TURIN — Geography is inexorable: Italy can never be isolated from Libya, which is just 300 miles from the coast of Sicily. Still, the Italian public tends to be isolated from the rest of the world. The government knows both these truths.
Unlike any other European or Western country, Italy kept its Libyan embassy open and running until last Sunday, thanks to the incredible dedication and courage of Ambassador Giuseppe Buccini and his colleagues. The flag was lowered only when the risks became truly unacceptable, and without waiting for orders or help from the European Union, the United Nations, NATO, the Arab League or the African Union.
While a solution to the Libyan crisis and Italy's security are connected, they are not the same. When it comes to Libya, we can only support United Nations Speical Envoy Bernardino Léon, who is looking to gather the country's armed factions around a table to talk. It seems an almost impossible mission, but at the moment there's no other choice. An authoritative figure in international circles who is also respected in Africa — one name mentioned is former Italian prime minister and former European Commission president Romano Prodi — could help strengthen such efforts.
Meanwhile, Libya today is a "failed state." Unfortunately, there are many others in the region, and the rest of the world, but Libya directly threatens Italy. Security is ultimately a national responsibility. Italy can count on a strong international network for support, but it should also know how to defend itself.
Last weekend, ISIS militants in Libya posted a video online, warning that the group was "just south of Rome." Thanks to the presence of the Vatican, the capital has long been a target of the men led by Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. In response to the message, the Interior Ministry announced Tuesday that almost 5,000 soldiers would be deployed to protect sensitive sites, including monuments, synagogues and embassies.
The existence of this threat must be accepted, and Italy must clearly claim its right to legitimate defense, explicitly recognized in Article 51 of the Charter of the United Nations. Exercising this right doesn't require any additional international validity, nor does it hinder Article 11 on peace and security.
If attacked, the Italian military units engaged in rescuing migrants off the coast of Libya must be able to defend themselves from any incoming fire from the smugglers. The EU's Operation Triton is inadequate in tackling the human trafficking trade and the humanitarian disaster that accompanies it.
Italy can only be proud of the lives it has saved with the now-defunct Mare Nostrum. The EU Commission's decision to abandon it was a mistake. We need another operation like it, with full EU support and cooperation.
Immigrants and refugees come to Italy because they're looking for a future here or seeking refuge elsewhere in Europe. The newly acknowledged problem — that is, the risk of terrorist infiltration — is a challenge for all of Europe, just like the efforts to face the wave of immigrants who arrive with good intentions.
A "robust" military mission, which hopefully will support any tenuous agreement reached thanks to the UN's dialogue — or, in the worst-case scenario, a failed state — is probably inevitable.
Italy can look back on a previous experience, albeit during more favorable circumstances: Operation Alba in Albania in 1996, which saw Italy at the head of an 11-country UN-mandated coalition.
The Libyan situation will require much more effort, both militarily and politically. Ideally there will be a multilateral intervention with a UN mandate, entrusted to NATO or the EU, as it could prove difficult to obtain Russian consent from the UN Security Council.
Reminder from Trotsky
The political priority for Italy is not to be left alone on the military front. The controversy over the country's participation in NATO's 2011 intervention in Libya conveniently forgets that not only did the Silvio Berlusconi-led government join on the basis that the UN Security Council authorized it, but also it was Italy who ensured that the operation — which began extemporaneously, thanks to France and the United Kingdom — fell entirely within the framework of political management of the Atlantic Alliance.
The multilateral format doesn't exonerate Italy from taking on a very considerable burden of resources and men, with high costs and dangers. We can count on Transatlantic solidarity (and perhaps even invoke Article 5 of the Washington Treaty) and the European Union. We will be able to build on good relations with Egypt, Tunisia, Algeria and Morocco, since we are all threatened by the Libyan contagion. But we will do our part — politically, diplomatically and militarily — until the end. Perhaps it's time to reflect on the short-sightedness of a defense budget cut by 40%, which ignores our country's extreme vulnerability.
Prime Minister Matteo Renzi has rightly warned against "hysteria," telling a TV station this week that the UN must lead the way. But it's not enough to wait for the UN, or the EU or NATO. Italy must take the initiative and mobilize these organizations.
Military intervention in Libya is the last thing that Italy wants, but the government would do well to remember Leon Trotsky's famous warning: "We might not be interested in war, but war is interested in us."
The confinement experience could turn brutal for those forced to live with relatives who would not tolerate a member of the family living their sexual orientation openly as a young adult. Here are stories from urban and rural India.
Abhijith had been working as a radio jockey in the southern Indian city of Thiruvananthapuram when the COVID-19 pandemic hit in March, 2020. When the government imposed a nationwide lockdown, Abhijith returned to the rural Pathanamthitta district , where his parents live with an extended family, including uncles, cousins and grandparents.
Eighteen months later, he recalled that the experience was "unbearable" because he had to live with homophobic relatives. "Apart from the frequent reference to my sexual 'abnormality', they took me to a guruji to 'cure' me," Abhijith recalled. "He gave me something to eat, which made me throw up. The guru assured me that I was throwing up whatever 'demon' was possessing me and 'making' me gay."
Early in 2021, Abhijith travelled back to Thiruvananthapuram, where he found support from the members of the queer collective.
Inspired by their work, he also decided to work towards uplifting the queer community. "I wish no one else goes through the mental trauma I have endured," said Abhijit.
Abhijith's story of mental distress arising from family abuse turns out to be all too common among members of India's LGBTQ+ community, many of whom were trapped in their homes and removed from peer support groups during the pandemic.
