Originally published on Face Magazine.
Today I talked to somebody who faced the war personally. Joussef, a man who escaped from his Country (South Sudan), arriving in Italy after one week of travelling through our nation, each day a more xenophobic country. I met him at the station, in Ventimiglia, the border village between Italy and France. In the past year, thousands of immigrants have been trying to cross this border and have been treated as invisible homeless. Joussef and I talked about war and terrorism. We also talked about culture and personal freedom, to be transmitted to new generations. The following is an excerpt of our chat.
F: I would like to talk to some of you; I need to tell your story to young people in order to help them realize what is happening now around the world. I will write a little report for an Italian review. No politics, no investigations about immigration. I am a poor guy, like you, you don’t have to be scared. This is culture. If kids are informed about how you are living here, they may not make the same mistakes in the future.
I will try, with this piece, to gain an insight and perhaps find a solution to ease the situation for others about what is going: I would just like to get my life and yours better.
Joussef holds a book in his hands and he smiles even though he does not like to show that. It is clear that he is pleased to talk to me but at first, he is a bit sceptical. A few volunteers and police officers approach him but only to give him some food or to tell him not to pee outside the toilet. The station’s restrooms have to be shared with more than 50 immigrants like him alongside with the customers passing through.
Joussef: Tell me, in which way could this article help us to reach France and find a job?
F: Indirectly. I think we must show to our children the beauty of the diversity. We need to tell them that people like you who arrive here having run away from their Country, represent a value, not a plague, as some political representatives have suggested.
J: So this is a political matter?
F: Just a bit, even if we don’t like it.
We laugh. In this moment I am reminded of the beauty of conversing with men like Joussef. So we set on keeping talking in front of a good cappuccino at the Americano’s. Joussef speaks English as well as French, having attended a French college in his Country. He had done well holding down many different jobs before the civil war started in South Sudan.
F: When did you arrive in Italy?
J: Almost one month now.
F: You have been travelling on the trucks?
J: Yeah, with them, we were 10 people. In some villages people helped us giving us food and clothes.
F: And in the other villages?
J: Anyway, you should talk to some of the people who arrived earlier. Come with me, I will show you; outside the station there are dozens in my situation. They are all here.
We move straightaway, where all along the sidewalks there are boxes and coloured clothes. This is the way these refugees made up their home. There are 50 beds in a row. Joussef discusses with one of the men who seems to have an aura of authority, he is called Abdullah. I have a little chat with Abdullah who is from Senegal. He insists that none of them want to be in this situation. Waiting here begging for a job and for papers but without papers working is near impossible, so here they wait; for some kind of miracle in this limbo town that is Ventigmiglia. A village with a mafia’s past and now turned in a sort of Styx River.
Abdullah’s mother was killed last month, he was told by phone. He owns a Smartphone but no family pictures inside as he got it when he arrived in Italy. Modestly, he tells me that all they want is to find a job, wherever it be, to get out of the situation they are in.
F: Have you heard what’s going on in Syria? Are there any Syrian refugees here like those who arrived few months ago?
Abdullah: They have been sent back. There are people from all around the world here! We have ended up here and we wait together. But do not ask us about what’s happening in Syria, because we don’t know anything about other countries.
F: Why? You don’t trust television?
A: Precisely, we can only talk about what we saw with our own eyes in our Country.
F: And what is happening in your place?
A: They kill, they rape and destroy.
F: For the oil?
A: For the oil.
Abdullah speaks good French but he mixes it to his African dialect so it is pretty hard for me to understand everything he is saying. He does not show the same correct use of language as Joussef’s one. He fidgets and shouts; he is not able to express his thoughts to tell his story. Therefore, I concentrate myself into Joussef and I ask him:
F: It’s important for younger generation to read and study true stories like yours. Do you agree with me?
J: Yes absolutely, everything starts from school desks. Culture is our freedom.
Culture is our freedom. These are the same words I wrote few weeks ago. Now they are repeated by a man who even though is ignored, alongside hundreds of nameless refugees, remains hopeful. With Joussefs’ words I realize how we are all connected, regardless of our diverse social and political realities. There is always a huge richness in foreign cultures.
