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In Sicily, Documenting Mediterranean Deaths Of Migrants

Meet the Italians driven by a sense of history and humanity to identify the refugees and migrants who have died trying to cross the Mediterranean.

Italy, May 16
Italy, May 16
Leanne Tory-Murphy

PALERMO — Giorgia Mirto gestures at the lines of simple metal rods topped with laminated signs in a forgotten corner of a crowded cemetery in the Sicilian port city of Palermo. The signs, stained with rust and mildew, read "sconosciuto" or "ignoto" — they mark the graves of the unidentified victims of migrant shipwrecks.

Mirto's animated presence and bright blue eyes bely the gravity of her mission. As one of the founders of the Mediterranean Missing Project, she has dedicated her life to documenting what she calls border deaths, people who die or go missing while crossing the sea.

The Mediterranean has been the deadliest migratory route in the world in recent years, with more than 8,000 deaths in 2016 and 2017. So far in 2018 there have been more than 600 deaths. The vast majority of the bodies of deceased migrants that are found remain unidentified, and many are never found at all, leaving thousands of families in the dark as to the fate of their loved ones.

Mirto has spent years analyzing news reports, poring through police documents and visiting rows of unnamed graves in towns and cities throughout Italy's south. Her quest is motivated by a sense of obligation and her own history of loss. Her grandfather was kidnapped by the Mafia and never seen again. "We don't know what happened," she says, "no one has been charged and we never got the body in order to bury it."

In order for police departments to invest resources in the identification of bodies there needs to be a criminal prosecution.

When people die in a "mass disaster" — more than five deaths — the standard procedure developed by the Red Cross is to begin Disaster Victim Identification, a process driven by forensic police and medical specialists. Despite the dozens of shipwrecks on the Central Mediterranean route since 1990, only three cases have been treated as mass disasters by Italy's interior ministry. This means that whether victims are identified or not is entirely at the discretion of local authorities.

When there is a plane crash, victims are identified and families informed. Mirto compares what has happened in the Mediterranean to multiple plane crashes but says the resources and will to identify the victims has most often been lacking.

Part of the problem is that in order for police departments to invest resources in the identification of bodies there needs to be a criminal prosecution. The only substantial source of prosecutions has been misplaced ones against migrants pressed to become boat drivers — an unfortunate prerequisite.

The cost of not knowing for bereaved families goes beyond the emotional. "A wife should know that she is now a widow," says Mirto. "She can start to inherit her husband's things, she can remarry, her children may be entitled to state benefits."

Following a shipwreck off the Libyan coast on August 24, 2014, it fell to police inspector Angelo Milazzo, in Siracusa, Sicily, to identify the victims. Having had previous experience with another shipwreck some years before, as well as having worked on investigations of online crime such as pedophilia and child pornography, he was able to refine a social media-based approach to migrant victim identification, and managed to identify 22 of the 24 deceased within two weeks.

Milazzo started with survivor testimony, working with an interpreter to get as much information as possible about the victims. He and the interpreter simultaneously searched Facebook and Arabic news sites (the passengers were Syrian) for news on the shipwrecks and for family members searching for their loved ones. Sometimes he would receive direct phone calls, saying for example, ""I am this person's mother, I haven't heard from him in three, four or five days. His ship sank. I want to know whether he is alive or dead,"" Milazzo recounts to Mirto. "What am I supposed to do?" he says. "I shouldn't tell them?"

It is difficult to follow traditional burial practices because the bodies often arrive in a high state of decomposition due to the sea water.

Milazzo's experience identifying the victims of the August 2014 shipwreck is an exception. Between 1990 and 2013 for example, only one in five of the bodies brought to Sicily following sinkings were identified. This is due to the enormous variability in procedures in the various prefectures and the ways that corpses are managed and transported, often becoming difficult to trace.

The police investigation is only the first step. The police will notify the public prosecutors' office and in some cases an investigation is launched into the circumstances of the death. Sometimes a coroner will examine the bodies, take DNA samples and write up a report, but often this procedure is skipped and the health authority simply issues a death certificate.

Then the search for a burial site begins. Simply put, Italian cemeteries are very full. Plots tend to be owned or leased by families, and remains are regularly exhumed and stored above ground in order to make room. An unclaimed body will be transported to wherever there is space. The practices may range anywhere from individual families offering space to deceased migrants in their family plot to large mass graves.

