The barbarians are here

A letter from Lampedusa

20 April 2016
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A typical Mediterranean island, poor but charming -- to the tourists, at least. At the same time though, Lampedusa is of course a symbol of the refugee crisis and a microcosm of the militarization of the Mediterranean. Fear and misconceptions abound in equal measure. Olaf Haagensen reports.

What are we waiting for, assembled in the forum?

The barbarians are due here today.

Why isn’t anything happening in the senate?
Why do the senators sit there without legislating?

Because the barbarians are coming today.
What laws can the senators make now?
Once the barbarians are here, they’ll do the legislating.1

As I’m getting off the plane, my rucksack gets caught on the handrail of the aircraft steps. The paper I’ve just read slips out of my hands, is snatched away by the wind, swept under the aircraft and out onto the runway. I have to reverse a few steps back up the stairs and get another passenger to help disentangle me. On the other side of the plane, still red-faced, I meet one of the baggage handlers. He’s standing beside the buggy they use to carry cases and bags to the arrivals hall and is holding a ball of paper the size of a globe between his hands. It’s my copy of Die Zeit, which he hands to me with an apologetic air: unfortunately, it’s a little crumpled. Too embarrassed to be polite, I simply mumble a grazie and hurry off to the arrivals hall, clutching my paper globe in both hands.

The idea was simple: “Go to Lampedusa and write about what you see. Describe how it feels to be at the outermost wall of Fortress Europe. Smells and colours, a first-hand account from the front.” Over the past few years, this little Italian island between Tunisia and Malta has become the foremost symbol of the refugee crisis in the Mediterranean. Since it is relatively close to North Africa, 100 km from Tunisia and 320 km from Libya, the island has long been the easiest way into Europe for people coming from Africa and the Middle East who can’t travel to the continent by the normal routes.

Photo: Luca Siragusa. Source: Flickr

In practice, the situation here has been untenable since the 1990s, when the first boat refugees began to arrive, but it is almost only ever discussed in the international media when there is a sizeable shipwreck – as in April 2015, when a boat went down with 800 passengers aboard. It is estimated that between 2000 and 2014, more than 22,000 people have lost their lives crossing the sea to Europe. 2015 has been the deadliest year to date, with 3771 victims. Nearly 3,000 of them drowned or disappeared when attempting to reach Italy or Malta.

At the baggage carousel in Lampedusa’s arrivals hall in mid-September 2015, where I stand waiting with M – both my travel companion and professional consultant – reality has surpassed itself in a matter of just months. My crumpled newspaper is devoted almost exclusively to the hundreds of thousands of refugees from Syria and the Middle East who are currently on their way to northern Europe from Turkey and Greece. Almost overnight, “the refugee crisis” has shifted from Lampedusa to Lesbos and Kos.

Of course, I know that’s not true; I know that the refugee crisis is not some kind of travelling circus doing a tour of the Mediterranean – from the seas off Libya and Tunisia in April, then on to the Greek Islands and the Balkan border crossings in September; even so, for the first few days I spend in Lampedusa, my main impression is that this is no longer the place where “it’s happening”. All told, it takes us no more than half a day to find the few places where we are reminded that this little strip of land – barely a third of the size of Nesodden peninsula, south of Oslo – is the destination for tens of thousands of people who squeeze onto open boats and set out across the sea.

We walk to the notorious boat graveyard, where the refugees’ boats are collected. Or rather we walk past it all the time, because it’s only a few hundred metres from our hotel. It’s a little smaller than the adjoining dusty football pitch, is separated from the road by a low wall and bears no resemblance to the astounding photos I’ve seen, which give the impression of a self-contained world of bows and wheelhouses, growing almost wild – a mysterious, archaic seabed seemingly dumped on dry land by some vast, unknown force. Now there are just five or six blue and white boats here, placed neatly side by side. Within a few days, I catch myself walking straight past it without giving it a thought.

We go to the Porta di Lampedusa – Porta d’Europa2 memorial. From a distance the construction doesn’t look so different from the ruined fortifications nearby: a stand-alone sand and rust-coloured wall with a door that opens out towards the blue sea. A blue, patterned shawl fastened to the flagpole beside it flaps in the wind. Did another tourist leave it behind, perhaps?

One afternoon, I read the 50-page booklet that’s on sale in the modest local history museum. Lampedusa: Geschichtlicher Überblick is the title of the German version I’ve picked up. The author starts with the first traces of humanity in Neolithic times, some 5,000 to 10,000 years ago, and works his way efficiently from the first Phoenician and Greek colonizations via the Romans to the Middle Ages, when the island constantly switches between Christian and Muslim rule. By page 32, we have reached the mid-1800s and the Italian colonization, then World War II also comes to Lampedusa (page 39) before the island develops into a tourist destination in the 1960s and 1970s. In between, the author weaves in a few cultural curiosities. One of the battles in the 1532 epic poem Orlando Furioso takes place on Lampedusa, and the French encyclopaedist, Denis Diderot, was enamoured of the island and wanted to found a small society of happy people here. On page 46, the boat refugees turn up: “In recent years, Lampedusa has become emblematic of illegal immigration from North Africa, and the expected growth in tourism has not materialized.”

