22 September 2011

The war of Lampedusa told by Alessio Genovese

Police violence against Tunisians in Lampedusa, by Actualidad Rt

He is one of the best Italian photojournalists. His name is Alessio Genovese and unlike his colleagues he is fluent in Arabic, which has allowed him to spend the last 48 hours with the Tunisians on island of Lampedusa, Italy, and to understand better than others what really happened on the island. While awaiting his pictures, we asked him to tell us in writing what he saw. This is his testimony.

War on Tunisians and journalists in Lampedusa
by Alessio Genovese

They described them to us as criminals, ex-convicts from Tunisia, on the run to avoid settling their debt with the law. Until yesterday they were numbers adding to the thousands of immigrants arriving from North Africa. In recent months, government and police have been attempting to forbid us to communicate with them. The right to news and information stopped in the face of constant intimidation and obstacles purposefully placed between them and journalists. Today, making the headlines, are the 1,300 Tunisians, special detainees of a system that is afraid of them. For 24 hours they became champions of the right to information in this Italy where everyone gives up defeated by circumstances all too quickly.

After the fire of September 20, they poured out into the streets of Lampedusa. The reception center of the island, the CPA in Contrada Imbriacola, burned for hours. The smoke rose from the Guantanamo in the middle of the Mediterranean where they had been locked up, forcing the police to open the doors. At that point everyone thought of one thing: "Freedom." You could see them scrambling around, lost in Lampedusa. It didn’t take long for them to see that there is no escape from the island, and so they split up. From the outset it was clear that the people of Lampedusa were nervous. Those who approached them were not the usual curious ones, they were trying to understand the magnitude of the escape and figure out how to react.

They wanted to take back control of their island. Already in the early hours the pressure was sky high. "Lampedusa does not want you, go away beasts", they shouted at the frightened migrants, and heavy tones against the police were also used. "If you are not able to drive them away, we will". Adding to the tension was the mayor of the island, Dino De Rubeis, who publicly stated that in Lampedusa there is a war, saying that the people of Lampedusa would be able to solve the problem and defend the island. According to them, Lampedusa was under attack by the Tunisians. They were the enemy they needed to fight against, not the careless policy created by a government which decided to turn the island into a prison. To them, causing damage to the image of the place were those nameless and beardless faces that arrived on the island after being rescued at sea.

Already on the night of September 20 the majority of immigrants had been taken back to the square of the CPA. Outside and free, so to speak, were only 300 people who had taken refuge in the square opposite the island's commercial port, where there is also a gas station. The night passed quietly. The Tunisians prayed the ritual sunset prayer and kept watch all night. No one brought them food or drink. The people of Lampedusa and the police did not lose sight of them for a moment, making sure that no journalists or activists entered to speak with them.

Yesterday morning at dawn the day began with the first rumors of expulsions. The comrades who had been transferred before and after the burning warned that they had been repatriated to Tunisia. At that point the Tunisians began to worry as well. Some of them tried to carry on with negotiations to be transferred by ship and not by airplane. At that point they all began to shout together "Journalistes! Journalistes". They demanded the presence of journalists and media with whom to speak.

But on the other side were the others, the people of Lampedusa, blocking the few journalists on the island. Twice the crew of Sky News was attacked and a cameraman for the Regional TG3, who tried to approach the square, had his camera broken. Some of the immigrants managed to find bed sheets and paint with which to make banners. On one was written "Freedom Libertà" and on another "Sorry Lampedusa". But those messages never reached anyone.

At about ten o'clock, mayor De Rubeis visited the square. He spoke for a bit with the people of Lampedusa present and with the police, then headed to the square to talk with the Tunisians. He certainly proved he was not afraid of them. He reiterated that they were not welcome on the island and that they would be driven away by force.

The panic spread among the Tunisians. Many were afraid they would be killed by the Sicilian "mafia". It was then that they decided to gather inside the gas station hoping not to be charged on. "If they shoot they’ll blow us all up", of this they were convinced. This misunderstanding did not help, and the police thought that the immigrants wanted to blow the gas pump up. Men in riot gear closed access to the square by blocking the four roads leading to it.

The people of Lampedusa took courage and drew in even closer. For over an hour a cordon of policemen kept the people of Lampedusa from attacking the Tunisian nationals. At about eleven o'clock in the morning, the situation degenerated. A couple of Tunisians began to respond to provocations and stone throwing. Others found gas tanks and started to show them to the police, threatening to blast everything in the air if they were to be attacked. One of them kept shouting in Italian: "We're leaving, but not the blows". But at that point the charge became inevitable. The police charged from all four sides and the people of Lampedusa, too, plunged into the crowd armed with clubs and iron bars. (See video, editor’s note)

The violence of the attack was indescribable. Men from Lampedusa Accoglienza (the managing organization of the center) participated in the lynching. They were in the front row beating and spitting on the Tunisians. The immigrants took flight by jumping from the three-meter-high wall of the gas pump. Shots were coming from all sides. A group of locals threw stones at the immigrants from the roof of a house. At that moment there were no journalists or activists present, they had all been driven away to prevent them from seeing.

A group of five, six wounded immigrants took shelter in the corner of the gas station. Those who passed by spat on them, insulting and threatening them. Among them was a person of a certain age. We had noticed him the night before, when it had been possible to find out the names and stories of those faces. Muhammed E., 48 years old. For 18 years he had lived and worked in Padua, northern Italy, until the day he was injured on the job. Since 1997 he has been involved in a lawsuit against MET EDIL Ltd., but his lawyer ceased to follow his case in 2001 when he went to Tunisia for his convalescence. Due to negligence on behalf of his employer, he fell from the scaffolding and had his spleen and testis removed. He was coming to Italy to get his life back. The night before, when those faces had a name, he asked us to be allowed to speak with a representative of the Government. Now Muhammad has blood spilling out from his head and eyes full of fear. His dream of a better life in Italy dies in Lampedusa.

(by Alessio Genovese, translated by Camilla Gamba)