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At Sea, Devoured by Our Indifference

My father and mother came by plane to Italy.

No run-down boat for them, they had the luxury of a regularly scheduled flight.

Last century, back in the seventies, people like my parents who came from the global South still had the possibility of traveling like any other human beings. No rickety boats, no human traffickers, no shipwrecks, no sharks ready to shred you to pieces.

In a day and a half my parents had lost everything they had. In 1969, the Siad Barre regime had taken control of Somalia. Without a second thought, my father and then my mother decided to seek refuge in Italy, in order to save their skins and start a new life there.

My father had been a wealthy man, with a successful political career behind him, but after the coup d’état he didn’t have even a single shilling to his name. They took everything from him. He had become poor.

Today my father would be forced to take a boat from Libya; if you’re not a member of the elite, there’s no other way to get to Europe from Africa. But last century, in the seventies, things were different. I remember my parents and relatives coming and going. I had some cousins that worked on an oil rig in Libya and one of my brothers, Ibrahim, studied in a country that was then called Czechoslovakia. I remember that Ibrahim would sometimes load up with jeans bought in local markets in Italy to sell under the counter in Prague, just to pay for his studies. Then he’d drop back by to see us in Rome. And when the university wasn’t in session, he’d return to Somalia, where some of our family were still living, despite the dictatorship.

If I were to sketch out my brother’s travels on a piece of paper, I’d cover it with scribbling. Lines connecting Mogadishu with Prague, passing through Rome, and I’d have to add all sorts of other detours and curves. As it happened, my brother had an Iranian wife and they traveled together. And so Teheran was also within their orbit—along with so many other destinations that today I can’t even remember precisely.

My brother, although Somali, was free to travel. Like any young European man or woman. If I were to sketch the travels of some Marco living in Venice or some Charlotte living in Düsseldorf, I’d have to scribble even more densely than what I did for my brother Ibrahim. For them I’d have to sketch school field trips, or the time their favorite band had a concert in London, or the football matches of Manchester United, and then those Parisian holidays with their boyfriend or girlfriend, and the visits to a big brother who’d left home to work in Norway. And why not go at least once to see New York and the Empire State Building?

For Europeans, traveling is a constellation and the mode of transportation changes as needed: you take the train, planes, the car, or cruise ships, and some even decide to see Holland by bike. The possibilities are infinite. Just as they were for Ibrahim—even with the Iron Curtain—back in 1970. Of course he couldn’t go everywhere. But for him too there was the possibility of traveling under a visa system that didn’t treat a Somali passport like toilet paper.

Today, however, for people who come from the global South, travel is a straight line. A line that forces you to go forward, never back. As in rugby, you have to cross the goal line. There are no visas, and no human corridors, and if in your country there’s a war or a dictatorship, it’s your own damned business. Europe won’t even look you in the face, you’re just a nuisance. And so from Mogadishu, from Kabul, and from Damascus forward is the only possibility, step by step, inexorably, inevitably.

A straight line where—as we know by now—you’ll find the whole lot: smugglers, traffickers, corrupt police, terrorists, rapists. You’re at the mercy of an ominous fate that convicts you for geography, not for something you’ve done.

Travel is a right reserved for the North, for an Occident that is increasingly isolated and deaf. If you’re born on the wrong side of the globe you will be granted nothing. Today I was thinking about the latest slaughter in the Strait of Sicily—in this Mediterranean by now rotting from the surfeit of cadavers it contains—and I asked myself out loud when this nightmare began. Looking up at my friend, the journalist and writer Katia Ippaso, we asked why we hadn’t noticed when it began.

People have been dying like this in the Mediterranean since 1988. From that year on, women and men have been swallowed up by the waters. A year later in Berlin, the wall would fall: we were happy, and we were almost unaware of that other wall, rising up little by little from the waters of our sea.

It wasn’t until 2003 that I myself understood what had been happening. I was working in a record store. Thirteen bodies had been found in the Strait of Sicily. Thirteen young Somali men that were escaping from a war that had broken out in 1990 and was eating the country alive. That number suddenly seemed to be a warning. I remember how Rome expressed its solidarity with the Somali community. That, in the piazza of Campidoglio, the mayor at the time, Walter Veltroni, held a secular funeral. On that day, a cloudy October day, a community once divided by clan hatred found itself united around those bodies. The Somalis who had hastened to that piazza were crying and the Roman people cried as well, the pain felt as their own.

Today everything is different.

All around today, there is only indifference.

I could simply leave it at that, but actually I fear something worse has devoured our soul.

I experienced it for myself this past summer in Hargeisa, a city in the north of Somalia.

There a very dignified signora confessed to me, almost ashamed, that her nephew had died while on the tahrib, the journey to Europe.

“The boat gulped him down,” she told me. The signora was inconsolable, continually repeating to me: “When the children leave, they don’t tell you anything. That evening, I’d made dinner for him. He never even ate it.” Ever since that day, I often dream about boats with teeth grabbing children by the ankles, devouring them, like Kronos eating his children. I dream about that boat, those great teeth, long as elephant tusks. I feel impotent. Worse, really: I feel like a murderer because Europe, the continent where I am a citizen, isn’t lifting a finger to build a unified policy to confront these maritime tragedies in a systematic manner.

Even the word “tragedy” may well be out of place. By now, after twenty-five years, we should speak of reckless homicide, not tragedy—especially now, after the European Union has blocked the implementation of Italy’s Mare Nostrum rescue operations. A calculated measure,  taken by our continent in deciding to control borders in total disregard for human lives.

None of us took to the streets to demand that Mare Nostrum be reinstated. We asked for no structural solution to the problem. We are just as guilty as our governments. It’s not by chance that Enrico Calamai, Italy’s former vice consul in Argentina during the years of dictatorship—a man who saved many from the clutches of the Videla regime—has said this about the migrants dying in the Mediterranean: “They are the new desaparecidos. This reference is neither rhetorical nor polemic. The term is technical and factual, because desaparición is a means of mass extermination, managed in such a way that public opinion doesn’t become fully aware of it, or at least is able to say it doesn’t know.” 

Igiaba Scego is a Somali Italian writer. Her essay "Riding the Babel on Wheels" was published in MR 55.4. This essay was first published in Italian on, and was translated by Jim Hicks, with Giovanna Bellesia-Contuzzi and Victoria Poletto.


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