09 November 2011

Tunisia: the repatriation limbo

a report by Alessio Genovese, taken from Borderline Sicilia

In Tunis it is October 20, the country is preparing for the first free elections with joy and concern. At 7 am the streets are already full of commuters and workers. The mini-bus station Mansuf Bay is full of people coming and going from all over the country. They are commuters and traders who take the most unlikely of goods around the country. I heard someone call out to me from the crowd, "Abu Ali, Abu Ali the journalist." It’s Karim, one of the 1,300 Tunisians who were in Lampedusa September 20, when the centre of contrada Imbriacola caught fire. He is still wearing the trousers and shoes given to him upon his arrival on the island. He has a smile on his face and asks me if I remember him. There were many of them, too many to remember all, but Karim is one of those who still has not got a hair on his face. I remember him, he was among the 300 who spent the night at the gas station on the island, among those who were brutally beaten and assaulted by the people of Lampedusa. He was with Ali Aiad, his friend, a boy of just 18 who departed with him in August from Ben Arous, one of the poorest neighbourhoods of Tunis. He embraces me as if we’d been friends for years. "How are you? How long have you been in Tunisia?" he asked me, taking my hand, "Come with me, I'm leaving now." I don’t understand, "come and make the journey with us, so you can film it all."

There he was, Karim, dressed as a harraqa, plastic bag and cell phone in hand ready to record everything. From his eyes is a glimmer of a dream from a Roman postcard of the ‘50s. The idea that Italy looks like a Fellini film in black and white. The noise of the station covers his voice- not yet formed, I can barely hear it. I understand that he is not joking and that he is there to catch the first bus to Sousa, where he has an appointment with the smugglers who will bring him to Sfax. I wonder and ask why he would take the trip again, knowing what awaits him once he gets to Italy. Karim laughs, looks back and tells me that his four uncles have been in Italy for over 20 years and that after the death of his father he must provide for his mother and three younger sisters, and with the work available in Tunisia he can’t manage. "What happened in Lampedusa will never happen again," he assures me "now it's off to Sicily, we’ll set foot directly on dry land and then everyone on his own way, I will go to my uncle in Catania."

Karim’s determination amazes me. The dream he is living doesn’t allow him to see reality for what it is… or he’s expecting a gift from life and is convinced it will be Italy? We say goodbye, my bus is leaving for Sidi Bouzid and his for Sousa.

All day I think of the few words that fresh-faced young man told me at the Mansuf Bay station. If what he says is true, if it’s true he’s going to meet with the smugglers, this means that the "agence de voyage" - as the traffickers call the organization of passages- is preparing voyages towards Italy, to Sicily. It is well into October, the sea is stormy and Sicily is far away, much too far to not pose a risk.

I meet Sofien on Avenue Bourguiba, he’s the one to recognise me. I did not remember his face precisely. At first I doubted him, I thought he was one of those guys who stop tourists strolling down the avenue. His face is sad and he’s had a few beers. "You are the journalist who was with us in Lampedusa" he insists "we protected you when they tried to take your camera out of your hands." I'm beginning to believe him. He shows me the badge he was given upon arrival on the island, on September 10, the last of 5 boats to arrive on the same day, he is no. 33. On the same piece of wood there were 124 people, an infant, a two year old boy and a pregnant woman. "We spent 25 hours at sea before arriving in Lampedusa", his disappointment is obvious, "we stared death in the face. The boat was old and the children cried the entire trip. What am I supposed to do now, I lost everything I had to take the trip and here I am in Tunisia with nothing to do. "

Sofien is angry with fate, which made him come back. He rolls up his trousers to the knee and shows me a wound. "They beat us on the knees so we would not escape, 20 days have passed and I still cannot walk properly. And then all those days sitting in a chair in the lounge of a cruise ship. There were 500 of us, we could not move around, smoking was forbidden and were followed by two policemen on sight, even to the toilet." I ask him what he’s doing now, what he is planning for the future. "Nothing, what should I do? My family is fine but I feel like an idiot staying with them. I'm 28 years old and I’d like to live my life, see the world, find a good job and maybe think about getting married. I’ll try to make some money then I’ll take off again. I’ll try again another 100 times until it works, if I had a bit of money I’d leave right now." Sofien’s eyes are full of disappointment, but he does not feel anger towards Italians, he still thinks his life would be better in Italy.

I ask him to call the smugglers who arranged for him to leave in September, to see if they are preparing any crossings in the next few days. The information is golden but not yet confirmed. The night of the elections there will be some departures, once again they say that the destination will be Sicily, the big island. Sofien does not have the money to leave but he asks the smugglers all the relevant information. The trip costs more this time, the trip is longer, the risks are greater, therefore more expensive. After this phone call, Sofien makes another one. He calls the young men who were with him in Lampedusa, the ones who left with him from Jabal el Ahmar and came back on an airliner to the airport of Carthage. They all say they are ready to leave tomorrow. "Life is one and one is death, we cannot live thinking we can escape confrontation with death," says Jarboh, a friend of Sofien "we will go where our head tells us to go."

After everything they’ve been through, these young men continue to think about Italy and Europe. They felt the repressive side of "welcome Italy" on their own skin, their rights denied, their bodies beaten, and they did not believe it. Europe is something else. "It's not paradise, but I'm sure there I can put some money aside and have a better life," Muhammad tells me. He too was in Lampedusa, and he, too, cannot stop thinking about going back.

Although it is late winter, the human traffickers’ "agence de voyage" in Tunisia is always in operation. "As long as there is demand, there is supply," says H. a smuggler from Tunis, "it’s the way the market works, we satisfy the demand of these guys, it will not stop tomorrow or the day after tomorrow."

It will not be the Tunisian or Italian governments’ repressive policies that stop the harraqa. To see this, all you have to do is walk around the neighbourhoods of the capital and in the most depressed areas of the country. Even today, everyone is talking about and planning the trip. The only tangible result of the "fight against immigration" seems to be the justification of the existence of criminal organizations that derive economic benefit from the huge traffic of human beings to Italy.

translated by Camilla Gamba