man, they call him by this nickname because of his blue eyes, zarqa' in Arabic. He is the most agile of the young men. He climbs with his bare hands in a matter of seconds the cavity wall between the to columns of containers, and then fixes the ropes that they throw him from the ground. Afterwards, thanks to the ropes, they each climb up as quickly as possible and runs for their lives.

This method, however, has never given great results. In two weeks the only one who was able to run away was Zarga, the Spiderman. In the end, though, the great escape planned and re-planned each day in the smallest detail took place anyway.

It happened the evening of 23 June, when in a few minutes 59 of the 83 detainees of the Chinisia camp managed to escape. With no ropes and without Zarga. But only and mostly because of a great sense of indignation. The straw that broke the camel’s back was a woman.

Her name is Winny, and she is the wife of Nizar. We’d already talked about her two months ago. The young 23-year-old Dutch woman married to a 29-year-old Tunisian man who had disembarked in Lampedusa, and pregnant from him now at the eighth month. For two weeks she showed up morning and afternoon at the centre for expulsions in Chinisia for the meetings with her husband.

Thursday afternoon though she left the centre in an ambulance, with strong contractions, which made her fear an imminent premature birth. Nizar was not even able to say goodbye to her, they’d already taken him back to the cage before she felt unwell. He saw her from behind the bars while she got onto the ambulance and left. On top of it all her mobile phone battery was flat and they could no longer communicate. His indignation and his humiliation, as a man and as a father, turned into the indignation and humiliation of them all.

Behind the apparent calm of the following hours each got ready in his own way for the revolt, dismantling tubes and the supporting structures of the tents, to arm themselves with iron bars with which to assault the policemen and to defend themselves in case of attack. Then, so as not to draw attention, they pressed themselves close to the container, at the side of the gate, in an area not covered by the cameras, waiting for the right moment.

And when around 9 pm the agents opened the gates to let a new detainee in who had just been transferred, the revolt broke out. En masse they all started to push against the gate until it flung open and in the end they got the better in the clash with the law enforcement officers and were able to flee, dispersing in every direction among the vineyards and the olive groves surrounding the camp, covered by the fall of night.

The following day, the law enforcement officers were able to trace three of the 59 fugitives. And they made them pay for all. According to reliable eyewitnesses, the three were taken to a tent at the exterior of the camp, normally used for meetings and for the coffee vending machine. There, the law enforcement agents reportedly forced them to fully undress and then beat them in a brutal way. Those who saw the scene speak of blood splattering everywhere. We were not able to speak directly to the injured men, also because we do not want to expose them to possible retaliation.

In the meantime the three were able to speak to the Italian parliamentarian Jean Leonard Touadi (Pd), who after having visited the Cie of Palazzo, on 27 June visited the centre of Chinisia as well, asking for its immediate closure. On its own part the prefecture of Trapani limited itself to saying that in a matter of days, also in Trapani, the new centre for identification and expulsion of Milo would open, with a capacity of 204 prisoners, which would allow the temporary emptying of the camp of Chinisia, but not its closure.

translated by Camilla Gamba