Lampedusa – battered by the winds, gasping for air
Acts of protests
In the final days of September, while European Union (EU) national security ministers were discussing refugee quotas and Frontex budgets in Luxembourg, the wind-swept and increasingly militarized island of Lampedusa hosted the Forum Controfrontiere (‘against borders’), bringing together more than 40 grassroots activists from across the Mediterranean and Europe to share experiences and best practices of direct support to refugees, the blocking of deportations, and active resistance to the tightening of borders.
The tiny island of Lampedusa, named after the Greek word for ‘rock’, or ‘oyster’, or ‘torch’, lies 113 kilometres east of the fish-processing town of Mahdia on the tip of Tunisia’s eastern bulge. Its population of 6,304 is concentrated between the old and new ports, overlooking a natural shallow harbour on the southeastern flank of the island. The area is made up of an imperfect grid of streets that all lead out of or towards the noisy Via Roma. A stroll down this high street can be a lesson in the acute self-awareness of small islands, with walls, market stalls, vehicles punctuated by hundreds of lampedusine – the intriguing shape of the island posing as a bar or business logo, a keychain or magnet, a tablecloth map splattered with drops of ice-cream, even as a tattoo on the forearm or nape of some of the locals.
Lampedusa may market itself as a remote paradise, but there is little feeling of escape – you always know exactly where you are, even at night, when the red lights of the island’s military installations indicate its three main capes. These are not the ‘torches’ that Lampedusa may be named after, but radars and transmission towers, constant reminders of the use and abuse of the island as an outpost for forces on the continent. Anxiety hangs in the air: outside the town, every third passing vehicle is an army jeep, or a vehicle belonging to one of Italy’s two police forces, the carabinieri and guardia di finanza. Neither is it easy to find peace on the island’s beaches or coves: Frontex ships plough the horizon. Sometimes, at night, the telegrams of crickets become confused with bizarre electrical noises heard in the sky.
Acts of protests
During the week of 22-26 September, PortoM, the grotto above the old port of Lampedusa that serves as an archive of objects left behind by migrants, an anarchist library, and the headquarters of grassroots Askavusa collective, hosted an anti-borders forum, the Forum Controfrontiere, as part of the 7th edition of the annual Lampedusian Festival. While EU home security ministers were playing the numbers game of refugee quotas, deciding how much more money and personnel to throw at Frontex, and discussing how to further secure the EU’s external borders, more than 40 no-border activists from Lampedusa, Tunisia, Melilla, Ventimiglia, eastern Greece and other frontier zones in the Mediterranean and beyond (including Calais) were sharing their experiences and methodologies, debating ways to resist the militarization of borders, to stop deportations, and to raise public awareness of the existence of migrant detention centres (often blurred out or simply unidentified by Google Maps, for example), some of which have now officially been renamed ‘Hotspots’ by the European Council.
Aside from debates, film projections, concerts and poetry readings, the festival programme included two significant acts of protest. The first was a visit to the LORAN radar station, situated at Albero Sole, the highest point of the island at 133 metres on the western cliffs, where a crucified Jesus stands in front of a heavily guarded 190-metre tall transmission tower, originally installed by NATO. A talk was given by Antonio Mazzeo, an expert on border militarization, and a banner reading ‘No Radar, Sì Scuole’ (no to radars, yes to schools) was pegged to the barbed wire. The second protest took place in front of a detention centre hidden away in the centre of the island. This protest quickly morphed into a spontaneous concert: on one side of the barrier at the detention centre, activists sang traditional Sicilian songs to the tune of Giacomo Sferlazzo’s guitar; on the other, a group of women and girls from Gambia and Eritrea, mostly dressed in white, clapped along to the music, laughing and dancing.
The women and girls had been rescued from the waves the previous weekend, and had been separated from their male relatives, who had already been shipped to mainland Italy. Poetic ‘passports’ were thrown over the fence. The police inside the camp recorded the entire scene on video without taking action; towards the end, one officer broke into a dance. But the activists left with heavy hearts: half an hour of solidarity and merriment, and then back to the silent, absurd ‘normality’ for themselves and for the girls they left behind.
Says activist and songwriter Giacomo Sferlazzo: ‘I would have liked to cut open the net and tell those women and girls: “There, you can now leave, together we’re stronger than the state and this evil world, we’re stronger than the TV, than the Pope, than the mayor, than Europe, than Nato…” I would have liked to tie a balloon to each girl so they can fly freely, to disarm the police and tell them that they’re slaves to capital and to the state mafia. But all we could do was sing and talk to this little piece of Africa and show them some love – this word which has started to disgust me but which we need to turn into a manifesto, a thousand-page manifesto written with this single word in the ink of our own blood.’
A week after the protests, politicians descended on Lampedusa to mark the second anniversary of the 3rd October shipwreck between Cala Galera and Isola dei Conigli, in which 366 people from the Horn of Africa lost their lives. A day before the commemorations, the women and girls inside the detention centre joined forces with new arrivals and staged a protest, demanding to be taken to the mainland and throwing stones at the police. Some of the women and girls managed to escape.
So much wind, so little air
Time is oppressive on Lampedusa. Too little time to start or finish anything, all one can do is wait. The island population lives in a permanent state of standby, awaiting the next scheduled surprise, a surprise which is always on its way. Waiting, for example, for the next boat arrival – media attention may have been diverted to the Syrian exodus, but Africans continue to be rescued in their thousands, or to drown, in the waters south of Lampedusa. Waiting, perhaps, to see what the EU’s next step will be. Waiting to see what will become of Lampedusa, particularly in the wake of suspicions that have been circling since 2009, of plans to depopulate the island and turn it into a large-scale military base. The fact that Lampedusans no longer have a hospital or clinic, that no-one is born on the island (pregnant women due to give birth are flown to Palermo), that the local school is understaffed, not to mention that the local cancer rate is significantly above average (attributed by local and foreign scientists to the military radars), are interpreted as methods to encourage inhabitants to emigrate.
Lampedusans address each other endearingly with a phrase, ‘O scià!’,short for ‘sciato’, literally meaning ‘my breath!’, but used to mean ‘my friend’, ‘my love’. With most of the island’s olive and acacia trees chopped down for carbon in the 19th century, the arid surface is battered by the wind. Air may be the most precious thing on Lampedusa, yet despite the strong winds, there doesn’t seem to be enough of it to breathe.
Antoine Cassar is a Maltese poet, translator, cultural organizer and activist for migrants’ rights and universal freedom of movement. ‘Passaport’, a long poem published in 9 languages, has been adapted for the stage in Malta, France and Italy. More information can be found at: passaportproject.org