To my untrained eye, there is nothing to indicate that Lampedusa’s tourist business is in any difficulties. If you stand at the viewpoint at the end of the main street, Via Roma, what might be termed Lampedusa town centre lies behind you. Everything is here: the church, the police station, the town hall, the library, the post office and the few existing food stores – not to mention all the restaurants and cafés, hotels and tourist shops crammed together the length of Via Roma. From this viewpoint, you can look out over the huge bay on Lampedusa’s south-eastern tip, where most of the island’s 6000 or so inhabitants live. To the left is Porto Vecchio (The Old Port), where the daily ferries between Lampedusa and Sicily dock, and the airport. To the right is Porto Turistico (The Tourist Port), where the boat graveyard is located, and which is usually filled with boats offering short cruises or diving trips. If you’re in the mood for it, you can enjoy a happy hour on a pirate ship flying the skull and crossbones from the top of its mast. From the viewpoint you can see over to Spiaggia Guitgia, one of Lampedusa’s most popular beaches, which is almost entirely covered with sunbeds and parasols. And if you listen, you’ll notice the constant racket of the scooters that both locals and tourists dash about on; you can hire them everywhere. When evening falls, after that brief hour when the light across the sky shifts from deep yellow to dirty pink to night blue, you’ll hear cover versions of Ricky Martin and Bob Marley wafting from the outdoor stage of one of the biggest cafés, as the dogs that have lain dozing in the shade all day long roam among the street hawkers offering sunglasses, wallets and mobile phone cases. This isn’t actually the front: it’s the Mediterranean.

One of the first things I want us to do after we arrive on the island is visit the immigration reception centre, where the boat refugees are housed after they’ve been brought ashore, before they are transported onwards to Sicily or the Italian mainland. I’ve found it on Google Maps and it’s supposed to be right beside Spiaggia Guitgia – the red icon shows up on the map in-between hotels and restaurants, it’s just a question of walking there. So we do that, even though M patronizingly explains to me that it isn’t right, that the reception centre can’t be in the middle of a district packed with tourists. She’s right, of course. Lampedusa immigrant reception centre is a digital ghost. All we find is a vacant, overgrown lot.

The whole battery of international aid agencies has a presence on Lampedusa, but as a regular tourist you’ll see little sign of them. No signposts or banners in the town tell you that the Red Cross or Médecins sans Frontières have bases here. But there is the grey coastguard ships moored at the military dock that separates Porto Vecchio from Porto Turistico: this being the most revealing sign that Lampedusa is not just a little corner of the Mediterranean troubled only by the prospect of overcast weather or jellyfish. You can’t get onto the dock itself, but if you stand almost anywhere in the bay, you get a view of it. Not that there’s much to see. While we are there, the ships lie heavy and calm in the water, or else the harbour lies empty in the sunlight.

Before long, the rest of the world starts to feel infinitely remote. We can only get Internet access in the hotel lobby and if there’s a newspaper kiosk on Lampedusa, I never found it. The images that were so present for me before I left – overloaded boats and crowds of people heaving against barbed wire fences – are reduced to a few fleeting shadows I sense now and then, on the outer edges of my consciousness. One afternoon, I’m lying on my back in the water, bobbing about in an almost deserted bay a little way away from the town centre. All I can see is the sky and the two lava stone cliffs that stretch out across the sea towards the empty horizon. It’s 2015, but judging by what I can see around me, it could just as well be 1915, or 1515 for that matter. The idea that there is anything else, that there has ever been anything other than just this – water and warmth, rippling waves and shining sun – seems completely unnatural, there and then.

The knee-jerk reaction of cultural criticism is to say that a society’s suffering should be reflected in the public space rather than being cleaned away. If there is heroin in the city, the drugs won’t disappear just because you clear the junkies out of the city centre. That just makes life even more difficult for a marginalized group of people, and also contributes to a general diminishing of awareness among the other inhabitants. Out of sight, out of mind. If the suffering is visible, it is easier to politicise it and remedy it. Is it that simple here on Lampedusa too?

The International Organization for Migration (IOM) reports that some 153,000 refugees came to Italy in 2015. That number is relatively low by comparison with the 845,000 refugees who are registered in Greece. In 2014 Italy had 170,000 arrivals, and in 2013 there were around 57,000. During the Arab Spring in 2011, 48,000 refugees had come to Lampedusa alone by the end of August.

The numbers in themselves should be enough to make it clear that out of sight out of mind doesn’t apply to the people of Lampedusa. The local population has had close contact with refugees for years. The coastguards and local fishermen have assisted refugee boats in trouble at sea, and when there have been numerous arrivals, people have stepped up and helped out to the best of their ability. The current mayor campaigned on a platform of more humane treatment for refugees. What the tourist sees is different from what the locals see.

Of the previous year’s enormous stream of refugees to Greece, more than half came from Syria (around 455,000), whereas the largest groups arriving in Italy were all from Sub-Saharan Africa (Eritrea, Nigeria, Somalia and Sudan). Only just over 7,000 of the total of 153,000 came from Syria. Very broadly speaking, the people who come to Greece are fleeing war, whereas those who come to Italy are fleeing poverty and oppressive or badly governed regimes. Lampedusa and Italy highlight the atrocious injustice that separates Europe from a continent it has colonized and exploited for centuries. No treaty achievable, no regime change, no quick fix will stop the stream of people.

Time and again during the week I spend here I ask myself whether the situation of the people who cross the sea to Lampedusa – and who will continue to do so in the future – would be better if the island looked less like the Mediterranean and more like a refugee camp, but I haven’t found the answer. Tourism, Lampedusa’s most important source of revenue, would plummet and that would hardly be positive for the refugees in terms of public opinion. Currently, the refugees are invisible to regular tourists, they scarcely register as a presence in their picture of the town; initially it feels wrong, but is there perhaps a kind of protection in it? If they can’t be seen, doesn’t that make it more difficult to pinpoint them as a problem?

