bagna et rallenta le già stanche sarte,
che son d’error con ignorantia attorto.
Celansi i duo mei dolci usati segni,
morta fra l’onde è la ragion et l’arte,
tal ch’incomincio a desperare del porto.
—Petrarca, Canzoniere, 189
Hath done the weared cords great hinderance;
Wreathèd with error and eke with ignorance.
The stars be hid that led me to this pain;
Drownèd is Reason that should me comfort,
And I remain despairing of the port.
—trans. Sir Thomas Wyatt
Twelve dead and 239 migrants aboard the Bourbon Argos, recovered by Médicins Sans Frontières. Expected to dock 27 October, 2016, at the mainland port of Reggio Calabria on the Straits of Messina. The informativa from the prefettura in Reggio Calabria arrives to us volunteers via our WhatsApp group, SOS Sbarchi. It gives a breakdown of the dead, and the numbers of the still living men, women and children. There is also information on their nationalities, their state of health, and the expected arrival time at the port. Of course, this last can only be approximate, since we’re talking about the sea here, which is still stronger than we are. This is demonstrated by the ease with which floundering and helpless humans die in the waters between the Libyan coast and Lampedusa, Malta, Sicily, Italy. Easier still when their chances are further reduced by physical and psychological trauma, systematic beatings, rape, terror, chemical burns, hunger, thirst, exposure, exhaustion, and the odd bullet wound. We have been told that for many of the rescues some people die, and some bodies are recovered and some not. We have been told that passing ships come across signs on the surface of recent human presences, clothes, plastic bottles, miserable possessions. The silent weaving light and colour of a film of petrol on the water where boats and rafts have gone down. Down with all their uncounted cargo of people, never to be recovered if not spat up long afterwards, sea-chewed, on some shore. We can try to conjure in our minds what it is like to drown this way and perhaps recoil, fearstruck, from the prospect of the gagging, the breathing in of water. The horror of your constricting, strangling throat. You could think of Melville’s Pip the castaway abandoned in the water, and the ringed horizon expanding around him miserably, and how he saw God’s foot on the treadle of the loom, and how he lost his mind. Perhaps to come to the conclusion that such stuff is a lesser representation of awe and horror before the real reported image of the Eritrean girl, trapped in the bow of the sinking boat, giving birth as she drowns. Found later beyond a wall of bodies in the final cabin by exhausted divers on their last oxygen, who cry into their masks. Still attached to her child by the umbilical cord they share in death. In the hecatomb.
I reach the port area just before ten in the morning, official now, with the blue coordinamento ecclesiastico singlet that will get me past the security guards. I had tried to come and make myself useful in the late summer, but got turned away, politely and regretfully, by the person responsible for coordination on land because I was not properly identified and approved by the prefettura. I thought this was fair enough, as security in an area devoted to the care of people in a fragile condition, and especially women and children, is a good thing. There is talk of hyenas who seek them out. So I joined the first voluntary group that would have me. There are several white plastic and canvas tents on the pier and, as I park my old Toyota, I can see that one of these is the province of the forces of law and order, with police personnel manning computers and standing about. There are numerous others, wearing different types of body suit, orange ones, blue, white. Clearly the Protezione Civile are being flanked by several voluntary groups, lay and religious. I find my crowd and greet a couple of the people I had seen at a meeting in a church hall in central Reggio some days before. This gets me involved in moving some supports for parts of a modest-sized tent that will be added to the larger ones.
I run into a number of people I know from my family of Reggio acquaintances. Carmelo, from my bank, dressed in full ceremonial scout regalia and looking very smart. Says he hopes they arrive soon as he’ll have to get back to his shift in a while. Cettina, a kind and caring old friend, and I am glad to see someone like her at a time like this. Enzo, my sons’ paediatrician and acquired cousin, there to offer medical support. Cool as a cucumber. A veteran of the landings. He knows I’m off the smokes and says I’ll probably be wanting one by the end of today, and not to mind coming to ask.
