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La Pietra Dialogues On the World On-Line
Fishes for Hyenas
Joshua St. Clair, NYU Florence student
La Pietra Dialogues
October 15, 2014

“It’s the morning of October the third, and it’s dawn, and it’s 5:00.” Visibility is low. The boat—or rather “the wreck of a boat”—now precariously crossing the Mediterranean, had departed from Tripoli just twenty-one hours prior. It is carrying over five-hundred refugees. The captain, in a desperate attempt to contact the Italian Navy, dips a piece of cloth in gasoline and sets the fabric ablaze. The fire spreads. The mass of five-hundred bodies flees to one side of the boat. The vessel capsizes. “What we have is the beginning of three or four hours of pure horror.” As the sun sets on October the third, 366 people are dead—“right in front of our eyes.”

It was with this astounding account that journalist Imma Vitelli lead off the night’s dialogue. It was October 1, almost a year since the Lampedusa migrant shipwreck off Italy’s southern coast, a tragedy that spawned Vitelli’s harrowing pilgrimage through the heart of Africa’s human-smuggling darkness. “For days after days after days, I cannot tell you—I cannot describe—these lines of coffins, of wooden coffins, lined up in a hangar in the airport in our own country. There were people in there,” Vitelli incredulously exclaimed, trying to convey the sheer surreality of the events of last October, the events which had left such a profound mark on the Italian-born journalist. “Basically, we didn’t know the half of it. We just knew there were 518 people [on the boat], that thousands were coming [every year], and that a lot of them were drowning.”

As the fog enveloping the pandemonium began to lift, a startling statistic poked its head through the cacophony of media coverage: 365 of the 366 fatalities were from Eritrea. This was something very “curious,” said Vitelli. Why? Why Eritrea? Why are they fleeing? “I couldn’t get around it.” The search for this answer would occupy the next several months of Vitelli’s life, taking the journalist several hundred miles across the sands of Africa. She needed to know. “There was a certain Darwinism at play,” Vitelli remarked, in how these migrants managed to survive. She wanted to know what such a struggle entailed. “I wanted to trace step by step the hellish stations that I would [have to] go through to survive.”



The first station was Eritrea. Eritrea is a country on Africa’s Horn that for over fifty years existed under the banner of Italy’s colonial empire. It was an oasis of sorts just beneath the vast, brutal topography of Africa’s Sahara. Following decolonization, the nation like so many others on the continent found itself in the midst of brutal warfare culminating in totalitarian rule. The country is now a “broken place,” Vitelli recalled. “The more I was there, the more I understood what was going on.”

Everyone was fleeing. “The stories were accumulating,” said Vitelli, and at first they were darkly humorous. National soccer teams traveling to matches abroad would simply exit the plane and then stay—permanently—wherever they arrived; Eritrean Airlines, which can now only be spoken about in the past tense, witnessed pilots landing in foreign airports and never returning; even the official sent to Saudi Arabia to retrieve some of the abandoned planes decided to extend her stay abroad—indefinitely. If someone was leaving Eritrea, it was always a one-way ticket.

It is, however, a crime to leave the country. And it was with this startling fact that Vitelli steered the conversation away from its anecdotal beginnings . Under the country’s dictator, “Uncle Antonio” as he is called by locals, a nation-wide conscription initiative was enforced. All citizens are forced to serve the government, sometimes for several years, sometimes for life; the amount of time was “completely arbitrary,” noted Vitelli. “You’re building your country,” she explained “which means forced labor.” The brutal work in these camps leaves many dead of heat exhaustion and dehydration. If you have a degree, building your country means “spending hours in the office of the ministry,” a better assignment than the camps, but imprisonment nonetheless. You are “a hostage of your own country!” Vitelli exclaimed. “This is why people are leaving.”

The Eritrean people have a tragically ironic term for this conscription system. It translates to “fishing.” The “Darwinism” that Vitelli had spoken of earlier was not a phenomenon confined to the Mediterranean crossing; in many ways, it was the very catalyst of the migrant’s journey. “So many people told me, ‘we would rather become food for fish in the Mediterranean than be fished by our own government,’” Vitelli solemnly recounted. But the predation was not just of a human variety. It is illegal to kill hyenas in Eritrea, the journalist informed the audience. Why? Because the wild beasts eat the deserters—the migrants fleeing from the despotic food chain of Eritrean conscription to that of the surrounding animal kingdom. “It was a very twisted environment,” reflected the journalist.

