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The world of Mad Max does exist: slavery, desert, and war on the route of escape

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2015.06.23. 17:45
  • Lampedusa used to be a popular holiday destination in Italy, until the boats of migrants arrived.
  • Lampedusa doesn't mean the beautiful Turtle beach anymore, but hundreds of drowned migrants by the shore.
  • The migrants who had just stepped on the shore told us how they had travelled through Africa, until they had reached Italy. The stories rather reminded us of the movie Mad Max.

Of course we were afraid at the sea. Some of us had not even seen a river before. We didn't know when we would be rescued.

The Gambian boy does not only counterpoint the story but also the bizarre situation in which we are talking. The boy is among about 150 of his fellows, sitting in dense rows on the ground, on one side of an iron fence, and I am talking with them squatting outside. The situation brings out the worst associations of me: black people crouching on the dock, a huge ship is just mooring before us. But, in our case, the reason for happiness is this ship exactly.

We are in Lampedusa, the southernmost island of Italy, which is situated closer to Africa than Europe. The migrants who get as far as here on their boats are taken to refugee camps for a short while, then they are transported to Europe from this port. For those sitting on the concrete slabs of the dock it means the end of months- or even years-long migration; of course, they are happy.

The inflatable boat was leaking, and everybody was a captain on it

“We left from Libya at half past five in the morning, the Italian ship (probably the ship of the coast guard) picked us up before noon, and we got here by seven in the evening” – tells the twenty-year-old boy.

Fotó: Földes András / Index

We were at sea for two days. But we weren't scared, we knew they would rescue us.” But the migrant sitting nearby, a 26-year-old guy also from Gambia, would, indeed, have had a reason to panic. “We got an inflatable boat, and we had to blow it up ourselves. We were eighty on the boat. Who was the captain? We all were. The man we had paid gave us a satellite telephone with the number we had to call when we reach the open sea. He showed us how we could read the coordinates on the phone. We had to read them out on the phone for them to find us. We called the number, they told us they were coming, but then we were drifting on the sea for 14 hours before they arrived at last.”

The man was not afraid that the motor of the boat or the telephone would break down, and they would never be found.

They said everybody gets rescued, we shouldn't be afraid of anything.

It seems the Libyan traffickers possess a remarkable convincing power, since the man was not worried even though not everything was in order with their inflatable boat either. “There was a hole in the boat, that's where the air came out. But we didn't want the others to panic, so we covered it with our clothes.”

They lie to them that the sea is safe

On top of all, the Libyan trafficker lied. It is not true at all that every migrant vessel gets rescued, as we have shown in our previous article. The Gambian guy has no idea how lucky he was. Among the routes leading to Europe the one through the Mediterranean Sea is the most dangerous: 90 percent of the casualties die somewhere here. At that, two thirds of them never get found, there is information only about every third person who dies at the sea. Until the end of 2014, this route was considered relatively safe because Italy's extensive rescue mission, Mare Nostrum, functioned. The operation has been stopped since, in order to be replaced by the pan-European Triton, with one third of the former mission's budget.

The crowd, however, has not decreased on the coast of Libya. According to estimations, six hundred thousand people are waiting to be able to get across to Europe. (For our readers prone to consternation: this number is insignificant compared to the number of migrants that have been received by countries outside Europe. Only in Turkey, for example, 2 million Syrian refugees live.)

The migrants' situation at home and their determination are not only indicated by that they take the utmost danger to flee, but they are not scared away by the lack of information either. They want to go, and they set off.

'Why did you choose to take this route? There is a way towards Greece or Spain, those are not so dangerous.” The people sitting on the hot concrete are looking back at me at loss. They keep saying: “This is the route, one has to take it.”

It is exactly their total lack of information that points out the redundancy of European policies built on closure. It is possible to build walls, but then the route alters on the spot, as it is happening in the case of the Bulgarian or the Greek iron curtain. The shorter marine routes leading to the Greek isles or Spain can be made impossible to take; in the worst case, they will come on a more dangerous route, from Libya to Lampedusa.