No ship. It has been raining and it is starting to think perhaps about drizzle again. I can see the voluminous main tents which are full of racked up camp beds. In the centre of one, there is a large pool of rainwater. There are smaller tents too, which look like some sort of filtering system for the people who will come. Apart from a few plastic chairs, these are empty. There is an air of expectation and camaraderie among the volunteers who wander around, exchanging greetings and embraces, introductions, hellos. People stand by plastic picnic tables stacked with cartons of fruit juice and snacks, waiting to be found useful. I am introduced to Said, who works with the police as a language mediator. Slightly dark skinned and good looking, shades parked on top of his head, he is friendly, cordial. Yet he also has a serious and worn stare that speaks of knowledge that I have yet to acquire in this place. His work, his task, is to investigate what has happened at sea and if possible to identify the scafisti, the smugglers, the human traffickers, the murderers. They may still be moving among the rescued migrants like malign pilot fish. He will go about this work for the entire day with tireless, insistent determination, working against an unwilling tide, knowing that fear and intimidation will exclude him. The migrants know that these ones can get to them and their families in their other world. I also meet up with a Scottish woman who lives in Reggio and who has brought along a group of volunteers come over from the UK, young and good-natured, university-age kids who are part of a religious group, Baptists of some kind. Excited, apprehensive. We do not know what we are going to find here.
During this doldrum pocket of time, word comes that the ship has been sighted and then some time after again I can see it is manoeuvring into the port. The Bourbon Argos is probably the largest ship operating humanitarian rescue missions in the Mediterranean and as it slowly makes its way to port you can see how weighty and long she is. We know that the ship is quite full, but apart from the odd crew member moving about, I can’t see anyone yet. The Argos is imposing at one end, its bridge and conning tower at the stern, with the rest of the ship, which houses the rescue facilities and spaces, running low and tunnel-like towards the bow. As it eases massively into place alongside the pier, I think of Ireland, of my grandparents’ terrace in Cork and how as a child I would look down at the dredgers and trawlers that prowled the dark waters of the river Lee in the long silent distance. Growing up in Belfast, I saw the shipyards, where huge vessels were worked on at Harland and Wolff under the great yellow cranes. I sensed the enormous weight of the ships, the immense intricacy and labour of their construction, the tremendous hulls, and the awful abyss pool of the awaiting sea. Now as this great wrought metal weight looms up beside me, it is as if some childhood fear has taken on a vast undeniable realness. To imagine what these survivors have seen and felt fogs my thoughts with a louring pall of horror. I feel an urgent yearning to be doing, to extricate myself from the paralysing, suffocating sensation, to move and breathe freely amongst the living on the firm land. People flock to the side of the Argos, but after years of crossing the Straits to go to work in Sicily, I know that docking and mooring is a slow and inscrutable business, so I walk off down the pier, stop to look back, take in the scene, and just wait, hoping to calm myself. In the end, a gangplank juts out of the side of the ship and is jiggered into position on the wet ground. A couple of Médicins Sans Frontières crew members, looking weary, come ashore and are greeted by the waiting officials. Among these, there is a barrel-shaped man with a nice jacket and attendant retinue. He too has been waiting. Word goes that this is the politico, come for the formalities and presumably a humanitarian glow photo op for the tv news and the papers. Fair enough, though. He brushed his teeth, put on clothes, got in the car and came down here. In a world of damp ego and collective paralysis, the Italians are letting them land. Reggio Calabria, with its awful reputation and its population of less than 200,000, the city that Claudio Fava said does not love itself, has been offering prima accoglienza to thousands of traumatised and harmed people.