In any event, it is possible to catch a glimpse of what is actually going on. Suddenly, half the tables in the café are filled with people in uniform or – as happened on our last day on the island – a coastguard ship with refugees comes into dock. The deck is crammed with people in red lifejackets and on the military dock, two ambulances and a grey bus are waiting to transport the arrivals onwards to the reception centre. A couple of green, square tents without walls appear to constitute different stages in the disembarkation process. From where I’m standing, I can see ambulance personnel in their easily identifiable blue and bright yellow uniforms, and what I assume must be doctors in white overalls. All of this takes place calmly, apparently without any drama – and without a public: there is no gathering of onlookers. A couple of hours later, the dock is empty again.

When we’ve been on Lampedusa for a few days, we find our way to Mediterranean Hope (MH), an organization run by the federation of Protestant churches in Italy. Their office is based in an anonymous building right beside the church on Via Roma. We speak to Alberto Mallardo, a small man in his mid-20s with ear expansion piercings and dreads, while two of his colleagues, Marta Bernardini and Simon Albers (the latter a German who is doing a couple of months’ voluntary work for the organization) interject comments along the way, or help Mallardo out with English words and expressions. None of the Italians at Mediterranean Hope (a fourth colleague is busy elsewhere) are originally from Lampedusa; all of them have moved here because of the job. The only one in the organization who’s a true Lampedusan, we joke, is the cat that sneaks across the table, threading its way between our glasses of water as we speak.

MH can be viewed as an observation post monitoring the stream of migration to Italy and the EU and Mallardo explains that much of their work consists of talking to and helping out foreign journalists and reporters who come to Lampedusa. The organization doesn’t work inside the reception centre, but handles different types of information work. For example, they arrange a regular discussion forum where the local inhabitants can meet and bring up questions and problems related to immigration. Fear and false impressions circulate, according to Mallardo, and immigration is often associated with terrorism and illness. MH tries to contribute by providing accurate data and correcting misapprehensions, without making light of any concerns the locals may have. MH is also there when coastguard ships bring refugees ashore, handing out water, blankets and food. There’s an element of the assembly line about the disembarkation, Albers explains. They try to ensure that, on their arrival, the boat refugees don’t just meet military personnel and doctors with surgical masks – that there’s also somebody on the dock to smile at them, give them a cup of hot tea and welcome them.

As we sit and talk, a procession goes by right outside the window, accompanied by music from a full brass band. The parade is part of a larger festival that is taking place for most of the time we spend on Lampedusa. Nearly every evening, we hear metallic voices from loudspeakers turned up too high ringing between the low houses, and the snap of firecrackers, or we come back to the centre of town one afternoon and find Via Roma full of people taking part in a piñata-like game where they have to smash flowerpots strung across the street on a line with a baseball bat. On this particular afternoon, the parade and the music are occasioned by the fact that the town’s Madonna – the local sculpture of the Virgin Mary – is being carried back to the place outside the town centre where it is kept for most of the year. The sun glitters on the brass instruments. At the head of the procession, Bernadini points out, walks the mayor, 54-year-old Giusi Nicolini.

Nicolini took office as mayor in 2012. Before entering politics, she spent more than two decades leading the island’s natural conservation efforts. It’s thanks to her that the area around Spiaggia dei Conigli, or Rabbit Beach – the world’s fourth-best beach according to TripAdvisor – is now a nature reserve, inaccessible to cars and scooters. It is also largely thanks to Nicolini that Lampedusa’s work receiving and accommodating refugees has been described as “exemplary” by Lampedusa’s representative at the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, Alessandra Romano. “If northern European countries truly want to help us deal with immigration”, Nicolini has said in an interview, “they should send tourists here”.

Some months after Nicolini was sworn in as mayor, she published an open letter. The first two paragraphs run:

I am the new mayor on the Island of Lampedusa and Linosa. I was elected in May and already, by 21 November, I have been presented with 21 dead bodies. These people drowned while they were trying to reach Lampedusa. That is unendurable for me. For Lampedusa it is an enormous burden and a sorrow. We had to ask other municipalities for help to be able to give the last 11 a dignified burial. We didn’t have enough room for these poor souls in our graveyard. We will get more space, but I ask you all: How big must the graveyard on my island get?

Nicolini wants the EU to reinstate Mare Nostrum (Our Sea), the rescue operation Italy carried out in the Mediterranean in autumn 2014, which the European Refugee Council says saved around 140,000 people. Mare Nostrum was replaced by Triton, which is part of the EU’s system for the monitoring and surveillance of the union’s borders and not primarily a rescue operation. Nicolini has also expressed the view that the EU should set up so-called humanitarian corridors.
At the Mediterranean Hope office, Mallardo wants to talk about just that – the concept of the “humanitarian corridor”. MH is, in fact, in the process of building one from Melilla in Morocco to Italy. Melilla is one of the Spanish enclaves that still exist in North Africa and is, like Lampedusa, a goal for many of those who set out on the long journey north through the Sahara. Melilla is totally fenced in and is often cited as an example when people discuss the militarization of Europe’s borders.

