bookblast immigration

Review | BILAL: On the Road with Illegal Immigrants, Fabrizio Gatti | Editions Liana Levi

As a lobbyist for translation, I occasionally write reader’s reports giving an opinion on French books that have been submitted to a publishing company for consideration. Translations of good non fiction are rare compared to fiction, and fewer grants are available. As its the indies who tend to take risks on new writers-new translations, they have less funds and back up than the majors. So good books often get nowhere — very much the case for Bilal sur la route des clandestins by Fabrizio Gatti which I was commissioned to report on back in 2011. A university press with an endowment could be a possibility? Hence this post . . . The book would need updating of course, easily done.  For now it is available in Italian and French so if you can read those languages — buy it!

BILAL SUR LA ROUTE DES CLANDESTINS by Fabrizio Gatti (478pp Liana Levi 2008)  Winner of the premio Terzani in 2008

Fabrizio Gatti is a reporter for the Italian weekly, L’Espresso. Human rights defender and campaigner against organised crime, he has undertaken numerous undercover investigations. Ryszard Kapuscinski believed that news is all about political struggle and the search for truth, not profits and ratings as is invariably the case today. Gatti is a kindred spirit. He follows in Kapuscinski’s footsteps with this humane and heartbreaking book. Bilal, on the road with illegal immigrants is literary reportage at its best; an odyssey into the heart of darkness. Gatti is not only an excellent and courageous investigative journalist, but a real writer.

The underdevelopment of Africa

In a continent crippled by wars, disease and rapacious leaders, where regional magnets like the Ivory Coast have broken down politically and economically, or are experiencing religious strife, ordinary Africans find it hard to survive, much less hope for better living and working conditions. This decline is causing a brain drain to the West. It is a consequence of colonialism, the increasingly unequal north-south relationship, exploitative global capitalism and environmental and ecological disasters. Gatti exposes the scale and inhumanity of human trafficking going on in Europe’s back yard, across thousands of miles, engendering racketeering, abuse, corruption and torture, with the complicity and/or participation of the authorities.

Gatti leaves Milan, his goal being to reach Europe via Tripoli. He infiltrates the desperate, ruthless, cruel world of illegal migrants travelling to the promised land. Africans fight to board trucks bound for an uncertain journey across the Sahara. Many run out of money and stay stuck, enslaved in a modern day limbo, working for nothing. The trucks don’t meet the conditions for safe travel and often break down. Such is the desert: people are marooned and die after just a couple of days.

The places Gatti travels through and the people he meets on his journey – ending in the ‘reception centre’ on Lampedusa Island which lies between Sicily and Tunisia – form the backbone of the book. Travelling by plane, train, bus, 4×4 and truck, his journey is reminiscent of a descent into the underworld, or rather Dante’s Hell which extends all the way to the centre of the earth, in ever decreasing circles. Dakar – Kidira – le grand fleuve Senegal – Kayes – Kita – Bamako – Niamey – Agadez – Dirkou – Madama – Libya – Lampedusa.

Gatti’s journey begins well enough. Then on the road to Kayes, the belly of Ousmane’s 1970s Peugeot is pierced by a particularly nasty bump. The tow truck wants 200 dollars to get it back to Diboli; they finally settle for 50 euros. The time spent haggling is a premonition of what is to come: money makes this world go around, without it you’re dead meat. From behind the decrepit vehicle looms the spectre of generations of Africans migrating illegally to Europe across the sands of Ténéré desert – which stretches from north-eastern Niger into western Chad – leaving behind them their family and their village, in the hope of escaping a life of hardship and making good money.

In the train to Bamako, Gatti’s bag containing maps showing the locations of Saharan wells and aquifers is stolen. Sunday market at Ayorou on the Niger is a crowded medley of spices, sacks of flour and pulses, rice, meat, milk and millet pancakes, bronze jewellery and carpentry. Skeletal cows with great horns are herded across the river by Burkinabe boys in defiance of the hippos and crocodiles. From Niamey onwards, women offer themselves to him, “Here in the Niger you are considered old at twenty two, but not in Europe. [….] Take me with you. If you agree, I’ll make love free of charge whenever you want.” Bamako is synonymous with optimism, but this is a delusion as nothing has changed since the 1970s. Only one quarter of young people aged between 15 and 25 have paid work. People sell vegetables grown to one side of the street, or fake brand shoes made in China, but scant money is made.

