In Feb. 2012, two Italian marines aboard the Enrica Lexie tanker opened fire on a fishing trawler, killing two Indian fishermen and sparking a major diplomatic standoff between India and Italy that has yet to subside. The lawyers for the marines say their clients mistook the fishermen for pirates and fired warning shots into the water, denying that they were aiming for the boat at all.
Italy was forced to hand over the men to Indian authorities, and last week it was reported that they could face the death penalty based on a strict 2002 anti-terrorist law. Italy has vowed “counter-measurements” if these reports are confirmed. The trial is set to open Jan. 30.
La Stampa visited the southern Indian hometown of the fisherman killed in the incident two years ago.
KOLLAM — The street that leads to the cemetery is barely visible. Narrow and dusty, it runs perpendicular to the harbor, between houses made of square blocks of cement, with clothes laid out to dry on the sand. Children are playing carelessly nearby, paying no attention to the scooters and rickshaws that whizz by.
Jeen, 12, brings me down a few steps and points at one particular grave on the wall of tombstones. It’s on the bottom row, close to the brown, barren earth. He bends down, stoically placing a dried bunch of yellow flowers. He keeps his voice free of emotion, despite his young age: “Here lies my Dad. He was only 48. Since that day, everything has changed.”
The day in question is inscribed with gold lettering on the tombstone: Feb. 15, 2012.
It’s been nearly two years since his father, Valentine Jelestine and his colleague Ajesh Pink lost their lives on the fishing boat, the St. Anthony, on which they worked. It was about 4:30 in the afternoon and they were heading back to the port in Kollam after having spent the previous seven straight days out at sea fishing. Two Italian marines, Salvatore Girone and Massimiliano Latorre, who were onboard the Enrica Lexie tanker as security guards for protection against pirates, face murder charges for their deaths.
In the Italian media, the story of the two men who died has received far less attention than the fate of the pair of marines. Two fishermen, two fathers with families, killed without reason. They ended up in the media’s meat grinder, disappearing from headlines to make way for a legal and diplomatic standoff between India and Italy.
But here in Kollam nobody has forgotten about Valentine and Ajesh.
Jeen certainly hasn’t forgotten about his father, and before leaving the cemetery he wipes a thin layer of dust from the photo of his dad, looking proud and elegant with his white shirt, a thick mustache and steel-rimmed glasses.
The same photo is hanging on the slightly chipped and dirty walls of the house where Jeen now lives with his brother Derrick, 19, and their mother Dora. It’s lit by a small red light in the shape of a star, with a flower and incense dispenser beside it, as Valentine seems to be watching over his family.
A bad feeling
This is the role of fathers here, and many of them, like Valentine was, work as fishermen to provide for their families. “His death shocked us,” says Dora. “It was totally unexpected. But I had a bad feeling that afternoon. While I was in church praying I felt the need to go home. And when I did, the phone rang. Right then I knew something was wrong.”
Valentine’s friends wanted to make sure that he was at home because a little while earlier, just 20 nautical miles off the coast, they had seen a tanker and a little fishing boat. “From that moment our nightmare began,” Dora continues. “A nightmare that changed our lives. Without my husband’s salary, which was the only source of income, everything has become more difficult. And it was just a few months ago that the Indian government found me a job.”
It's even worse, she says, for Ajesh’s children, who live in Tamil Nadu, and have since also lost their mother.
Of course, the Italian government provided compesation to both families of “about 150,000 euros, which around here is a lot of money,” says Father Jacob Rolden, from the Kollam diocese, who has been close to the fishermen’s families.
Back at the port, the victims’ colleagues and friends don’t seem to be satisfied with the compensation, but they skate over the topic. They talk about their doubts over the trial, and about rumors, some reported by the Times of India newspaper, of possible attempts to destroy the St. Anthony boat and evidence from the accident. The men are scared to go back out to sea, especially when they see tankers and other big boats coming towards them.
No more Italian tourists
But, that’s not all. There are also the difficulties that area fishermen face from “foreign fishermen, mostly Chinese, who raid our seas without any controls from the government," says Thomas, a fishermen and friend of Valentine’s. “There are also the freighters that pass 20 miles from the coast, cutting our nets and endangering our lives.”
The people here insist they aren’t hostile towards Italy or its people, and this makes the collapse of Italian tourism in the region even more inexplicable, though local fishermen concede there was some tension for a few months. It’s not just because of the incident itself, but because of how the entire affair has been handled by authorities.
Derrick, Valentine’s older son, who is conscious that the compensation his family received was for his future, sums it up. “I do not want revenge. We aren’t filled with resentment, and we feel for the families of the two Italian marines who must also be experiencing a difficult and painful time,” he says. “But in almost two years, nobody has ever been interested in the only two real victims of this whole story: my father and Ajesh.”