One man's freedom is another man's headache. A boat carrying migrants landing at Lampedusa, 21 February 2011

Lampedusa, an outpost in the storm

Since the middle of February, the Italian island of Lampedusa has welcomed several thousand migrants who have made the crossing from Tunisia. Battling with bad weather and without political support, local people have made the best of limited resources in their attempt to deal with the situation. La Stampa reports from an island on a war footing.

Published on 24 February 2011 at 16:21
One man's freedom is another man's headache. A boat carrying migrants landing at Lampedusa, 21 February 2011

It sounds over the top to say so, but in almost every detail, it is as though we were preparing for war. For Italy – which has already waged one – it is a sort of second Libyan war. Cocking a snook at history, the C-130s are plying two evacuation routes: one to take the Tunisians from Lampedusa, and the other to repatriate the Italians from Tripoli.

It seems that this small corner of the Mediterranean has become a transport hub for everyone embarked on a fateful journey with no prospect of return. Warships are chugging towards the Strait of Sicily to join the small fleet that has already gathered there. And all the airbases are on high alert. Preparations are underway.

If the sea calms down and Gaddafi throws in the towel...

In the meantime, we are scanning the horizon, waiting for the enemy. But the enemy could hardly be this armada of old tubs loaded with illegal aliens: there is something strange about this war. On the night of 22 February, 250 more refugees emerged from a sea tossed by a force five wind to land on Lampedusa: setting out from the Tunisian town of Sfax, they had covered 60 nautical miles, about half the distance between their point of departure and the Sicilian coast.

The night before, in spite of the storm and the fleet on red alert, several boat people succeeded in landing: they dried their clothes, put back on their shoes and headed to the nearest bar to get something hot to eat. The reception centre for illegals – which has only just been emptied – has once again exceeded its quota of 1,000 residents, although numbers have yet to reach last week’s level of 2,500.

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The illegals come and go en masse, and it is clear that the situation is not sustainable. "Especially if the sea calms down," mutters centre director Cono Callipò, "because if the sea calms down and Gaddafi throws in the towel, what we are seeing right now will be nothing compared to what is going to happen."

Locals scan the horizon hoping for bad weather

That said, a lot has already happened on Lampedusa. The bars, supermarkets in the central area around main street are thronged with Tunisians, as are the call shops where they charge their mobile phones. The policy of not locking up the migrants, which has been successfully applied over the last seven days, is beginning to exasperate the islanders. In many bars, coffee is now being served in cardboard cups "because," as we were told in the Friendship Bar run by old Don Pino, "customers from here are refusing to drink from cups that they have used."

Children hardly come out to play anymore: all the island’s doors are double locked, and little girls are systematically escorted by an adult, even if they are only walking 100 yards up the street. Residents’ patience has reached an all-time low, and news of more frightening figures keeps coming in from Rome and from Brussels. Tens of thousands, 100,000 or maybe 300,000: the numbers vary but even the most optimistic predictions still amount to a disaster scenario. Dino De Rubeis, Lampedusa’s enormous mayor remarks: "Now you see the situation we are in, and we are not demonstrating. We have been putting them up wherever we can, we have spend entire nights on the pier, we have given them cigarettes... But Lampedusa cannot manage alone, we need help."

Dino De Rubeis scowls at agency reports full of good news he does not want to hear: the UN High Commissioner for Refugees has requested that "migrants should not be prevented from landing," the EU has asked Italy to drop the idea of dispatching the North Africans to sites dispersed around the continent, the Italian government, which does not know where it stands, is planning to set up enormous tent villages in Sicily. In the meantime, locals scan the horizon hoping for bad weather.

Fantastic stories and anecdotes are being told

Yesterday, their prayers for rough seas and winds gusting at 40 knots were answered. The D-Day atmosphere was heightened by weather conditions more typical of the Normandy coast than Lampedusa, with a gusting north-easterly, icy rain and bonenumbing chill in the air. Good news for the war, but a torment for the island: for the last two days the supply boat which has been unable to put to sea has remained stuck in Porto Empedocle.

Air transport has also been disrupted: yesterday, the bad weather resulted in the cancellation of two flights provided to transfer a group of migrants. This is how things stand at Italy’s and Europe’s outpost in the run-up to the imminent North African invasion. Fantastic stories and anecdotes are being told in the bars and cheap restaurants where the people have taken shelter from the wind and rain.

Many of them are inspired by what happened in the 1980s, when Gaddafi fired two Scud missiles at the LORAN [Long Range Navigation System] transmission station on Lampedusa, which missed their target by several kilometres. And the bizarre incidents of the current war have been included in the narrative of a more enduring conflict between the fishermen of Mazara del Vallo and the Tunisian and Libyan coastguard. Only a year ago, the Moonlight, a trawler which rescued 40 North Africans on the night of 22 February was boarded and taken captive by Gaddafi’s torpedo boats... In short, there is nothing new about this war.

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