Agadez has served for centuries as a gateway between black Africa to the south and Arab Africa to the north. The people smuggling system is well organised. Middlemen direct their countrymen to one of the dealers in the Agadez-Dirkou route at the bus station; the dealer will give the middleman, say, $3 for each passenger he receives. Liberians, Guineans, Nigerians, Ghanaians, Cameroonians, Eritreans and Congolese pass through. Most of the migrants are men, but there are women too. They end up paying their way by prostituting themselves to soldiers or whoever can pay. When Gatti lands in this outpost, he thinks he has malaria, but is diagnosed as having amoeba in the gut. The Flagyl which he is prescribed will come in useful. It is here that he meets Billy, Daniel and Stephen whose Nigerian tradesmen parents have died, hence their journey to Europe to complete their university education and find well paid work. (Daniel recites some of Goethe’s Faust to Gatti.) But the boys have run out of money and are ‘stranded’, which is a living death. The soldiers and police are the real bandits; they are the ones who stripped them of their money and baggage. The boys’ friend Olivier ate his roll of money to avoid handing it over to the soldiers, suffocated and died. They are the Damned. The desert dust has taken over their lives; it encrusts their eyelashes and eyebrows and their throats have dried up with its bitter taste. “These young people know that whatever happens, no one will ever come and rescue them from this impasse. Neither father, nor brother. Neither state, nor humanitarian organisation. Not one of those corrupt governments whose decisions have led these people to where they are today will ever mourn their deaths.”

Trucks are loaded with water containers, tyres, jerry cans, sacks and other goods hanging from the sides. The lucky ones are the people loaded on top like cattle, clinging to whatever they can, swathed in cloth against the sun’s rays and freezing night temperatures. 12% of the 182 people on one truck will die. The cost of a trip on one such moving mountain is 15,000 francs from Agadez to Dirkou and from Dirkou to Libya 40/45,000 francs. Security checkpoints dot the desert between Agadez and Dirkou, and the authorities have to be bribed at each one to let the travellers through without documents. Vicious beatings with electric cables and rubber tubes are commonplace. Along the 2040 km from Niamey to the Libyan frontier there are 12 checkpoints in total, where every migrant is asked for 10,000 francs (15.40 euros) although 5000 will do. This adds up to around 60-100,0000 francs per person. A nice little earner. Dysentery, heat, thirst and beatings transform these heroic travellers into derelict creatures.

Dirkou is booming. Mud-brick houses are being built and local mafias share the spoils of prostitution and slave labour, to which passengers are reduced because of successive raids by militias of all kinds. Rebels from neighbouring Chad and militant Salafist camps in the desert add to the combustible atmosphere. The market is thriving. The hotels and bars do good business. Gatti manages to track down Madame Hope, an imposing forty five year old African trafficker, in her hotel and bar which is a police hangout. The leaky boat which sank between Tunisia and Italy was one of hers. 49 bodies were found, 160 disappeared, 41 passengers swam to safety. However much he’d like to question her, he does not. “It is better that you do not stay here.”

The desert is a busy place. Great salt caravans of hundreds of dromedaries still cross the desert of Ténéré between Agadez and Bilma, about 500 km. Orientation is easier by night than by day thanks to the starry sky. Mercedes trucks with satellite telephones transport cigarettes and cocaine, but no people. The Sahel – the southern zone of the desert – has become a transit point for Colombian cartels drug trafficking into Europe and the US and some are affiliated with al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb. It is also via these trucks that Libya gets its supply of weapons and technology. “The Nigerian mafia is one of the most powerful and internationalised in Africa.”

Gatti is turned back at the Libyan border, and fails to get anywhere near the cells of Tripoli where Gaddafi’s police torture African immigrants before dumping them in the desert, or taking them in as domestic slaves or cheap factory workers. Even political refugees from Liberia with visas and the correct paperwork are treated with inhumanity under the complacent eyes of a Europe obsessed with immigration quotas. Emails from Joseph and James to Gatti show how extreme the situation is. They have an invitation to a conference in Slovenia to give a talk about child soldiers, everything is in order, but Alitalia does not like to fly black Africans out of Libya, and they end up being tortured in a Libyan jail. They are beaten so badly (in a towel so no marks are left) there is bleeding from the anus and penis.

