Internazionale 10/14 ( Scribd): “Il porto dei migranti” (traduzione dal New Yorker)
Letter from Lampedusa APRIL 21, 2014 ISSUE
The Africans who risk all to reach Europe look to an exiled priest as their savior.
PHOTOGRAPH BY ALEX MAJOLI / MAGNUM
BY MATTATHIAS SCHWARTZ
Father Zerai, who left Eritrea as a teen-ager, says that the deaths of immigrants trying to reach Europe are “the fruit of a sick relationship between the north and south of the world.”
In Eritrea, you turn eighteen and go into the Army, and you stay in the Army for many years, sometimes for the rest of your life. You work for a few dollars a day—in construction, farming, mining. Those who refuse are sent to prison. There is no other choice.
We wanted a better life, a free and normal life. In Europe, we heard, you can live however you want. And so we left Eritrea and entered the desert. We went on foot and took very little with us—some dates, water, a number to call when we ran out of money, a number to call if we made it to Europe.
We walked west, into Sudan, to Khartoum, then into the Sahara and into Libya. There were a hundred and thirty-one of us. This is the story that we told later, to the police, the journalists, and the courts. One day in Libya, a band of armed Somalis came upon us. They forced us into vans and brought us to the town of Sabha, where they locked us up in a house. They made us stand for hours. They tied us upside down and beat the soles of our feet. They held weapons to our heads and fired bullets into the floor. They drove two of our young women into the desert, raped them, and returned with only one. They poured water over the floor and tried to shock us with a live wire, but they succeeded only in burning out the lights.
The Somalis wanted a ransom of thirty-three hundred dollars a head. Two weeks later, most of our families had paid, so they drove us to Tripoli. They took us to the smuggler Ermias. He was dark-skinned, around thirty, well fed. He took sixteen hundred dollars from each of us to arrange a boat to Lampedusa. It’s an Italian island about a day off the Libyan coast. Many of us had never seen the sea and did not know how to swim. We asked if we could pay extra for life jackets; Ermias refused. His men locked us in a warehouse with many others, where we waited through the month of September, 2013. On October 2nd, hours before dawn, they drove us to the shore and ferried us out to a boat, sixty-five feet long. They packed more than five hundred of us onto the bridge and the deck and down in the cabins. The smugglers did not like the look of the boat, so heavy and low in the water, and so old. But they said, “God willing, you will be lucky.”
The boat set off. We sent the women and children belowdecks, where they would be more comfortable. Some of us wrote the phone numbers of our families on our clothes. One woman, pinned in a crowded cabin, wrote a number on the wall. It belonged to a Catholic priest, Abba Mussie Zerai—Father Moses. His number is written on the walls of the prisons in Libya. We believed that he could make a rescue boat appear in the middle of the sea.
The captain was a Tunisian man who did not speak our language. He ran the engine through sunset. At three in the morning of October 3rd, the engine stopped. We were close enough to see the lights on shore. Lampedusa. We waited for the engine to start again. We began to take on water. The captain picked up something and ripped it—was it a bedsheet, a piece of clothing, a blanket? He dipped it in fuel and set it on fire to signal for help. Some people panicked when they saw it burning, and everybody pushed toward the bow. It sank beneath our shifting weight, and the boat turned over and dumped us into the sea.
We said, “Let’s try our luck.” We started swimming. Hands reached out to drag us down. We shook them off. Through the portholes, we could see inside the cabins. Some saw their sons and daughters and wives and chose to drown; some drowned trying to save them. Some called out their names and the names of their villages, so that news of their deaths might be carried to shore.
Around 9 A.M. on October 3rd, Father Mussie Zerai’s telephone began to ring repeatedly. Outside his apartment at the Catholic diocese in Fribourg, Switzerland, the Alps rose above the red-tiled roofs and the Gothic cathedral of the medieval town. The phone calls came from Sweden, Norway, Eritrea, Italy, Sudan, and Lampedusa. A boat travelling from Libya had caught fire and sunk. At least a hundred and eleven people were dead and more than two hundred were missing. It was depressingly familiar news—in the past twenty years, more than twenty thousand immigrants have died on their way to Europe. There would be many more were it not for Zerai, a thirty-nine-year-old Eritrean exile, whose phone number circulates among Europe-bound Africans like a Mediterranean 911. Boats in distress call Zerai by satellite phone, and he writes down their coördinates and passes them on to the Italian authorities to arrange for rescue. When there is no rescue, Zerai takes to Italian TV and radio and mass e-mail to name those whom he believes to be responsible. According to the Italian Coast Guard, Zerai’s calls have helped save five thousand lives.