We stand in front of a dirty and desolate square, but in his eyes it seems to be a vast ocean waiting quite.
F: It would be nice if children could start learning the story of different cultures and religions rather than the state religion. In this way they may see that equality is for all of us despite linguistic and cultural differences. We all are victims of misinformation fed to us by our governments who lead us into conflicts with other nations, hiding the real reasons under religious pretexts. What do you think about religions and about the fact that people in your Country kill each other in the name of their religious beliefs?
J: Religions should unify. God did not teach us to kill for our ideas. God’s word, anyway, has multiple interpretations. Where did they ever read, for example, that you must kill homosexuals and rape women “under God’s will”?! What is actually happening in my Country, however, is an appropriation of something which is not yours. If this bike is not yours, for example, you can’t take it away with you. You don’t touch it. This is how it works with bikes, or not?
F: Like with girls. If you like a girl, first you ask her, you can’t take her away with you. What? I’m serious, you like Italian girls; they are pretty, aren’t they? It can happen that a girl from Ventimiglia will fall in love with you!
J: Maybe. But in my Country it’s not so easy. You need to ask permission to her parents, and they must meet yours.
F: What about your family? They stayed in Sudan?
J: Yes, they are over there. My wife and two sisters were killed. I am so sorry to have left there the others, but I had no choice.
F: You were brave, and in my opinion bravery deserves success. Where did you live?
F: What did you do in Yambio? You were working or studying?
J: I studied at the French school, and then had a many different jobs. In the fields, construction, as there is always something to build, every day they destroy and the next day we build.
F: Do you have any children?
J: Yes, three.
F: And what are you planning to do next? What do you expect from this new life?
J: I will try to reach France but I need these papers in order to work.
I believe that Joussef should fight for “these papers”. In Italy, vacancies (disappeared during the crisis of 2008) do exist, but they are reserved for Mafiosos’ sons, or they are for our Ministers’ lovers, or at most for our Cardinals’ cousins!
There is enough job for everybody. If we do not admit this, we will keep blaming poor people like Joussef, who “came and steal our job”. In other Countries, immigration is considered as a source, both socially and culturally. Nobody else is that afraid about his working place. I don’t say this on my own, but José Pepe Mujica told me in person, two years ago.
Perhaps there is a chance, which is in new generations. They will – they will need to – be aware of the real facts. Through this little story, which is not isolated, kids can build up their own critical sensibility described by Joussef.
What this means is, that if in front of a screen there is an uncultivated boy, without self-confidence, he will believe that he must blow up if he wants success and immortal fame!
On the contrary, it will be harder to convince instructed and curious boys and girls to join the army. This is valid both for the Islamic State and for our armies.
F: Maybe I am an idealist, my dear Joussef, but I keep dreaming of a world without guns and without wars. I believe war is a successful business and don’t believe the motives given for starting them. Some experts have even said 10% of military costs could prevent poverty on a global level in just a few years. Furthermore, I am sure that all controversies among States can be carried out with a pen. As Bob Dylan once said, there are fountain pens that kill better than guns. And, if they really want to shoot, they can do it among them!
J: It’s right! Why don’t they shoot each other!
Unanimous laugh by Joussef, Abdullah and I.
F: Tell me Joussef, is anybody here helping you? Volunteers or organisations?
J: Some women bring us food every night. There are also Italian classes we can attend but now with the numbers growing there isn’t enough space.
F: And these women are good chefs at least?
J: Of course they are!
We laugh, unaware of the crowds passing or what they may be thinking of us given.
War, as Joussef says, has always been an indescribable horror especially because the people who are affected by it the most have no control over its commencement. A soldier is not a man free of choice. He is even told to kill if he wants to get freedom, which should be granted from our birth instead. It is the poor and uneducated that are mislead into fighting wars for those higher up, doing their dirty work only to reap no benefits and remain in poverty. There is no rational explanation for those fighting in war. For the same reason, we will not find out why a part of our politic calls it war and another part avoid doing that.
In Italy, the media shows us only a fraction of what is really going on in places like Joussefs country and the information is usually to lead us siding with whatever actions our government decides to take at the time. In this evolution of information technology we are supposed to have more knowledge, more freedom but there is a constant bias and alternative motive to that which is being told with by our mainstream media.
