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“Mare Nostrum”. How many times have we heard the name of this operation, in the middle of polemics, criticisms, ovations. Everything goes with a series of numbers: 366 deaths a day, 50 on another one, 280 on the following, in addition to the hundreds of missing of which you can hear in all TV news. Thousands of sailors and soldiers employed, tens of thousands of desperate refugees who have reached the coasts of Sicily. It is precisely behind those data, almost aseptic, that there are stories, strange destiny twists, as the one that made the Italian sailor Uriele become godfather to Yosief, an Eritrean baby born on the amphibious ship San Giusto.

It is necessary to start from afar, from Asmara, Eritrea, where the young Amanuel had to say goodbye to his mother without knowing if they would have ever met again, in order to join the military men. The State was asking him to honour the obligation of permanent draft service for an indeterminate number of years, as all young men and women between 18 and 40 years of age. He was heading to Sawa, a base on the border with Sudan. There he met Yosief, a young man as himself who proposed him to escape, via Sudan, Libya, to take their chances in Europe. After initial hesitation – Amanuel did not know whether his new friend could be trusted or whether he would have turned him in to the authorities – they decide to escape from the military camp.

So, one night they started to run as fast as they could through the desert. At dawn they stopped because deserters in Eritrea are killed straight away. Thus, after two nights of running, they managed to reach the Wedi Sherife refugee camp where exiles from all Sub-Saharan Africa were hosted. Safe. Maybe. Conditions inside the camp were inhumane: there were no tents, everything was dusty and dirty, water could be missing for days. There was little food and it was of poor quality, the few doctors and the small medical staff could not keep death away.

The young men did not know that what expected them was true hell, its demons included: the Rashida, a bloody and unscrupulous nomadic population. They lived on the border between Eritrea and Sudan and often organised raids to kidnap refugees. Usually they tortured them and called their families to obtain money from them, before selling the hapless to other tribes. If the victims had nothing, they killed them and, accomplices the corrupt doctors, explanted their internal organs for the black market. To stay at the camp was too dangerous, they had to move. And so, after having paid a corrupt official, they were able to move away. In Khartoum, Sudan, they found a facilitator, that is, one of those people who organize journeys for the desperate ones who have to cross the desert.

The crossing had strict rules: they had to come to the “meeting point”, wait until the “right number of people to depart” was reached, pay at each stop all those who asked money to stay alive, for a total amount of about 3,000 euros. At last, they managed to gather this sum and left, 50 people crammed in a pick-up, through the desert. Some fainted,  others fell out of the vehicle, others vomited, but drivers never stopped, no matter what. For women also a “special treatment” was reserved: at night, when the group stopped, they were raped in turn by the traffickers of human beings. Nobody could interfere, penalty being death.

Thus they arrived to Tripoli, and sought a dallala, i.e. an Eritrean man without scruple who lives on organising the crossing of the Mediterranean for  his fellow countrymen. Here it was not difficult either. It took, however, a few more months to put together the money for the journey, during which they lived hiding because in Libya black sub-Saharans are not welcome. But now the most was already done, Tripoli: the last stage before freedom. Here they met the beautiful Tighist, with whom Yosief fell in love and with whom he immediately began a love story, and her brother Kofi. They had gone through the same journey, the same mishaps, had suffered hunger, thirst, abuse, and humiliation. And they travelled together to reach the Italian coast, unreasonably crammed on two fishing vessels. Tighist and Amanuel managed to get on one boat, Kofi and Yosief were had to get on the other one: the same boat was overturned by the waves during the night, killing all its passengers. For the two survivors it was a horrible experience, as if they had lost their family again. From their uncertain navigation they was rescued by a merchant ship, that took them back to Libya.

Reception on the coast was not of the best ones: the military men began to beat everyone, without distinction, before cramming them into other trucks headed towards the prison of Misurata. The environment was not much different from what they had lived so far: violence, corruption, rape. 700 people lived in a space that could have hosted, at most, 200 of them. They slept on mats, put right on the ground, without toilets, and ate only a watery soup once a day. Unless they were able to get in touch with their families: via the hawaladar (a clandestine system of money exchange which reaches prison as well) the prisoners could receive money to buy not only a little extra food, but also their own freedom. It is thus that Amanuel decided to take care of Tighist who fell prey to depression after the death of her brother and boyfriend. He followed her everywhere, helped her, protected her from the soldiers. After a few months the young woman managed to recover and revealed the great truth: she was carrying Yosief’s baby. Together they decide that the child would be born free, they owe it to the memory of those they loved and who have lost their lives in the Mediterranean Sea. Then they began to gather the sum needed to leave which was reached during the ninth month of pregnancy. Despite the danger they decided to leave: the baby was  not to be born a slave.

They embarked in Zuara, on a dinghy headed towards Sicily. After the first hours of calm navigation, the sea began to grow stormy again. Fear grew as well: are they going to die? Will they be brought back?  Will they be arrested again? Will they manage to find money to leave again or will they be forced to rot in prison? This is precisely when Tighist has started to have birth pangs. This is also when arrived the sailors of the operation Mare Nostrum who have rescued them. While the young woman was brought up, scared, she asked Amanuel to stay with her, and he got aboard the ship that saved them, called San Giusto, as her husband, and such he remained.

The ship’s doctor, dr. Manisco, has helped the baby to be born free, a boy whom the two have decided to call Yosief  after his father, lost between the waves of the Mediterranean Sea. The baby was christened straight away on the ship. Don Marcello has chosen the Italian sailor Uriele as the baby’s godfather, a man from whom destiny had taken away the whole family in an car accident. Little Yosief,  through the miracle of his birth alone, managed to bring together many stories and to leave a permanent sign in the lives of those he met.

Freely inspired to  The Sea between Lands, by Donatella Racer, “in edibus” editi.ons

The image of the ship San Giusto is taken from “the crotonese.it”

Translated by Ecaterina Severin

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