What struck Zerai on October 3rd was the boat’s proximity to land. The drowning of hundreds of people less than a kilometre from Lampedusa seemed like a manifestation of Europe’s approach to African migration—a hardening of its borders coupled with a disturbing indifference to human life. He told an Italian news service that the deaths were “the fruit of a sick relationship between the north and south of the world,” an observation quickly picked up by La Repubblica. That day, Pope Francis called the shipwreck “a disgrace.” Coast Guard divers spent the next week pulling bodies from the hull. Among them, under a hundred and fifty feet of water, was a newborn baby, still attached by the umbilical cord to his mother, who had drowned while giving birth.
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Zerai grew up during Eritrea’s long struggle for independence. When he was very young, his home town came under attack. As the walls of his house shook with bomb blasts, his grandmother led him and his siblings to a bunker belowground, knelt with them, and prayed. Later, when a close relative died, she noticed that Zerai was the only family member who did not show any emotion. “And you, what did you put in your belly to make yourself so cold—a stone?” she asked.
Zerai keeps his inner life hidden to this day. “It’s not like I don’t get angry,” Zerai says. “I do. But when I have to have a dialogue with the media or politicians I try to present my reasons with tranquillity.”
“He really does have, for lack of a better word, a grace to him,” Luis CdeBaca, the ambassador for the State Department’s anti-human-trafficking office, told me. “You can’t help but be affected by someone who has true calm, true spirituality.”
Zerai works for the Vatican as a parish priest, ministering to the thousands of Eritrean Catholics who live in Switzerland. On his own time, he pursues his migration work under the auspices of Agenzia Habeshia, a charity he named using an ancient word for the Eritrean and Ethiopian peoples. Its phone bills can reach a thousand euros a month. For a while, Zerai was raising tens of thousands of euros to pay his callers’ ransoms, until he realized that this was like trying to smother a fire with kindling. He has set the plight of African migration before Italian ministers, European Union commissioners, and two Popes. In return, he has received many sympathetic words but little change in policy. In fact, the situation is getting worse. The number of immigrants reaching Italian shores in the first three months of 2014 was ten times higher than in the same period last year, the Times reported. Last week, four thousand people arrived on Italy’s coast in two days. Frontex, the European equivalent of the Department of Homeland Security, plans to deploy satellites and drones to guard Europe’s borders, and counsels its security forces on the distinction between directing “returnees” back to Africa and engaging in pushback, a violation of international law. In early February, a video surfaced online showing police officers firing rubber bullets into the water near Africans trying to swim around a breakwater protecting a Spanish enclave in Morocco. Fifteen people drowned.
Two weeks after the October 3rd shipwreck, Zerai wondered whether there would be any response to the atrocity. “The politicians, they talk, talk, talk. But . . . ,” he said, and shrugged. “Every year, the same thing. After a few months, no one will remember this. Unless us—we continually remember.” Sweat gathered on his forehead, and he dabbed at it with a handkerchief. “It is not possible to accept this type of tragedy as normal,” he said. “This is not a normal accident.”
Lampedusa is a seven-mile flyspeck of limestone and arid soil. Along with nearby Lampione, it is the last of Italy’s footprints on Africa’s continental shelf. Most of its southern shore is forbidding terrain, where the sirocco pushes breakers onto bare crags. In 1843, Ferdinand II claimed Lampedusa for the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies; during the Second World War, the Allies bombed it heavily. After the war, it enjoyed sixty years as a sleepy enclave of fishermen and tourists. In 2000, a wave of xenophobic violence gripped Muammar Qaddafi’s Libya, and displaced immigrants from across Africa began arriving by boat. In 2009, as Italy’s tolerance for new arrivals declined along with its economy, Silvio Berlusconi’s government renamed Lampedusa’s eleven-year-old reception facility the Center for Identification and Expulsion. Today, along with Spanish Morocco, Cyprus, Christmas Island, and Nauru, Lampedusa is a zone of global limbo, where developed nations decide who is most deserving of a new life on the other side of the wall. More than two hundred thousand people have landed on the island in the past fifteen years. In Libya, human smuggling is called “the Lampa-Lampa business.” During the Arab Spring revolutions of 2011, Italian politicians warned of “a Biblical exodus,” “an invasion” that would bring the country “to its knees.”
