01 March 2011

The Tunisians’ journey continues. From Bari to Ventimiglia, looking for adventure

They travel without luggage and wearing clothes far too light for the northern winter. They leave Italy. They are the Tunisians who landed in the past weeks at Lampedusa. In two weeks over 1400 of them have left without attracting too much attention. It is non-stop at the station of Bari. Every train is the right one. There is only one destination: France. Some prefer to catch the eurostar trains, they say that on the trains for the rich people there are fewer controls. Others wait for the night trains of the commuters. I travel with me. Car number 19. As soon as the train starts moving, I hear somebody calling my name in the corridor: “Gabriele!” It is Walid, one of the young men from Zarzis whom I have met at Lampedusa. He invites me to sit in their compartment. I introduce myself to Ridha and to Ahmed, they too are from Zarzis. A fourth young man sleeps with his mouth wide open and his face glued to the window. They have a long journey ahead of them.

They will arrive at Ventimiglia at one p.m., after taking a connection at Tortona. And from there they will continue by car, with a Tunisian smuggler until Toulon, from where each one of them will carry on on his own. The price for being smuggled without documents through the French border is 400 euros per head. A little pricey, but it is better not to take risks since the French police has intensified its controls on board the trains and at the stations at Cannes and Nice. The Italian authorities do not interfere.

This seems to be the policy adopted by the government off the record. To turn a blind eye and let the young men continue their journey since for most of them Italy is only an entry point towards France. It is the escape after the escape. Because the journey does not end at Lampedusa. The circle will be closed only once they reach Paris, Nantes or Marseille, where each one of them will reunite with his dear ones. Sources within the reception system confirm as much. Half of the Tunisians hosted at the reception centres have already left. They talk of at least 1400 people, against about a thousand requests for asylum. And even among the two hundred minors who were registered, about forty of them have already made themselves scarce.

Ridha is one of them. He is 17 years old and by law he should be assigned an apartment and a training course. But he prefers the adventure to the training courses. His dream is to reach France. A dream as much naïve as exciting, as all the teenagers’ dreams. So exciting that he left school for it. On February 10th, when they called him to start the journey he was still in the classroom. Physics, second subject. He answered on the mobile, and was reproached for it by the teacher, but it was too important. Then he apologized and without giving too many explanations took his backpack and left the classroom, running towards the sea. You cannot get back now, he jokes. Far too many days missed from school, the school year has gone. It was the last year but one of the highschool. But there, further away, France is beckoning. A place he has always dreamed about, notwithstanding the fact that he does not know anybody in Paris, apart from two girlfriends he has met through facebook and whom he has been seeing for more than year via webcam.

On the other hand, Walid has left his fiancée at Zarzis. It is a serious relationship, they plan to marry and buy a house after a couple of years at the most. He has also left a good job at Zarzis. He used to drive a taxi, but as a result of the revolution and the crisis in the travel sector, business was not so good. So thanks to the fact that he has a brother in Paris he decided to come to Europe to make ends meet. I ask him whether he does not feel that he has betrayed the revolution by leaving his country, afterall the young men from the poorer regions, who usually landed at Lampedusa in the past years, from Gafsa and Metlaoui, have not been seen this year, precisely because they are still involved in pro-democracy demonstrations. Walid stops me immediately. God forbid you mention the revolution.

He was in the square at Zarzis during the demonstrations, there were two martyrs in his town killed by the police, and a very good friend of his was shot in the leg. Later they all took part in the neighbourhood committees, after the withdrawal of the police from their headquarters, when Ben Ali’s henchmen terrorized everybody. It has been a fundamental experience. They know that they spearheaded the movement in Egypt and in Lybia. But this is not the point. The point is that they now want to live and they want to live well. The travel sector will not recover before a year or two, and they do not want to wait.
Although a job is not everything. For example Ridha says that if they repatriate him it will not be a problem. He only wanted to see France. And he took advantage of the fact that for a month there were no patrol boats and it was not anymore like it was when Ben Ali was in power, when if they caught you at sea going towards Lampedusa, you would be given six months in jail. Walid smiles: there was a moment at Zarzis when you just had to leave, without having any serious project, maybe just to show your friends that you were a man.

At any rate, Ridha and Walid will be alright. But not all the young men from Zarzis will be able to leave from Italy. In fact, at least 300 of them are now behind bars at the identification and expulsion centres around Italy. They face six months detention and the risk of forced repatriation. There is no use in looking for a logic explanation as to why some are detained and others travel without documents on the trains towards the border. Because there isn’t one. It is simply because they filled the expulsion centres, and when there was no more room they left everybody else go towards France.

Although within the centres people have started asking themselves a few questions. And the answer was the riots. For most of them it is the first time they are detained and they do not understand why. The expulsion centre at Gradisca was devasted by the fire. Skermishes with the police, fires and attempted break-outs have been registered at Trapani, Brindisi, Turin and Bari. The last centre to explode was that at Modena, when last Sunday the 42 Tunisians who had been transferred from Lampedusa set fire to the mattresses shouting “Freedom!”. Could it be that they took with them on this other side of the sea a little of the wind of the revolution?

translated by Alexandra D'Onofrio