A small dark-coloured van has backed up near to the gangplank. This is the hearse for the dead. Are they going to disembark the dead before the living? Does that make any sense? Surely it is both less traumatic and more useful to disembark the living and start helping them? After a while, we see some men in white protective suits and mouth masks starting to busy themselves with something on the ship, and after another while a group of them begins gingerly, and with slow deliberation, to carry down a long white plastic body bag. This contains a dead person, one of the victims. We do not know whether there is a man or a woman inside, or a child, although something about the slightness of the shape, that leans its dead form and joints against the stiff plastic, tells me that this must be a woman, or a teenager. There is a throat-caught gasp of horror from behind me and I turn to see that one of the Baptist girls is so disturbed by what she is seeing that she rushes away, choking on tears, followed by two of her concerned companions. She is right to be so disturbed. This is what happens in our world of no care. Drowned people in plastic bags. The men seem to find the bag inordinately heavy and group together to lug, to heft it into the back of the van and they spend some considerable time positioning it in there. Presumably others will be going in there too. Presumably they will be buried at Arno, where the city has created a cemetery for the victims of the crossings, so that they can be given what is called here degna sepoltura. I have been told that burial services are carried out with quiet and proper dignity, according to both Christian and Muslim rites, out of respect for all of the dead. Though I am now functionally inured to the many sad and deleterious usages of this city, I am comforted to know that after what has happened to these people they will at least be put into the ground by hands working in a civilised manner. That some care, some mark of respect will be shown for their dead and often unidentifiable bodies. I have been to many funerals in Calabria, in the city and in small towns on the coast and in the mountains. Just as in Ireland, here too, as our poet Heaney says, “we pine for ceremony, / customary rhythms: / the temperate footsteps / of a cortège.” In the rooms and spaces of our communion outside the intonings of the church, these rhythms come in carefully attuned signs of recognition. The greeting, the embrace, the whispered words of “anything you need,” “we’re here for you,” “just let us know,” “I’ll be round tomorrow,” “just to say” … Our cultures, so distant, so alien, so unseeing, come together ritually in these soft acknowledgements of our general end. Yet people in African towns and villages will not see this, the loved one’s last farewell. If there is no phone number or piece of paper, nothing written down anywhere, they simply will not know. Somnambulant women moving in their kitchens will not be imagining any slow triumph towards the mounds, except in the more awful dreams that come when part of our heart is cut off from that knowing. Or they shall know it, from the silence of the future. It will rise inexorably, like the terrible fish, into their ken.
After five of the bodies have been loaded, the van appears full and it seems also that a decision has been taken to interrupt this process and begin the disembarkation of the living. We see them being marshalled into lines to feed the gangway, many with cloths or towels on their heads to protect themselves from the sun and the rain. The first to come down are those made a priority because of burns. We have learned that fuel from the boat engines gathers in the well and, when it mixes with sea water, the result is a liquid that is highly corrosive. So many of the people get their feet burned. Also, because of a custom of keeping the women and children in the centre of the boat, away from the slippery and dangerous sides, it is they who are most seriously injured in this way. When this chemical mix spills into the sea, it is so strong that it is even dangerous for the rescuers and their boats.
My first experience of contact with a migrant is that of timorously assisting a teenage girl with burns all over the back of her body and legs into the medical tent where I help her lay down on her stomach. I can see that she has been suffering like this for some considerable time. She cries in her pain, letting out exhausted groans. I can see that her lips are badly chapped and her mouth dry, so I get some water and help her to drink it in sips. She says in English thank you to me over and over. I tell her that the doctors will be with her in a minute, leave her a bottle of water within reach and go back outside. I am told to go and help the doctors who are doing triage in a filter tent. The Médicins Sans Frontières people are holding the line and sending the migrants to the doctors in a steady stream, so I go into the tent and greet one of them and say I can help by speaking to those who know English. He says good, because they are from The Gambia, Ghana, Nigeria and Senegal, so I can speak to all of them except the Senegalese, who speak French. He says ask them how they are, are they wounded, in pain, do they have itching on any part of their bodies, if they have been beaten or hurt.