Most of the October 3rd survivors aspired to official status as “refugees,” meaning that they had fled political persecution and were entitled to protection under international law. Some call the survivors “asylum seekers,” to account for the tenuous nature of their rights. In Italy, they are called clandestini. In Algeria, they are called harraga, Arabic for “those who burn”—some Africans destroy their papers before arrival, to avoid being sent back. The media call them “migrants,” implying that they leave Africa for purely economic reasons. The power to decide who is a refugee and who is a migrant usually lies with interviewers wherever the survivors wind up applying for asylum. The rates at which asylum is granted vary widely. On Lampedusa, new arrivals try to avoid being fingerprinted in Italy so that they can apply for asylum in Norway, Switzerland, and Sweden, which receives more applications from asylum-seeking Eritreans than any other country. The 2006 Schengen Borders Code, which raised the legal walls surrounding Europe while lowering them inside, works in the arrivals’ favor as they continue north.
Relatives will drive thirty hours from Oslo to Sicily, and drive back with their family member, taking advantage of the E.U.’s open internal borders. Those without someone to call often end up living in baraccopoli—shantytowns—outside Milan and Rome.
Until recently, Zerai was based in Rome. “That is not my decision,” he said, when I asked about his move. “My bishop say I go to Suisse, and I go.” Switzerland is two days’ journey from Lampedusa. On October 21st, after two train rides and a short flight, Zerai boarded an overnight barge from Sicily. Travelling with him was Meron Estefanos, an Eritrean-born Swede who also advocates for Eritrean asylum seekers. She receives many calls from Eritreans in the Sinai, who beg for ransoms as large as forty thousand dollars while their captors pour molten plastic down their backs. As an activist, Estefanos is more extroverted than Zerai, mixing with hackers at human-rights conferences and battling with Eritrean government supporters on Twitter.
Estefanos and Zerai hired a van to take them through Lampedusa’s small port town, where the warm, salty air and the low, pale buildings evoke Tunis or Algiers. The road to the detention center ran past a yard heaped with the remains of boats, Arabic script still visible on their splintered hulls. The van parked near a rusting gate; some distance beyond it, milling around in government-issued tracksuits, was a group of detainees.
“How much speech did you take in last month?”
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Zerai wore a blue short-sleeved shirt with a white square at the center of the collar. His beard, flecked with gray, covered most of his neck and crept up his cheeks. Most striking are his eyes—they are heavy-lidded and formed like a cello’s cutouts. With his deliberate gestures and serious demeanor, he looks like a portly Haile Selassie.
After some discussion, the Italian soldiers guarding the center allowed a small number of detainees to approach the gate. Estefanos took out her recorder to interview an Eritrean named Mogos. He was around twenty, and he had arrived in Lampedusa six days earlier. Estefanos asked him why he had risked the journey.
“The situation in Libya is really bad,” Mogos said, speaking in Tigrinya, his first language. “All you do is get out from one prison and go to another one. We thought it better to die than to be in prison all the time.” The day before, the Italian government had held a memorial for the October 3rd dead, but the service was in Sicily, and the victims were represented by a number of large wreaths. On Lampedusa, the survivors were not permitted to take a ferry to the service, and they staged a sit-in, blocking the road in front of the town hall. Many had begun a hunger strike, including Mogos. His words slurred in places and his handsome face was slack. He seemed to be holding himself up by his fingers, which poked through the grid of the gate. He lacked the energy to give a full account of his ordeal—how guards had fired on him as he ran away from a Libyan prison, how smugglers had kept him in a place they called the mazra’a, an abandoned barn, where he waited with others for a boat. The mazra’a, he said later, was so hot that no one wore clothes. One day, the police arrived, made them lie face down in the dirt, and opened fire. “God spared us,” Mogos said later. “To them, our lives are no more important than a housefly.” Earlier, during a failed sea crossing, he saw another passenger try to escape from Libyan border guards. They doused him with fuel, set him on fire, and threw his body into the water.
Standing at the gate on Lampedusa, Mogos kept this mostly to himself. “Please give our regards to Father Mussie,” he said, not realizing that Zerai was standing a few steps away. Zerai heard his name and turned to Mogos. “We haven’t yet done anything for you,” he said.
A tall Italian soldier approached Zerai. He seemed uneasy, a man under vague orders. “Buongiorno, Padre,” he said. “Tutto bene?” Zerai took him aside. He asked in a low and even tone to be allowed past the gate. (Unlike Zerai’s English, which was learned more recently, his Italian has a hard-won precision.) The soldier steered him toward a young woman who was handling the camp’s public relations. Zerai repeated his case. Another soldier seemed to find him ridiculous. He turned to a comrade and laughed. Zerai continued to press for twenty minutes more, to no avail. He did not seem surprised by this result. “A low-ranking officer will try to exert some form of power, even if in practice there’s not much they can do,” he said later. “But they use their power just to be there, to make you waste time. The one who can do something, who has the power, is elsewhere.”
