Geopolitics

One Year Later, Survivor Of Lampedusa Disaster Starts Anew

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.

A monument on Lampedusa to migrants who have died.
A monument on Lampedusa to migrants who have died.
Niccolò Zancan

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.

Changing Sweden

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."

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."

Taking stock

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."

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Queen Elizabeth II with UK PM Boris Johnson at a reception at Windsor Castle yesterday

Anne-Sophie Goninet, Jane Herbelin and Bertrand Hauger

👋 Hej!*

Welcome to Wednesday, where chaos hits Syria, Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro is accused of crimes against humanity and a social media giant plans to rebrand itself. For Spanish daily La Razon, reporter Paco Rodríguez takes us to the devastated town of Belchite, where visitors are reporting paranormal phenomenons.

[*Danish]

🌎  7 THINGS TO KNOW RIGHT NOW

• Syrian violence erupts: Army shelling on residential areas of the rebel-held region of northwestern Syria killed 13 people, with school children among the victims. The attack occurred shortly after a bombing killed at least 14 military personnel in Damascus. In central Syria, a blast inside an ammunition depot kills five soldiers.

• Renewed Ethiopia air raids on capital of embattled Tigray region: Ethiopian federal government forces have launched its second air strike this week on the capital of the northern Tigray. The air raids mark a sharp escalation in the near-year-old conflict between the government forces and the Tigrayan People's Liberation Front (TPLF) that killed thousands and displaced over 2 million people.

• Bolsonaro accused of crimes against humanity: A leaked draft government report concludes that Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro should be charged with crimes against humanity, forging documents and incitement to crime, following his handling of the country's COVID-19 pandemic. The report blames Bolsonaro's administration for more than half of Brazil's 600,000 coronavirus deaths.

• Kidnappers in Haiti demand $17 million to free a missionary group: A Haitian gang that kidnapped 17 members of a Christian aid group, including five children, demanded $1million ransom per person. Most of those being held are Americans; one is Canadian.

• Putin bows out of COP26 in Glasgow: Russian President Vladimir Putin will not fly to Glasgow to attend the COP26 climate summit. A setback for host Britain's hopes of getting support from major powers for a more radical plan to tackle climate change.

• Queen Elizabeth II cancels trip over health concerns: The 95-year-old British monarch has cancelled a visit to Northern Ireland after she was advised by her doctors to rest for the next few days. Buckingham Palace assured the queen, who attended public events yesterday, was "in good spirits."

• A new name for Facebook? According to a report by The Verge website, Mark Zuckerberg's social media giant is planning on changing the company's name next week, to reflect its focus on building the "metaverse," a virtual reality version of the internet.

🗞️  FRONT PAGE

"Oil price rise causes earthquake," titles Portuguese daily Jornal I as surging demand coupled with supply shortage have driven oil prices to seven-year highs at more than $80 per barrel.

#️⃣  BY THE NUMBERS

98

For the first time women judges have been appointed to Egypt's State Council, one of the country's main judicial bodies. The council's chief judge, Mohammed Hossam el-Din, welcomed the 98 new judges in a celebratory event in Cairo. Since its inception in 1946, the State Council has been exclusively male and until now actively rejected female applicants.

📰  STORY OF THE DAY

Spanish civil war town now a paranormal attraction

Ghosts from Spain's murderous 1930s civil war are said to roam the ruins of Belchite outside Zaragoza. Tourists are intrigued and can book a special visit to the town, reports Paco Rodríguez in Madrid-based daily La Razon.

🏚️ Between August 24 and September 6, 1937, during the Spanish Civil War, more than 5,000 people died in 14 days of intense fighting in Belchite in north-eastern Spain, and the town was flattened. The fighting began on the outskirts and ended in house-to-house fighting. Almost half the town's 3,100 residents died in the struggle. The war annihilated centuries of village history. The town was never rebuilt, though a Pueblo Nuevo (or new town) was built by the old one.

😱 Belchite became an open-air museum of the horror of the civil war of 1936-39, which left 300,000 dead and wounds that have yet to heal or, for some today, mustn't. For many locals, the battle of Belchite has yet to end, judging by reports of paranormal incidents. Some insist they have heard the screams of falling soldiers, while others say the Count of Belchite wanders the streets, unable to find a resting place after his corpse was exhumed.

🎟️ Ordinary visitors have encountered unusual situations. Currently, you can only visit Belchite at set times every day, with prior booking. More daring visitors can also visit at 10 p.m. on weekends. Your ticket does not include a guaranteed paranormal experience, but many visitors insist strange things have happened to them. These include sudden changes of temperature or the strange feeling of being observed from a street corner or a window. Furthermore, such phenomena increase as evening falls, as if night brought the devastated town to life.

➡️ Read more on Worldcrunch.com

📣 VERBATIM

We still cling to the past because back then we had security, which is the main thing that's missing in Libya today.

— Fethi al-Ahmar, an engineer living in the Libyan desert town Bani Walid, told AFP, as the country today marks the 10-year anniversary of the death of dictator Muammar Gaddafi. The leader who had reigned for 42 years over Libya was toppled in a revolt inspired by the Arab Spring uprisings and later killed by rebels. Some hope the presidential elections set in December can help the country turn the page on a decade of chaos and instability.

🇮🇷🎓  IN OTHER NEWS

Iran to offer Master's and PhD in morality enforcement

Iran will create new "master's and doctorate" programs to train state morality agents checking on people's public conduct and attire, according to several Persian-language news sources.

Mehran Samadi, a senior official of the Headquarters to Enjoin Virtues and Proscribe Vices (Amr-e be ma'ruf va nahy az monkar) said "anyone who wants to enjoin virtues must have the knowledge," the London-based broadcaster Iran International reported, citing reports from Iran.

The morality patrols, in force since the 1979 revolution, tend to focus mostly on young people and women, particularly the public appearance for the latter. Loose headscarves will send women straight to a police station, often in humiliating conditions. Five years ago, the regime announced a new force of some 7,000 additional agents checking on women's hijabs and other standards of dress and behavior.

Last week, for example, Tehran police revealed that they had "disciplined" agents who had been filmed forcefully shoving a girl into a van. Such incidents may increase under the new, conservative president, Ibrahim Raisi.

Speaking about the new academic discipline, Samadi said morals go "much further than headscarves and modesty," and those earning graduate degrees would teach agents "what the priorities are."

Iran's Islamic regime, under the guidance of Shia jurists, continuously fine tunes notions of "proper" conduct — and calibrates its own, interventionist authority. More recently the traffic police chief said women were not allowed to ride motorbikes, and "would be stopped," Prague-based Radio Farda reported.

Days before, a cleric in the holy city of Qom in central Iran insisted that people must be vaccinated by a medic of the same sex "as often as possible," and if not, there should be no pictures of mixed-sex vaccinations.

✍️ Newsletter by Anne-Sophie Goninet, Jane Herbelin and Bertrand Hauger

Thoughts on Facebook's new name? Zuckerverse? Tell us how the news look in your corner of the world: Drop us a note at info@worldcrunch.com!

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