By: Gaither Stewart
(Reggio, August, 2001)
(The chapter is from the work-in-progress novel ‘Fragments’)
Circling over the Straits of Messina Airport in Reggio-Calabria, I feel my vision encompasses the entire world of antiquity. Any atlas in fact confirms the geographical unity of the world on the shores of the Mediterranean Sea. Entering the Mediterranean world from the West through the narrow Straits of Gibraltar is to step back in time. Though I’ve come to love especially the arch of the northern coastline reaching from Gibraltar to Naples—the Latin Mediterranean—I feel the whole sea is my sea, lined by an extraordinary diversity of ancient peoples and cultures, from Spain and Morocco to Tunisia and Italy, to Greece, Syria, Lebanon and Palestine, interlinked by a common heritage and erratic histories. The Great Sea today remains one of the important maritime routes in the world, comprising three continents and three monotheistic religions. Though disputed among its peoples, its climate and magic have attracted to its shores countless non-Mediterranean peoples—both conquerors and colonizers in search of a new way of life. For my receptive eyes indeed a soothing vision, albeit, I recognize, also an historical optical illusion. Though against the backdrop of puritanical skies the ancient world appears in memory as a world far superior to what I see under the sinking plane’s wobbling wings, I fear my conclusion is wishful thinking, and that old times were not at all good times. Yet since the scope of my vision makes me tiny in the immensity, I want to bow in reverence to the ubiquitous dark blue-green seas omnipresent in the minds of each member of the human landscape taking form below … reminding me of our song’s words, my blue-green colors flashing.
Not only the Bel Paese—as Italians call this beautiful peninsula jutting out into the sea toward nearby Tunisia—attracted me to these ancient lands. I hoped to grasp the whole Great Sea around which Western civilization developed; I set for myself the goal of knowing all the lands surrounding it. I felt the same allure felt by the succession of peoples and civilizations that have fought to control these lands. Many seemed to succeed but in reality they themselves were absorbed by the lands they conquered, so that the question remains: Who conquered whom? History shows that the Mediterranean world absorbs new peoples and cultures more quickly than does Teutonic north Europe. In my experience I have found that persons who grow up in Rome consider it their home for the rest of their lives.
From above, Reggio appears only a stone’s throw distance from Messina across the three-kilometer wide straits separating the Continent from Sicily. As the plane banks, my view reaches from the Aspromonte mountains—just that name provokes in me a certain panic—to the toe of the peninsula now fading away at my back. My eyes wander from the lonely Eolian islands north of the Sicilian mainland to Mount Etna in southern Sicily, slashes of red lava dribbling down its flanks. I am at the geographical center of the Mare Nostrum of the Romans, descending toward a city I try to imagine as it once was: the Greek Rhèghion, one of the biggest cities of Greek colonists. Founded in the eighth century b.c. the Greek city is one of Europe’s oldest cities. Mind-boggling that Reggio-Rhèghion was already old at the beginning of the second millennium, mysterious, dark and somber, alive and unchanging, unlike today’s Reggio, dangerous and lacking in hope. Reggio is a letdown in comparison to Rhèghion and its port welcoming biremes and triremes and long-range Pentercosters carrying merchandise and immigrants sailing from Greece across the Ionian Sea to Magna Graecia and the great city where Greek colonists disembarked in the America of their era. Today’s Reggio is indelibly marked by nostalgia for its lost magnificence and by the sadness lingering in its collective memory, a city that harbors dark secrets, on the one hand a part of modern Italy, but on the other constituting a parallel world hidden away even from most of its bewildered inhabitants who continue imagining they are living normal lives in the most abnormal of worlds. Though still spilling along the sea, contemporary Reggio is the center of a metropolitan area of one million people governed by organized crime, corrupt administrators and burgeoning fascism … its festering rottenness visible to the naked eye.
I rent a car at the airport and drive downtown. My contact in Reggio is the owner-manager of a local alternative TV news station. Gino Rocca is an investigative reporter and critic of the operations of both the organized crime of the ‘ndranghetaand a budding neo-fascist movement, which together control the region’s police and Carabinieri forces.
Contrary to expectations there is little traffic on the roads of the periphery; even less in town. Open-bed trucks of sand and rocks, here and there dusty old buses, older model cars, a disproportionate number of big new cars, chiefly black Suvs, and polished black or blue Mercedes and Audis, the autos preferred by Mafiosi.
In a narrow side street I find his tiny studio—airless, crowded with cameras, microphones, laptops, and dusty stacks of newspapers including mine. His two female assistants chat me up and offer coffee.
Gino Rocca is tall and skinny, with a curled mustache and long dirty blond hair. He speaks in the agitated way of a person for whom everything is of maximum importance and which he tries to say all at once while his hands constantly fidget with something. His friend at my newspaper told me he was both a genius and totally uncunning.
“You ask where our police stand today,” he begins at once. “The standing order is shoot first and ask questions later. Fascists shoot Mafiosi busily shooting each other for control … both shoot nosey outsiders.”
“Who gives such orders?”
“Orders are unnecessary. That’s the way our society is. You know, at times I think that the potential lack of blood and death makes us despair. As if we weren’t really alive without shooting and destruction … and the smell of blood.”
“Yet you survive.”
