The October 2013 shipwreck that killed 366 off the Italian coast moved the world to the plight of Africa's desperate migrants. A survivor from Eritrea tries to start a new life in Sweden.
ÄNGE — On Friday evening, after he has taken the bus home from his language school, Russom will buy 10 candles, three bottles of beer for his friends, and some orange juice, milk and honey for himself. With 14 fellow Eritreans who have wound up in the small Swedish town of Änge, he will mark this day around a simple kitchen table.
Friday is both a tragic and happy anniversary. The group will light the candles and read aloud the names of their friends who died off the coast of Lampedusa last Oct. 3. And then, after the prayers, in the middle of this forest of trees destined to make furniture, they'll look to drive away their nightmares, offering a drink to them all.
"The memories of that day haunt me every single day," Russom says. "I still see my friends who drowned around me. I see myself still in the sea, thrashing around and screaming for help. I don't want to think about it, but I just can't help it."
A gust of wind blows droplets of rain onto the window, and the sky is a mix of gray and blue. Outside, there's just one road, and beyond it is the bus stop. At 7 p.m., the 300 or so residents of Änge are already tucked in the warmth of their houses, behind their glowing windows. We're in central Sweden, 45 kilometers north of the city of Östersund.
Russom's long journey has brought him here, the unlikely fulfillment of a dream to find a better place from his home in the Eritrean capital. "I left Asmara in June 2013," he says. "I crossed the desert on foot. I was in Khartoum (Sudan) for four days, Libya for two months, Lampedusa for two months. I escaped from Rome and nobody stopped me, thank God. Everyone was really nice to me. I got to Frankfurt by train, then a coach to Stockholm, where I requested political asylum."
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A church in Änge (Photo - Johnny Blasta)
With a glass of milk in front of him, Russom writes the two most important words on a sheet of paper that explain his reasons for coming all this way: "Freedom, Work." Freedom is work.
This basic house is spotless, everything made of light-colored wood and all paid for by the Swedish government. He shares the two rooms with his friends Amanios, Tesfamariam and Zerai. He has a travel card that allows him to go on all public transport for free. "I love Italy," he says. "I bought these jeans in Rome. Eritreans and Italians are friends. But, if I had stayed in your country, I would have ended up sleeping underneath a bridge."
Russom and I got to know each other on a small hill in Lampedusa, behind the immigration reception center. Wearing a blue and red tracksuit, he had climbed under the fence and was walking towards the town for one specific reason. "I'm hungry," he kept repeating in English to everyone who asked him about the shipwreck. He looked at his first Sicilian cannoli with a mix of suspicion and gratitude, careful not to break the delicate dough.
"The Libyans crammed us onboard, beating us," he remembers of the moment the fateful sea journey began. "And they had guns too. There were too many people on that boat, but we didn't have a choice. Nobody saw us when we arrived near the Italian coast."
He recalls how the human trafficker steering the boat set alight a blanket soaked in petrol, which set off a panic. "The boat capsized, and I was one of the first people in the water," he says.
Russom has put on a few kilos since I first met him. He gets up every day at 6:45 a.m. and has a breakfast of bread and cheese. He studies Swedish five days a week in Krokom's school for migrants, a 40-minute bus journey from here. He has to learn the language so that he is eligible for the government's monthly subsidy of around $300.
In Eritrea, he was bound for permanent army conscription and, like so many others, he decided life elsewhere would be better. His dream is to become a bulldozer operator and his absolute favorite day of the week is Friday, "when Sweden stops working and there's kind of a holiday atmosphere."
On Saturdays he goes to the Orthodox church in Östersund, and on Sundays he spends almost the whole day outside the bus stop, where everyone — both migrants and Swedes — converges from the area's surrounding counties. In front of the central station is the Mittopunkten shopping center, which has free WiFi. Russom uses Facebook to keep in touch with other survivors from the boat, many of whom live near Stockholm.
A year after the tragedy that killed 366 people just offshore from one the most beautiful beaches in the world, it is worth quantifying what happens in the seas between North Africa and southern Europe. In just one year, 4,000 people have died at sea trying to escape war, poverty and dictatorships; 140,000 others have been rescued by the Mare Nostrum operation. Of these, only 70,000 have been registered in Italy, the rest journeying onwards — just like Russom, who refused to give any of his details until he arrived in Sweden.
During the first eight months of 2014, Italy received 58,000 requests for asylum, in comparison to the 52,000 for the entirety of 2013. In Sweden's elections last month, the xenophobic far-right doubled its presence from 5.7% to 12.9%. People like Russom are now beginning to become a problem for rich and famously tolerant Scandinavia. But, in Änge, there are no traces of this nasty sentiment. Life here is quiet: one supermarket, one yellow mailbox, two benches.
"Before I came here I had only seen snow on TV," says Russom. "I was scared the first time because when it's heavy it makes noise on the roof." During the winter, temperatures here can plummet to -30° Celcius, and the Störsjon lake freezes over completely. "I bought a coat and gloves," Russom tells me. "I'm fine. I'm not afraid of the cold. I'm just sad for my brother Marx — I haven't heard from him since June 27. He wanted to come to Europe too. I pray every day that he isn't at the bottom of the sea."
Russom also has a wife and five children, who he dreams will someday be able to join him. "Everything I do is for them," he says.
Russom smiles, zips up his coat and and gets ready to leave. But, before that, he pulls out his wallet and shows me his new identity card. "I got this on Sept. 10," he says, "And it was the happiest day of my new life."
There are lights in the distance of the last bus. "How long does it take to go back to Italy?" he asks. "Just one day," I tell him, and looks at me, puzzled. "That's strange, my friend," he replies, "I thought it would take much longer."