Turin, Italy. Porta Nuova railway station. The 18:20 regional train to Bologna is leaving from platform 10. From behind the window, Mahmoud puts in his earphones and hits play on his iPhone. Samhini yamma by Ashref. Maybe it’s the wrong song. Or maybe it's just right for this moment. Samhini yamma, forgive me mother. Forgive me if I have left, forgive me this exile, forgive me my absence. Waving goodbye from the platform is a young man, eyes reddened by tears. It is his best friend. He’s sobbing. They grew up together in the streets of Sfax, Tunisia. They worked together for years on the fishing boats of Kerkennah and together they made the crossing to Lampedusa. It was January 24. Six months have passed since then. And now the most difficult moment of the trip has come. The moment to say goodbye. Mahmoud is going to Parma, Hasan to Paris. They are joining their relatives. In their pockets they have an expulsion paper. They have just been released by the center for identification and expulsion of Turin, together with another friend of the group from Sfax, Amir, who made the trip on their same Fluch (boat) along with six other passengers. For them, the journey begins once again from here. After six months of detention. With the same determination to succeed, but with much more bitterness in their hearts. Because the Europe they’ve been dreaming of for years has ceased to exist in their imagination.
For Mahmud, Europe's image gradually blurred, with the increasing doses of psychotropic drugs he was taking in the CIE of Turin. Thirty drops of Rivotril in the morning, thirty in the afternoon and thirty in the evening. To shut off the mind. And sleep as long as possible. He still hasn’t regained the vivacity of his 26-year-old gaze. But it's already better than yesterday, when fresh out of the CIE he numbly put cigarettes in his mouth then forgot to light them.
For Hasan, on the other hand, the Europe of his dreams has become a purple stain, dark as the bruises left by the truncheons of police beatings. It was the beginning of February. The idea came to all three, him, Amir and Mahmud. They knew a lot about knots because for years they worked as sailors in Tunisia. Weaving bedsheet after bedsheet, they were able to obtain a nine-metre long rope, with a knot every two feet to climb better. The rest happened in an instant. They threw the rope beyond the five-metre high iron cage. Amir and Mahmud held on to the rope from the bottom, and Hasan, who was lighter, launched himself towards the upward climb. As soon as he jumped down from the fence, he started to run towards the exit on Corso Brunelleschi with all the force he had in his legs. But he wasn’t fast enough.
The military guard in the sentry stopped him a few feet from the exit. They did not touch a hair on his body in front of the other inmates who were looking out from the cages. They merely took him under their arms and quickly led him to the Red Cross offices. It was there that the beating took place. The police took care of it all. Two of them held him by the arms. And a third swung two kicks from behind into Hasan’s heels so that he would fall, and then down with the blows from their truncheons. The usual punishment beatings. In the CIE of Turin, it’s normal practice. The third boy from the Sfax group knows all about it. Of that violence he will forever carry the indelible marks on his left arm.
Starting at the top of his left bicep down to the end of his wrist. Two parallel lines, one beneath the other, narrow and still red. They are the scars from the cuts. The cuts he made with a piece of glass from a broken window to make them stop the beating. On that day, he’d been taken on by six of them. He can’t say whether they were policemen or officers of the Guardia di Finanza. All he knows is that they would not stop the beating, and the only idea that occurred to him to make them stop was to cover himself in blood by cutting his veins.
It had all begun one morning in the yellow area where he had been imprisoned. He had had a nasty argument with an inspector. He had said that the food was inedible. And when the policeman had told him that if he did not like it could well throw it away, he had thrown the food at him in a gesture of defiance, against the iron cage that separated them. The beating was the lesson that they decided use to tame him. Kind of like what some people do to dogs when they do not obey. To make sure he had learned the lesson once and for all, after the beatings they sent him to solitary confinement.
Two months locked inside a room. Alone. All day, apart from the daily hour of outside exercise in the football field to stretch his legs. Amir’s dream of Europe ceased forever in there. On one spring day, hanging from the noose around his neck when he decided it was all too much. And life was not worth living, being constantly humiliated and treated like animals. If death did not carry him away that day, ironically, it was thanks to a military officer. A member of the Alpine troops who had been guarding the sentry box in front of the solitary confinement area. Who the minute laid eyes on the scene, ran over with a box cutter to sever the rope with which Amir had hanged himself, just in time to take him to the infirmary, in time to ensure the suicide attempt had no effect on his health. Then came the fire.
At that time, the Tunisians detained in the CIE spoke of nothing else. How to escape and return to freedom, and then finally continue the journey on to France as did the first Tunisians who arrived in Lampedusa and were allowed to run away from the centers of Bari and Crotone, and from the tent cities such as the one in Manduria. Having decided that escape was impossible, that the psychotropic drugs did nothing but ruin their health and that suicide was a crazy idea, some people began to think that the only thing left was fire. If they rendered the center unusable, they would have to be transferred somewhere else, and maybe they would release them.
From the Yellow area, four out of five barracks spontaneously participated in the revolt. It was February 18. The inmates set fire to mattresses and bed sheets. The section was destroyed by the flames and, subsequent to the intervention of the firemen, was closed to allow renovation works. From the CIE, however, no one was allowed out. On the contrary, two Tunisians ended up in jail with serious charges of fire and devastation. And the others were arbitrarily denied the six month humanitarian permit that the Italian government had meanwhile decided to give all the Tunisians who had landed in Italy before April 5.
So the three friends from Sfax had to wait for the six months of detention to be up before returning to freedom. They were released last Wednesday afternoon. And one day later, they’re already about to depart. Hasan and Mahmud left first. Amir waited another two days. Time to detoxify from the drugs and get accustomed once again to the view of the sky on the horizon and the noise of cars, to the colors of the shops and the laughter of passers-by, to the voices of children and the smell of good food.
Blending in with the crowd of travelers at the station of Porta Nuova, he looks like a regular boy on his way to the seaside. Shorts, T-shirt, and a backpack with a couple of changes of clothes. The difference is that in his pocket he holds an expulsion paper. They gave him seven days to leave Italy. He has four left. After which he will once again be illegal. And at any point he could be stopped yet again by the police and taken back to a CIE for another 18 months.
He knows about the risks. He knows that life will be tough. But a good sailor is used to sailing in troubled waters. And the risks are part of the adventure. The important thing is to not lose the route. For now, he has gotten onto the train for Civitanova, and in the Marche region a fellow countryman is waiting for him. In Tunisia, he will not be able to return for many years, until he has obtained a residence permit in Italy. This is life underground. Samhini yamma. I wonder if Amir's mother will understand.
translated by Camilla Gamba