Joussef and I also talked about terrorism.
So, let’s try to sum up with this affair. Suddenly a man blows up, then another one and another. Then two persons enter with guns in a newsroom and kill seventeen people. The persecutors and the victims have one thing in common, they are all humans. Why is nobody asking what the hell is going on? Why it is happening? How did we arrive at this point?
Terrified by blood’s view, we believe to whatever we are told, as long as we do not end up under the gunsight. Is it natural instinct? Buried hate? Selfishness under a false support mask? Are we sure that hating the bad we will find out who are the good? Has it sense to split the world in two parts, unconditioned bad and good, as some indisputable stars of information rules?
I must clarify that the “bad” I am talking about are not all practicing Muslims. It is common if not automatic for people to associate the word “terrorism” with Muslims. Terror attacks have been sadly plentiful in the past, remembering that Chechen and a Norwegian have executed Attacks in Boston 2013 and Norway 2011. No beard and no “Allahu akbar”.
Mattew Levitt, an expert on terrorism, director of the Stein Program on Counterterrorism and Intelligence at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, said in a long interview for Eyewitness News: “Many volunteers who join the group Islamic state, are not at all devout Muslims found in the mosque, but little felons looking for fame, sense of membership and a reason for life.”
Dead are always good, because they paid the highest price to get off the carousel. We are still on horseback. Are we sure that revenge is the good way? We point at the Islamic, “les Arab” as they are called in France, and we feel safe and immune from homicidal-suicidal madness of caliph’s followers. We do not know that the race, the beliefs, politics, cannot replace both the common sense and the critical sense, which is what we are really loosing. In other words, we lost the capacity to build our own ideas and to cultivate our point of view.
I am not lined with any political factions. I am with the victims at most, because death is always a horrible thing, no matter which side you are on. If death arrives now in the bar, I would leave my debate with Joussef incomplete and an incomplete debate always consent an open interpretation. This is what is now going on: who kills – or better, who order to kill – interrupts debates. Public debates would be much more important than these private thoughts. Public debates are necessary to allow people to make up their own opinion on something.
After the terror attacks the world reacts more or less in the same way. “We need to seek revenge and to reinforce our barricades to prevent it from happening again,” people say. Death should never happen again, but there is something else that should never happen again, since when terrorism and our saviors exist. In other words, the right wings turn strong and impressive, getting the scared crowd’s approval. “Destroy the Isis will be the priority number one”, they say, and we run and vote.
I personally do not feed into conspiracies but I do believe in opportunists and I think that the tragedies that create fear among our communities do not only benefit the perpetrators but our own government. They are mad or genius and they turn the fight against massacres into their campaign’s flag becoming icons of justice and truth. Le-Pen wants to save us from terrorism thanks to his Front-Nazi-National. Matteo Salvini wants to send back immigrants to their Country. Donald Trump even wants to eliminate Muslim families and “uproot the problem from the birth”! They have fun pointing at the “losers” singing the same song: “We will rescue you, we are the good, vote me on next elections, which will fortunately take place in two weeks, and you will be safe from terrorists”. How can I not be suspicious about what really is behind terrorism?
Mustafa Akyol, a Turkish Muslim journalist, in this regard, writes on Hurriyet Daily News: “Terrorism is not an amorphous monster, just trying to kill people for the sake of it. Terrorism, rather, is a tactic used to advance political causes”.
Is the war approaching, or are we already in?
Russia and U.S. go on competing for the bigger slice, at the fatty Sunday table. Al-Qaeda wants to conquer the world. Isis comes next. More conflicts take place in Israel. More air raids in Syria. And where do the weapons come from? Thousands families escape with a one-way thicket (way and back for those born in the “wrong” Country), they just want to escape from death. Endless civil wars in Africa. In the while our Countries bets on the nuclear power and attack under the religious excuse. After all, religions have always been used for this: make to others what you do not like to be done to you.
