‘Signora, your ID please.’ I hand my passport to the policeman.
‘Can I ask why?’ I say, politely.
‘We like to monitor the people who come to this street,’ he replies, noting down my name.
‘What happened to the refugees who slept here?’ I ask.
‘I don’t know. I’m just here to watch the street.’
My passport retrieved, I walk away from the Baobab Centre where volunteers once fed and clothed migrants from the Horn of Africa. Since the police eviction in September new arrivals are left to sleep on the street, or not at all. Along the ancient Via Tiburtina I stop to talk to a young group gathered around a cluster of trees.
Bereket, a tall young man with a gentle face, asks me: ‘What do they think of Eritrea in Europe? Do they know?’
I pause to think. Do we know boys and girls are forced into the military and cannot leave? Do we know that in Eritrea people ‘disappear’? Do we know about mass surveillance and a network of spies so wide some people are afraid to talk with their neighbours? Do we know that innocent people languish in prison with no justice system to help? ‘No’, I say, ‘I guess they don’t really.’
‘On the boat to Italy my life was a question mark’, says Bereket, smiling shyly. The decision to cross the Mediterranean is hard for us Europeans to fathom. Debesay, an animated 26 year-old, tries to explain: ‘When you arrive in Libya you have the fire in front of you and the fire behind you’. We know what happens in the Med, but little of the other great sea these young men have had to cross – the Sahara.
Debesay points to his side: ‘What are these called? Kidneys?’ I nod, confused. ‘When I fled to Sudan I was afraid they would take mine’. He looks me in the eye and tells me how people get lost and starve to death in the desert. Others simply fall off crowded smuggler trucks and are left for dead. ‘Everyone in my car survived’, continues Debesay, ‘But 55 Somalis in our convoy died. We Eritreans are careful with the food we bring, but the Somalis just take mangoes!’
In Libya, where Debesay says ‘Human death means nothing’, newcomers risk imprisonment, beatings and torture at the hands of their smugglers. The sea crossing is a continuation of an epic journey, not the start.
As we talk an elderly Roma woman is begging at the entrance of the church across the street. I watch as she beckons to one of the boys and passes him a loaf of bread. ‘This is what it’s come to’, says an Italian volunteer in disbelief. A homeless man tells me he shared out his blankets last night, as ‘They have nothing.’
Debesay starts to sing a soulful Eritrean ballad. The others smile and join in, and one guy keeps the beat, using two empty Peroni bottles as percussion. The tallest of the group steps forward and, pausing to pull up his hood, cuts through the soul with some harsh Tigrinian rap. We dance and clap, but then a van pulls up:
‘You can’t stay here’, the policeman says.
‘Where can they stay?’ I ask.