BERLIN — "You're the ones who created this mess I'm in..."
Mohammad points his finger at me, and doesn’t even want to tell me his real first name: "Call me Mohammad, we are all the same to you racist Italians anyway."
His age, though, he does tell me: He's 47, but looks a bit younger thanks to the dreadlocks framing his face and the sweatshirt he's wearing. Another man who is standing behind him approaches as he hears the word "Italian," but only to spit a few inches from my right foot. Then he yells a few words at me in Arabic, and leaves.
A small group of people has begun to gather around me, and they're not friendly. A tall guy as skinny as a Giacometti statue sums it up for the others: "I hate Italy. You gave us 500 euros and expelled us with that damn document that doesn’t allow us to work here."
This is happening in the Kreuzberg neighborhood of the German capital. Years ago, when people spoke of Berlin as the "third largest Turkish city," and before the gentrification began, this neighborhood was the heart of the city's foreign community.
One of the main squares of the area, along the channels of the Spree river, is Oranienplatz: It was occupied last year by hundreds of immigrants who built cabins, an outdoor kitchen, common areas with recycled sofas and chairs. Many who gathered here here had arrived after experiencing the inferno that is the sea journey to Lampedusa, like Mohammad, the anonymous Giacometti and Ali did.
"No man is illegal," reads a sign on Oranienplatz — Photo: fotokorth via Instagram
I catch a glimpse of a less hostile face, while the others continue to rail on against Italy. He nods his head inviting me to follow him. "I'm Libyan. When you started to bomb Libya, I fled. And now I'm here." He takes me to his hut made of four tin walls at the bottom of Oranienplatz. Inside there is just enough space for a bed, a table and a small heater. Outside on this late March day, it is still cold, but inside it is steaming hot.
A pro-Gaddafi carpenter
Ali tells me the obvious: since the group from Lampedusa was “received” in Italy and because of the abstruse European rules, other countries can safely wash their hands of the problem. "I am not asking for much: a job, a normal house."
To go to the bathroom or to take a shower, refugees have to go to the Caritas headquarters, situated behind the square. Recently, they've been also allowed to cook there, while before food was prepared directly in the square.
Only last week a preliminary agreement was reached between local politicians and representatives of Oranienplatz, after months of exhausting negotiations: Berlin promises to take care of each one of them, in exchange of the evacuation of the square.
But Ali, like the other “Lampedusiani,” rejects the agreement. "It does not solve our problems," he explains, saying the issue should be solved at the federal and European level.
Paula Riester, representative of the Green Party in Kreuzberg argues that Germany “could give these refugees a so-called "Duldung" which is a permit to stay, "making an exception to the European rules."
In the hut of another North African refugee, a carpenter named Ibrahim says he's proud to be a "Libyan Loyal to Gaddafi.” The table next to the bed is dominated by a big stereo always switched on, sharing space with a white teddy bear that reminds him of home.
"You Italians have treated me badly," he says. "I have been hunted and now I'm here praying the Germans give me a job. How can you come to Africa, dethrone Gaddafi while preaching for human rights and then treat us like this?”
Local villagers in western India have been forced to live with a mining waste site on the edge of town. What happens when you wake up one day and the giant mound of industrial waste has imploded?
BADI — Last week, when the men and women from the Bharwad community in this small village in western India stepped out for their daily work to herd livestock, they were greeted with a strange sight.
The 20-meter-high small hill that had formed at the open-cast mining dumpsite had suddenly sunk. Unsure of the reason behind the sudden caving-in, they immediately informed other villagers. In no time, word had traveled far, even drawing the attention of environment specialists and activists from outside town.
This mining dumpsite situated less than 500 meters outside of the Badi village in the coastal state of Gujarat has been a matter of serious concern ever since the Gujarat Power Corporation Limited began lignite mining work here in early 2017. The power plant is run by the Power Gujarat State Electricity Corporation Limited, which was previously known as the Bhavnagar Energy Company Ltd.
Vasudev Gohil, a 43-year-old resident of Badi village says that though the dumping site is technically situated outside the village, locals must pass the area on a daily basis.
"We are constantly on tenterhooks and looking for danger signs," he says. Indeed, their state of alert is how the sudden change in the shape of the dumpsite was noticed in the first place.
Can you trust environmental officials?
For someone visiting the place for the first time, the changes may not stand out. "But we have lived all our lives here, we know every little detail of this village. And when a 150-meter-long stretch cave-in by over 25-30 feet, the change can't be overlooked," Gohil adds.
