24 September 2011

Lampedusa was already burning. Letter from Marta Bellingreri

Young Tunisians during the demonstration in Lampedusa, photo by Alessio Genovese

I receive and publish this letter from one who knows Lampedusa well. She is from Palermo, Sicily, her name is Marta Bellingreri and on the Italian island she worked the entire summer with a humanitarian organization project. She says she saw the flames from the first day she set foot inside the reception centre of the island. It was June 15, 2011. And the fire was already blazing. Made of humiliation, harassment, violence, corruption, silence. It could not have had a different ending. With a real fire in the square and the war declared by the police and some of the inhabitants of Lampedusa. The embers of that fire, however, are still alight. They can be found in the port of Palermo on the new floating CIEs where the rebellious Tunisians have been transferred. About 700 young men, watched over by more than 500 law enforcement officers. The port is armored. And for the city it is time to decide whose side they are on. Marta Bellingreri made her choice long ago. Read her letter and perhaps you will better understand how we got to this point.

Lampedusa was already burning
 by Marta Bellingreri

The spotlight returns to Lampedusa before going back to Baglioni: in a day of many landings, for a significant protest, for the Tunisians on the run…and finally, the fire. What those who worked on the island had been expecting for at least a month, precisely since August 21, with the rejection at sea of ​​104 Tunisians, of which only seven were allowed to disembark. Since then, landings of Tunisian nationals, transfers to the CIEs or repatriations picked up at a constant rate. We had been expecting things to erupt for a long time, the flames were fed slowly, and the fire is the end result, but in everyday things, silent injustices burned people, hope and freedom.

I believe the centre had been burning for a long time, since I first set foot there on June 15; to me the center burns when one does not understand why he is being detained a month in prison without having committed a crime, the center burns when children who run away to go and bathe in water are fished out by police in riot gear, even though those children are being deprived of their personal freedom and are being detained for a month; the center burns when despite your complaints you line up for food with the person who stabbed you during the sea voyage, the center burns when a baby is accidentally washed with hot water and is scalded, the center burns when even mediators are shoved because "I thought you were a Tunisian"; the wounds of mosquito and insect bites burn, as does the sunburn on the skin of the Tunisians taken at sea during the scorching hours of the day, which for some employees of the center were the hours of those who "go on an outing, get themselves a sandwich in the morning and come back in the evening hungry’’, the center burns then smells of the Mafia, but the ashes of this injustice do not fly away like the wind.

The center was always burning, but now there is the visibility and the sad excuse to say that today there are guilty people and they are called Tunisians. But then many other places should burn too.

The days of September 20 and 21 were obviously a disaster, but a disaster that was expected, in the center they now say is no longer there. Charred at least in part, the functional part that was not damaged still hosted Tunisian men and women, but perhaps this evening there will be no more. Now the center floats, it is a CIE ship, an idea already experimented in the past months, but the flames will not die out.

When the fire broke out, they immediately led those with disabilities away, including the paraplegic from August 21 who is in fact still being held in the center where there should only be a 48 hour stay; another in a wheelchair and two on crutches, while those who had their own legs and bags in hand ran away, past the advancing black smoke. Children and families with children had already been staying in the other center and apartments in Cala Creta for a week.

The constant insisting for the transfer of families and children, if not from the island as requested, at least from the Centre, is a sign of how the situation was explosive and very predictable. During the peaceful protests of August 29, September 5 and 7, moments of tension alternated with moments of fruitful discussion and information, tales of stories that at the center, separated by the gates that locked the adults up in the cage, were not always possible to hear, for those who like me spent most of their time with the minors, who often were just as exasperated and also on the run. But some were already saying they would burn the center. Without freedom, locked in a cage for a month, with reports of deportations and CIEs for 18 months, what else can you think of?

No one was injured, all were intoxicated. Then it was time for the people of Lampedusa to vent: hitting, running with clubs, slapping employees, mediators, journalists and Tunisians alike, at least for them there is no racial distinction. Citizens of the island, restrained only by the return of that apparent and silent calm of the Madonna di Porto Salvo, the patron saint of the island, and by the absence of the Tunisians on the streets, because when they are no longer there, then there is no problem. But the people of Lampedusa remain intoxicated; the Madonna of Porto Salvo will not wash their conscience this time, for in that port there will be no one left to save.

Deportations, mass repatriations, senseless transfers do not resolve the question that Tunisia and the south of the world have been asking us for some time, and since we have never been able give them an answer, they are coming to ask us directly, by landing here.

translated by Camilla Gamba