When talking to an Eritrean student who had lost six people on the boat of October 3 and was himself about to embark on the same journey, Vitelli couldn’t help but protesting, “But don’t you know!?” Don’t you know the danger? He simply replied: “We have no option.”

“Everybody who had a chance was fleeing,” Vitelli concluded. “The unlucky ones, the ones who could not afford to get on a plane [...] the unlucky ones just walked. They walked and they walked.”



Khartoum is quite simply the “human-trafficking hub—possibly of Africa,” Vitelli said. Sudan—Eritrea’s exceedingly violent neighbor to the west—was the station immediately following the migrants’ flight from their home country. For many, Sudan becomes a purgatory of sorts. It is a station where the proprietors are smugglers and the commodity is man. Vitelli vividly remembered one town in particular: “I’ve been to many countries, and covered a lot of wars, but [that town] struck me as a place of real loss and perdition.” Many are left there working for the money to complete the next leg of their ascent from refugee hell.

Amidst this precarious state of suspension are the Rashaida Bedouin. It seemed as though everyone in Sudan had a Rashaida story, Vitelli recalled. A faction of the Rashaida tribe acts as human traffickers who “snatch” migrants along the Sudanese border. They “take [the migrants] to a camp in the middle of the desert in chains, beat them, torture them, rape [them].” They are even forced to call their mothers and fathers while being tortured—screaming through the phone, asking for money whose sum grows by the day. The families would pay. “And that fed this monster.”


The Desert

For Eritreans, Sudan is the physical place of no return. You cannot go back. “If you go back [to Eritrea], they will kill you.” But if you go onward, the “desert is waiting.” The desert is the inevitable crossing that each migrant must make to continue their exodus. From Sudan, to Egypt, to Libya they go. The desert was a kind of “obsession” for me, Vitelli admitted. “We do know what happens at sea.” We know about the boats and the drownings and the nautical infernos. But the desert remained a phenomena strangely enigmatic to journalists covering the issue. “The desert was a puzzle [piece] that was missing.”

The desert. Here, “you have one of the largest, unexplored, isolated, desolated areas on the planet,” exclaimed Vitelli. The desert. “I wanted to find it on the map, but I couldn’t find the coordinates. It’s not even mapped properly.” The desert. The word began to sound strange. “The desert, the desert, how do I get to the desert?”

Vitelli found her guide in the form of local Libyan militia. They showed up and said, “let’s go.” For whatever reason, “they were willing to take us,” Vitelli recounted. Like the desert setting itself, the story that ensued greatly mystified the audience.

“The desert is really mesmerizing,” Vitelli began. “In this emptiness, we start seeing things.” First there was a mattress, just a plain mattress lying in the middle of vast nothingness. Then there were bottles, empty and abandoned in a large grouping. The militia lead Vitelli further into the desert. “And then, we find them,” recollected Vitelli, with an air of bewilderment at the memory of such a surreal encounter. In the midst of that immense, desolate landscape three trucks were parked, eighty-seven people like cargo strewn around the vehicles. Four of the men were unconscious. The migrants were dangerously dehydrated and showed scarring from beatings at the hands of their traffickers. The items Vitelli had found lying in the desert—like some hoarder´s mirage—were their belongings, uselessly tossed aside.

“‘You have four people unconscious here; why don’t you give them water!?’’ Vitelli desperately asked the smugglers. “They didn’t reply,” she recalled. “They were looking at me like I was crazy. [...] There was some kind of elemental sadism at play.” The situation in the desert had quickly escalated from a wanderer’s fever dream to a journalist’s nightmare. “The militias were asking me [to] call the Red Cross and call the U.N. They said: ‘You wanted to see the refugees and you wanted to see the route and now we have eighty-seven people—what do we do with them? What do we do with them!?’ I said, ‘I don’t know!’ I mean, I’m a reporter. I just wanted to see the route. What do I do with eighty-seven people!?”


