When the war in Libya broke out, we started working again.
Sea arrivals on Lampedusa island and on the southern Italian shores had picked up again: refugees had intensified their entries in Europe.
For a few years, the influx had slowed down, routes had been blocked by international agreements and by prisons in the desert. Kufra was the oasis where jails and armed guerrilla groups held hostages migrants coming from countries south of the Sahara desert. But now, with the conflict, the route towards the Mediterranean coast had been reopened and people fled or were forced to leave.
On that November morning a dry breeze was blowing on Milan and the court of the prefecture was clear in the autumn air. I took under my arm the folder containing the petitioner’s file and I crossed the courtyard to call the next person for the interview which would decide the result of his asylum application.
I entered the waiting-room, where about ten men were sitting, who turned to look at me.
“Emmanuel Johnson?”, I called. “Who is it?”
“It’s me”, answered a short Nigerian man, bundled up in a grey jumper.
I said hello and asked him to follow me. He stood up and as we walked I exchanged a few words with him to see if he understood me.
“I’m your interpreter, I will come with you to the interview and I will assist you the whole time. There are some questions you will have to answer.”
The man thanked me, thus confirming that our English was intelligible to each other.
We took the stairs and I observed him discreetly: he seemed a polite person. He had irregular features and big eyes wide open on something I could not know. Once we arrived in the interview room, I showed him a seat and I sat down next to him at a table where the interviewer was already waiting.
Shortly after, we started talking to verify preliminarily his name, surname and marital status. As the questions unravelled, the refugee’s language turned out to be more difficult than what I thought at first. The sentences were broken and he repeatedly used terms coming from the local pidgins, the hybrid African languages, which have very little to do with what should be their closest relative, English.
I focused to go on.
“How long ago did you leave Nigeria to go to Libya?”
“About four years.”
“What did you do in Libya?”
“I worked as a painter and decorator in Sabha.”
“In which town or village in Nigeria were you born exactly?”
“Uromi, Edo State, in southern Nigeria.”
“What job did you do in your country?”
“I sold fresh water at the market. I carried it on my head.”
“How much did you earn?”
“Little. I started at the age of 15. My parents died in a car crash while they were travelling by bus to the capital, I was left alone with my younger brothers. There was no money even before, so I left school and I did what I could. Every morning I would hoist the fresh water on my head and then I would go around the market to sell it. We all managed to eat, but it was hard. Later my brother started to work with me, too.”
The officer was a quiet man, he wrote down Emmanuel’s words and nodded now and then.
“How long did you work like that?”
“For three years, then I worked as a painter and decorator, but I lost my job.”
“So what did you do?”
“I went back to the market, selling water.”
He gave me the impression of being a very simple person, and that the miserable rise and fall of his job was the sign of a disarming inadequacy in facing life’s difficulties.
Emmanuel talked at length about his days, he repeated or gave emphasis to details that were totally irrelevant in that context.
“We would sleep at an aunt’s house, she had a family, three children of her own. Her husband was not happy we were there. In the morning my brother and I would go out early to go fetch the water, and my sister did the housework: she cleaned and cooked. We would walk more than forty minutes to reach the market…”
He did not know that all this was of no importance whatsoever for the interview, since his story had only one name: misery. And misery, hunger, fear are not considered valid reasons to seek refuge in another country.
The interviewer kept writing and nodding, now and then he looked alternatively at the man or at me when I translated. He was a silent person but he did not allow himself to get involved: it would have been impossible for him to decide among so many desperate cases.
“Before my parents died, we lived well in the village”, added Emmanuel. “I went to school and when I came home I stayed with my friends. In the field in front of my house there were trees and many people sat there to talk. The elderly women sat in a circle and chatted. Three of them always played dice and watched people go by. They played and laughed… They always said hello to me.”
In his big, open eyes I imagined those quiet African afternoons and the three Nigerian Moirae who smiled under a perfect sky, immense like a childhood memory. I wondered when they would cut the thread.
“So why did you leave Nigeria?”, the officer asked, trying to get to the point that interested him.
“There was no future for me. I couldn’t do anything to help my brothers.”
“But did you have any problems? Did anything happen to you?”
“There was nobody that could help me, I didn’t have anything… One day a friend told me about an acquaintance of his who worked in Libya. He told me that if I wanted he could tell him about making me travel.”
I already guessed how his story would continue: a journey that lasted many weeks towards the North and then in the desert between Niger and Libya, an arrival in some border town, and then maybe farther to the capital, where he would work to pay the debt of his journey.
“I arrived in Sabha, a big city in the centre of Libya. I stayed and lived there.”
Because of its position in the desert, Sabha had always been a stopping place for caravans which crossed the Sahara. But now it has become a point of transit for thousands of migrants who cross the desert to reach the coast.
“Excuse me”, the interviewer continued, “but why upon arrival to Italy did you declare you didn’t have a wife? Earlier you said you were married.”
The man suddenly turned and looked at me with his wide-open eyes.
“They asked me if I had a wife when I arrived…, I was married in Libya.”
“Where is your wife now?”
“My wife was on the boat, on the ferry with me.”
Emmanuel continued explaining. More and more anguished, he moved his hands making gestures to make sure he was understood. His language became broken and he found words in a dialect whose meaning I could guess only from the context.
“My wife was on the ferry with the child. Women were downstairs, inside. I was upstairs, on the deck. They loaded more than three hundred people… The ship didn’t even sail, it sank in the harbour. In Tripoli.”
He turned completely towards me looking at me, looking through me at somewhere else, in a night only he had seen.
“It was dark, the ship went down. People screamed, I couldn’t see anyone anymore. I fell in the water, other people tried to hold on to me…”
He talked floundering, as if he was in the water in that moment. He repeated some sentences.
“The child was on the ferry too, so little, just six months. I don’t know what happened. I reached the shore.”
The officer looked up from his computer, looked at him and then at me.
Emmanuel was staring at his legs scratching his head. I held my breath, not knowing what to say. Even the interviewer lost his thread, but then he quickly regained control.
“Are you sure your wife is dead?”, he asked.
Emmanuel turned to me again: “I stayed on the sea shore the whole day, until evening. I didn’t see them anymore, there were corpses on the beach, then the military made me board on another ferry, they forced me to leave. They had arms, they beat us. After three days I arrived here.”
At the end of his story the officer and I tried to get away quickly from the site of the accident, too.
We concluded with the customary phrases and I reread the transcript to him, Emmanuel seemed satisfied that his words had been written down just as he had said them, even better.
When I stood up to leave, the rubble of his life were still hovering about me. I had the feeling that what I had heard was not just the ruin of a man, but the disaster of an entire era.
Translation by Camilla Girardi