The world of Mad Max does exist: slavery, desert, and war on the route of escape
The world of Mad Max does exist: slavery, desert, and war on the route of escape
Fotó: Földes András / Index

Moreover, the rigorous acts even increase the danger, as Paolo Cuttitta, a researcher of the field of migration studies at the University of Amsterdam told later: since European authorities confiscate the migrants' boats, the traffickers send them across the sea on cheaper boats of a worse quality; as they would lose their vessels anyway, it is no use investing money in them. “If the boats were not confiscated, the migrants would be transported by safer vessels, and there would be less deaths,” – outlined the researcher. (Cuttitta, by the way, had a series of observations which, if the Hungarian government heard them, would get him sentenced to an immediate death by burning at the stake. We will publish his research in the following article.)

It also results from the one-way traffic that the traffickers choose the captain from among the migrants. As the Gambian man told us, everybody was captain on their boat. But how is it possible to set sail on the sea with minimal nautical knowledge, or even without it?

A cruising guide to migrants fleeing to Europe

“Navigation is simple at the coast of Libya” – explained Harald Höppner, the leader of a voluntary rescue expedition, in the port of Lampedusa. “There are two oil platforms at the sea, 40 and 60 miles off the coast. The boats leave from somewhere between Tripoli and Zuwarah, aiming at the two platforms visible in the distance.” He shows the points of orientation on the shipboard computer. “These can be seen at night too, since gas is burning continuously above both of them. They have to go between the platforms, and if they sail along right in the middle, they get to Lampedusa, while if they go towards the east, they will reach Malta.”

However communicative the people waiting behind the fence are, they are trying to avoid the topic of the traffickers. Can they be afraid that if they are sent back to Libya, and it turns out that they had talked, they would get into trouble? Anyway, I learn from them as much that they paid a sum between 1000 and 1200 dollars for the trip, and that they spent months waiting to leave in Libya.

Check out our photo report on the crisis of Lampedusa
Check out our photo report on the crisis of Lampedusa
Fotó: Földes András / Index

I get to know from those looking after the migrants in Lampedusa that the traffickers distribute the people on board the ship according to how much they pay. On the bigger ships, the poorest are put below deck, and they often even get locked up or chained to their place in order to prevent them from, in the case of panic, rushing to one side and turn the ship over. That is how such tragedies could happen when people simply suffocated in the airless hull, or they got stuck inside when the ship was sinking, without the slightest chance to escape.

It is also the traffickers who decide on the time of departure. An Eritrean family was put on the ship with severe burns. Paola Pizzicori, my interpreter, tells the story she heard from the doctor of the island. The family had an accident back in Libya when, while cooking, a gas tank exploded in their room. They were made to get on board the leaving ship anyway, then they were being tossed about for days in the blazing sun. In the end, the mother's life could not be saved.

The conversation speeds up when I turn the conversation to the travel to Libya. “Burkina Faso and Niger. Those are the most dangerous countries,” – tells a man from Libya. “You can get shot or abducted. And crossing the desert. We went in a car, across the Sahara. If the motor stops, or we get lost, it is like being in the middle of the sea. Only nobody comes to rescue us.”

Libya = Mad Max

However, according to the stories, these dangers are dwarfed by the Libyan situation. “Nobody is safe there. Everybody has a gun, shooting occurs every day.” I listen to the stories with wide eyes. If they told me similar things unrelated to each other, I would think they watched Mad Max the night before, and now they are simply recalling the story.

Check out our photo report on the crisis of Lampedusa
Check out our photo report on the crisis of Lampedusa
Fotó: Földes András / Index

“They treat us like animals. They beat us, spit on us, shoot at us. They need no reason, it is enough that you are walking in the street.”

They behave like that with each other too. If the neighbours have some problem with each other, they begin to shoot.

“We feared to go out to the street, but we had to go to work. That's how we paid for this trip.”