MH’s humanitarian corridor is a collaboration between the Italian embassy in Melilla and the Italian Ministry of the Interior, explains Mallardo, and means, in practice, that it is possible to issue visas to people staying in the area around Melilla and to cover their travel costs to Italy, where MH will help them with language learning and job seeking – not to mention with establishing whether there are grounds for them to remain in Europe. So the visa is not synonymous with a residence permit; it simply ensures that those selected can avoid taking one of the illegal and life-threatening routes to Europe. They can travel on board a plane instead of clinging to the chassis of a lorry, getting into an overloaded inflatable boat or trying to climb over a three-metre high barbed-wire fence. The project won’t cover more than around 100 people, and is directed at especially vulnerable groups: women, children, disabled people. They are envisaging 50 people from Syria and 50 from Sub-Saharan Africa, Mallardo says. The humanitarian corridor will mean everything to those who are chosen, but it will not have any impact on the statistics. In this respect, it is a symbolic project, which directs a searchlight at the blind spots in the European refugee and asylum system.

In parallel with the rise in the number of refugees in the past decades – in the 1980s, it was estimated that there were 10 million refugees worldwide, by 1995, the figure had risen to 25 million and today it is thought that 60 million people throughout the world have been driven from their homes – it has become steadily more difficult for people from poor parts of the world to travel legally to Europe. For example, visa obligations have been introduced along with fines for (airline) companies that transport people across an international border without a valid visa. At the same time, an asylum application to a European country can only be delivered on the territory of the state concerned, and not at one of its embassies or outposts. It is this paradoxical situation that MH’s humanitarian corridor is intended to highlight: how Europe waves UN conventions promising asylum and protection with one hand while trying with the other to keep out as many as possible of those who believe they are in a situation that falls under these conventions – with the result that thousands of people die every year near the borders of the continent that takes credit for democracy and human rights.

And freedom of movement. Post-war Europe is also the continent of freedom of movement. Perhaps that doesn’t sound so spectacular by comparison with democracy and human rights, but in the days we’ve spent travelling from Oslo to Lampedusa, before we ended up in the offices of Mediterranean Hope, we have been constantly reminded of the privileges we enjoy as possessors of Norwegian passports and Norwegian salaries. The people who are trying to get to Europe from Sub-Saharan Africa are not travelling in the usual sense of the word; they are goods on a level with drugs and weapons, and form part of a long chain of transactions in which every middleman demands his share of the profits. Every border and every change of transport presents a new obstacle, a new possibility that somebody in authority or a people smuggler might close a door.

M and I experience the polar opposite. Every time a problem arises, somebody opens a door for us. The first time we had to show our passports was when we got to our hotel in Palermo and were about to check in. When we changed planes in Stockholm and our onward flight to Sicily was delayed, the public address system announced: Only boarding card! No control! to make it quicker to board the plane. When the ferry we had planned to take from Porto Empedocle in southern Sicily to Lampedusa was cancelled owing to bad weather and we had to take a plane instead, we accidentally bought subsidized tickets intended for the island’s inhabitants, but were simply waved through when our mistake was discovered. Please remember next time. When we landed on Lampedusa, the hotel had, on its own initiative, sent a car to pick us up, the only two guests on board the plane.

Mallardo also volunteers his services as a driver. At first when he hears that we haven’t yet been to the reception centre, he marks it on our tourist map, drawing a cross some place outside the centre where it doesn’t look as if there’s anything whatsoever, but then he changes his mind: he’ll drive us there. If we try going to the reception centre via the main road, the police will just turn us away. He knows of another route. We haven’t been driving for more than a few minutes, but when we get out of the car it’s as if we’re in a quite different place from the one where we’ve spent the past few days. The landscape is dry and grey, dotted with low, hardy bushes, the occasional tree. Nobody lives here; the few houses we do see look abandoned and derelict. Ahead of us lies Lampedusa’s only valley. At the bottom of the gentle slope are a number of featureless two-storey buildings, so low that they’re invisible until you’ve reached high enough ground to have a downward view. Around the buildings runs a wall topped by netting fence. Within this area, a group of African men or boys are playing football, and clothes are hanging out to dry in the last of the afternoon sun. In one corner is a pile of mattresses. It was overcapacity in the summer, explains Mallardo, indicating the mattresses. People slept outside in the open air.

The centre opened in 2006 and is a visible sign of the rearmament of Europe’s borders, which began in the 2000s. Frontex, the EU’s border control agency – which coordinates Operation Triton – was set up in 2004. In late 2014, Frontex launched Eurosur (the European Border Surveillance System). Over the course of the coming years, drones, infra-red cameras and satellite technology will ensure that Europe’s borders – sea, land and air – are under surveillance 24 hours a day. In parallel with this rearmament of Europe’s southern border, the Libyan dictator Muammar Gadaffi was allowed in from the political cold again after many years as a persona non grata. Under the treaty Italy signed with Libya, the latter declared itself willing to receive all the refugees who had made their way into Italy from Libyan territory, and to implement stricter monitoring of its own borders. In return, euros flowed back from the other side of the Mediterranean. Similar treaties were signed between Europe and a series of North African countries: Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia and Egypt. Up until the Arab Spring of 2011, North Africa was, in practice, Europe’s southern border.

As we have stood looking at what little there is to see down there in the valley, dusk has begun to fall. Mallardo has to leave: he has a heavy schedule over the next few days. Mediterranean Hope is involved in financing a combined festival and seminar arranged by some local activists. It is due to start this evening – we should drop in.

As a result of Mallardo’s tip, I spend most of my time over the next few days sitting bent double in a dark venue with an iPhone bud in one ear, listening to English simultaneous interpretations of eager but unfocused discussions about migration to Europe. The venue, called Porto M, belongs to the activist collective Askavusa (which apparently means “feet”) and is inside the mountain below the viewpoint at the end of Via Roma. M finds it less appealing to sit in a cave when it’s 25-30 degrees and sunny outside, so she finds other things to fill her time with.