Abdelhafid Kheit is the president of the Islamic Community of Sicily and has been an imam in the eastern city of Catania for over 20 years. He says that it is difficult to follow traditional burial practices because the bodies often arrive in a high state of decomposition due to the sea water. The first time he was asked to oversee the process, he says, he was taken aback by the state of the corpses. "It remains one of the most difficult memories of my life," he says.

Kheit describes the burial services he performs in Catania as "a moment of invocation, of memory… also a moment of pain, and of sharing that pain with everyone." Despite the difficulty of his task he says that, "the beautiful thing is not to remain indifferent to others' suffering. It is human work, and one discovers himself through this work." He recalls one funeral in particular when 17 cadavers were brought to Catania and they were able to find a place for them through collaboration with the mayor and a local university. The graves were adorned with verses from the poem "Migrations' by Nigerian Nobel Prize winner Wole Soyinka.

"Loose sands dog my steps. Loose sands Of deserts, of chiseled seabed shrouds — For some went that way before the answer Could be given – will there be sun? Or rain? We've come to the bay of dreams."

Mirto is concerned that the lack of attention given to counting, tracing and identifying migrant deaths at sea means that "this part of our history is being denied." She hopes that the families of victims, whom she calls "the most invisible part of this whole tragedy," will find truth, justice and eventually, peace.

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Feminists Infiltrate The “Incelosphere” — Where Toxic Content Warps Modern Masculinity

An increasing number of male teens and young adults who've experienced feelings of rejection wind up in what's been dubbed the “incelosphere,” a place where they can find mutual understanding in a world they think is against them. Two women Polish journalists spent two years on the online servers these “beta males” are flocking to in ever greater numbers.

Illustration of a man wearing a hoodie looking at a laptop, with two women watching over his shoulder.

Watching over "beta males" and their online toxic masculinity

AI-generated illustration / Worldcrunch
Patrycja Wieczorkiewicz

Welcome to Worldcrunch’s LGBTQ+ International. We bring you up-to-speed each week on the latest on everything LGBTQ+ — from all corners of the planet. This week, we feature an investigation by two women Polish journalists for daily Gazeta Wyborcza, who spent two years infiltrating the online “incelosphere” and its patriarchal gurus spreading toxic ideas about masculinity on young, impressionable young people. But first, the latest news…

✉️ You can receive our LGBTQ+ International roundup every week directly in your inbox. Subscribe here.

TW: This content may address topics and include references to violence that some may find distressing

🌐 5 things to know right now

• LGBTQ+ asylum seekers in the UK: Suella Braverman, the UK home secretary, says that fearing discrimination for being LGBTQ+ or a woman should not be enough on its own to qualify for asylum. But advocates have pointed out that Braverman is criticizing a policy that doesn’t exist: under the current system, asylum seekers must prove that they face persecution. Braverman also claimed, without evidence, that some asylum seekers pretend to be LGBTQ+, a suggestion which advocates have dismissed as baseless and “cruel.”

• Allies drown out anti-LGBTQ+ protests in Canada: Thousands of counter-protesters turned out in Canada to oppose demonstrations by self-described “parental rights” groups who are upset about sex education and trans-inclusive policies in schools. The conservative protests are part of a wave of anti-LGBTQ+ sentiment in Canada, inspired by similar movements in the U.S. and the UK. Pro-LGBTQ+ counter-protesters outnumbered conservative demonstrators in most Canadian cities – including in Toronto, where about 1,000 LGBTQ+ protesters and allies met just a few dozen anti-LGBTQ+ activists, reports Xtra.

• Turkish President confuses UN colors with pride colors: Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan complained that he was uncomfortable with what he described as "LGBT colors" at the United Nations General Assembly – but the rainbow-colored decorations were actually intended to promote the Sustainable Development Goals.

• Romanian government may recognise same-sex marriage: Under a draft law proposed by the Romanian government, same-sex marriages in other European Union states would be recognised as legal in Romania. The decision comes five years after the Court of Justice of the European Union ordered Romania to allow same-sex spouses of Romanian citizens to live in the country. The law still has to be approved by the Romanian parliament.

• Malaysian PM doubles down on anti-LGBTQ+ views: In an interview with CNN, Malaysian Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim said that his government “will never recognize LGBT rights.” In August, his government banned Swatch watches and other products with pride colors, threatening up to three years in prison for people caught with the products.

Feminists Infiltrate The “Incelosphere” — Where Toxic Content Warps Modern Masculinity

In her book For The Love Of Men: From Toxic To A More Mindful Masculinity, Canadian feminist writer Liz Plank explained that the struggle of women can never be one without confronting the crisis of manhood.