Zerai was born in 1975 in Asmara, where his father worked as an engineer. Today, Asmara is the capital of Eritrea, but at that time it was held by the Marxist government of Ethiopia. When Zerai was five years old, his mother died in childbirth. Two years later, the secret police arrested his father, who bribed his way out of prison and fled the country, eventually reaching Italy. Zerai and seven siblings were raised by his grandmother, Kudusan, a sturdy woman who attended Catholic Mass daily. He calls her “my first testimony in the faith.”
As a boy, Zerai sought refuge in the church, where he played volleyball and soccer and sang in the choir. On Saturdays, the friars took him along to the store to buy groceries. Having lost both parents, he saw that priests could have a larger family, and, at fourteen, he told his grandmother that he wanted to join the priesthood. She asked the bishop. The bishop told him to seek permission from his father, who summoned Zerai to Rome.
When Zerai left Eritrea, in the early nineties, the country had nearly secured its independence after thirty years of fighting. Isaias Afewerki, the rebel leader who had assumed control of the new Eritrean government, enjoyed the country’s confidence for six relatively peaceful years but then began cracking down on opposition; he went to war with Ethiopia, and imposed mandatory military service. Zerai’s brother Biniam told me that Zerai, during his last year in Asmara, chose to spend his time with “big, big people”—businessmen, lawyers, judges. He was sixteen years old but “his mind was not like a kid,” Biniam told me. Zerai travelled to Rome by plane, with one suitcase. Zerai’s father had remarried, and was not much help as Zerai got settled. Their father “was up and down,” Zerai’s sister Senait, who now lives in Uganda, says. “He doesn’t stay in one place.” Zerai found his way to a British priest who worked out of an office at Rome’s central railway station and helped unaccompanied minors apply for asylum. With his help, Zerai obtained a residence permit.
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Rome was nothing like Asmara. He could go anywhere he wanted without fear of arrest. On Saturday nights, he partied with Eritrean friends at discos on Via Casilina, Via Cassia—wherever was in fashion. He wanted “to experience life,” never thinking of the wayward years of Francis or Augustine. Occasionally, Zerai heard racial slurs on the bus and at one of his early jobs, sorting newspapers. When Africans made mistakes, the managers called them stupid or negro di merda. Zerai quit and found work at a fruit stand in the Piazza Vittorio, where he honed his Italian by chatting with customers. He tasted fruit that he had never seen in Asmara—“pear abate, apple renetta,” he said. “The kiwi I had never seen.” After work, he volunteered with the British priest as a translator and an informal consul. He learned how to expedite the official processes of obtaining identification, residency permits, health cards, thirty-year pensions, tax forms. The immigrants “could have gone by themselves, but they didn’t know the language or the logistics,” he told me.
Father Giampiero, the vice-priest of one of the parishes with which Zerai worked, remembers him as “very quiet, with a deep sensitivity, a remarkable spirituality, and great attention paid toward others.” Giampiero recommended that he join the Scalabrinians, a religious order known for helping immigrants. Three years earlier, Zerai had watched on television the beatification of the order’s founder, John Baptist Scalabrini, who preached detachment and humility. As Zerai sat in his apartment learning about Scalabrini’s works, he felt fulminato, struck by lightning.
Zerai spent three years studying with the Scalabrinians in Piacenza, the founder’s home town. In 2003, he returned to Rome, where he lived for seven years in a Scalabrinian mission. The living conditions for immigrants had deteriorated during his time away. Many Africans were sleeping in baraccopoli or abandoned factories. New laws allowed the government to forcibly deport migrants and tightened controls on who could receive a work permit. His work with the British priest and Giampiero had led him to believe that the difficulties facing immigrants were mostly bureaucratic and could be overcome through perseverance, but these were problems of a much larger scale. He began to organize street demonstrations and to lobby E.U. officials in Brussels. He flew to Eritrea to see his grandmother for the last time. She gave him a gold ring, which he wears on his fourth finger, and he left behind his phone number with some friends of the family. Soon, he was receiving calls from Eritreans in Libya, Sudan, and Egypt. “I start to call them to collect more information,” he recalls. “He pass from one to the other . . . in short time, my number became public.”
One day, Zerai’s superior called him into his office. “You are much too busy,” he said. “Pay attention. You are not the savior of the world. The savior of the world is Jesus Christ.”