I look at the people coming towards us. They are almost all wearing tracksuits and are barefoot and now it is raining. The ground is wet and I can see girls and women who are trembling with cold. They all look stunned. Many of them seem very young. Somebody’s children. The doctor is wearing a white body suit and a mask over his mouth and doesn’t really speak to the people he inspects because he has little English and does not expect them to understand Italian. A boy, about 17 years old, comes forward. The doctor takes him by the arm and says to me, ask him how he is. Confused and nervous, I ask him where he is from. A little surprised to hear English, he looks up at me and says, Nigeria. I ask him if he is ok, has he been hurt in any way? No. Just cold. Do you have any itching on your skin? A little. He indicates his arm, holds it out. The doctor opens the front of his track suit bottoms and puts his hand in to look at his groin, pries about a bit. The boy does not react in any way, just looks on as this stranger nudges his penis from side to side. The doctor turns and says over his shoulder “scabbia” and a young woman comes up and clips a coloured paper band onto the boy’s left wrist. The boy steps forward and is immediately stopped by Said, wearing a mask, who leans in close to his ear, asks him, were you on the boat the people died on? Did you see the people falling in the water? Did you know any of the victims? The boy says no to all of these and is allowed to pass. One of the nuns scuttles over and gives him a pair of flip-flops before he is led over to the tent for scabies treatment.
Next in line is a girl about the same age, so I start by asking her where she is from. She is Gambian. I think I can alleviate the situation a little by explaining to her as gently as I can that the doctor is a doctor and is just looking for infection and injury and not to worry, as he proceeds to pull open her track suit bottom to inspect her in the same way as with the boy. I put my hand on her shoulder to reassure her, to offer some comfort to this girl who has no underwear and no shoes. I do not know how long this goes on for. I do not know what I had expected. Had I anticipated rage, furious indignation? Anguished declarations of injustice and abuse? Tough youths struggling with the police? I did not expect this silent obedience, the joyless acquiescence of hands receiving fruit juices and snacks.
Nothing, though, prepared me for the stern gaze of the tall and beautiful young woman who stood at a little distance from our tent. She stops out of the line and stands apart, and is quickly surrounded by what for her is a group of stranger men and stranger women. She speaks to them firmly, beadily eyeing the woman who understands the language she is using. Something has taken her beyond fear. Medical staff are summoned and she is escorted to a waiting ambulance, helped aboard and taken away. I am told she has stated that she is pregnant, that she has been raped and wants to have an abortion. I ask my doctor if that is possible and he says yes, if that’s what she wants, and he adds, almost to himself “it’s probably the first time any of her wishes have been respected in a while.”
It is 1994, and I am back in my beloved Sicily, in Catania, on a day off work at the faculty, sun-stunned in this wondrous moving city under the volcano and by the vast Ionian Sea. The lunchtime traffic growls and stop-starts all around. It is early summer and the heat wells in the air like a tangible entity. The great open market at Piazza Carlo Alberto sprawls under its white awnings in a huge higgle piggle of colour, sound and smell. Big oily cheeses sit squat upon each other beside cured meats and salamis bewildering in their number. Herbs, spices, fruit and vegetables that you know and some that you don’t. The harsh voices of sun-darkened men carting and hauling sides of meat, bullying their way through the milling shoppers. Prices fly in dialect and the twang of the local accent sharpens and curls the ear. Every kind of fish and seafood that you can imagine, polipo, aringhe, cozze, vongole, pescespada, triglie, spigola, granchio, dentice, cernia…the gorgeous smell of peppers roasting alla brace. This is the city of Saint Agatha the virgin martyr, or of the Elephant, for the Arabs who once controlled it. Now the great sculptured Elephant stands in Piazza Duomo with the obelisk on its back, proud and loved symbol of this place of crossings and takings, settlements and conquests, of destructions and renewals through earthquakes and the eruptions of Mount Etna. I can still see the African women, tall standing by their wares in the market, their dresses all colour and their skin black as the sight in your eyes when you stare at the sun. They wait for people to come and view the clothes, the trinkets, the carved woods sorted and laid out for sale. Girls and mothers pause to feel the fabrics, linger over the jewellery. Buyers and sellers’ heads lower and come together and their arms move and weave among the coloured stuffs as they do the theatre of the talk and the haggle, the pout, the laugh, eyes to heaven, coins and notes. Ciao, grazie. Human beauty, movement, sound, contact. Now we have the drowned dead, burned girls, rape, scabies, fruit juices and flip-flops.