Those participating in the discussions are activists from different parts of Europe and North Africa, the majority of them in their early to mid-20s. They exchange experiences and information, talk about the work they’re doing. The activists have come from Ventimiglia, on the border between Italy and France, and Melilla, the Spanish enclave in Morocco. Two of the participants have come from Calais in northern France, where they work in the place known simply as the “Jungle”, the settlement that has grown up in the vicinity of the tunnel between France and England. Other activists work in Piemonte to combat the exploitation of undocumented migrants in the agricultural industry, or on the border between Germany, Austria and Italy. In addition, various others participate more or less sporadically, out of personal or professional interest. I meet a researcher from Japan and a poet from Malta, a journalism student from Belgium. The activists’ aims for the next few days are to find enough common ground for future collaboration.

Askavusa has around 40 loosely associated members, three or four of whom are permanently based on Lampedusa and are at the farthest left of the political spectrum. When I ask, one of the members describes the group as “anarcho-communist”. Askavusa is particularly concerned with the link between migration and militarization; their key idea is that immigration from North Africa is being exploited by the Italian and European authorities to increase the military presence in the Mediterranean region and on Lampedusa.

The most visible expressions of Lampedusa’s militarization are the many radar and communications facilities that have appeared in recent years, a local journalist tells us one afternoon during an excursion to the windswept western point of the island. We stand looking in at the fenced-in area that houses some kind of communications site with antennae and radars. There is talk of how cancer figures are higher on the island than in the rest of Italy – could all these radars be to blame? The sites are presented to the public as defence installations, but may also be used for electronic warfare, it is claimed. Lampedusa is described as “a big ear for the Mediterranean”.

I don’t quite know how far I should believe what I’m hearing from the English-speaking Italians who take it in turns to interpret for groups of foreigners; the journalist is giving his lecture in Italian. There is after all a perfectly obvious military presence on the island – no sooner has the lecture begun than a jeep full of soldiers turns up to ask what we’re up to, then leaves, only to return ten minutes later – but mistrust of the authorities and the mainstream media is so strong, so constant. Apparently, nothing is as it appears to be …

It’s easier to relate to everything at Porto M, Askavusa’s headquarters – on all the shelves and in the homemade display cabinets that line the walls. There’s an exhibition here, but not of objects you’d usually come across in a gallery. On one shelf there are dented bowls and saucepans, colanders and teapots in ceramic and metal, saucepan lids. On another there are cassettes, on a third, toiletry items: a pink comb, a tube of toothpaste, a disposable razor, lip balm. One display case contains copies of the Bible and the Koran, and on one shelf just below the ceiling are foodstuffs: an unopened packet of spaghetti, olive oil, a cola can, a bottle with a label that reads BITTER SODA. On one of the walls hang clothes: a pair of jeans, dresses, a stripy jumper. And there’s more: broken mobile phones and telephone cards, cutlery, water bottles – a whole net full of water bottles that stretches the length of a wall. Packets of cigarettes, measuring cups, boat fenders and lifejackets, life-buoys, different kinds of tools, wallets, a string of little Turkish flags. Shoes hang from the ceiling, no pairs.

All the things in the place are objects Askavusa has collected from refugees’ boats, things that would otherwise have been destroyed. Of the people who owned these items, nothing is known: nothing about what they thought or imagined when they packed up their things and set off for Europe; nothing about what happened to them after that. Whether they live here now or whether they were sent back to where they came from. Whether they reached Europe.

You can vanish in here, in imagined destinies and questions you’ll never have answered. Every little object is way into a dizzying infinity of life that you can only grasp in small glimpses. The pink comb on that shelf over there, the one with the dirty teeth – who owned it? Who was this person? A man or a woman? Why did she take that comb with her? Was it perhaps all he owned, or did this particular comb have a special significance? What other luggage was she carrying? What was she, or he, leaving? And what did this person hope to find here in Europe? Did they come alone, or with people they knew? Where is this person now? What are they doing?

Every so often, I have to jolt myself out of the stories I’m building up around every object, or more accurately, the stories that build themselves up in me whether I like it or not, like a dam whose water simply rises and rises until it bursts and sweeps all these people along with it into something that is mine, not theirs, whatever they now are or were. I make fiction of them: a pink comb becomes a Nigerian girl who’s standing in a Schlecker store somewhere in Northern Germany, rooting through the bargain bin in the hope finding a comb like the one she got from her mother many years before. I weigh them down, conclusion by conclusion, and I don’t want to. There is nothing here other than what I can see: toothbrush, cooking pan, mobile telephone. That’s all, and I must keep a firm grip on that. Water bottle. Bible. Dress. Shoe.

All the discussions in the darkness at Porto M will culminate in a demonstration outside the reception centre. On the penultimate day of the festival, we therefore gather outside a café down by the harbour while cars and scooters are organized. I end up in the back of a delivery truck with far too many other people and then we drive off, bumping along. Once we are there and the door opens, I don’t recognize where I am; it doesn’t look like the place Mallardo took us a few days earlier. There are around 40 of us there when one of the Askavusa members leads the way and we begin to walk along the unsurfaced road that runs through the arid landscape of low houses and low walls. I think that I’ll start to recognize where I am again soon, but no. Nothing here indicates that there’s a reception centre for refugees in the vicinity. After a while we stop and I’m clearly not the only one finding it hard to get my bearings; the local activists are also having difficulty finding their way.

