23 February 2011

Lampedusa. The first flight

Lampedusa airport. Four p.m. They arrive in groups of ten, in single file, without luggage and escorted by the police. They walk proudly and with their heads up, but their faces show their emotions. In fact, for many of them this is the first time they get on a plane. They are the Tunisian young men who landed on the island. They have been at Lampedusa for the past two weeks. And at last they have been granted the transfer to the reception centres of Bari and Crotone. The Eurofly airplane with which they will fly is visible through the glass partition. There are some youngsters among them who do not appear to be older than fifteen or sixteen. They have the right to go to a reception centre reserved for minors. But they prefer this adventure. Also because it is safer. According to the law they are considered unaccompanied minors. But they were not alone on the boats on which they arrived here. Somebody came with his brother, or with his uncle, somebody else with his friends. These are people they trust completely, and with whom they will continue the journey towards France. The excitement is visible on their faces. And they stare at the metal detector as if it were the last challenge. As if it were an initiation rite. After they are through the securitry checks and inside the plane, they become men. They become foreigners, life will be hard, they all know it, but they left for a chance to strive for a living.

And it is almost funny the idea that they may fear the airplane more than the voyage at sea. Not even Reda knows what it will be like for him to fly. And yet he has lived through quite a lot in his lifetime. Three years in Lybia, between Khums and Misratah working as a fisherman. Then back to Tunisia at Zarzis working full time as a porter for an Italian travel agency of the Blu Club Diana, with the tourists. And then the decision to leave. Sudden and adventurous. It was only 72 hours from the first time they actually talked about it in a bar in the neighbourhood to the day they sailed. And they did everything on their own. No samsara, no intermediaries. And he knows it quite well because he has sailed a boat before.

He was the only fisherman and the only one who could do it. He told me about it together with the other passengers on the boat. All friends and neighbours. They raised the funds for the expenses, acquired a boat with a 45 horse-power engine and 29 of them got on board. You absolutely need to stock up on three things for the voyage, Reda adds jokingly: fuel for the engine, water to drink and a little hashish to relax. And he must have really needed it, since they were at sea for 40 hours, without compass, and with the mobile out of battery after the first two days. He says that he pretended that everything was alright not to get the others worried, and that he told them the truth only after they had reached, with a great dose of luck, the port of Lampedusa.

And we should be grateful to him. Grateful for having left all the same, for having broken the laws. Because in the modern world, in which hundreds of millions of people travel every day from one corner of the planet to the other for business, study, family, pleasure or love, it is so anachronistic the idea of stopping people from moving around. In a world in which each one of us has some emotional, work or identity attachment with someone or something at the other side of the world, it is anachronistic that someone may travel and others may not. Therefore, welcome friends and good luck. Because the journey continues.

Reda, the porter fisherman from Zarzis, is going to France. He has just been sent 200 euros from his brother in Paris to the Lampedusa post office, using the name of an Italian resident. He is going to need it for the train ticket to Ventimiglia. Yassin instead will only go as far as Milan, where he will be met by his French fiancée, Marie. They met at Zarzis, where she went on holidays. He shows me an sms, in French, which says: “Darling it is better for you to wait for me in Milan, I miss you, kisses”. Mohamed, on the other hand, has left his girlfriend in Holland. In fact, he has already been in Europe, spending two years in Paris before being expelled. And then there is Amr, who is one of Reda’s crew from Zarzis. However, he is the only one who will remain in Sicily. He has a brother who lives in Palermo, who will host him as soon as he gets there. In the meantime he makes ends meet with the savings he brought with him. Two hundred dinars, more or less one hundred euros, in banknotes of small denomination, all creased after so many days in his pocket.

More Redas, more Mohameds, more Yassins and more Amrs will arrive in the next days when the sea is calmer. Because today the sea is rough, with 40 knot winds and three to four metre waves. The last two boats were helped out yesterday not far from the island. One of them with 197 people, among them three pregnant women, and the other one with 36 men, saved by a fishing boat from Mazara del Vallo a few hours before the sea became really dangerous.

translated by Alexandra D'Onofrio