No help arrived and 369 Eritreans drowned, among them a woman with three children, fiancés, couples and a pregnant woman who gave birth at sea while dying. Yesterday Pope Franciscus invited some of the survivors who are living scattered in Europe and beyond to the Vatican to commemorate the day, the European Union released a statement but the Eritrean government refuses to utter a word about the tragedy let alone observe this day. Despite earlier promises by the then Eritrean Ambassador to Italy that the bodies would be transported to Eritrea, the bodies are buried in Italy and families are still waiting in vain at home.

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Survivors of last year’s shipwreck meet with Pope Francis to commemorate the incident. Photo: EPA

According to the UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Eritrea, Mrs. Sheila Keetharuth (Mauritius) around 4000 Eritreans flee their country every month to escape persistent human rights violations like indefinite national service, arbitrary arrest and even summary executions. Some say that this number is too exaggerated and prefer to use the conservative number of 2000 – 3000 Eritreans every month. The total population of Eritrea is estimated around 5,5 million, of whom more than quarter are already outside the country. Since Eritreans are not allowed to leave their country legally, most of them cross the border with Sudan by hiring smugglers who work with corrupt Eritrean and Sudanese officials.

After entering Sudan they work, collect money with the help of relatives and friends to pay human smugglers who often turned out to be human traffickers who abduct the refugees for more ransom.

These people who are involved in these criminal activities are mostly Arabs from the Rashaida and Bedouin tribes who roam freely in Sudan, Ethiopian and Eritrean borders and in the Egyptian Sinai dessert, where most of the Eritrean, Sudanese and Ethiopian refugees are kept in degrading conditions, where they are tortured, raped and killed. The majority of the refugees are however Eritreans.

While being tortured the victims are forced to call relatives often in Europe and the United Stated. The families listen to the agony and screaming of their loved ones and are forced to pay huge amounts of money that at times reach US$40.000 per person. The criminals use the hawala, an informal banking system to receive their money through their wide network of collaborators. The promised destination of Israel ends up in torture, despair and death in the Sinai dessert. The lackey ones reach Israel but after they endured hardships that continue to haunt them for the rest of their life. In Israel alone there are around 35,000 Eritrean refugees and, like the other African refugees, Israel treats them as unwelcome ‘infiltrators’. Israel has closed the border with the Sinai and every refugee gets either deported or arrested. Those who already have entered the country get regularly harassed by extremists who want to keep Israel “pure Jew”.

Eritreans protesting outside the Eritrean embassy in Ramat Gan, Israel, May 25, 2012. Photo: Moti Milrod
Eritreans protesting outside the Eritrean embassy in Ramat Gan, Israel, May 25, 2012. Photo: Moti Milrod

These developments have forced the refugees and human traffickers to change route. The last two years human traffickers use overloaded trucks and Toyota pickups to transport thousands of refugees from Sudan to Libya. I have spoken with a number of refugees who saw how other refugees fell down from the overcrowded trucks in the dessert between Libya and the Sudan. The human traffickers don’t stop. One refugee put it sarcastically, “they want to be in time for the next prayer; while they leave a human being at the mercy of the dessert and wild animals”, and continues with his rhetorical question, “who is wild animal?”.

Those who are fortunate to reach war-torn Libya are forced to stay in overcrowded and filthy container-houses where they are again forced to pay more money to other human traffickers for the hazardous boat journey to one of the Italian islands, usually Lampedusa due to its proximity to Libya, en route to northern Europe.

It was in one of these “journeys of death” that 518 people, around 500 of them Eritreans, boarded one of these ‘death vessels.’ Less than a quarter mile from Lampedusa one of the human traffickers set a blanket in fire to solicit the help of nearby Italian ships; this fire grew worse when it ignited some gasoline and this signalled the end of 369 precious lives, all of them Eritreans.

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President of the European Commission José Manuel Barroso and Council President Enrico Letta, look on at coffins of 300 shipwrecked Eritrean migrants. Photo: Ouest-France/AFP

This tragedy shocked the entire world. The then President of the European Union, José Manuel Barroso, together with Italian leaders visited the scene and laid a wreath and Pope Francis did the same who also invited the survivors yesterday to the Vatican. Neither the President of the African Union (AU) nor any other African leader, including the Eritrean President Isaias Afewerki, did visit the scene nor the survivors of the tragedy, who lost siblings, children, espouse and parents. Around this time I was in New York attending a meeting of the AU. I appealed to the meeting to observe a minute silence in remembrance of those who perished and I also urged to the AU-Ambassador to the United Nations to ask AU leaders to visit the scene. The meeting started with a minute silence but no AU-leader to this date has visited Lampedusa. However, to the credit of the AU, the organisation designated 3 November 2013 as a remembrance day for the victims and called on all African countries to hang the flag half-mast. This happened in all countries except in Eritrea.

The Eritrean President and his cabinet have uttered no word since the day this tragedy took place. They just ignore it because the Eritrean president perceives those who flee the country as traitors who don’t deserve the sympathy of Eritrea. Mothers of those who perished, some of whom I know personally, are allowed to mourn inside their houses but not collectively. The then Eritrean Ambassador to Italy, Mr. Zemede Tekle, promised that the Eritrean Government would transport the bodies to Eritrea. A year has passed by, the families are waiting and the bodies are still lying in “temporary” tombs. The families have nowhere to go than suffer in silence. Eritrea has no functioning parliament, no free media and no constitution. The whims of the President are the law of the land. Last August Eritrean officials, including the aforementioned Ambassador gave a huge party in Bologna, not far from Lampedusa.

People's Front for Democracy and Justice party leaders in Bologna, Italy. Not Far from Lampeduna.
People’s Front for Democracy and Justice party leaders in Bologna, Italy. Not Far from Lampedusa.

In April 2011 around 400 Eritreans capsized near Libya. The Eritrean President said nothing. Last year when various vessels started to sink in the Mediterranean Sea, the Eritrean state television reported that “illegal African Immigrants” have died near Lampedusa. Eritreans inside and outside the country were furious. Eritreans outside the country are coming together to commemorate the day but the Eritrean President clogs himself and his cabinet in bewildering silence that is perceived by many as arrogance of power and disregard to the suffering of the Eritrean people.

Lampedusa was not the first and, alas, it shan’t be the last.