"My name is Nathalie. I am French. And my husband, Salah is one of your invaders. He is being detained in Lampedusa, this Italian island, which until now I didn’t even know existed. We are legally married. We keep in touch by text messages. I tell him to keep calm. As I write this, my husband is still waiting, like someone awaiting a death sentence, waiting for someone to decide on his fate. And I wonder what his future will be, and mine, and ours?"
Nathalie wrote this letter by hand, on 20 June. And she sent it to me via e-mail. Then she turned her computer off, packed her suitcase and ran to the Paris airport to fly to Palermo. The night before she had spoken on the phone with Sakina, another French woman, another whose husband, Khayri, was in Lampedusa. As chance would have it, Khayri and Salah had travelled in the same boat which left from Zarzis on May 13 and arrived on the island on the 14th. It was Sakina’s husband, Khayri, who collected among the inmates of the Chinisia CIE telephone numbers of wives and relatives in Europe.
The result is a list of 26 telephone numbers. Italy, France, Holland, Denmark, Germany. Nathalie’s number was on that list. Sakina called her first. Because she was French and because she was a wife. And they wept together over the phone, without ever having met before, the fate of their husbands. When Nathalie hung up, she had already decided within herself that she would leave. The next morning she bought a ticket online, she called her office and took a week off, and she wrote the letter and left.
Awaiting her is a piece of good news. Salah, her husband, has been released. Health reasons, he needs psychological support which they are not able to provide him in the Chinisia CIE. Today he was transferred to the reception centre in Salina Grande, also in Trapani. An open centre, with simple but dignified rooms. A shower, a shave, clean clothes and off to the train station for the appointment. Their embrace seems to last an eternity. And only when they move away, hand in hand, I realize that on Salah’s shirt is a print of a photo of them in Tozeur, Tunisia, standing in a playground under a fake dinosaur.
The same photo she shows me in its original version in one of the three albums of photographs she brought. There are shots of her holiday in Tunisia. The hotel in Tozeur, where Salah was working as a waiter when they met, the oases of the salt lake of Chott el Djerid, the waterfalls of Tamerza. And the house she had rented in Tozeur after their marriage. The last photos are from 2008. There are none more recent. The reason is simple. The last three years Salah spent in jail. With heavy charges of international drug trafficking. And a conviction that makes the skin curl: 36 years in prison. As fate would have it he only spent 36 months. The rest was taken care of by the revolution, which has also spread to the jails where political prisoners and those detained for ordinary crimes ravaged the prisons to return to live as free men.
It was April 29, 2011. And in the prison of Gafsa time went round in circles in the damned cell Salah shared with another 120 detainees crammed on the only 44 beds available. Everything and anything entered the cell, all you had to do was pay. Drugs, clothes, sweets, mobile phones. They even had a TV brought in. That day they were watching Al Jazeera. When the breaking news spoke of the revolt in the prison of Qasserine, a strange silence fell inside the cell. Since the beginning of the revolution more than ten thousand prisoners had already escaped from the country’s prisons. Mobsters and chicken thieves, murderers and political prisoners, drunks and layabouts, drug dealers and traffickers, real or imagined, like Salah.
In fact he continues to profess his innocence, saying that there was a miscarriage of justice, and that someone in his family had decided to make him disappear. That’s why they tortured him, because he refused to sign the minutes of the interrogation on which things were written that he had never said. They stripped him naked, first they bound him to the chair and beat him, then they raped him repeatedly. He still bears the marks from those nights. The broken teeth, marks from the handcuffs tight around the bone of the wrist; he is no longer able to move the thumb on his right hand after they twisted it over and over again to force him to sign.
Perhaps that's why Salah was among the most insistent that night of April 29 in the Gafsa prison. Ben Ali had fled and they, who were prisoners of Ben Ali, could not remain in jail serving sentences imposed by the regime. When they all finally became convinced that they could get away with it, they began to work on a plan. They used Salah’s bottle of olive oil as fuel as they went into the yard for their daily hour of air, taking advantage of a moment of distraction among the guards to set fire to some rags in the cell. In a few moments the flames burst out and began to burn everything: clothes, mattresses, pillows. Taking advantage of the panic of the prison guards, the inmates got the better of them in the physical fight, and before the fire spread to the entire prison, they took the keys from the guards to open the cells of the other sections and ran toward the exit.
In the end there was no need to use the bunk beds which in the meantime they had staked up against the wall as a make-shift staircase. Because in the meantime the firemen had arrived and had opened the main gate to douse the flames. From there, hundreds ran away to the countryside, among the olive groves, until they reached the nearest highway. There, each went his own way. Salah found himself alone with a friend. They hitched a ride with an Algerian who was on his way to Tozeur to return to Algeria.
Before boarding, Salah wanted to explain everything: that they had just escaped, and that he was likely to have trouble with the police if they were stopped. The Algerian laughed out loud and with a smile of complicity invited them to get in without making such a fuss. When Salah saw the phone on the dashboard he asked if he could use it. The driver told him once again to feel free. The first person he called was his wife Nathalie. He was free. He had to repeat it two or three times because she could not trust her ears.
Even today, while Salah recalls those moments in front of a tuna sandwich in a kiosk in Trapani, her eyes shine with emotion. Of those three years Nathalie recalls the thick glass separating them in the visiting room. And the phone through which they held the meeting, with a policeman behind them listening to everything they said. For three years she visited him, once a month, in the prisons of Gabes, Mornaghiya in Tunis, and finally Gafsa, where she befriended the wife of one of the country's main political prisoners, Boukaddous Fahem, the journalist who reported the union motions of the mines of Redeyef in 2008.
From Tunisia, Salah ran away less than two weeks after escaping from prison. Many of the other escapees preferred instead to return to prison trusting the promise of amnesty made by the transitional government. He was not up to it. The terror of torture, the thought of spending another 33 years in there. For him, who had entered prison at the age of 26, it would have meant coming out at the age of 62. A little like dying. And instead he decided to live. And to be reborn he defied death at sea. Burning the border on the night of May 13, from the city of Zarzis. In Lampedusa he arrived the next day. For fear of being identified if repatriated and returning to jail, he gave the police a fake name. The name of his best friend.
In Italy he expected to find freedom, but instead he went from one prison to another. From the prison of Gafsa to that of Lampedusa. And then to Chinisia.
Here, however, unlike in Tunisia, he did not find the strength to rebel. When each night they tried to escape from Chinisia, he informed me by text message that he would not follow them. He had a different thought. A fixation: suicide. But finally, perhaps just in time, for once the magistrate made the right decision and Salah was released for health reasons, complete with medical certificates attesting to his state of emotional instability.
And now that he is finally free, he’s back to being the big boy from the photographs of Armelle. Sunglasses, elegant clothes and a laugh ready to disperse the bad thoughts hanging from the white hairs sprouting here and there on his head. We say goodbye before he gets in the Fiat Panda they’ve just rented. They're going to spend the night in a B&B in Trapani. The first night after two months in the CIEs.
I see them disappear as they drive away on the main road towards the horizon. I wonder if Salah was really innocent or not. Thirty-six years in prison is like a life sentence. It’s one year longer than the 35-year sentence given in absentia to former Tunisian President Ben Ali, who was sentenced to 35 years for the crimes of the dictatorship. And so I think that whatever the story of this waiter from Tozeur, he has already paid more than enough. That three years of imprisonment and torture for a 26-year-old boy are enough. And that now the time has come to return to life. Good luck Salah. And good luck Nathalie.
Love in the time of frontiers. Sakina and Khayri
Love in the time of frontiers. Winny and Nizar
translated by Camilla Gamba