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Lampedusa, Already Forgotten: Victims Buried In Obscurity After Vows Of State Funerals

Coffins lined up side by side in Lampedusa
Coffins lined up side by side in Lampedusa
Andrea Malaguti

LAMPEDUSA — Yesterday, they buried those remaining of the 385 victims from the Oct. 3 shipwreck off Lampedusa. There were no flowers. No gravestones. None of the ceremony that so many had promised.

That first day, as the death toll mounted, various political leaders, including Prime Minister Enrico Letta, had called for some kind of official state funeral to mark the worst such recorded tragedy of its kind, as would-be immigrants from Africa died trying to reach the shores of Italy...of Europe.

But two weeks later, those promises that had been so easy to make in the moment of dismay had just as easily been forgotten. For the funerals here, and elsewhere, there was no TV coverage. No President of the European Commission in attendance, or even the Italian Foreign Minister.

It was dark and cold on this tiny island, just like the sea that swallowed its victims, mostly Eritreans but Syrians too — and returned them swollen, in tatters, without an identity.

It’s the perfect end to a non-story, made up of non-men, non-women, and especially non-children. They’re just numbers lowered down at random into the stomach of the universe. Wasted. Without any distinction.

Five of them, the luckier ones, were buried in a cemetery on the main island of Sicily, where the town of Sambuca di Sicilia made a part of its graveyard available to them. The mayor of the town, Leo Ciaccio was there, along with about 20 refugees — half of whom were survivors of this latest tragic accident.

Who were these five? Who knows. We only know that they needed to be put in the ground quickly, before diseases set in, local doctors had warned. There was a proper funeral ceremony for those five, with priests and mourners. The attendees were dressed in black, rocking back and forth in pain, crying for the loss of their compatriots. In another town, where another 85 were buried, proceedings went much faster, with many more corpses to be dealt with, the coffins lined up side-by-side.

“I’ve never, ever seen so many together,” the graveyard caretaker says. There were no namecards to tell them apart; just numbers. With a marker it was written on the wall: here, on the left, are numbers 6, 23, and 98.

A shame

“What has Italy become?” asks Enzo Billaci, a lifelong Lampedusa resident and local fisheries official.

Indeed, the country is not even the true destination of those who died off her shores, a place where the living don’t even want to be identified, with the real dream of escaping to Sweden or England. Only the dead are forced to stay. “When I saw the mechanical arms of the ships carry off the white coffins of the children, two by two, my heart broke,” says Billaci. “I’m ashamed.”

Even the mayor of Lampedusa, Giusy Nicolini, is contrite. “If they had told us they would be taking away the coffins, we would have arranged for these people to have if not state funerals at least national funerals,” she says.

The public farewell — without caskets, without bodies, but with an Italian flag — will be held Oct, 21 “in the presence of government representatives,” says a statement from the Ministry of the Interior. It will take place in Sicily, many miles away from Lampedusa — after the victims have already been laid to rest, an attempt to pretend that there is mercy.

“Lampedusa has respect for those who come. When I saw the coffins, I thought about all those we have saved over the past 20 years. Thousands of them. I wonder if the Interior Ministry has the same respect,” whispers Mayor Nicolini. She’s exhausted. She stays on the pier with her eyes focused downward for five minutes, not speaking.

A scream

Some of the coffins were donated to the victims. An unknown lucky few ended up in the private tombs of some families. They are ordinary Italian citizens who thought, if the state doesn’t do it, we will.

We traveled back to the main island of Sicily on Thursday, where there was a priest and imam together for another ceremony in the city of Gela. Here, the victims were buried facing Mecca, in among all the Christians of the cemetery. One mourner, a woman in her sixties named Mufid Abu Taq, looked on as the bodies were lowered into the graves. “These people came from the sea with the hope to live,” she says, “but running away from war they met death.”

Abu Taq is a large woman, who exhaling with a sort of low, continuous moan. But then, without warning, she begins screaming, a scream that carried the decades of her life for all to hear.

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