HALFWAY THE SEA

 

Spanish_War_Children001

It is always an ambiguous feeling when we realize that summer is coming to an end and autumn, with its blowy winds and pale reds, takes the lead. The air is filled with melancholy and a touch of sensitiveness, calling the poetic inspiration out of the August’s relief. On the surface of the sea, there are very few boats and the Mediterranean is finally getting a period of rest after a crowded summer. Nights get darker, but the shorter bright of the day is full of good resolutions for the upcoming Winter. Autumn is the season of the fall, when leaves softly touch the ground leaving trees empty and lonely. But winter is also a season of big hopes, when the soul has recovered energy and the mind is full of great ideas. It’s a season for the braves, warm in the spirit and ready to face the moody Aeolus and the restless Poseidon. Ready for the sea.

It is with those ideas in mind that a small group of young students decided to take a little sail boat, Athena, to explore the lands of the origins of the myth of Europe, the deep east of the Mediterranean, where Zeus kidnapped the daughter of Agenor transforming himself into a white bull. They wanted to follow the inverse route that Zeus took during the “Rape of Europa”, from Crete to Tyre, travelling midway between myth and reality.

— The descendant of Europe is Minos and the whole Greek mythology is somehow connected to this episode, said enthusiastically Kit, as soon as he persuaded his two companions that this trip was the right thing to do, even if it would have meant losing the beginning of the school year back in Cambridge. He was the more prone to this adventure, because he really needed an immersion in the European values that his country would have soon left aside.

Massimo was an Italian guy, which had left his native country in the hope of a brighter future for him and his family. He came from the South of the country, near Naples and his family had made huge efforts to offer him the possibility to study abroad. His mother Rosabella ran a small grocery shop in the centre of the small village where Massimo was born and raised; his father Peppe died when the kid was very young in a shipwreck, leaving nothing to his family other than a gaping hole and the small boat Athena. Yes, Massimo was supposed to be the captain of this expedition, but he was reluctant to leave. It was only the intervention of Bijan that convinced him. — Imagine to quietly sail in the Aegean sea, flanked by dolphins… that’s what we have dreamed about for so many years my friend. But Massimo was not sure enough. — I can’t, you know, the school, my family and my volunteering job. The last thing I need is a vacation. — But this won’t be a vacation! If we really want to understand the modern issues, the migration problem, insisted Bijan, almost yelling, we will never be able to understand what multiculturalism means if we don’t go to the place where this happened centuries ago, where it firstly happened! Bijan concluded without breath his oration. — Your father would encourage you to go, Max, added timidly Kit. — Don’t talk about my father, you don’t know him, and neither do I. Nobody talked for a few minutes. Bijan petrified Kit with a harsh look. Massimo was smoking at the window, silently thinking. Outside the rain was falling as it is the usual case in England at the end of September, and interrupted the thread of thoughts whenever a conclusion was close to be reached. — Ok, let’s go! We have to give dignity to the Mare Nostrum, we have to help Kit discovering our Sea, Bijan – and a remote idea suddenly became an act.

It was a dark night, a truck was speeding in an isolated and silent street. The lights were off, to make sure that nobody could see it. Clouds of dust were closely following the rear wheels. That truck was full of people, mainly women and youngsters: their faces resembled the tiredness of their bodies. Two men came down the front doors, one was gigantic and the other extremely tiny, with his bones almost visible. Some kids were screaming and crying in the middle of the darkness, so the tiny man started yelling: — Shut up, shut up you worms!, and immediately turned on a light pointing in the direction of the noise. — Make your boy silent or I will let you die on this beach, you and your children.

They were in a desolated land of sand right out of Beda Littoria, Libya. The people in the truck came from Sub-Saharan Africa, but also from the nearby Egypt and Syria. The name of the city remembered of the Italian colonial domination, but the load this time was heading towards Greece. In fact, the civil war raging in the country did not allow the traffickers to reach Misurata and the Italian route. — At a certain point, we have to get rid of this people, or they (the police) will catch us, kept saying the big men in an obscure dialect. The immigrants had been grouped in Tobruk, less than a hundred kilometers east, they had remained for two weeks in an small hangar outside the city, with half a meal every day and no toilet, waiting for their time to come. Within the group, there were five adolescents, between twelve and sixteen years old. They were travelling alone. Nicolas and Faure were both from Togo and met in the first refugee camp on their way, at the border between Burkina Faso and Niger. They were almost the same age and rapidly became close friends.