It is signalled to us from the ship that all the migrants have disembarked. I turn to the tents behind us, now full of people sitting on the camp beds with big brown blankets round their shoulders, drinking juice and talking quietly or just sitting in silence. The volunteers are busy trying to cheer people up, playing with the children and talking in broken English and French, helping them try on plastic clogs, checking sizes. Slow bedraggled queues form as they are moved along to be called to the police tents for identification and processing. Outside in the sea breeze, it had not been so noticeable, but now the smell of unwashed bodies, of sweat and feet, takes hold in the tents like an invisible swell and hangs, miserable and nauseating, in the air. One man lies prostrate on a camp bed, probably in a state of shock, while a volunteer holds and cuddles his baby girl. His wife is one of the drowned and perhaps not in one of the plastic bags, because a not yet determined number of people were not recovered out there. I notice a couple with their little daughter sitting quietly, though the child is fidgeting and bored. Said and his colleagues move from one group to another, greeting, hunkering down intimate, asking, insisting. I ask him how it’s going and he says “no, nothing.”
I take a short walk to get out of there for a few minutes and go to the other side of the port and have a quick espresso in the bar by the hydrofoil station. I do not feel hungry. There’s that way you feel when you come out of a cinema and the world is there just as it was but somehow seems strange. The same, only different. I buy a bag of M&M’s and go back to the tent. Go over to the father and say hello, ask him how he is doing. OK, thanks. Ask him if his daughter likes chocolate. Yes. If you would like to give her these, they are for her. Put them in his hand. He thanks me and beckons to the child, who takes them instantly, all excited, starts trying to open the packet. I can see that they are surprised and pleased, but it is a thing that rises up from somewhere deep down in the gone away and that it will sink back down there. I move off and set about trying to make myself useful elsewhere. I do not now remember clearly the many interactions and conversations I had with people for the rest of my time there. I remember only that life and identity and all that I was fell away and waited, floating, somewhere else.
During the afternoon, I get a call from Patrizia, my wife, to say that she is going to a Caritas centre at the San Giorgio Extra church to help with 35 minors, all male, who had arrived during a previous landing. They have been moved in some haste to make way at the port for today’s arrivals. Later, she arrives with a vehicle to collect meals from the Protezione Civile people at the port for these youngsters, as they have nothing to eat. No provision has been made for them. They have fallen through a crack in a sagging floor. On occasions like this, Patrizia is what Italians call una forza della natura and nothing is going to stop her leaving the port without 35 full meals and assorted bread portions and drinks. Later, I learn that they have been given a temporary form of housing at a sports centre at Gallico, just outside Reggio. The volunteers scrounge out a rake of bedclothes and other necessities to get them settled. Over the next few days, these boys will be harassed and threatened by local hoods, lads of their own age, buzzing to and fro nastily on scooters. They are making a territorial statement—this land is not made for you and me. The way things work round here, someone could get badly hurt or even killed, if only to provide incentive to some young blood looking to beef up his curriculum.
The prefettura is notified of the danger and they cast about, seeking an alternative destination. To our surprise, we learn that they will be housed by a religious order that has an extensive property five minutes’ walk from our apartment near the centre of Reggio. In the weeks to come, our lives will be transformed by our involvement in the experiences of these young migrants. As volunteers, we will find ourselves in a form of administrative limbo, unable to insist on medical attention and care, uninformed of decisions being taken, not sure what we are allowed to do or what we can get into deep trouble for doing. Even when your natural instinct is to make the simple helpful gesture, like letting a distressed teenager use your phone to call his mother to tell her he’s alive. No. There are security problems. At the same time, the boys identify us as their point of reference and guarantee, their mother and father in this new place, and they expect answers and information, which often we cannot give them, simply because we do not have the answers ourselves. All kinds of trouble. They don’t like pasta, which is the staple of just about every meal delivered by the protezione civile, and that’s understandable, given the numbers of people to feed and the simple practicality of preparing it.