“Oh yes, we survive … as we have for thousands of years. Yes, we survive. The Premier himself—like all the premiers before him—promised order and security in the Mezzogiorno. Now, the Fascists in the city and a secret army in the mountains are vying for the right to execute his orders … and to kill him too. Create order! And killing enemies to do it. Killing refugees and killing Italy. Tonight I’ll take you out. There’s no moon. No hard winds, the sea calm. Though clandestine immigrants land here in lesser numbers than in Sicily, the beaches will be swarming with speedboats and police tonight. You’ll see. Our gallant forces will line the coastline to protect the homeland from the invader.”
“And the secret army?” Again that word sends chill bumps down my spine. Well, as I said, each man to his own fears. Oh, fuck!
“You’ll see them too,” Gino adds enigmatically.
At midnight we drive to a village along the coast east of the city. He parks off the road, facing an open beach. A man sits in silence in the back seat, an Arabic-speaking interpreter. The radio is tuned to Gino’s private frequency. A clear but moonless night, the coastline is lit up like a circus—spotlights from hovering helicopters sweeping back and forth over the area and headlights of stationary jeeps and trucks pointed toward the sea. Armed police troops in pairs patrol the beaches. Sparks from beach fires here and there dance in the breeze blowing in from the seas. Launches speed across the waters a few hundred meters from the shore in the direction of Messina across the strait. Not even a mafia launch could penetrate thecordon sanitaire. Certainly no refugee could swim onto that point on the coast. A TV cameraman nearby is filming the whole scene which Gino says is staged for the TV reporters. Gino doesn’t touch his camera.
Near us, five persons are sitting immobile and mute in an unmarked Suv, their blackened faces nearly invisible in the night. The vehicle is black, the license plate illegible. When I photograph it some of the black faces turn toward my flash.
“Who are those guys?” I ask in a loud voice, hoping they hear me.
“The secret army,” Gino answers softly. “I’ve seen them on the beaches the last two weeks. A private para-military police. I’ll show you where they train another time.”
“What’s going on here? Who do they think they are? Gladio?”
Gino looks at me and grins. He is fiddling with the radio, uninterested in the scene we are witnessing. His radio sputters. He turns up the volume. A woman’s voice crackles: “Gino, you were right. They’re farther east, near Stracia. A few of those soldiers too. Hurry!”
“The show here is for foreigners, visiting journalists and the Premier’s TV. To reassure Europe that we’re cutting the flow of the refugee hordes arriving from the lands to the south and east. To show the alertness of our security forces against the nocturnal invasions of dangerous aspirant immigrants … most of whom, they say, are criminals, maybe armed, and infested by terrorists in their ranks. I wanted you to see it. The real action is elsewhere.”
He does the some twenty kilometers to Stracia on a narrow winding road in eighteen minutes, talking all the time. “The Mediterranean is a graveyard. A slaughterhouse of dark-skinned people. Divers say you see on the sea bottom here everything from the remains of hands and feet, legs and heads to ancient Greek statues, vases and pots mixed among car parts, gas stoves, even couches and stuffed chairs. Everything. From the moment they leave North Africa or Albania, our military radar monitors every boat of the traffickers in human beings. If the traffickers don’t throw the refugees overboard first, someone blasts away at them. Half of them never make it to land. Recovered bodies just get a number and the name ‘Unknown’. There’s a police section down here that deals in body parts that are filed away according to type.”
We stop on a sandy stretch of seashore. Two army jeeps are parked near the lapping smelly water. Farther back from the waterline, apart from the rest, two black Suvs. The bay itself seems innocent in the clear night but Gino says it’s “as polluted as a sewage dump”. At the waterline soldiers stand in a circle near a group of some thirty people. Many children. All poorly dressed and wringing wet. Many crying as if aware of the danger of this haven in the night. Like the soldiers, they seem to be waiting for something to happen or for someone to save them. Some of the soldiers are gentle and tactful, as if the tears of the others called forth unexpected instincts of tenderness in the warlike nature of white men when freed from the constraints of civility.
Gino speaks to the soldiers and points at me. One of them nods.
I spot a woman dressed in black with three small children pressed close to her. The children are crying. Gino unfolds a blanket and offers it to the woman who wraps it around the two smallest children. The tiny interpreter asks her to tell us about her trip. She nods and leads the children a few steps away from the others.
“Why is everyone crying?” I ask, and turn on my tape recorder. Gino aims his camera at us.
“The boat traveling with our friends … they sank it,” she tells the interpreter.
“Far out in the water. They’re all dead. They want to kill us all.”
“Sank?” I ask. “How?”
“They shot it,” the interpreter translated her words into Italian. “A big explosion. Everybody fell into the water. It was dark.”
“So how did you and the children get here?”
“Men in uniforms brought us on a ship. They think we will all die.”
“Why is that?” I ask, looking around the beach area. Some soldiers give them food and water. No wonder the armed men don’t relish their work: the atmosphere is macabre … the search lights and the noise of running motors creating a calamitous reverberation as in the silence following the explosion of a bomb. Italians are not yet real racists like you see in America even though they regard these foreigners as aliens from another planet.
The woman looks at the interpreter as if afraid to answer. “Because they don’t know what to do with us.”
I look at Gino. He is filming everything. “This is going out live,” he whispers. We both know the woman and children will be sent back to where they came from.
She is from Chad. Her husband had left two years earlier. He is in Germany and sent her money. She paid five thousand marks for transportation from Chad to Libya to Germany. In Chad they had nothing. No possessions, no house, no schools, no medicines, no life. Her little girl has had a bad cough for over a year. They lived in a hut and existed on food from relatives.