24 November 2011

Riad’s watch and the young men of Ouardiya

Tunis, the mothers of the boys missing en route to Lampedusa

It was the seawater that blocked the gears. The hands stopped last March 13, at three minutes past midnight. Salah has not wanted to fix the old wristwatch. She keeps it in a drawer, along with some newspaper clippings. She takes it out only in the most difficult moments when tears sting her eyes. The clock belonged to her son, Riad. And March 13 was the date of his departure for Lampedusa. It had all happened so quickly, in a matter of days. That sudden idea of selling the new computer. And then the departure to Sfax with Mohammed and Mustafa. No time to say goodbye and say the things that matter… and then Riad was lying dead in a refrigerator in the hospital of Sfax. Drowned in front of the island of Kerkennah along with 39 of the 45 passengers on an old 9-meter-long fishing boat en route to Lampedusa.

Only five managed to save themselves. Everyone else was swallowed by the icy, dark waters of the Mediterranean. A few days later, some of the corpses washed up on the shore, carried there by currents. Seventeen bodies in all. Rendered unrecognizable by the salt and the fish. Riad's body was among those 17. His father was able to recognize him by the watch he always wore on his wrist. The same he now keeps in the drawer along with newspaper articles of those days which speak of yet another massacre at the border.

Riad is now buried in the cemetery of Bab 3alioua in Tunis. Not far from there lie the coffins of the Hamrouni brothers. Mohammed and Mustafa, born in 1983 and 1985. Riad trusted them blindly. Not only because he’d known them since childhood, but also because Muhammad had already made the crossing. It was 2008 and he had managed to move to Brescia, where he had worked for a couple of years before being expelled in 2009. With the revolution and the opening of the border of Tunisia, Mohamed decided to try again and bring his younger brother along. Their parents, of working-class background, had decided to support them. After all, the now septuagenarian father had nothing better to offer them with the meagre pension of 100 Euros per month and with two other daughters to support, one of which separated and with a child. Thus, their mother, Zuhra, decided to pay for the tickets for to make the crossing with the money she had saved up: 1,700 euros, which bought the death of her children.

The one who knew nothing about all this was Mr. Omran. A former official at the Interior Ministry, now retired, who for some months has been crossing the capital from one district to another in an obstinate attempt to gather as much information as possible on the young men missing at sea. Information to share with the growing number of subscribers to his new association for the families of young men missing at sea off the coast of Lampedusa. His son Mortada3a had never thought about Italy. Mainly because in Tunisia he lacked nothing. He’d had the opportunity to study in high school. He had his own room, a computer, and prospects in life. But most of all he was 20. And dying to see the world, to travel and find himself. The year before, he had applied for a visa to study in Canada, but wasn’t able to obtain it. So it was that he left on March 13. He was on the same boat as Riad, Mohammed and Mustafa. His ticket was paid by his older brother, an engineer. Today he is buried in the same cemetery.

All four died in the prime of life. Killed by the border. Betrayed by the Revolution. They, who during the protests for the fall of the Ben Ali’s regime took to the streets. First to protest, then to garrison the neighbourhoods in the days when there was a vacuum of power and the country was in danger of falling into chaos. They, who eventually decided to burn the border to seek redemption in the land they had always dreamed of and now at last they could reach. A dream that quickly turned into a nightmare for their families and for us all, who have lost them forever.

translated by Camilla Gamba