By Flore Murard-Yovanovitch
Standing on the harbour, she looks like she might fall to the ground in an instant, frail and infirm. She can’t remember her exact date of birth, but guesses she is in her 70s. Bringing with her seven grandchildren, the youngest only two years old, she fled Eritrea. They came ashore together at Augusta, Sicily, holding on tightly to one another, incredulous that they were still alive.
During the trip from Sudan, where they stayed for two years after fleeing their village in Eritrea, to Libya, they never let go of each other’s hands. They held them tightly for a month and a half; 45 days to be precise. The eldest grandchild, M., held on to his grandmother without letting her go, not even for a second.
They could have died many times over: of dehydration under the 50 degree heat of the relentless Saharan sun, of drowning had they fallen from the boat or suffocated on it. They could have been wounded or killed. But they are here, all together at the harbour. Their words disappear.
After the first medical checks, they are all doing ok, and their words slowly come back. On the boat, for eight consecutive days, their mother and father — the latter rescued and landed ashore in Messina — took care of all of them. Their mother gave them small sips of water, not even a glass per day. At times, on the boat, it was even mixed with petrol. One after the other they fainted. The youngest first, then their grandmother, and then the eldest grandchild, who also had an asthma attack during the journey. Finally, the mother herself fainted. They can’t remember much. They only know that the Italians rescued them. Words are too weak to convey the intensity of their arrival.
We communicate through gazes, hugs, and greetings. In EMERGENCY’s clinic in Augusta’s harbour — which operates 24/7 to provide medical assistance during landings ashore — we communicate thanks to the Eritrean Cultural Mediator who, in a strange twist of fate, comes from the same area as the surviving family. An entire family unit arriving alive from Eritrea is a unique story. Anyone who is aware of the abysses of the mass grave that the Mediterranean Sea has become, the marauders and militias of the desert, the horrors and abuses faced before departure in the overcrowded warehouses, the violence faced during the sea-crossing, will recognise how extraordinary this story is. We can only imagine how many times they could have been separated from each other, how many times they could have lost a member of their family.
When I ask J. A., now the head of this family, how she found the strength to face such a journey with young children and a grandmother and what she thinks led to this happy ending she looks at me straight in the eyes and says: ‘I didn’t have a choice’ and she adds,
‘I couldn’t let my sons be made into child soldiers, I couldn’t let my daughters have no future. When I left people thought I was mad, and I was never certain that we would arrive safely. But it’s the dream of their future that led me. And we are alive’.
‘And how did you convince a grandmother in her seventies to leave her village and walk across seas and mountains of sand?’
‘For the love of her grandchildren’
The eldest son steps in: ‘Grandmother was stronger than all of us. She never gave up’.
At this point we remain silent, holding back the tears. In front of us stands a grandmother and a two years old child who crossed a desert and a sea because they wanted to live in freedom. When it’s time to take the picture J.A. tells me: ‘These are not our faces, we lost our faces’. Her face is burnt by the sun of the journey. I reassure her and tell her that she is beautiful and she smiles.