Zerai recalls this advice when he senses that his mission is pushing him toward exhaustion. “I know what is my limit,” he says. “I say to myself, ‘Moses, you are not the savior of the world.’ Is important to do what is possible to do. But when I do all that is possible and I don’t receive good result, is important to remember who I am.”
At the time of Zerai’s visit, the Lampedusa detention center was filled to well over capacity. Some detainees were sleeping outside, on scraps of foam. In 2011, hundreds of Tunisian detainees who had fled the violence of the Arab Spring learned that they would be deported. They rioted, burning down part of the center and throwing stones at police. Now the guards kept the peace with a cigarette ration, and by looking the other way when detainees slipped through the camp’s porous perimeter and walked the mile into town.
After dark, in a stone plaza facing a Catholic church in the town center, Zerai stood chatting with a group of Eritreans, passing out his phone number, when Mogos rushed up. His eyes were wide and shining. He seized Zerai’s hand, kissed it, and pressed it to his forehead. “Abba Mussie is a good man,” he said. “Everybody in Libya have his mobile.” The notion that the phone number he carried across the sea was connected to the man now standing before him seemed to strike him as miraculous. “Because of Abba Mussie, I am here in life!” he exclaimed.
In a nearby café, Zerai and Estefanos met a group of older October 3rd survivors who were acting as representatives for the rest. One of them, Mesfin Asmelash, was forty years old, tall and slender. He wore spotless white Nikes, which had been sent to him by a relative while he was in Sudan. He showed Estefanos a list, handwritten in Tigrinya, that attempted to collect the names of the October 3rd dead, with the age, nationality, and home address of each. When names could not be obtained, they recorded other identifying information, such as hair styles. The families of four missing passengers had given Estefanos their names to check against the list. All four were dead.
Zerai took Asmelash and the rest of the group to dinner at a nearby restaurant. He was preoccupied with a detail that he had heard several times throughout the day—that, just before the wreck, two other boats had approached the Eritreans’ ship and then left. Some witnesses identified the vessels as belonging to the Italian Coast Guard. Others were not sure. (A spokesman for the Coast Guard vehemently denied any contact with the Eritreans’ boat.)
The next morning, Zerai, in a brimless white hat and a white robe, stood in front of the altar in the church on the plaza. Near the entrance hung a painting of Paul, barefoot and shackled, floating on a plank of wood. He was sailing as a prisoner from Palestine to Rome when his ship was swamped by a storm. He washed up on Malta, where the inhabitants received him with “unusual kindness.”
Before Zerai sat some eighty Eritreans, about half of the October 3rd survivors, who had walked from the detention center. All but one were men. Zerai told them how to present their stories to the officials who would be interviewing them. It would not be enough to talk about the general hardships of the military—they would need to relate specific violations of their rights. He also spoke of spiritual matters. Those who had survived the sinking of the ship were now reborn. They should think about what to do with their new lives and not dwell too much on what had happened. “He say this happens because of God,” Mogos told me afterward.
“When did everybody stop jogging?”
MAY 20, 2002
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Outside, on the steps of the church, a man sat alone wearing a towel over his head, like a shawl. It was his partner who had drowned while giving birth. A poem mourning the child later spread through Eritrea’s online diaspora: “His mother feebly fighting to stay afloat / A baby boy was born / No one saw his eyes / Open briefly / Then shut.” I watched from across the square as Estefanos approached the child’s father, put her hand on his shoulder, and took out her recorder. He said that his partner was named Yohanna, or “congratulations,” in honor of Eritrea’s independence. He had searched for her that night in the water and on every boat that came to shore.
Zerai spent the rest of the day dispensing what he called “small, practical help.” This took the form of mobile phones and SIM cards. Under an Italian anti-terrorism law, the detainees could not buy SIMs without passports. Nor could they change money or receive wire transfers from their families. Zerai enlisted journalists and tourists with valid passports to buy SIMs on their behalf, then he passed them out to a circle of Eritrean detainees, as an older man checked their names off a list. Zerai showed the recipients how to turn their phones on and activate the SIMs. One by one, he entered his number into their address books. “We do everything that is possible to do today,” he said. “Tomorrow . . .” His voice trailed off.
In Tripoli, on the wall of the Catholic vicariate, the nuns have taped an open letter from Father Zerai. “Do not be deceived by traffickers,” it reads. “They are only interested in your money and do not care for your life.” To the smugglers themselves, Zerai renders Biblical censure:
Do not play with the lives of your brothers and sisters, do not sell your soul to the devil. . . . For you arrive to the Day of Judgement, you have to answer before God for your actions. Woe to you Cains of our time, woe to you who are Judas . . . that you sell your brothers for thirty pieces of silver to the Libyans.