The Coast

For the migrants who manage to cross the Sahara’s abyss, only the sea remains. The conduits to freedom, however, are the many smugglers who populate the coastal regions. It was beginning to seem as though the chthonic flight from Eritrea was nothing more than a series of ill-fated encounters with various smugglers. From the border into Sudan, a smuggler waited to be hired. From Sudan to the Sahara, a smuggler waited. From the Sahara to the coastal cities and from the coastal cities to Italy—a smuggler, a smuggler. “If you do not give visas to people—if you do not provide people with a little [means] to come—there going to go to whoever’s offering that service,” Vitelli explained. Without help from governmental authorities, migrants are forced to turn to the only means available: the smugglers. However volatile and “sadistic” they may be, the smugglers represent an unavoidable fate for a migrant deprived of all other options.

Finding a source among this trafficking community was key. “The smuggler is an important part of this chain that eventually made us stare at coffins in Lampedusa,” explained Vitelli. Fortunately, the power vacuum created by Libya’s ongoing civil war allowed for greater journalistic freedom. Unfortunately, the power vacuum had also given free reign to the various criminal—and even terrorist—factions occupying the region’s travel routes.

After reaching Libya, Vitelli managed to make contact with one of the local smugglers. He was “quite a character,” Vitelli recalled grinning. He was also quite proud of himself for the way he treated his human cargo as though his abnormal kindness had done them the greatest of services. For him, the job was simply about the money. “‘We own the country,’” he informed Vitelli. “‘The government is the knife; we’re the cash.’”

Vitelli met with the smuggler’s driver who would take her to the refugee compounds. She was immediately told to put on a hijab. “I soon understood why,” the journalist recalled grimacing. She started passing checkpoints along the route to the coast, checkpoints that began as standard militia outposts and soon morphed into roads marked by the black flags flown by Al Qaeda. Vitelli quietly panicked. “I will never trust a smuggler again,” she swore under her breath as they drove through the various unnerving roadblocks.

It turned out that the smugglers were literally “bribing everybody.” Ansar al-Sharia, the group responsible for the US Embassy bombings in Tripoli and the ones “waiting” on the other side of the checkpoint, had already been paid. The driver himself was a member of Ansar al-Sharia and was chosen for this simple reason. Vitelli’s smuggler contact was Christian. He was right—it was money that ran the show.

The route to the coast was via Benghazi. “It was sad,” reflected Vitelli. The city once at the heart of the Arab Spring revolutions—a scene of hope for an oppressed people—was now the site of such inhuman transactions. There was compound after compound of human trafficking stations. “They were all the same, and they were in plain view in the middle of the street where once people were demonstrating.”

It was during this moment that the history embedded in the smuggling route subtly revealed itself. Vitelli had not just crossed the African landscape; she had crossed the last few decades of human history. From the “broken” cities of post colonialism, to sites of tribal genocide and refugee camps, to streets and capitals where revolutions once swelled, and finally through checkpoints marked with black flags, the same black flags that had brought down towers a world away—the same black flags continuing to propagate across the middle eastern landscape.

The smuggler had brought her to the final station before the boats. Here, the migrants waited for the “one-way ticket” to Italy. It was a kind-of limbo that encompassed the passing to and fro of thousands of refugees—some boarding, some waiting. This was the last stop on Vitelli’s journey.

The audience was quiet. They had not asked a single question thus far. “I leave you with one last image,” concluded Vitelli.

It was a girl. She had taken the dinghy—the plastic boat used for trafficking—three times. On the third time she was pregnant with her rapist’s child. The time before, she was “at sea for ten days—lost.” When that group was rescued, Vitelli asked the girl’s fellow passengers about the five people who had died. One of the women they threw out. “Why did you throw the woman out?” Vitelli asked. “‘Oh she went crazy,’” one of the survivors answered. “‘What do you mean?’ ‘She was so thirsty that she started sucking the blood’” out of a child on board. “‘We threw her out because we were scared.’” The audience was still. They stared at the photo of the girl. Vitelli paused then continued, “I don’t know if she’s going to take a dinghy again.”

When Vitelli reached out to her contacts to help the girl, they simply replied, “we can’t do anything.” Like so many thousands of other migrants, the girl was left in limbo on the wrong side of the water’s threshold. She was still just a fish—a fish in the desert.

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