When roads do not end in Rome

The Colosseum, Rome - Cristiano Corsini/flickr

14th and last post. They say all roads lead to Rome. Even that of Mussa Khan and the thousands of Afghanmuhajirins for whom Italy is just a stop in the restless and tormented search for a better life. Among the building sites along the Ostiense Station stops the story of a journey that has no end

The bus no. 60 noisily runs on the jagged paved road, while rows of plane trees sway with the evening breeze. Rome looks the same as when I left two months ago. Outside the window, one after the other the monuments of the eternal city go by: the Baths of Diocletian, Piazza Venezia, the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. The Imperial Fora crash against the grand mass of the Colosseum.

The bus runs along three quarters of its circumference, finally showing the side of it lit by sunset. Just two days ago, in Greece, during a windy night spent outside, Mussa Khan asked me: “What is the Colosseum like up close?”. I answered: “Soon you will see it with your own eyes”. Continue reading

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An asylum roulette

Ancona's port, Italy

13th post. Ancona, Italy. Here is the “Europe” dreamed of by Mussa Khan. Here too, though, welcoming the muhajirins are metal fences and procedures that make applications for asylum a runaway and distant prospect

The Olympic Champion veers North-West, leaving on its route a long wake of babbling foam. The passengers are in line for breakfast in the restaurant, while trembling stains low on the horizon reveal the first stretches of the Italian coastline.

How many migrants are there on board? How many muhajirins are hiding on the trucks crammed on the ship? I observe the people in line lazily grabbing the food at the self service counter. A few meters away, just three levels below us, tens of people might be hiding in narrow spaces, going on hours without food, water or a bathroom.

Another question, though, is obsessing me: what is going to happen to Mussa Khan? What responsibility do I hold for what happened last night on the pier? I will only have the answer when and if Mussa Khan is able to turn his cell phone on: it has been off since the arrest. Continue reading

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Destination Europe

On the walls of Igoumenitsa

12th post. In Igoumenitsa the muhajirins dream of Europe. It does not matter if they are there already: for them, the one that counts is on the other side of the Adriatic. Here Mussa Khan too, as many before him, tries his hand with fate.

“They forced us to put all our things in our backpacks, already packed full. Phones, wallets, bracelets, rings, belts, shoe laces, eyeglasses. The policemen were screaming like madmen, but we were the only ones in the group who could understand their orders in English. If you did not answer right away, you would get hit, no matter if you were young or old”. Sitting in the shade of an oak tree in the suburbs of Igoumenitsa, Mussa Khan and Jamal tell of the horrible days spent in the Greek detention center.

After facing the whirlpools of the Evros together, two weeks ago the unlikely couple, an Iraqi Kurd and an Afghan born in Iran, gave themselves up to the Greek police along with another thirty people. They have not parted since. “They used permanent markers. They wrote a number on our hands. They told us it was so we could find our bag when they would release us”. The black mark is still visible on their skin. “In Kurdistan we mark sheep”. Jamal spits on the floor. “In Europe they mark people”. Continue reading

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The boys of the fence

11 th post. Patras. Along with migrants from all over the world, the muhajirins are also waiting for the right moment to jump the fence bordering the port, in a surreal and dangerous hide and seek with the police. The stake, though, is high: a ship towards Italy and the dream called “Europe”

Laying on his side, Abdallah watches the sun as it sinks in the Adriatic. A light breeze brushes the abandoned terrace where old mattresses are lined. This is the dorm of the Algerian migrants. “That down there”, says Abdallah looking at the fiery horizon, “is not the sea”. He takes a wisp of straw off the floor and passes it through his extremely white teeth. “That is a curtain of a huge stage. If you open it, you can see the most beautiful show in the world: Europe….”

Patras. The echo of the croaking sirens scans the arrivals and departures of the ferries bound for Italy. Huge steel beasts make slow and extremely precise maneuvers among the wharves, on a sheet of water stretching half a kilometer. High fences decorated with rolls of barbed wire sanction the inaccessible borders of the port. From the terrace, the Algerian harragas are able to watch all this at a glance.

