No one knows where you are

‘An ad for drowning.’ This is what Jennifer Mills called the video that Jeff Sparrow posted on Overland last Monday, and that has haunted me ever since. She was right, too: it is an ad for drowning, as opposed to the appeal to beware of people smugglers that it purports to be, for it presents drowning as a consumer choice, albeit catastrophic, which the prospective migrant should refuse to make. In between ‘Where the bloody hell are you’ and ‘No one knows where you are’ takes place, as Jeff alluded to, the construction of two Australias to be marketed to two radically different kinds of foreign audiences: one for the affluent and mobile (sunny, available, sexy); the other for the poor and desperate (dark, inaccessible, deadly).

This week I was going to post about the miners’ strike at Nuraxi Figus, Sardinia – a story that takes place four hundreds metres underground, and involves a group of workers threatening to detonate themselves and their workplace – but now I’m stuck on this one, which concerns thousands of people making another, even more desperate gamble. For all its intolerable fake piety and cruelty, the opening line of the video captures the horror of the migrants who die at sea, undocumented and unseen, often unreported, the water that closes above them already a kind of forgetting.

A great many of these deaths occur a short distance from Nuraxi Figus, in what is alternatively known as the Strait of Sicily, the Kelibia Channel and a few other names. As little as ninety miles separate Europe from Africa in that patch of the Mediterranean, yet it has been calculated that over 2,000 migrants died trying to make the crossing in 2011 alone.

For the last twenty-five years, the question has been the same: how is it even possible to lose so many people in such a small and densely trafficked and patrolled area? Laura Boldrini, spokesperson for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, has recently cited as a significant contributing factor the muddled rules on liability that discourage commercial vessels from responding to distress signals, for fear of repercussions including – unbelievably – being charged with aiding illegal immigration. It is but one of the ways in which this ongoing massacre is backed by the politicians of what journalist Gabriele Del Grande calls ‘Fortress Europe’. And of course in order for the issue to remain all but invisible it is essential that the victims be faceless and nameless to the European public, as it is nearly always the case.

But there are some exceptions. This, we think, is one of the dead.

Samia Yusuf Omar ran in the 200 metres at the Beijing Olympics and was featured back then in stories about athletes overcoming great adversity to compete at the games. She then returned to Somalia where, according to a report by Al Jazeera, she faced harassment by Islamist militia goups, before moving first to Sudan, then to Libya and finally trying to reach Europe, possibly in order to train there in the lead-up to the 2012 Olympics. Reports on what happened next aren’t conclusive, but it seems that the boat that carried Omar ran out of petrol and she was amongst the eight passengers who died trying to board an Italian navy ship. The news of her death however didn’t reach the athletics community until five months later, when Somali Olympic great Abdi Bile brought it up at a talk.

The closest source for the exact circumstances of Omar’s death is her sister, Hodan Yusuf Omar, who lives in Finland and spoke from there in Somali via phone to the BBC. This is how news travel before and after these tragedies: across great distances, often in translation and wrapped in uncertainty as to the date of the voyage, whether the loved one was actually on the boat, and most importantly what happened to them. This is not the world of instant communication via social media, of Twitter and Skype: it is a world of broken phone connections and messages that are laboriously passed on, of your family having to wonder for weeks, if not months or years, sometimes never knowing for sure, and rarely if ever with the comfort of a body to bury and care for. For six years now Del Grande has been keeping a register of the reported drownings over a span of the last twenty-plus years, but it consists of dates and numbers only. There are no names to match those numbers to, let alone faces or histories. It is also, by the author’s own admission, a very partial list. There is so much that we don’t know, and that we barely seek to know.

Between the 1st and the 29th of March of 2011, four boats left Tunisia carrying a total of 250 young men. There is some evidence that all of the boats reached their destination. Some of the men were recognised by relatives from the brief footage in the news media. There were a few phone calls, or reports of phone calls, on the days of each arrival. ‘We got here, they are about to transfer us to Caltanissetta’. Then nothing. Fifteen months later, the whereabouts of all of these migrants are unknown. Some, like Gabriele Del Grande, doubt that the boats ever arrived. How could they have all failed to contact their families this long, he opines. This many people don’t disappear like that. But the mystery remains: did they drown at sea, or drown on land? Did they choose to go missing, taking advantage of the difficulties that the authorities had in the hectic days of the Arab Spring to document all of the arrivals? Italy has a law that makes clandestine immigration a crime punishable with incarceration, should you to try to re-enter the country after the initial expulsion, and so there is something to be gained in slipping through and not letting the police obtain your name and fingerprints. But still no one knows where these men are.

Now some of the families have got together and travelled to Rome to demand to know the truth. They are mothers, in the majority, and so the images of their campaign further fuel the inevitable, near-automatic analogy with the fate of the desaparecidos. They want to know what happened to their sons.

This is the only thing that is unusual about this story, the subject this week of an excellent report by Italian newspaper La Repubblica: not that 250 men may have died trying to scale the wall of the European fortress, but that there are families demanding that it not end there, with the collation of yet another statistic; who want the faces and names of their sons and husbands to be part of the public record, and for there to be answers, a reckoning. All of the things that we don’t demand of ourselves.

Giovanni Tiso

Giovanni Tiso is an Italian writer and translator based in Aotearoa/New Zealand and the editor of Overland’s online magazine. He tweets as @gtiso.

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    1. Well, you say you helped these people, but how do we know you’re not runnning a people smuggling opration on the side? That seems to be the line that is pursued. It is no more astonishing than our immigration laws, and actually less astonishing than the heroic levels of indifference to these migrant deaths that we have cultivared over the years.

  1. You’ve opened the angle on a great humanitarian problem to show civilisation as such is yet to emerge from the dark ages – particularly in Australia – which is where we will remain until the current way refugees are perceived and classified becomes the illegality.

  2. I don’t know that there are too many Western countries that look good on this one. New Zealand is in the process of passing an amendment bill that provides for the detention of refugees arriving unlawfully in the country by boat. How big is this problem, you ask? It has never happened. Not once.

  3. A depressing answer – and on the issue of a reckoning – refusing to forget – the wall of remembrance in the wake of 9 /11, and such like – stand in stark contrast to the many mass unmarked watery graves of migrants, refugees and asylum seekers. Interesting too that it is mothers making the trip to Rome to demand answers in the Tunisian case: or is that because it was sons that were lost?

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