Libya’s long borders and weak government make it an ideal location for human smugglers. Four of Libya’s six neighbors have had recent wars or revolutions. Because undocumented asylum seekers cannot arrange legal travel to Europe, smugglers are able to charge about five times the cost of airfare. Before the revolution, the Qaddafi regime held human smuggling in check by patrolling the coast and accepting boatloads of immigrants turned back from Italy. In 2008, the Italian government signed a treaty of “friendship, partnership, and coöperation” with Libya, agreeing to invest five billion euros in the country over twenty years. In early 2011, as Qaddafi’s hold on Libya began to weaken, Italy joined NATO in backing the revolutionaries, and Qaddafi retaliated by opening his borders.
Starting that March, Zerai’s phone rang more or less continuously for seven straight months. “It was impossible to have one second free,” he remembers. Boats set off across the Mediterranean in unprecedented numbers, carrying Egyptians, Tunisians, and any dark-skinned stranger suspected of being among Qaddafi’s foreign mercenaries. One terrified caller told Zerai that rebels in the city of Misrata were hunting immigrants for sport. Days before the revolution, Zerai arranged for the evacuation of a hundred and ten Eritreans by air to Italy.
Zerai was living at the Ethiopian College, in the Vatican, where he was writing a thesis connecting human rights to Church doctrine. He had one room for sleeping and writing. Like his quarters in Fribourg, it had a comfortable austerity—bed, desk, window, kitchenette. His mobile phone had two SIM cards, and he usually left it on through the night.
On the morning of March 27th, as NATO jets bombed Qaddafi’s forces, Zerai awoke and saw that he had slept through a call from a satellite phone. He called the number back. A man named Ghirma greeted him in Tigrinya. He told Zerai that he was on a thirty-foot inflatable Zodiac with seventy-one other people. There was almost no food or water. The motor was too small for the load, and low on fuel. Through his phone, Zerai could hear the waves sloshing.
Zerai told Ghirma that he would help, but the rescue might take time; Ghirma needed to be patient. “I try to give them some hope,” Zerai remembered. He called the Maritime Rescue Coördination Center in Rome, which called the phone company to obtain coördinates for Ghirma’s number. Less than an hour later, the M.R.C.C. transmitted a distress call to NATO headquarters and all vessels in the area. Ghirma’s boat was about halfway between Lampedusa and Libya, in the vicinity of around twenty NATO vessels. Help had not yet arrived when Zerai called Ghirma again, that afternoon. A few hours later, no one answered. He presumed that the phone’s battery had died.
Zerai pressed his contacts at the M.R.C.C. and NATO for news about Ghirma’s boat. The coördinates had been passed up their chains of command, they said, and there was little more that they could do. Zerai’s phone continued to ring with calls from the relatives of passengers on Ghirma’s boat. “Some of them cry,” he said. “Some of them are in very bad condition.” He could not put Ghirma’s boat out of his mind. He tried to settle himself with prayer and gardening, then he returned to his room and wept. Fifteen days later, Zerai learned what had happened. One of Ghirma’s fellow-passengers, Dan, contacted him and said that the boat had drifted into a storm. As the current carried them south, back toward Libya, the passengers tried to sustain themselves on seawater and urine mixed with toothpaste. Soon, five or six people were dying each day. When the boat washed up on the Libyan coast, a hundred miles east of Tripoli, all but eleven of the seventy-two passengers had died. One of the survivors died almost immediately after landing. Another died in a Libyan prison, where they were held for three days without food or medical attention.
“I don’t think you’re getting enough stress.”
AUGUST 30, 2004
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Dan told Zerai that the military had come near the boat three times while it was at sea. First came a helicopter. The passengers say that it bore the word “army,” in English, but they could not discern its nation of origin. It circled, appeared to take photos, and left. The Zodiac’s captain, believing that a rescue was imminent, threw his compass and satellite phone into the water, so that the authorities would not take him for a smuggler. Hours later, the helicopter returned and lowered packets of biscuits and eight bottles of water on a rope. Days later, after the boat had passed through the storm, the passengers encountered a military ship. They held up some of the bodies to show their distress. The ship came within fifty feet, took pictures, and sailed away.