Gatti ends up in Sfax, Tunisia, from where small numbers of people (25-30) leave for Sicily while others head on to Tripoli where the police are in on the trafficking and from where up to 350 people can be loaded onto leaky fishing boats at 1500 euros per person, plus backhanders for corrupt officials. Without her fleet of boats in Sfax, that are fit for the scrapyard, “Madame Hope would not be Madame Hope as she could not afford to get her clients into Europe.”

Inspired by Steve McQueen and Dustin Hoffmann in Papillon, Gatti circumvents his status as a white man to the bitter end, by taking on the identity of a Kurdish refugee, Bilal Ibrahim el Habib, born in 1970 in Iraqi Kurdistan, and managing to penetrate the detention centre in Lampedusa. Here he observes how the immigrants who survive the crossing of the Mediterranean are treated. The first ‘reception centres’ were opened in 1999 in Milan, Rome and Trapani (Sicily), founded on principles of human rights and the view that migrants held there are free citizens. Northern League politician, Mario Borghezio, when guiding a delegation of European Parliament MPs, said that the Lampedusa centre is a five-star hotel and that he would live in it. He encountered only 11 migrants; that week traffickers had diverted the boats to Sicily.

Gatti sees the extent to which the official sanitised version is a fallacy. Lawlessness reigns along with the usual brutal beatings and scatophilic sadism with fascistic goose-stepping behaviours on the part of one particular Brigadier. Three of the eight lavatories are overflowing to the brim. There is no lavatory paper so you have to use your hands. Salt water comes out of the taps of the washbasins. During the day the level of sewage on the ground is higher than your mules so you have to walk in it. But having a foot-bath in the washbasin before you exit is a problem because as soon as you put your foot in to rinse it, your mule it starts to float away. There are no doors, no electricity and no privacy. This living Hell is but yards away from the luxury tourist facilities that line the coast. Gatti is released after one week with an expulsion order.

Various agreements between Brussels, Berlusconi and Gaddafi act as a bulwark against illegal immigration, making Lampedusa, “the central cog in the wheel of mass deportations implemented by Italy with the help of Germany and the European Union.” Hundreds of migrants are being forced to agree to voluntary deportations and return across the Sahara, or end up stuck in Misratah detention centre. Libya is now deporting all its cheap labour and African slaves. Trucks sometimes dump them in the desert and leave them to die. Soldiers keep the baggage of entire families being sent back home. The cruelty continues and there is, of course, money to be made from these expulsions. Joseph and James survive and end up in Ghana.

Sitting in comfort far away in Europe, it’s all too easy to get lazy and not bother making the effort to see and understand the real world, and its complex problems of poverty. The stories told in Bilal, on the road with illegal aliens are not fiction, or some melodramatic made-for-TV docu-drama. They are a reality for millions of people. They make you reconsider the issue of forced migration, and see illegal migrants not as a danger, but as people in danger.

This book is compelling reading, admittedly, in part, because of that human fascination with the ghoulish, like the citoyennes who take their knitting with them to watch the executions at the guillotine in A Tale of Two Cities. The horror of what one man can do to another raises the question, what one man can do, so can another…… Bilal exposes a new kind of genocide-by-denial. In this so-called global village we live in, everything is linked directly or indirectly. ‘The Other’ is not so different from us. Development is in the hands of an elite, rather than for all and with all. This attitude should change. But will it?

As far as I can tell there is nothing quite like Bilal, on the road with illegal immigrants on the market. If it is translated and published in the UK, the current situation in Libya and consequences of the Arab Spring should be taken into account and certain paragraphs at the end updated. I would hope that the Translators Association’s recommended fee of £87 per 1,000 words for prose is not off-putting. This book has longevity and should ideally build up a good head of steam, with certain sectors of the Media and also various Humanitarian organisations and NGOs coming on board.

Copyright © G de Chamberet
14 June, 2011

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georgia DC

Bilingual editor, rewriter, French-to-English translator. Has written for 3am magazine, words without borders, The Independent, The Lady, Banipal, Prospect Magazine, Times Literary Supplement. Currently writes for The BookBlast Diary. Founder (1997) of London-based writing agency BookBlast.

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