Oppressive home situations
As India continues to reel from a pandemic that has claimed more lives (235,524) in three months of the second wave (April-June 2021) than in the one year before that (162,960 deaths in March 2020-March 2021), the LGBTQ community has faced myriad problems. Sexual minorities have historically suffered from mainstream prejudice and the pandemic has aggravated socio-economic inequalities, instigated family and institutionalized abuse, apart from limiting access to essential care. This has resulted in acute mental distress which has overwhelmed queer support infrastructure across the country.
Speaking to queer collective representatives across India, I learned that the heightened levels of distress in the community was due to longstanding factors that were triggered under lockdown conditions. Family members who are intolerant of marginalized sexual identities, often tagging their orientation as a "disorder" or "just a phase", have always featured among the main perpetrators of subtle and overt forms of violence towards queer, trans and homosexual people.
Calls from lesbians and trans men to prevent forced marriages during lockdowns.
Sappho For Equality, a Kolkata-based feminist organization that works for the rights of sexually marginalized women and trans men, recorded a similar trend. Early in the first wave, the organization realized that the existing helpline number was getting overwhelmed with distress calls. It added a second helpline number. The comparative figures indicate a 13-fold jump in numbers: from 290 calls in April 2019-March 20 to 3,940 calls in April 2020-May 2021.
"Most of the calls we have been getting from lesbians and trans men are urgent appeals to prevent forced marriages during lockdowns," said Shreosi, a Sappho member and peer support provider. "If they happen to resist, they are either evicted or forced to flee home. But where to house them? There aren't so many shelters, and ours is at full capacity."
Shreosi says that the nature of distress calls has also changed. "Earlier people would call in for long-term help, such as professional mental health support. But during the pandemic, it has changed to immediate requests to rescue from oppressive home situations. Often, they will speak in whispers so that the parents can't hear."
Lack of spaces
Like many of his fellow queer community members, life for Sumit P., a 30-year-old gay man from Mumbai, has taken a turn for the worse. The lockdown has led to the loss of safe spaces and prolonged residence at home.
"It has been a really difficult time since the beginning of the lockdown. I am suffering from a lot of mental stress since I cannot freely express myself at home. Even while making a call, I have to check my surroundings to see if anybody is there. If I try to go out, my family demands an explanation. I feel suffocated," he said.
The pandemic has forced some queer people to come out
Sumit is also dealing with a risk that has hit the community harder than others – unemployment and income shortage. He's opened a cafe with two other queer friends, which is now running into losses. For others, pandemic-induced job losses have forced queer persons from all over the country to return to their home states and move in with their families who've turned abusive during this long period of confinement.
Lockdowns force coming out
According to Kolkata-based physician, filmmaker and gay rights activist Tirthankar Guha Thakurata, the pandemic has forced some queer people to come out, succumbing to rising discomfort and pressure exerted by homophobic families.
"In most cases, family relations sour when a person reveals their identity. But many do not flee home. They find a breathing space or 'space out' in their workspaces. In the absence of these spaces, mental problems rose significantly," he said.
Not being able to express themselves freely in front of parents who are hostile, intolerant and often address transgender persons by their deadname or misgender them has created situations of severe distress, suicidal thoughts and self-harm.
Psychiatrist and queer feminist activist Ranjita Biswas (she/they) cites an incident. A gender-nonconforming person died under suspicious circumstances just days after leaving their peer group and going home to their birth parents. The final rites were performed with them dressed in bangles and a saree.
"When a member of our community asked their mother why she chose a saree for someone who had worn androgynous clothes all their life, she plainly said it was natural because after all, the deceased 'was her daughter,'" Biswas recalls.
The Indian queer mental health support infrastructure, already compromised with historical prejudice, is now struggling
In India, queer people's access to professional mental healthcare has been "very limited," according to community members such as Ankan Biswas, India's first transgender lawyer who has been working with the Human Rights Law Network in West Bengal.
"A large majority of the psychiatrists still consider homosexuality as a disorder and practice 'correctional therapy'. It's only around the big cities that some queer-friendly psychiatrists can be found," Biswas said. "The pandemic has further widened the inequalities in access to mental health support for India's LGBTQ community."
Biswas is spending anxious days fielding an overwhelming amount of calls and rescue requests from queer members trapped in their homes, undergoing mental, verbal and even physical torture. "We don't have the space, I just tell them to wait and bear it a little longer," he said.
Medical care is dismal
Anuradha Krishnan's story, though not involving birth family, outlines how the lack of physical support spaces have affected India's queer population. Abandoned by her birth family when she came out to them as a trans woman in 2017, Anuradha Krishnan (she/they), founder of Queerythm in Kerala who is studying dentistry, had to move into an accommodation with four other persons.
Isolation triggered my depression
"I am used to talking and hanging around with friends. Isolation triggered my depression and I had to seek psychiatric help." Living in cramped quarters did not help with quarantine requirements and all of them tested positive during the first wave.
What is deeply worrying is that the Indian queer mental health support infrastructure, already compromised with historical prejudice, is now struggling, placing more and more pressure on queer collectives and peer support groups whose resources are wearing thin.
During the 10 months of the first wave of the pandemic in India in 2020, Y'all, a queer collective based in Manipur, received about 1,000 distress calls on their helpline number from LGBTQ+ individuals. In May 2021 alone, they received 450 such calls (including texts and WhatsApp messages) indicating a telling escalation in the number of queer people seeking help during the second wave.
As India's queer-friendly mental health support infrastructure continues to be tested, Y'all founder, Sadam Hanjabam, a gay man, says, "Honestly, we are struggling to handle such a large number of calls, it is so overwhelming. We are also dealing with our own anxieties. We are burning out."
Sreemanti Sengupta is a freelance writer, poet, and media studies lecturer based in Kolkata.
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