We have to walk back part of the way we came and turn off at a crossroads, then I suddenly recognize where I am when we reach the top of the little hill where M and I were a few days ago. It looks the same as before. The piles of mattresses lie in the same corner and there are clothes hanging out to dry in the sun. It’s two o’clock, the day is at its hottest point and the only people outside down there in the centre are a couple of children who wave at us as we make our way down the gentle slope and over to the wall. Along the outside of the wall runs a deep gutter reminiscent of a moat. Even if the people inside the camp come all the way over to the wall, there are still four or five metres between us and them; we can’t get closer to each other than that. There’s such a loud roar coming from what I imagine is a cooling or air-conditioning system that the demonstrators outside the wall have to shout: DID THEY TAKE YOUR FINGERPRINTS? HOW IS THE FOOD? WHERE ARE YOU FROM?

The group of people inside the fence has grown and some employees have come along too, and are standing apart without doing anything when one of the Askavusa members turns up with a guitar and plays a song that is clearly well-known to all the Italians: they sing along and clap in time to it. The children stand quietly, looking straight at the people outside the fence. A couple of them clap along, one holds onto his blue plastic football as the singing turns into shouting: FREEDOM, FREEDOM, FREEDOM.

The plan for the demonstration didn’t extend beyond this: to show up, express solidarity, sing and dance. When the cooling system suddenly stops roaring, it is oddly quiet. “WE DON’T KNOW!” shouts one of the activists. He’s answering a question from the other side of the fence that I didn’t hear, but it feels like a verdict on the whole demonstration. I don’t know what we’re up to here, what this is for, and I wonder what the people inside there think about us out here. Do they see solidarity and support? They probably do, but does it have any meaning for them? Do they expect that this will develop into something else? That somebody will breach the fence at the top of the wall and reach down a hand? And if that happened and if somebody in there were to grasp it and let themselves be helped up and out – what would happen then?

In January 2009, the reception centre was over capacity. 2,000 people in facilities intended for 700. There were demonstrations in the town of Lampedusa; the island’s inhabitants felt they had been abandoned by the Italian authorities – and then suddenly the refugees streamed onto the streets. The management at the reception centre had allowed a so-called controlled escape. The island’s population and the refugees came together to fraternize and fight a common enemy. There was singing and drunkenness, and when the police intervened on the orders of Italy’s Ministry of the Interior to re-establish control of the island, the people of Lampedusa hid refugees in their homes. Word spread and protests started in reception centres on the mainland – rebellion was in the air.

Does Askavusa hope something similar will happen now? Are the refugees in there ready for it? Are we ready for it? We are not. A glance at our motley little band of anarchists and tourists, researchers and students is enough to tell you that. We can shout “NO BORDERS, NO NATIONS, STOP DEPORTATION”, but to do anything else – that would be totally reckless.

After an hour, the demonstration breaks up peacefully. The nearest we’ve come to a confrontation is a little camera war when the activists film inside the reception centre and the employees inside the walls film them back. We have each other on file.

In the time after the demonstration, a little bit of literary history keeps popping into my head. Oddly enough, it isn’t mentioned in the pamphlet from the local history museum, but Lampedusa lies in the same waters where Shakespeare’s The Tempest takes place. In the play, Alonso, the King of Naples, and his company are on their way home after celebrating the princess’s marriage to the King of Tunisia when they are caught in a terrible storm and wrecked on a barren island. The survivors of the wreck become separated from one another and spend the next few hours wandering around in a world where nothing is as it first seems. Prospero is to blame, a magician who has lived on the island with his daughter Miranda since being deposed from the throne of Milan twelve years earlier by Alonso and his own brother. Prospero has summoned up the storm. Everything that happens on the island happens under his magical direction.

The Tempest can be read as a play about seeing, and what it implies to be seen – and what delusions underpin the gaze we cast upon each other and our surroundings. “The fringed curtains of thine eye advance/And say what thou seest yond”, says Prospero to Miranda at one point. And that is also a question the other characters, and the reader, are confronted with time and again: what do I actually have right in front of me? Who is this standing before me? Is this a place where you and I can become a we?

Shakespeare’s island is a projection room for many futures, great and small, ranging from the magnificent utopia to personal liberation. The old counsellor Gonzalo imagines, for example, that one – or more precisely he – could found a whole new, different society among the island’s bushes and stones:

I’ the commonwealth I would by contraries
Execute all things; for no kind of traffic
Would I admit; no name of magistrate;
Letters should not be known; riches, poverty,
And use of service, none; contract, succession,
Bourn, bound of land, tilth, vineyard, none;
No use of metal, corn, or wine, or oil;
No occupation; all men idle, all;
And women too, but innocent and pure;
No sovereignty;
[…]
All things in common nature should produce
Without sweat or endeavour: treason, felony,
Sword, pike, knife, gun, or need of any engine,
Would I not have; but nature should bring forth,
Of its own kind, all foison, all abundance,
To feed my innocent people.

It doesn’t go beyond words for Gonzalo. He never gets further than the dream of another, simpler world.

For Caliban, Prospero’s slave, it’s a different matter. He is tired of being bullied and tormented by his powerful master, tired of what Prospero calls his “human care”. When the shipwrecked people appear on the island, he senses an opportunity to cast off his yoke. But he allies himself with the wrong people. The jester Trinculo and the drunken butler Stephano want adventures and easy riches; they are not the fellow revolutionaries Caliban needs by his side. Their rebellion is put down almost at once, and Caliban has no choice but to grovel to Prospero again: “I’ll be wise hereafter / And seek for grace. What a thrice-double ass / Was I, to take this drunkard for a god /And worship this dull fool!”