“We did everything. We built houses, loaded goods, handled cows. Sometimes we even washed clothes.”

“They came for us saying that they needed labourers. They took us away, we worked all day, and then they either paid us or not.”

But the worst thing is if you get kidnapped. I spent two months in prison. I had been taken in by soldiers in civilian clothes, and they didn't let me out until my family sent money. The ransom was 600 dollars.

Another black man got discharged after some weeks, when his family had paid up. But what if the family is too poor to pay? “Then you become a slave. They take you to the countryside, and you work; there is no money, only work. I loathe Libyans.”

Where is Europe?

The enormous, white ferry slowly floats to the wharf, and the crowd breaks out in a happy buzz. The memory of Libya fades in a moment.

“Where is this ship going?” – asks the 26-year-old Gambian guy, who arrived on the boat he had inflated himself. “To Sicily, there are larger camps there.”

“Someone said we were going to Catania,” – the younger guy joins the conversation.

Catania is a town in Sicily, I explain. “And are we going to Italy afterwards? – asks someone sitting nearby, and I lose my confidence, since it seems that I should summarise the subject entitled “Introduction to the geography, history and economics of Europe” in two minutes.

But suddenly it becomes clear that I am simply facing a style of travelling unknown to the western world. The European citizen wants to see the world, therefore they read, prepare, then visit their destination.

But these people do not travel to a place, but away from something. What is important for them is to get away from the place where they can be killed, terrorised, or kept in extreme poverty. The destination does not matter, it can be anywhere, where there is no poverty and fear.

Migrants do not come to Europe because they can find the Eiffel Tower here, but because at us it is less likely here that their lives end up in catastrophe.

The Kind Reader is one of the nice people

“Which country do you want to get to?” – I ask around, but only the Liberian man gives me a concrete answer. He is going to Germany because his brother lives there. He married a German woman, so he has documents too. Two boys from Ghana want to go to Rome. Why there? Because they saw it on TV. Most of them, surprisingly, would also like to stay in Italy.

Galéria: Check out our photo report on the crisis of Lampedusa(9 kép) Fotó: Földes András / Index
Galéria: Check out our photo report on the crisis of Lampedusa(9 kép) Fotó: Földes András / Index

“Italians are very nice people” – the Gambian boy puts his hand on his heart.

They saved our lives, and that's the most important thing. Nothing more can be given to someone. I want to live in their country.

I am embarrassed, but before I could try to picture the situation in more detail, another man goes into raptures: “We have had good experiences here ever since they rescued us.” Several others nod: “It was good in the camp, too, we got food, clothes, and we could rest.”

I see what they mean. In the recent days I have seen some migrants in the main street of the only settlement of Lampedusa. The migrants from Bangladesh, Ghana, Eritrea were strolling about in small groups.

Not long before they had been at the sea, or dreaded the Libyan terror, then, all of a sudden, they could sit peacefully on a bench, and were free to spoon a fruit yoghurt. Nobody reproached them, they were watching the nicely dressed tourists walking, and their faces lit up with joy.

They have arrived in Europe.

But now thoughts are swirling in my mind. How could it be possibly summarised for them, before the ferry leaves, that Lampedusa is only a small part of Europe, that it is a quiet place, and its inhabitants are nice, whereas Europe is enormous, complex, and not everybody will have the same attitude towards them as those who saved their lives?

But in the meantime, the ferry lowers its ramp, policemen beckon, and the 150 migrants briskly set off, grinning, to the entrance of the ship. I can only wave to them awkwardly, and they happily wave back, that we will meet in Europe, and nothing bad can happen to them any more.

Read our other stories on the migration crisis

Read the first part of our article about what effect it made on the idyllic Lampedusa when the migrants's ships flooded in. Here you can read our summary on the migrant problem.

Our journalist crossedf the border between Serbia and Hungary illegally, with a group of Afghani migrants. Here is the first part. and the 2nd part of our series.

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