Background

„They, too, are God’s children“

Ribera is one of those small, bleak Sicilian villages that people tend to forget immediatly after passing through. One Syrian family did not even have the chance of forgetting. The main street leads straight through the village, going slightly uphill towards the beautiful and well maintained cemetery. Many flowers adorn the graves and the wall holding the grave niches. Next to the wall, the view opens up to a wide hilly landscape. The marble slab closing up the second grave niche displays an oval-shaped photograph: A boy, large dark eyes, a shy smile on his face, slender shoulders. It reads Muhammed Abdullah and two dates: 3rd of March 2010 and 2nd of April 2014. The boat that brought him and his family sank off the shore of Sicily. The parents were rescued and firmly believed that their son was still alive. Their hopes were set on a month-long complicated rescue operation. They did not give up the faith that he may still be waiting for them in some random place in Italy. They ran a public search also on Italian TV. A man, the doctor who had once performed the postmortem on the dead child, recognized the four-year old boy on the photograph. The last thing his parents could do for their son was to attach this photo and his name to the grave.

„Can you take in refugees?“ Officials in many European communities are confronted with this quest. In Sicily, however, it does not always refer to living migrants. The bodies of drowned refugees are laid to rest all over the country, since some cemeteries on Lampedusa have been crowded.  A shelve in the mortuary of Messina holds 32 coffins. The sign reads “corpses for further transport”. The adjacent shelve holds a small white coffin. The girl was three years old, people say. At the edge of the second largest Italian cemetery, a huge field was laid out solely for refugee graves. The community has prepared itself.

In the cemetery Piano Gatta in Agrigent, 80 refugees are buried in five grave houses. Most of the grave niches read nothing but a number. Some display photographs. A young woman, two pictures of children below, the same last name. Next to the woman’s picture, a red arrow points to the baby she is rocking in her arms. Three small children died together with their mother.

Just recently, two dozen graves for long dead refugees were set up in Syracuse. They belong to those whose corpses were recovered in the bow of a ship that had sunken off the shore of Augusta a year ago, in the summer of 2016. Instead of a name, the tombstone reads the word „Unknown“ and a number. This accounts for two thirds of all refugee graves. Sicili is a village in the South of the country distinguished by deep canyons. The cemetery of Sicili is characterized by a puzzling disorder that comes into existence when the individuality of the dead is sought to be presented by distinguishing  their graves. Approaching the cemetery from the opposite side of the valley, we easily recognize the refugee graves from afar. In contrast to those of the locals, their graves appear identical, set out in a straight line like the war graves of unknown soldiers. In Santa Croce, small sheet metal plates with the little information available about the dead are attached to iron crosses. The plates evoke images of the identification marks soldiers carry along in order to be recognized in case of death.

There are many, way too many. An employee in the cemetery of Catania recounts: „A while ago, we buried them without a coffin wherever there was space available.“ And he adds: „We will never find them again“. Here, too, is a grave field, a large one. Approximately one hundred iron poles with small metal signs affixed to them rise on earth mounds. Many signs read more than just a number.

The oldest refugee grave is on Lampedusa and dates back to the year 2000. Close by, there is a lushly planted area with many graves and wooden crosses whose bountiful colors have peeled off. They were made of the remains of stranded migrant boats.

Forza d`Agro rises high above the sea, close to Taormina. Although visiting for the very first time, many things seem familiar. Here, Francis Ford Coppalla shot some scenes of „The Godfather“.   A dignified grave field was laid out for the dead refugees in the local cemetery. In front of a dazzling white wall, twelve panels made of beautiful old wood were set up, the same flowers yet in different colors adorn each of them. Corleone, too, has refugee graves with an abundance of flowers. After an hour’s car ride, we reach the village San Biagio Platani. We arrive in the midday heat and ask a woman who is just putting up her laundry to dry on her porch, where the cemetery is and where the refugee graves can be found. She does not hesitate a minute to get into her car and lead us the way. In situ, she points out a wall with graves and pictures of young men who had hoped for a better life in Europe. The woman recounts a religious funeral service for the refugees in the local Catholic church, together with Muslim officials.

„They, too, are God’s children“, employees in the cemeteries reiterate as we are talking to them. In the Catholic cemeteries in Siciliy, it does not matter that most of the dead refugees have been Muslims. They are buried side by side with the Italian and Catholic dead. This is a very special kind of religious reconciliation. And an utterly sad fact. In death, the refugees are more easily integrated into European society than they would most probably have been in life.

When the dead from far away are buried in Sicilian soil, many people attend who have never known them in life. In 2004, the small coffin of a four year old Syrian boy was laid out on the place in front of the city hall. His name was Ahmed. There was a big funeral service, the mayor said the eulogy. When we were looking for the boy’s grave in the town’s cemetery, an employee said: „Last week, we had a delivery of children”. She was referring to dead refugee children. When something becomes ordinary, it leads to everyday speech. It is not the woman’s fault.

There is a sign at a grave field in Pretalia Sottano quoting the local mayor: „The blank numbers, which cast over the names that the Sea has swallowed, should not be the source for a fleeting shock, but a plea to human conscience that we may start forming a new humanity.“

A separate cemetery for refugees was established in Castellamare del Golfo. Not a meager grave field for the poor, but numbers of white marble tombstones on a fine green lawn with a memorial plate. This leads us to remark on something which to mention nobody in Sicily would find crucial: At this site in Castellamare del Golfo, commemorating those who fell victims to the failure of world politics, there is no need for security guard service. Never has a single refugee grave been desecrated.

Heidrun Hannusch