Outside the reception centre that afternoon in September – what role were we playing? Were we Gonzalos or Trinculos or Stephanos? Harmless dreamers or noisy ignoramuses sticking our noses into things without understanding the implications? And is there a third, alternative role? One that is based on Gonzalo’s utopian awareness and yet at the same time manages to harness the energy in the cynical pragmatism of Trinculo and Stephano? How is one to become that character?

During the last evening of the festival, as we’re preparing to move out of Porto M for the concluding plenary discussion, to the open plateau outside with a view over the whole bay, the Belgian journalism student takes me aside and points down towards Porto Vecchio. Look, Sea Watch has come in. I’ve heard about Sea Watch – the Germans with the boat – several times in the short week I’ve spent on Lampedusa, but I haven’t yet met anybody involved in the project.

When I climb on board the Sea Watch ship at lunchtime the next day, activity is in full swing. They returned from an expedition the evening before, explains Harald Höppner, one of the organization’s two founders, and there’s a lot of post-expedition work to be done. We sit in the cabin and talk while Höppner shows me video clips of inflatable boats filled to the brim with people, blue sea all around, no land in sight. The videos are from the expeditions Sea Watch has carried out since its launch in June 2015. Höppner estimates that they have helped around 2,000 people all told. But now they’re finished for the season: this was the last expedition. The ship isn’t equipped for autumn and winter weather in the Mediterranean.

Sea Watch (the organization and the ship share the same name) is too small to take boat refugees on board. What Höppner and his seven-strong crew do is locate refugee boats, send for bigger ships and keep the refugees afloat and alive until they are rescued. They hand out lifejackets and water, give acute first aid if anybody needs it and send life rafts if the boats are in danger of sinking. Sometimes a bigger ship is in the vicinity and the rescue operation is quick; other times, they’ve had to wait eight or nine hours.

Höppner compares Sea Watch’s activity with what any ordinary driver would do in his own country: if you’re out driving and come to the scene of an accident, you stop and help out as best you can until the ambulance arrives. Höppner’s comparison is apt but overly modest. Sticking to the analogy of the car accident, Höppner has organized a group of around 50 volunteers who drive around the worst accident black spots 24 hours a day and help out everybody they chance across. And this from a man who, when he decided to get started, had neither driver’s licence nor car – not to mention the fact that the actual accident black spot is located approximately 2600 km away from the city where he lives.

At home in Berlin Höppner runs a company that imports furniture, textiles and jewellery together with Sea Watch’s other founder, Mathias Kuhnt. Höppner and Kuhnt financed the ship, which cost 150,000 euros, and the first few weeks of operations themselves. Since then, the project has been reliant on donations. Höppner estimates that it costs 30-40,000 euros a month to keep Sea Watch in operation. The money is used for fuel, food and maintenance of the ship as well as a base camp on Lampedusa. The crew work for free and must pay their own travel costs.

After spending the past few days with Italian anarchists, I’m impressed by the professionalism of Sea Watch’s idealism. Seven expeditions have taken place since its launch in June 2015, each lasting 10 days and with a new crew. The captain of this crew, 64-year-old Reinhard Schmitz, ran a firm that arranged sailing expeditions until recently, and has sailed, among other places, to Svalbard (“I only speak a little Norwegian”), while the ship’s doctor, Robel Hailemariam, a German of Eritrean origin who’s the same age as me, usually works as a doctor at a hospital in Berlin. Sandra Hammamy, who runs the base camp on Lampedusa, works at the University of Giessen and has a PhD in political science. And so on. Everybody on board has applied to take part and all have been chosen based on their particular competencies and capacity for collaboration. If you want to work as a cabin boy on Sea Watch, you must be able to document that you have experience as a cabin boy.

The description the Sea Watch crew offer of the situation in the Mediterranean is far from inspiring. On the one hand, the heightened military presence occasioned by the major shipwrecks of recent years has made people smugglers even more ruthless. The boats they send out from Libya – the preferred embarkation point owing to the chaotic situation in the country – are no longer intended to reach Italy: it’s enough for them to leave Libyan waters so that the refugees can be picked up by European ships. The refugees get a telephone to summon help rather than enough fuel to get all the way. On the other hand, Operation Triton is not, first and foremost, a rescue operation but a border control operation. The Triton ships do pick up refugees, but they don’t actively search for them. The seas they patrol are far away from the waters where the refugee boats are.

Sea Watch searches off the coast of Tripoli, Sandra Hammamy explains; this is where the smallest inflatable boats, with 100-150 people aboard, set out from. The larger wooden boats, which can take as many as 500 – 600 – 700 people, have for some time been leaving from Zuwara, somewhat further west. Sea Watch doesn’t have the capacity to deal with these kinds of numbers, so they stick to the inflatable boats. The people they find mostly come from East and West Africa, countries such as Eritrea, Nigeria, Rwanda, Ghana and Somalia. The women are often pregnant or travelling with small children after having been forced into prostitution in Libya.

Monday has come around again; it’s exactly a week since we arrived on Lampedusa. M is flying to Catania in Sicily and will travel onwards in a week’s time; I’ll spend another night here and take the ferry we previously failed to catch, south to Porto Empedocle. It doesn’t feel right to have been here on an island for so long without having travelled by sea. M leaves for the airport in the morning and I suddenly don’t feel well. I feel most like going straight back to the hotel, but nonetheless take a stroll around town so that I won’t risk meeting the hotel cleaners, and they won’t have to listen to my excusa, excusa and I won’t have to say it. Perhaps the squid pasta I ate the evening before is to blame, or perhaps it’s the reek of exhaust fumes and the stink of the harbour – but when I get back to the hotel room, I’m totally exhausted. I spend my last day on Lampedusa lying on a freshly made bed. I sleep and text a couple of friends in Norway and in Leslie Jamison’s The Empathy Exams, which M has left behind, I read an essay about a group of people suffering from a mysterious illness unrecognized by medical science. When evening comes, I go to a restaurant we haven’t been to before to be certain that I won’t be recognized. I arrive far too early for Italian dinnertime and am halfway through my pizza before any other guests arrive.