“Look down there”, says Abdallah pointing North, near the building where the ticket office is. “That is the Afghan spot. Afghans jump there”. Then he points at the area at our feet: “Down here is where we jump. Algerians, Moroccans, Tunisians, Palestinians”. Then he turns his gaze towards South. “I have never seen that area up close. Africans are there. And further down, the Kurds”. Beyond the fence, port police units on motorcycles nervously patrol the area. Continue reading

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The other side of the acropolis

Omonia, metro station - Kriisliao /flickr

10th post. Athens. The place where democracy was born hides a dark and painful side: it is the streets and squares where the muhajirins live illegally, waiting for a future that never comes. A black hole that swallows lives and destinies, where Mussa Khan seems to have gotten lost

Athens. From the Katehaki metro station, waves of hectic people pour into the still sleepy neighborhood. I recognize very few Greek faces, among those crowding the coaches: Africa, Asia and the Middle East seem to have arranged to meet on this train.

“Afghans know very well the difficulties that await them in Europe. The muhajirins that have settled here constantly inform friends and families on the foul living conditions in Greece”. Ibrahimi turns off the monitor where pictures are running: wretched migrant camps scattered in the center of Athens.

“In the past few years many muhajirins, exasperated by extreme poverty, have accepted voluntary repatriations financed by the International Organization for Migrations”. Ibrahimi continues, “But they only stayed in Afghanistan for a few weeks at the most, to then face the terrible journey to Europe again”. After a moment of pause, the thoughts reach the rather obvious conclusion: “The thing is, for us Afghans there is no alternative to escape. To live in fear is too high a price to pay”. Continue reading

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Greece, poor Greece

Greek permit of stay for asylum seekers - P.Martino

9th post. Victims of conflicts that do not concern them, like the hoary one between Greece and Turkey, which has left a mortal trail of mines along the border of the Evros. Even when they get to the long desired Hellenic land, however, the muhajirins find a country in the midst of an economic crisis, less and less willing to offer them protection and grant them asylum

Darkness pours out onto the hills of Thrace like a flood. The halogenous cone of the lights on the tarmac is the only help for the sight, void of any reference in the surrounding darkness.

Orestis has been driving for two hours, slowly so not to jeopardize the cargo. A long line of trucks halting before the junction for Traianopolis catches his attention: “Look there. There has been a compulsory strike for a week. Nothing can circulate, only food”. And he continues: “The economic crisis is eating us alive. I can still find work only because I transport beer, and the Greeks will never stop drinking beer”. I discover that the whole country has run out of fuel and that for days the trucks have crowded in front of the few gasoline stations that still have supplies.

Komotini. Orestis turns the engine off and lights a cigarette. “So, you want to know about the landmines”. He takes out a map from the side of the door and unfolds it on the dashboard. “From here to here” he says pointing to Nea Vissa and Kastanias, “it was all mine fields”. The strip of land stretches for about 10 kilometers. “It is the only part of land where the Evros disappears in Turkey, so Greece does not control the right bank of the river. There, Greek soldiers and Turkish soldiers face each other, and there is no water between them”. Continue reading

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A tale of rivers and borders

Eastern Thrace, near the Evros river - P.Martino

8th post. Turkey, Bulgaria, Greece. Three separate nations united by the Evros-Meriç-Maritsa, today the last door for the muhajirins attempting to land in Europe. Maybe Mussa Khan has already passed here, but more and more of his traveling companions are losing their lives in the dark meanders of the river

The coming of twilight blows out the metal chirping of the cicadas, leaving the dominion of the valley to the wind. Edirne, Eastern Thrace, ancient Adrianople. It is my last sunset in Turkey.

I observe the night taking turns with the day sitting at a rest stop on the E80 state road, which makes its way in Bulgarian land in less than a kilometer. To the West, the continuous line of leaves behind which the sun falls reveals a bend of the Evros River. Greece, Turkey and Bulgaria all at one glance.

A driver slows down. There is nothing around here that could attract a passer-by. He has white hair and wrinkles on his forehead. The man gets out of the car. Turkish music echoes from the radio. Without saying a word, he comes closer. I do not realize it until he is close enough for me to read his gaze: in that precise moment, in his eyes I see the same undefined look I had been given by the merchants of Izmir who had mistaken me for a migrant.

Pointing the finger at me, he utters words that dispel all doubts: “Afghanistan ? Pakistan? ”. I remain still, appalled. The man makes an effort to communicate, but he only speaks Turkish. Nervously, he keeps repeating “Jandarma, Jandarma” pointing at the river. I pretend not to understand, so he shouts louder: “Jandarma! ”. Then, suddenly, with his index finger he mimes an imaginary gun. He points it at my head: “Jandarma, boom! ”. Continue reading

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