Amaniel’s gaze is lost in space, a stare no boy should have at the age of 12. What hurts the most is silence, heavy with tears and words dying in our throat. He has been telling me about his journey, with fatigue, in a low voice: his memories about a country he has left behind forever and about his mother. He did not even say goodbye to her, not to make her understand that he was going to leave. Children are fleeing from Eritrea, without saying anything to their parents, actually disobeying their recommendations. They are fleeing from the worst dictatorship in the world.
The 484 pages of the report by the Committee of the UN Inquiry on human rights in Eritrea of last June say that the Asmara government has committed “crimes against humanity towards its population”. This is the reason why kids are going away. At the age of ten or twelve, they follow older kids, almost as if it were a game. They are leaving not to become military men for their entire life (military service starts at the age of 16 and ends at 55), not to suffer corporal punishment in class anymore, to chase their dream of freedom. When they change their mind, it is too late. There are only tears left. Parents find it out days later, during a phone call from another country. Their families are forced to borrow money to send them to their children, so they can continue their journey. They cannot go back to Eritrea. They would be persecuted and killed there.
Eritrea is a country from which come most of the 123.000 migrants (13.000 of whom are minors) who landed on the Italian coast between June and September. It is still from Eritrea that a boy out 8 flees. Amaniel is one of them. His journey to Europe lasted more than a year. The first barrier is crossing the border with Ethiopia. “Military men chase you and shoot at you in cold blood. If you are not fast enough, you die”. In Ethiopia he spent a few months in a refugee camp. His life was suspended as he was waiting for his parents to send him 500 dollars to cross the border with Sudan. Every stage is a repetition of phone calls back home to get some money. Changing one’s mind is useless: “Nothing could be changed and after my family got indebted forever to pay for my journey, I could not certainly go back”. Sums of money arrive from the parents who have also called on all of their relative in the European diaspora.
After Sudan, there is Libya. “What is going on in Libya, Amaniel?”. Here comes that look, that silence which is more eloquent than thousands of words. The passing of time, there is this child in front of me, with his gaze lost in space, and I can almost feel the suffering beats of his and my heart. I stand up and embrace him. “Muskila“, he tells me. Muskila means ”problem” in Arabic. Muskila is a word I have heard repeated many times these days, and it had always to do with Libya. It means people, children crammed one on another for months, sitting all day long in silence in cramped dark rooms. If other bands had the intuition that there were human ”goods”, they could have stolen them. Those who rebelled got scourged, kicked, and tortured. Those who ran away, were tortured and raped, they even used electric shocks. In the best case scenario, they would kill you in the streets. Boys in the port of Reggio Calabria tell about it and confirm it over and over again. They have just left the ships, after having been collected at sea. They show fresh marks the electrodes left on their bodies. A slap in the face of human dignity.
None of them wants to stay in Italy: their flight continues towards the north of Europe. Networks of word of mouth say that further to the north, in Sweden, Switzerland, and England – you can build a new life, receive a house and contributions as political refugees. Here, there is no future. Amaniel says he will start all over again.
In the meantime, in his new home – the home for foreign minors who are not accompanied of the Pope John XXIII Community in Reggio Calabria – he met Abel an Eritrean boy of his age. The two of them have been a hurricane, always in motion. It is as if to react to months of stillness, they felt the need to stretch their legs. Bruna, a young “Mom” of 28, who is responsible for the structure, takes care of them.
Amaniel and Abed will certainly try to escape again. They have phone numbers in their pockets and the dream of becoming able to earn a lot and help their families. Bruna and other volunteers know it… but they also know how important stability is, which represents the normality they have never had before. They have been enrolled to school, they do sports and take theater classes. One day, Amaniel says he would like to have a birthday gift. “Fine, but when were you born?”. “During the third offensive against Ethiopia”. “Well, let us fix your birthday on the first of January. Would that be fine by you?” “Of course not! The third offensive took place in the summertime…”