The next morning, I’m standing on deck long before the ferry is due to leave the dock, although I am turned away the first time I try to go aboard, and given vague directions to an office where I can exchange my e-mail confirmation for a ticket. As I’m watching cars and lorries driving on to the ferry I notice the grey bus I saw on the military dock the day the coastguard ship came in with refugees. Around 20 Africans get off the bus, most of them women, two or three of them carrying small children. They all have blue bags and are handed bottles of water and a white paper bag by two people in blue UNHCR vests, while five carabinieri in dark uniforms, all men, stand looking on. They have a pistol on one hip and a baton on the other. A couple of ambulance personnel are there too. The women are the last passengers to go on board the ferry along with the policemen. One of the UNCHR vests waves. Shortly afterwards, we set off from the dock.

The crossing to Porto Empedocle takes nine hours. I’ve hired a cabin and lie on the bunk in there and read when I get sick of wandering around on deck and looking out across the sea. Robel, the doctor with Sea Watch, is also on board. He has been given the task of driving the group’s delivery truck back to Germany. He’s accompanied by another German in his early 20s, Flo, who has spent several months as a volunteer at Lampedusa Turtle Rescue, an organization that studies the sea turtles in the waters around the island and tends to sea turtles who have got trapped in fishing nets or been injured in some other way. We spend the first few hours of the journey together, sitting on deck in the sun and talking about this and that. I lend Robel my mobile phone so that he can send a message giving his fiancée at home in Germany an update. We see dolphins swimming and leaping by the side of the ferry and then a sea turtle – could it be one of the ones Flo has helped save from plastic waste and fishhooks?

The ferry isn’t especially big, it’s a bit like one you might have taken from Norway to Denmark 40 years ago, but it still takes me a while to work out where the African women are. They’re in a separate room towards the aft of the ferry, above the boarding ramp. You can see them in there through the windows, sitting or lying on benches. Outside the door sit the policemen. When I ask whether it’s possible to speak to the women in there, just to ask them a few questions, I am refused, in friendly but firm fashion. The women never leave the room during the nine-hour crossing. The closest they come to the rest of the passengers is when, several hours later, we back into Linosa, an even smaller island than Lampedusa, and the deck outside their room fills up with people who want to see the wonderful view of the green mountain peak out in the middle of the sea.

It’s pitch dark when we reach Porto Empedocle, after sailing through the sunset out in the middle of a calm Mediterranean. Was it possible to see it through the small windows back there? I don’t know and I don’t get a chance to think it over because I must travel onwards from Porto Empedocle to the neighbouring town of Agrigento, where a room awaits me. No buses go there, but they call a taxi for me at the local bakery. The guesthouse is difficult to find; it’s somewhere in Agrigento’s labyrinthine old town. The taxi driver offers to help me look, but I refuse. Twenty minutes later, I find myself in a little ice-cream kiosk while the man behind the counter uses his smartphone to check Google Maps. When at last I’m standing outside the right door, it’s long past checking-in time. The landlord has to leave a party to let me in (or so I guess, judging by the noise in the background while we talk on the phone). The bathroom, the wide double bed, the writing desk and the balcony – they’re all mine until the next morning, when a new room awaits, and then a flat in Oslo.

The last thing I did before M left Lampedusa and I was overtaken by exhaustion was seek out the graveyard on the eastern point of the island, beyond the airport, right beside the sea. As so often with Southern European cemeteries it looks like a town in miniature, a kind of Lilliput of death. The fence is lined by “villas”, small houses with a door leading into a room where the bereaved can sit on a bench, while the centre of the graveyard is occupied by “low blocks”, graves several storeys high, where the dead are stacked on top of one another. Here, the world of the living is introduced into the afterlife; here, you are not equal in death. I think about this as I walk among the “houses” and look at all the fresh flowers laid out here, until I come across one of the “communal apartment blocks”. I find four or five of them altogether. Simple white plaques with the official crest of Lampedusa and a little text. One of the plaques reads:

On 16 March 2011 the bodies of two men, apparently of North African origin, were found by coast guard personnel around 10 km off the coast of the island of Lampione.

Here lies a man aged around 30 years, probably of North African origin.

He has next to nothing, this anonymous dead man, but still it’s so much more than those who disappear at sea. A house among the dead, and his own postage stamp of land; no borders.

In my work on this traveller’s account, I found the following books, among others, useful: Ulrich Ladurner:

Travel to and accommodation on Lampedusa were supported by Fritt Ord and Kritikerlaget.
Heartfelt thanks to Mari Seilskjaer.

  1. "Waiting for the barbarians" from C.P. Cavafy's Collected Works (Princeton University Press, 1992, translated by Edmund Keeley/Philip Sherrard).
  2. "Gateway to Lampedusa -- Gateway to Europe"

Published 20 April 2016

Original in Norwegian
Translation by Lucy Moffatt
First published in Vagant 1/2016

Contributed by Vagant
© Olaf Haagensen / Vagant / Eurozine

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