‘Many people – many nations – can find themselves believing, more or less consciously, that “every stranger is an enemy”. For the most part, this conviction lies buried in the mind like some latent infection; it betrays itself only in random, disconnected acts, and is not the basis of a system of thought. But when this happens, when the unspoken dogma becomes the major premise in a syllogism, then, at the end of the chain, stands the Lager [camp]. It is the product of a conception of the world carried to its logical consequences with rigorous consistency; as long as the conception exists, the consequences remain to threaten us. The story of the death camps should be understood by everyone as a sinister signal of danger.’
—Primo Levi, preface to If This Is a Man, translated from the Italian by Stuart Woolf
Six years and six days ago, it was 3 October 2013.
Just before dawn, an immigrant boat capsized some 500 yards off the shores of Lampedusa, the Italian island that marks Europe’s southernmost point. Three hundred sixty-eight people died in that shipwreck. The sea continued to disgorge dead bodies for days and days afterwards. The smallest of those bodies was a new-born baby. The tiny body was still attached to the mother’s corpse by its umbilical cord.
In the days immediately following the shipwreck, the island is besieged by hordes of news reporters and politicians. Powerful figures from Italian and European institutions parade before the television cameras. ‘Never again,’ they swear. They make solemn vows, they shake hands with fierce intent, they pose for the customary photos, they send out tweets to their followers, then they leave the island.
Three days ago, it was 7 October 2019.
There’s been another shipwreck, the latest in an endless succession.
Thirteen corpses are recovered.
All of them women.
There are twenty or so immigrants still lost at sea, eight of them children.
The search continues, but those bodies remain missing.
Sometimes the sea gives back, sometimes it keeps.
Yesterday it was 10 October 2019.
A funeral mass is held in church for the thirteen women.
Not a single prominent Italian official attends, not a single European official. Not the mayor of Lampedusa, not a single representative of the Sicilian region, not a single member of Italy’s national government, not a single representative of the European Union. No international TV news crews, no foreign correspondents.
It’s been six years, and death has become an annoyance.
It’s a sign of the times: children separated from their mothers and fathers, brothers separated from sisters, individuals separated from their homes. By now, they’re reduced to numbers, statistics, ciphers. They try to make it across borders, for any of a number of reasons: war, famine, religious creed, simple yearning. There are countless obstacles: deserts, walls, barbed wire, the sea and the sheer cruelty of their fellow man. Their bodies bear detailed accounts of the journey: wounds, mutilations and fractures tell the tale of the harrowing violence they’ve suffered. Examinations performed on women who arrive in Europe by sea at the Lampedusa medical clinic confirm that nearly all of them have been raped.
Things we still don’t know, and that those bodies can’t tell us: how many times a day is a given woman raped, for how many days running, during her exodus across the desert, and during her confinement in a Libyan refugee camp?
In this diseased Europe of ours, people increasingly give in to fear, delivering themselves into the trammels of terror, allowing themselves to be devoured by hatred. They sense danger everywhere, they live with jangled nerves. They’re so overwhelmed by anxiety that having an enemy to fear has become a physical need. On the other side of the border, just over the sea, there are fathers, mothers, and children who have just been separated. These are men and women, girls and boys, toddlers and infants who carry traumas within them – traumas as vast and gigantic as the briny deep. And yet they continue their journey. After all, where else can they go, if not straight ahead? They take on the desert. They defy the prison camps in Libya. They venture across the sea. They display a fierce attachment to life that this aging, cowardly Europe has long since forgotten.
To them, life is still something sacred.
In Lampedusa, the mothers’ bodies arrived three days ago, ready to be laid in their coffins.
It was October 7, 2019.
Their children are still missing, lost among the swells of the sea.
The separation of loved ones is one of the statistics that allow us to understand the contemporary world.
Separation, flight, a sea to cross.
The same old story, told again and again.
A young Phoenician woman escapes from the city of Tyre, crossing the desert until she reaches its end. Now she looks out on the facing sea. A white bull appears, kneels down, and offers her his back, turning himself into a boat. The young woman crosses the Mediterranean Sea and lands on Crete.
The young woman’s name is Europa.
This is our origin.
We are the children of a sea-crossing by boat.
Image © European Space Agency