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La Pietra Dialogues On the World On-Line
Trapped in Eritrea
Carmen Russo, NYU Florence Student
La Pietra Dialogues
October 3, 2014

Not many people would be able to find Eritrea on a map. A small country on Africa’s northeastern coast, it was at one time an Italian colony, referred to as “our place in the African sun.” During a La Pietra Dialogue this Thursday evening, Italian journalist Imma Vitelli told the story of the reality of Eritrea, a stark contrast from the image of an African paradise bathed in the sun. 

Ms. Vitelli’s involvement with Eritrea began when 366 Eritreans drowned while trying to cross the Mediterranean Sea and find refuge in Italy. The popularity of social media added to the horror of this tragedy. Photos were posted online and showed people frantically jumping overboard after a fire broke out on the ship. Even more alarming than the photos were the 366 wooden coffins holding unknown bodies that were now in Italy. Thousands of people from Africa were desperate to attempt the dangerous journey from Eritrea, through the deserts of Libya, across the Mediterranean, and finally into the safehaven of Italy, an open door to Europe. Vitelli decided that she “wanted to trace, step-by-step, the hellish stations they had to go through to survive.” And almost exactly a year after the death of 366 people, she sat in Villa Sassetti, ready to tell the stories she uncovered.

Vitelli is an enthusiastic storyteller, with an expressive face framed by wild curls. With passion in her voice, she begins to talk about how she got to Eritrea and the beginnings of her work. She shows photographs while she speaks, and rather than look at the audience, she seems to focus on the people in the pictures. Their faces come with stories of pain, struggle, torture, loss, and miraculous survival. They all want to leave Eritrea because it is not just a country. It is a prison. The new university is made up of grey, cell-block buildings guarded by the military. Young men are sent to do fatally exhausting work at labor camps. It is illegal to leave the country or kill a hyena, because hyenas eat those who try to escape. While in Africa, Vitelli was able to secretly interview survivors of torture, parents of children drowned in the Mediterranean, and Eritreans who memorize the phone numbers of smugglers, clutching their only hope of a way out as they save up money to pay for the journey.

When she starts to describe the piece of the journey that is left to fate in the middle of the Sahara Desert, she falls silent for a moment as she searches for words. This part of her research became more than following footsteps. While crossing the desert, her team found a group of 87 people making their escape to Italy. All of them were dangerously thirsty and a few had slipped into unconsciousness. With her own eyes, she saw the pain that people were enduring to make it out of Africa. She showed the audience the pure, insatiable desperation these people felt. Almost all of them had grieved in secret over a loved one that was killed during their journey. They were all aware of the countless dangers, from torture to prison to hyenas to starvation. But they left anyway, because it was the only sliver of hope that they had. As Vitelli quoted, they would “rather become food for the fish in the Mediterranean than be fished out by [their] own government.”

The people trapped in Eritrea need help. But the rest of the world is not there, so they remain nameless and faceless, their stories unknown. Their only choice is to help themselves. With the same social media that showed Europe the horrors of their escape route, they see fleeting glimpses of a better life. They know that something better than death in a labor camp exists, and it is found somewhere beyond the walls of rusted Land Rovers left from the war. Imma Vitelli will continue to share the untold stories of Eritrea’s prisoners, and until changes are made, they will continue to risk their lives for a chance to escape.

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