After Lampedusa: African Migrants' Odyssey Continues, Into A Snowstorm

A bumpy road indeed
A bumpy road indeed
Cristian Pellissier

The tragedy earlier this month off the coast of the island of Lampedusa, which left more than 300 dead, is a cruel reminder of the treacherous journey across the sea to Italy's southern coastlines made by so many would-be immigrants. But Italy is typically just the entry point for immigrants, a springboard for other European destinations.

AOSTA — Arop is 20 years old. He left Eritrea to avoid the mandatory army service — and to chase his dream to become a professional soccer player. “I’m good,” he says, shivering in a hospital bed in Aosta, in northern Italy. “I want to show how good I am here, in Europe, in Germany."

Arop says he left on his own, "without my family, without my friends.”

Beside him are the other nine whom he met along the way, all aged between 18 and 30, who preferred not to be named. None of them speak Italian, but a few understand English, though not much.

The group was on their way to Switzerland to find work. “Yes, we want job.” Work, and freedom: “Freedom, freedom,” they repeat. These ten Eritrean refugees only arrived in Italy 15 days ago, surviving the treacherous journey to Lampedusa that so many in recent days have not.

But the tiny Italian island was just the starting point on their long journey northwards. The young men were soon sent to Foggia in the southern region of Puglia, where they requested asylum at a reception center. Then they went north to Milan by train.

At some point on Friday night they arrived in the midsized city of Aosta, where they ran into an unlikely autumn snowstorm, while piled into an Opel Zafira minivan, the ten of them plus a driver — another locally-based Eritrean.

Shelter from storm

As they were passing through the Aosta Valley, the snow began to fall, and the vehicle's tires began to slide, forcing them to stop a few meters away from the Great St. Bernard Pass, at an altitude of 2,200 meters. To avoid running out of gas, they turned off the engine, which froze just a few minutes later. Outside it was still dark, with the snowflakes falling harder and the mercury dipping to -7ºC.

Not too far away was a building, a road inspector’s house. They forced open the door, desperate for warmth, but the house was used only for storage and had no heating.

Huddling together, they tried to keep warm and to sleep, hoping that the storm outside would subside so they could carry on with their journey. But the cold continued and the temperature stayed between -5º and -7ºC.

At 5:40 the next morning, a road worker came in and the group of immigrants panicked and ran out of the building into the dark and cold, sinking into the snow that had been falling all night. They only had sneakers on their feet; some were wearing tracksuits, others jeans, with only sweatshirts and no jackets.

An hour later, the police caught up with them. “The first thing,” a police officer recalled “was to warm them up, give them something hot to drink.” Then most were taken into custody to be identified, with two of them taken straight to the emergency room. Shivering, afraid, and exhausted, several were having trouble seeing — often a symptom of hypothermia.

The driver had lived in Switzerland for some time and officials had suspected him of illegally accompanying other Eritreans over the border. He was arrested for aiding and abbetting illegal immigration and will be tried in Aosta. The refugees, instead, spent the day in the police station.

“They have said little or nothing,” says the police officer. “They’re absolutely terrified of being sent back to Eritrea. Some of them haven’t even opened their mouths, not even to talk to each other. We thought that they might be mutes.”

After they had been identified, they were released. With Eritreans' right to request political asylum, they were free to go. Talking afterward to local journalists, they still seemed disoriented. “Milan? Is this Milan?” one asked. “No, you’re in Aosta.”

The brother of one the refugees lives in Milan — he's probably the one who put them in contact with the driver who was going to bring them to Switzerland. “Once you're in Milan, what would you like to do? Still go to Switzerland, or Germany?”

But they weren't ready yet to plan the future. “Now, Milan ...” was the only response.

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Ecological Angst In India, A Mining Dumpsite As Neighbor

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?

The mining dumpsite is situated just outside of the Badi village in the coastal state of Gujarat

Sukanya Shantha

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

Sukanya Shantha/The Wire

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

Sukanya Shantha/The Wire

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.

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