Later, Italian and Swiss researchers interviewed five of the eight other survivors, who corroborated Dan’s account. The case is known as the Left-to-Die Boat, and Zerai still gets angry when he speaks about it. “I want to know who is the responsibility of this,” he said. “I want to look face to face with those who leave them in the sea. I want to ask, Why? Why do you do this? Why don’t you help them? I want to say, What you see in the Mediterranean is human being like you. Not containers. Not something without life. A ship with animals, you would help.” Zerai arranged for the survivors to meet with the Catholic Church in Tripoli. Some tried the crossing again and arrived in Europe; others went to a Tunisian camp. A report by the Council of Europe could not determine why NATO had failed to intervene, though it did say that a French aircraft had spotted the boat and photographed it shortly before Ghirma reached Father Zerai. NATO has said that “there is no record of any aircraft or ship under NATO command having seen or made contact with the small boat in question.” Survivors have filed suit in four European countries.
Two and a half years after Tripoli was taken by the rebels, Libya’s interim government is too disorganized to write a constitution or to stop the freelance expropriation of oil. Ali Zeidan, the former Prime Minister, who ran Libya from a suite of hotel rooms, was ousted by Parliament last month and fled the country. Libya’s lawlessness was apparent to Daniel, an Eritrean whom I met in Tripoli, in November, at the Eritrean Embassy. He was about thirty years old, with a narrow face, and his clothes looked stiff and dusty from days on the road. He had tried to cross to Europe, he said, but the boat stalled and began taking on water. Someone on board called Zerai, who arranged for help. But the Italian Coast Guard, instead of taking Daniel to Lampedusa or Malta, put him on a Turkish cargo ship heading back to Libya, where, he said, his jailers beat him on the soles of his feet and hung him from a rope. The day before we met, Daniel had persuaded his captors to assign him to a work detail outside the prison, and ran away. He had once had a U.N.-issued asylum-seeker certificate. It had done him little good. The Libyans who arrested him had confiscated it.
Zerai, Daniel said, remained in regular contact with many prisoners. “He is telling them all to wait in Tripoli, even the ones in prison, until he gets paperwork from the U.N., so they can travel by plane. They are still waiting for him.” Daniel was done waiting. “I have no paperwork, no job,” he said. “I can’t go back to my country. So I have only one choice: to go by boat again.”
From Lampedusa, Zerai went to the Vatican, where, on the morning of October 25th, he woke at seven o’clock, ate a breakfast of bread and goat’s milk, and prayed. Then he walked to St. Peter’s Square and hired a cab. He had a long day of meetings ahead—with two ministries and the president of the Chamber of Deputies. There were many marks to hit, many opportunities for error—but there was no time to worry about it. Zerai’s phone rang; it was an Italian number. “Buongiorno,” he said, then switched to Tigrinya. He advised the caller not to go to Verona but to seek out a certain person in Milan. “Let us speak once you get there with her, and we’ll try to arrange some way of getting you to Switzerland,” he said. “Be careful and take care of yourself, O.K.?”
Ambassador CdeBaca, from the State Department, told me about an “underground railroad” that helps undocumented Africans settle in Europe. The network is underground because, since 2009, giving such Africans assistance has been a crime in Italy. The next step for the October 3rd survivors would be a transfer to a larger detention center, in Sicily. “From there, they escape and nobody says anything,” Calogero Ferrara, a Sicilian prosecutor investigating human smuggling, said. “There is no legal title to keep them in this center. They go to the north of Europe, or Canada, or Germany, where they have relatives. And there, for the first time, they are officially recognized. Only when they arrive in the country where they want to stay do they give their personal details.”
“Italy sucks,” Mogos said. After Lampedusa, he was transferred to Sicily and eventually made his way to Milan. His mother, in Eritrea, sold all her gold jewelry and sent him a thousand euros. He bought a false passport and a plane ticket to Stockholm. When we spoke, he was living in state housing there and waiting to find out whether his asylum application had been approved. Sweden was better than Libya but had not yet met his expectations. “I don’t want to sound ungrateful, but they give us boiled grains to eat,” he said. “We hate it. If they gave us a house, we’d get to cook for ourselves. Having a house is everything.” He hoped to arrange an “exchange wedding,” a double green-card marriage between two pairs of siblings from two families, for himself and his sister. She was still back in Khartoum. “I need to help her as soon as I can,” he said.
“Please hold applause until end of dragon.”