This is not the first time that the dumpsite has worried local residents. Last November, a large part of the flattened part of the dumpsite had developed deep cracks and several flat areas had suddenly got elevated. While the officials had attributed this significant elevation to the high pressure of water in the upper strata of soil in the region, environment experts had pointed to seismic activities. The change is evident even today, nearly a year since it happened.
It could have sunk because of the rain.
After the recent incident, when the villagers raised an alarm and sent a written complaint to the regional Gujarat Pollution Control Board, an official visit to the site was arranged, along with the district administration and the mining department.
The regional pollution board officer Bhavnagar, A.G. Oza, insists the changes "aren't worrisome" and attributes it to the weather.
"The area received heavy rain this time. It is possible that the soil could have sunk in because of the rain," he tells The Wire. The Board, he says, along with the mining department, is now trying to assess if the caving-in had any impact on the ground surface.
"We visited the site as soon as a complaint was made. Samples have already been sent to the laboratory and we will have a clear idea only once the reports are made available," Oza adds.
Women from the Surkha village have to travel several kilometers to find potable water
A questionable claim
That the dumpsite had sunk in was noticeable for at least three days between October 1 and 3, but Rohit Prajapati of an environmental watchdog group Paryavaran Suraksha Samiti, noted that it was not the first time.
"This is the third time in four years that something so strange is happening. It is a disaster in the making and the authorities ought to examine the root cause of the problem," Prajapati says, adding that the department has repeatedly failed to properly address the issue.
He also contests the GPCB's claim that excess rain could lead to something so drastic. "Then why was similar impact not seen on other dumping sites in the region? One cannot arrive at conclusions for geological changes without a deeper study of them," he says. "It can have deadly implications."
Living in pollution
The villagers have also accused the GPCB of overlooking their complaint of water pollution which has rendered a large part of the land, most importantly, the gauchar or grazing land, useless.
"In the absence of a wall or a barrier, the pollutant has freely mixed with the water bodies here and has slowly started polluting both our soil and water," complains 23- year-old Nikul Kantharia.
He says ever since the mining project took off in the region, he, like most other villagers has been forced to take his livestock farther away to graze. "Nothing grows on the grazing land anymore and the grass closer to the dumpsite makes our cattle ill," Kantharia claims.
The mining work should have been stopped long ago
Prajapati and Bharat Jambucha, a well-known environmental activist and proponent of organic farming from the region, both point to blatant violations of environmental laws in the execution of mining work, with at least 12 violations cited by local officials. "But nothing happened after that. Mining work has continued without any hassles," Jambucha says. Among some glaring violations include the absence of a boundary wall around the dumping site and proper disposal of mining effluents.
The mining work has also continued without a most basic requirement – effluent treatment plant and sewage treatment plant at the mining site, Prajapati points out. "The mining work should have been stopped long ago. And the company should have been levied a heavy fine. But no such thing happened," he adds.
In some villages, the groundwater level has depleted over the past few years and villagers attribute it to the mining project. Women from Surkha village travel several kilometers outside for potable water. "This is new. Until five years ago, we had some water in the village and did not have to lug water every day," says Shilaben Kantharia.
The mine has affected the landscape around the villages
Resisting lignite mining
The lignite mining project has a long history of resistance. Agricultural land, along with grazing land were acquired from the cluster of 12 adjoining villages in the coastal Ghogha taluka between 1994 and 1997. The locals estimate that villagers here lost anything between 40-100% of their land to the project. "We were paid a standard Rs 40,000 per bigha," Narendra, a local photographer, says.
The money, Narendra says, felt decent in 1994 but for those who had been dependent on this land, the years to come proved very challenging. "Several villagers have now taken a small patch of land in the neighboring villages on lease and are cultivating cotton and groundnut there," Narendra says.
They were dependent on others' land for work.
Bharat Jambucha says things get further complicated for the communities which were historically landless. "Most families belonging to the Dalit or other marginalized populations in the region never owned any land. They were dependent on others' land for work. Once villagers lost their land to the project, the landless were pushed out of the village," he adds. His organization, Prakrutik Kheti Juth, has been at the forefront, fighting for the rights of the villages affected in the lignite mining project.
In 2017, when the mining project finally took off, villagers from across 12 villages protested. The demonstration was disrupted after police used force and beat many protesters. More than 350 of them were booked for rioting.
The villagers, however, did not give up. Protests and hunger strikes have continued from time to time. A few villagers even sent a letter to the President of India threatening that they would commit suicide if the government did not return their land.
"We let them have our land for over 20 years," says Gohil.