Groups of boys don’t want to sleep in the same rooms with those from different tribes because they feel superior to them. We begin to learn about the Mandinka and the Fula, the Hausa. Little nastinesses break out, smoulder, and glow unpromisingly. It reminds me of the sectarian spit-hate of Northern Ireland. The same old bile, only different. So they squabble, but are reluctant to explain what the problem is, possibly because deep down they are a little ashamed of themselves. More probably because they don’t think we would understand. Some are sick, or have injuries that have not been treated properly. Others are traumatised. Some are angry and volatile. Very few want to talk about their experiences. Steven, from The Gambia, tells me that he will never, ever, speak of what has happened to him at the hands of the people who kept him prisoner in Libya.
They want things. Shampoo, skin creams, medicine, shoes that are different from flip-flops. We bring them music and an old computer for watching films to allay the boredom. They play football in the gardens and hang out in the sun on warm days. They probably annoy the priests in the main building, whom we never see and who are probably used to the quiet, ensconced life they have chosen. It is left to just one of them to show his face and represent his order and the property. At the beginning he is affable and welcoming, but the wearing reality of this form of care erodes much of any desire he may have felt for closer involvement. He even externalises to us his and his brothers’ concern over the lack of clarity and information coming from the authorities. Are we confessors now, too? We acquire a gathering feeling that there are questions of money coiling in the eddies of his talk, a rhetoric geared at invisible others, more powerful than we are. In the early days, we are formally instructed not to take the boys outside the grounds of the property, for their own good and security, it is said. True to form, we are told this after we have already done it. Patrizia has risked who knows what form of sanction by taking a group for a walk round the city centre, Via Marina, the Lungomare, which they enjoy immensely and which attracts curiosity and interest from locals, none of it antagonistic. She gets a severe telling off when they get back, but I know the only thing that scares her is that they might not allow her to come to them anymore and that wouldn’t suit anybody, so it doesn’t happen.
I do not remember what time it was when I got into my car and drove away from the port, up into Reggio and back to our apartment, on that day of the landing. I found myself alone in the house, numbed, strange to myself. I had not eaten all day and eventually decided on my version of spaghetti aglio e olio, adding dried onion, fierce chili pepper, and a glass of red wine. I call it Greek soldier’s wine, because we are, after all, in Magna Graecia, land of invasions, settlement and movement, emigration to the north, to the Americas, to the world. It is a place that many peoples have come to and many people have gone away from. Some return, or their children do. When Chick Corea marvellously came to the Teatro Siracusa some years ago, it was for us as Christmas is for waiting children. He came out on stage, stood by the piano, smiled, and started talking, in English. Reggio’s jazz enthusiasts, who had risen to the occasion with the mien of a swarm of bees and were very much there, hung on every word and then realised that they couldn’t understand any of it and started exclaiming “che sta dicendo?” They didn’t want to miss a bit of him. Myself and another guy who spoke English explained that he was only saying that being in Reggio for the first time was, somehow, an experience that felt to him like a return. And then, with the timing that men like him have, he added that his grandfather had left Catanzaro for the United States in the late 1800s. At that stage, this child of emigrants come home was so loved it was almost as if he didn’t need to be a brilliant musician anymore, but he was.
Standing dumbly in the kitchen watching the garlic go golden in the hot oil, holding my glass, filling it again, I imagine two Greek soldiers sitting in shade from the brain-stoning sun, scooping down this red stuff like they don’t care. One of them has lost the bet and has the job of taking the twigs out of the jar because they don’t have modern filtering techniques, but they are still friends. The wine is a dark blood red. It is strong and deep and ancient and two glasses of it will modify the nature of most conversations. It can make you feel that you are Coriolanus and Groucho Marx simultaneously. It is good, and can soothe the while.
I look out from our balcony at the hospital across the road, at the groaning traffic, at the waters of the Straits and Sicily beyond. It is dark, chilly and wet. Will any of the migrants be left overnight at the port or will they all have been moved on to sheltered destinations by now? Will the dead be kept across the road from here at the hospital mortuary or will they be housed somewhere else before burial? It’s a very small place. It won’t have space for twelve. What will they do? If they can’t move all the people from the port, will they at least move the women and children first? Will they separate the couples? I check my phone for mails and messages. Mimmo, one of our neighbours, has posted a pic on Facebook of our street with an ambulance stuck askew in heavy traffic as it tries to jockey its way to the entrance of the hospital. One of the scroll-down-to-enjoy kneejerk comments is that it doesn’t matter since the ambulances are just for the migrants now anyway and ordinary decent Italians don’t have a chance… Yes, pet, only, but, they might be taking burns victims and raped women, or one of your friends who bust his leg at football, to a place of care. And I pay for that with my taxes and I don’t mind. It’s called civil society. It’s not rocket science. Drink down the red velvet Michele.