Plank is part of the forward-thinking feminist researchers and authors who've dedicated a significant amount of their work to the problems of men and masculinity, always sure to arouse suspicion. In reality, from a young age, we are forced into one of two oppressive patterns – masculinity and femininity – which in turn shape our behavior and our choices.

Thanks to the feminist movement, women now enter roles once reserved for men more frequently and eagerly than ever before, and teach their daughters that they can be whoever they want to be.

What has not changed nearly as much is our perception of masculinity.

The dominant image is still that of the strong, resourceful, male who pushes forward, takes risks and copes with adversities on his own. But today, they also must be sensitive, attentive, and empathetic as well (just not too much). Parents are still afraid of raising “weak” sons.

These are the roots of the so-called “masculinity crisis”. Usually, this phenomenon is reduced to some version of "men cannot keep up with emancipated women”. In reality, however, we as a society are the ones who cannot keep up with the need of dismantling toxic patterns of masculinity and creating new, healthy ones.

Instead, we leave young, lost adolescent boys at the mercy of patriarchal gurus who are preaching online.

Without anyone to talk to about their fears and uncertainties, and unable to count on their loved ones for understanding, these boys join internet communities, where they are taught that the “order” of certain men being naturally superior to them is natural, that it has been shaped by evolution, and that it cannot be changed.

In other words, they’ve already lost, so it’s better to get used to it and admit to their failures.

In March 2021, I was an exemplary feminist. I had several years of activist and journalistic work on behalf of victims of sexual violence under my belt, and my book about rape in Poland had just been published. Every day, I spoke to women who experienced sexual violence. With every story I heard, my aversion to men only grew stronger.

Only a few months later, I found myself in a closed internet server with a few dozen incels, exchanging messages and sharing observations from my experiences on a daily basis. My being there divided the feminist community.I received a lot of support, but I also read that I had “betrayed” the feminist movement, that I was a “guardian of the patriarchy”, that I was spending time with rapists, and that I wanted to force women to “bow down” to these men, or to sexually gratify misogynists.

Who are incels? In simple terms, they are men, typically young, living in what they call “involuntary celibacy”. They would like to have sex, but in their view they have no one to do it with. They blame women for their lack of luck in this area, believing that women do not view them as attractive enough. They also blame the society that they believe despises “beta males”, as they call themselves. Some of them blame their parents, who gave them “defective genes”. Oftentimes, they also blame themselves.

Online and in the news, incels are first and foremost associated with the misogyny on incel forums on the internet, and the terror attacks that several have been involved in, notably in the U.S., where self-described incels have opened fire on their peers and even strangers.

The harmfulness of the “incel mentality” should not be underestimated, especially since it regularly attacks specific people, usually women. Some people organize campaigns to expose girls on Tinder and create profiles of extremely attractive men, who they call “Chads”. When they match with women, they arrange dates and then randomly unmatch them, or tell the girls that they are ugly and should lower their standards when it comes to the appearance of a potential partner. I myself saw glorification of rapes and mass executions from the U.S. online, and was personally threatened two or three times.

Together with Aleksandra Herzyk, the co-author of the Polish book "Przegryw. Mężczyźni w pułapce gniewu i samotności" (Loser: Men In The Trap Of Shame And Loneliness), I spent an intense two years in the “incelosphere”. We began by setting up an account on Wykop, a portal where self-described incels and “losers” gather online. We did not intend to hide who we were, though it was obvious that, as feminists, we were unlikely to receive a warm welcome.

We wrote a post in which we assured those within the portal that we were sincerely interested in the difficulties faced by people posting with the #loser tag. Within a few hours, it managed to gain over 400 likes and about as many comments. One comment compared us to pedophiles luring children with candies or kittens. Some people called us names, like one comment that read "get the fuck out of the tag, p0lki”, while others were plainly sceptical. One commenter wrote, “this cannot work out”. The vast majority of commenters doubted our good intentions, believing that we wanted to build trust within the community in order to destroy it from the inside.

We were afraid of reading our private messages, which within the first day — over 70 on the first day itself. You can imagine our surprise that — apart from a few haters — the men actually wanted to speak with us. The majority's motivations boiled down to the fact that no one else was willing to listen to them, so feminists could do it for lack of anything else.

Read the full story here, translated in English by Worldcrunch.

— Patrycja Wieczorkiewicz/Gazeta Wyborcza

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