OCTOBER 31, 2011
BUY THE PRINT »
Zerai’s first meeting in Rome that day was with the chief of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs’ sub-Saharan Africa office, a Pharaonic man of around sixty, trim, wearing a double-breasted suit, the jacket of which remained buttoned as he sat down, crossed his arms, and made a sort-of listening face. Zerai and two other Eritrean activists tried to enlist his help with repatriating the October 3rd dead to Eritrea, but with little success. From the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Zerai went by taxi to the ancient Egyptian obelisk at the Piazza di Montecitorio, where several hundred Eritreans from the United Kingdom, Germany, and Switzerland had come to protest E.U. immigration policies. Two Eritrean Orthodox priests prayed over two papier-mâché coffins—a large one bearing the number of the October 3rd dead, and a small one representing the dead newborn. After darting away for another meeting, this one with a cabinet minister, Zerai led the protest past the Pantheon to the Teatro Valle, where he delivered a speech in Italian and Tigrinya. He demanded an investigation into the allegation that the Coast Guard had seen and approached the October 3rd boat minutes before it sank. “Three hundred and sixty-six people could have been saved if they had done their duty,” he said. “Someone must take responsibility.” He left early—in twenty minutes, he was scheduled to go on TV. Zerai had arranged for a taxi, but the driver arrived late and did not at first appreciate the urgency of the situation.
“At four, I must be at the Chamber of Deputies, in Montecitorio,” Zerai told him.
“Now?” the driver asked. “At Montecitorio? Just say it!”
“No!” Zerai said, loudly. “Now we have to go to the TV studio.”
“Well, I am sorry. The meter is running.”
“Yes, I know. But it is not my fault!”
By 3 P.M., Zerai was live on Sky TV. “Is Italy a racist country?” the announcer asked.
“There is racism, but not all of Italy is racist,” Zerai answered. In fact, the first rescues on October 3rd were made by Vito Fiorino, a Lampedusan who happened to be out fishing. He and his friends pulled forty-seven survivors from the water. He had at first mistaken their cries for seagulls.
While Zerai was on TV, European leaders were summiting in Brussels; immigration was high on the agenda. The German Chancellor Angela Merkel said that she was “deeply troubled” by the “horrible” shipwrecks. The E.U. leaders promised more hardware—ships, aircraft, surveillance equipment. The Sky TV announcer asked Zerai what he wanted from the Italian government. Zerai offered some proposals. Europe should open a “humanitarian corridor”—typically used to rescue civilians from war zones—to give asylum seekers an alternative to the smugglers’ boats. New arrivals needed a “dignified welcoming” with “economic inclusion.” “We must also seek some radical solutions,” Zerai said. He suggested that Europe consider opening its embassies in Libya and Sudan to asylum requests.
His interviewer cut in with an update from Brussels. There would be no immediate action, she said. More talks were scheduled for December and June. “Tra il dire e il fare c’è in mezzo il mare,” she remarked. Between words and deeds there is a sea.
The day’s final meeting, at the Chamber of Deputies, had a warmer tone. Laura Boldrini, the president of the Chamber, expressed sympathy for the situation on Lampedusa. She offered encouragement and advice, but no solutions were forthcoming. Afterward, Zerai joined an old friend at a nearby café. They sipped wine, and Zerai’s accumulated frustrations leaked out. He remained troubled by the thought that the boat had been spotted by Italian Coast Guard ships. “They were white, with a red stripe all around,” he said. Most troubling of all was that few in Rome seemed to care.
The months that followed bore out Zerai’s pessimism. The only people being held accountable for the October 3rd deaths were the Tunisian captain and a Somali man who was alleged to have helped arrange the voyage. Both face criminal charges in Italy. No one in Washington or Brussels talks seriously about a trans-Mediterranean humanitarian corridor, or about accepting refugee applications at their missions in Africa. The E.U. is struggling to prevent another catastrophe on the scale of October 3rd, as boats leave North Africa at the fastest rate since the Arab Spring.
Toward the end of the day, a deacon picked Zerai up in a minivan and took him back to the Ethiopian College, then left to make a pizza run. Zerai sat at an oak table. He seemed tired and impatient. He was supposed to be in Switzerland the next morning, to lead Mass. Behind him, in a glass case, was an Ethiopian Bible, its cover adorned with a gold cross. In front of it was a laminated printout:
The gift of H.I.M.
Haile Selassie I
The last emperor of Ethiopia.
Selassie claimed to have descended from King David. On his 1966 visit to Jamaica, a crowd of thousands met him at the airport and hailed him as the Messiah. Though Zerai lacks Selassie’s imperial pretensions, he, too, is on the receiving end of a great deal of hope projected by a great number of desperate people. I asked him about pride.
“For me, is only service,” he said. “I don’t have this type of . . . what you say? . . . pride. No. I am priest. I am pastor of the persons. Even when the people kiss my hand, they don’t kiss me. They kiss Jesus Christ. Not me.”
Zerai excused himself to book an early flight to Switzerland. He slept a few hours that night, and a bit more on the plane, and arrived for Mass on time. ♦