In the morning, I learn through WhatsApp that most of the migrants have been moved from the port but that a number of people are still there, have passed a cold night in the tents, and could do with some friendly company. I see that volunteers are offering to go and I calculate that, in terms of cover, it will be more useful if I go in the early evening. It is dark and damp and eerily silent now after the commotion of the previous day. A spiteful cold wind is blowing in from the Straits. There are no people to be seen outside the tents except for a group of policemen standing by their jeep. One of the big tents is closed and I can see that inside in the light a number of men are sitting on the camp beds with those same brown blankets wrapped around them. The other tent is open on two sides and is now just a large awning, under which a group of men is sitting around smoking and chatting. I am told that they are Moroccans, and are waiting for buses to take them for repatriation. At a little distance from them, there is a group of about thirty women and girls, standing in their flip-flops, wrapped up as best they can and shaking with cold. I meet up with a young man from my volunteer group who invites me to join him in the closed tent. We go in to find that some guys are already trying to cheer the occupants, joking and laughing, asking them questions, playing with words and language. Some of the migrants enjoy this, while others prefer to keep apart. Some have lain down to sleep or just be on their own. I am told that they have eaten and are just waiting to be taken somewhere eventually by bus, maybe not tonight, maybe tomorrow. The women will be going first.
I go outside and make my way again towards the groups of people under the open tent. The women and girls huddle now against one of the sides. A bus has arrived and stands in the drizzle with its engine idling. They are alone. Nobody is with them. I go towards the nearest of the group. Her head is shawled and I can see that she is slight and feeling this cold. Jesus only knows what she and her companions have been through and here they are. This is not television. Here are the people far from homes across the water and the vast expanses of the deserts of Africa. Cut off from everything that confers identity, comfort and recognition and shorn of all dignity and the covenants of respect. I am deeply unsure of my reception here. I am a man—to them I might be one of the vile brothers, one of the rapists, beaters, orderers, the killer men. Soused in my privilege and now in part a voyeur too. I reach out my hand towards her and hers comes to mine with a firm grip, not of fear or apprehension, but with the authority of a pained, timorous, but sure finding. I am the one blurting out the routine comfort questions, she is from Nigeria and her name, her voice is so soft, it might be… Julie? and all the while we are still holding hands and I do not know what it is that I feel but I am here now with you. I can tell you that you and your sisters in this dark, who huddle nearer, hungry for news, will be alright for the moment now, that you are safe for this moment, that you are going on this bus to a little town up the coast and that you will be staying in a hotel for a while. That you will be able to wash and be warm, to eat, and sleep in a bed on this cold and rainy night.
Somebody shouts out that they have to get on the bus, so I take Julie gently by the arm and lead her and the others to it, see them on board like a useless gentleman, and wave to them as it sets off to Varapodio, and the hotel that will be content to have the out of season business. I see that Julie has uncovered her head in the warm of the bus, and now she looks back apprehensively. Her searching eyes probably only see the reflection of the interior of the bus. She is afloat again. I know that a girl so young setting off on a journey ought to be waving goodbye to her loved ones and promising to call as soon as she gets there, wherever she wants to go. Not wondering where in the name of what God she is being taken and what will become of her. Perhaps also not wondering what will happen when she calls the number she has been given, with all that promise of a nice job in Italy. Not wondering is it really true that she will go mad or die if she tells anybody of the promise that she has been made to give.
I go back to my Toyota and sit at the wheel, look out at this desolate rain-spitten port and over the boiling waters of the straits of Messina, hear the sleesh of tires as a squad car passes, the rubber bubbling like a rude bad dream on the cobblestones, smell the gasoline fumes. I get in gear and head back up the road into Reggio.