After a few days they had met each other, they were going around the camp pretending they were two young siblings, so that they could continue the climb back of the continent together. When they moved from the camp near Niamey, they soon entered the desert and were put together with a group of adolescents that were travelling alone. The group was initially made of thirty youngsters: all of them were male, all alone. From Niamey to Tobruk, there are more than three thousands kilometers, most of them in the desert. The kids were squashed in a van that would have stopped only in the middle of the night when the driver was tired enough. They didn’t all make it to Tobruk: five of them were left in the middle of the desert because their health conditions were getting worse during the transfer and the traffickers didn’t want disease to spread in order not to lose the money for the last trip, the one in the Mediterranean. In Tobruk, the group was split and Nicolas and Faure were sent, together with three other guys, in a small container where they met their group for the crossing.

— Nicolas is a very British name, isn’t it?, asked Faure the first night they spent in the container, while a crisp wind was blowing and the two, wearing only a pair of short and creased shirts. — I used to hate my name when I was younger. At school I was the only one with this exotic name and I couldn’t understand for what reason.  — Did you father ever go abroad?, whispered Faure. — Yes, he worked at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs after the war. He was sent a couple time to the UK. But then everything fell apart when the military started their insurrection… The face of Nicolas became contracted, brought his hands to his eyes and stopped talking. — I know it’s hard, said Faure, my family was taken away the entire furniture for the market by some mercenaries. It is incredibly sad where our country has gone… —Faure…, started slowly Nicolas, but he couldn’t finish and broke into tears. Faure hugged him. Someone in the container started screaming; it was a baby that had just woke up. — Faure, my father died. He was murdered in an attack against one of the ministers, stated with no interruptions Nicolas this time. — I left my country and my family for a better future, but actually I don’t know where I am going. My destiny is tied to that of my country in a subtle, violent, cruel way. Actually, this is the tragic future of all our souls, of the souls of our brothers, our sisters, mothers and friends: we are all doomed to suffer because of the lust of power of this small group of bastards!

Faure was shocked, but not because his friend’s father was killed. He had met several people who had lost parents in Togo and he saw kids being abandoned in the desert. The words of Nicolas left him silent. He had his mother and sisters waiting for him in Sweden, he had a reason to go and he hadn’t think much of the reasons that brought him to the decision. But… Nicolas had nothing. This time he didn’t ask further. The next day, they were woken up by one of the trafficker with the long-awaited words — Get ready! Tonight you are leaving.

Massimo, Kit and Bijan had been on board for almost a week and they were approaching the island of Crete. The passed days they had quietly sailed from the Italian coast, crossed the strait of Messina and finally got into Ionic Sea. However, the weather conditions were not supposed to be the best, so the guys thought it was better not to challenge the mistral and decided to drop the anchor in the little island of Fokia. It was off the track they were supposed to follow, but Bijan told the other two members of the crew that the island was beautiful and they would have not lost much time in going there rather than anchoring in Crete.

And, in fact, this little island in the middle of the Mediterranean was a pearl. Kit was astonished — I can’t believe how full of poetic inspiration is this sea, with the white-sanded shores, the small sailors’ boats and the shepherds full of genuine happiness. — We are the future of this beautiful multiplicity of cultures, where everything we know, all the traditions and every single value, began. We have to preserve it, commented Massimo. And, suddenly, the occasion to preserve it arrived. The following day, the sky was blue and there was no sign of possible bad weather conditions, so the three decided to have a little sail. They did not have the intention to go far, because the plan was to sleep on the island for another night, but still they wanted to feel the wind ruffle through their hair. Their souls needed freedom and their eyes did not want to see any land around while their bodies were being cuddled by the waves. Before the sunset, they decided it was time to head back to Fokia.