IS’s soldiers threaten all infidels and sinners, who want to shut their longing-virgins paradise. At this step of human insanity, I find the interests of the industrial giants, and I ask to myself once again: which is the difference with us, illegitimate children of Christ, if thousands of us left armed with a cross on the chest, and we exterminated whoever did not kneel to the Bible, a book that we did not understand because it was written in Latin?
Crusaders, kamikazes, marines, or whoever obeys to an order and holds a gun, have in their own hands half solution to this drama: to refuse it! Without soldiers there would be no war. There would have never been. Imagine what would happen, if the jihadists’ catching advertisements did not convince anybody; or if our children will speak up not joining “civil” Nations’ Armies.
What is the second half of the solution? Culture, as Joussef says. More primary schools built by those same Countries now supporting conflicts, selling arms and untrue news.
We should ask ourselves not how to revenge but rather why the media just point out our dead and forget others, stacked under the United Nation’s carpet, like Joussef’s wife and sisters, raped and killed by the soldiers. Which role does ONU play in this economic and financial war? It wasn’t born to guarantee the peace?
Besides, when will we start calling things with their name? War represents destruction and no-sense death of innocent children and women. If we do not understand that behind every gun there is a pen (which is not my Bic pen, but the fountain ones of our presidents), we will risk falling into the most dangerous trap: ignorance.
Ignorance means non-knowledge, and non-knowledge means fright. Who ignores the reasons of these conflicts, is scared and looks for protection. Therefore, in the name of this protection, governments fill up our televisions with promises of revenge, of borders that they have invented theyselves. Rather, there are physical borders yet, in Germany, in Hungary, and Austria…
People are scared outside. In Paris, we walk around suspicious of everything and everyone. Even an innocent young boy letting off a firecracker now sends people into automatic shock. What is going on with this Vigipirate, but depriving us of the same civil rights that they affirm to preserve? The first right should be personal freedom and welfare. There are no free people around me. Somebody is angry (“We will destroy Isis!”); others are terrified (“Let’s put our children into catholic schools!”); and others simply do not care, they are distracted by their new technologic devices, always in their hands.
My last question to myself, to Joussef, or to whom this article is written for, is: are we disposed to be controlled in the name of protection and prevention from an enemy whose faces we do not know? Shall we keep believing that war against IS is necessary, or shall we finally find out where did the first bomb come out?
While Joussef and I drink our cappuccino, a group of police officers passes by. They seem to patrol the parking lot in front of the station but there is nothing to inspect, as all cars are the same. They are actually checking the refugees, as if they were making a scheduled control.
F: What about police, they don’t hassle you?
J: More or less. We keep having the problem of the documents. Some of us has been sent back home.
F: And how do people from here behave towards you? Do they stop and have a chat like now or do you think they are racist?
J: I don’t know. It doesn’t happen so often to talk to somebody from here they just pass through; we are like ghosts to them.
F: But why people are racist? Do you think they are scared?
J: As long as it is known that we are not here to kill, steal, and rape. We are good people just looking for a place to stay. People are scared because they don’t know. This is why we escape from war.
F: What do you mean?
J: War scares people because they don’t even know for what they fight. They are scared maybe because they are afraid that we bring the war with us.
F: Maybe they are scared because they don’t want to be killed.
J: We escaped from lots of things; this is what we did, because we heard to our politicians. If we speak up now, you would be no longer scared, because you would know the name of the responsible.
F: You are talking about politics now!
J: This is true!
Joussef and I laugh, we laugh a lot.
F: This is why many people here are xenophobic. They are afraid of foreigners.
J: Until the day when we will start chatting and lay our cards on the table like now, our Countries will be divided out of fear which is natural but this will only benefit unscrupulous people.
F: You express yourself like our most elevated minister. They should take a lesson from you. I don’t joke. I should have guess when I saw you with an Aristotle’s book under your arm.
J: The Americano’s bar tender gave it to me. “In order to learn Italian,” he said.
F: Don’t worry man, you won’t need to speak Italian that much and you know your English is better than many Italians do. Soon you will find a place to stay and work, honestly.
J: Yes, I hope so.
Since January 2016, 18.234 refugees arrived in Italy to escape from war. Within next few months 300.000 more are expected to join our Country.