— Look! There is a boat coming, said Bijan breaking the contemplative silent in front of the declining sun. — It is going quite fast, added Kit as he was yawning. — Yes… but now it slowing down and… Hey! Hey! Fermatevi (stop)!, yelled Massimo in Italian to the boat that was pointing in the direction of Athena he recognized as a Cost Guard ship, probably Italian, but maybe Greek. The ship actually stopped and approached the little sailing boat. — Good evening, sorry if we will seem impolite, but we are in a hurry. We need your boat… And we need your help, said one of the officials. — Wait, what are you talking about?, replied the captain, Massimo. — Not far from here a vessel is sinking, it was hit by a Libyan guard ship. There is a small fishing boat in the nearby, but it won’t be enough. They said there are at least one hundred persons on board, they are dying… and you are the closest boat.

— No, we can’t go, it is too dangerous, burst suddenly out Kit, this boat is so unstable. I think everyone must have a chance in his lives, I am also willing to host them in my house, but I can’t put my own life at risk. — What are you talking about? Are you crazy? We spent the last week on this boat, basking at the sun and thinking how great is the idea of humanity that has been developed by our ancestors in these countries. And now, you tell me that our life is worth more than that of people that are sinking in the same sea where you can swim? What such important things did you do in your life so that would justify the latter should be preserved? Tell me, what did you do? And Bijan stared at Kit, almost with tears in his eyes. — We are down for it, ultimately said Massimo.

They could not even imagine the hell that was ahead of them. When they arrived close to the spot, the started seeing the crashed body of the vessel that was transporting too many people. The fishermen later said that they saw the boat tripping over after some gun shots had been fired. It was in the air but it generated panic in the crowded vessel. — Take some of them, yelled one of the fishermen whose boat was surrounded by hands trying not to definitely fall beneath the surface. — Some of them are already gone, but please save the ones you can! When a person is willing to do anything to obtain what he wants, the courage he takes out to deal with big obstacles makes him forget about the smallest things. Those people couldn’t swim, none of them had never had the chance to do that. But this was clearly not a sign of stupidity, this was their tragedy and at the same time their strength. Weaknesses and strengths become one unique thing when the driving force is desperation.

More than a hundred hands were still waving just above the surface of the water, while most of the heads were below it. The Coast Guard ship had launched some life jackets, but people were panicking and couldn’t reach them. Three boats, a hundred people and nothing around them. However, this time, it was far away from the poetic scenario of the day before, it was a drama. It was one of the cruelest scene that the three guys had ever seen in their life, but they were doing everything they could to grab people’s hands and take them on board. Almost thirty people were arranged on Athena. The guys gave the sails to the new passengers and told them to use them as blankets. It was all they got to provide them.

They could finally see the little harbour of the Southern coast of Crete, where the officials redirected them. Kit was giving assistance to some people in the prow, when he saw two cold kids of his age that were singing African songs and moved closer. — What’s your name?, he asked in a very slow English. — My name is Nicolas, rapidly answered one of the two, and he’s Faure. — You speak very good English, have you ever been to England? — No, but my mother wanted me to learn it and my father has been there for a while. — Okay, let’s do this thing: I know a very beautiful but simple song. It tells a story of hardship, but the message is full of hope. Actually Hope is the name of the song. I’m sure you have songs like this in Africa. —Okay, but what about Faure? He doesn’t know the language. — He will be fine… So you are ready?, claimed Kit. He started to sing, slow in the beginning, and then after a couple of repetitions the two boys joined in and they did it all together:

 

I feel the hope running low

we never found our way home

There is no more world

The land is gone

water is all that survived that one

there are no escapes

gone are the days of mistakes

our mistakes

and did you see

the night wore on

and became the days that never begun

The disappearing day

You know where I’m from

Is the only place that forever stays young

Lost at sea

we’re lost at sea

I wouldn’t know my face if you all weren’t me

All we have is all we see

There is still hope

There are dreams

To be continued…
Emilio Caja