Waiting for Louise

Marc Samie, a 21-year-old migrant from Togo, tells his dramatic personal story in an interview for AP Television with Trisha Thomas and cameraman Gino Maceli in the fishing village of Marzamemi, Sicily. November 11, 2016

Marc Samie, a 21-year-old migrant from Togo, tells his dramatic personal story in an interview for AP Television with Trisha Thomas and cameraman Gino Maceli in the fishing village of Marzamemi, Sicily. November 11, 2016

Dear Blog Readers,

Just a quick note to share with all of you a story I have been working on for AP that came out earlier this week. It is about the terrible problem that Italy is facing in its efforts to catch human traffickers. The story focuses on a young man named Marc Samie who I interviewed in Pachino, Sicily. His dramatic personal story hit me like a punch in the stomach because he is the same age as my son. Here is the link to the AP story with the photos. I am also copying it below. 

I am grateful to Judge Gigi Modica in Palermo and Prosecutor Andrea Bonomo in Catania who opened up to me, talking about Italy’s struggle to do the right thing and get the real bad guys — the traffickers on the Libyan side– while also having to deal with the daily flow of migrants into Sicily. The police in Ragusa were also extremely helpful providing video of Marc’s arrival and arrest as well as that of the 15-year-old Gambian boy.

It does not get much attention in the press any more, but the boats are still departing from Libya on a daily basis overloaded with migrants. Just yesterday, for example, the Italian Coast Guard said 791 migrants were rescued on six rubber dinghies and one small wooden boat.  According to the UN High Commission for Refugees as of December 11th 175,244 migrants have arrived in Italy by sea (compared to a total of 153,842 in 2015) . 4,742 migrants have died or gone missing in the attempt to reach Europe by sea this year.

And Blog Readers — if anyone hears any news of a 19-year-old woman named Louise Kewevi who fled Togo last January with her fiance’ Marc, let me know.

PACHINO, Sicily (AP) — All migrant Marc Samie has of his fiancee is a picture in his mind. Louise, seven and a half months pregnant, is standing silently on a beach in Libya, tears rolling down her face as traffickers force him at gunpoint into a rubber dinghy with a compass.

The armed men had ordered Samie to hold the compass and a satellite phone for navigation on the journey to Italy. He refused. So they fired a Kalashnikov at the ground between his legs, and told him to take the compass or they would kill the couple. They said she would be on the next boat.

That was last July, and he hasn’t laid eyes on her since. But instead of being treated as a victim in Italy, Samie was arrested by police and charged with facilitating illegal immigration.

Samie, a 21-year-old from Togo, is one of hundreds of migrants who are caught up in the Italian legal system as police, prosecutors and judges struggle to combat human trafficking. They are the victims of a new tactic where professional smugglers avoid being caught by forcing migrants, many of them minors, to take the helm of the boats.

Almost every day, Italian officials detain men accused of driving the boats, but don’t know if they are traffickers or migrants. While overall numbers are not available, 179 smugglers — 26 of them minors — were detained this year at the port of Pozzallo alone, where Samie came in. That compares to 147 last year.

In another port, Augusta, more than 190 smugglers have been arrested so far this year, according to police. And in Catania district, trafficking arrests have risen dramatically from 13 in 2013 to 79 as of August.

Police are well aware that they aren’t reaching the criminals who are behind the trafficking and reaping the profits. To date, Italian police haven’t obtained the arrest of a migrant trafficker in Libya, said Andrea Bonomo, deputy prosecutor for Catania.

“(We are) making the arrests at what I would define as the lowest level, the so-called smugglers, the ones who drive the boats and who are often migrants,” he said. “They risk their lives together with the others.”

There are no numbers on convictions. But smugglers can get five to 15 years in prison, Bonomo added.

In early November, police stood in the port of Augusta watching hundreds of migrants disembark from a navy rescue ship. Interpreters interviewed them to try to figure out who was driving the boats and holding the compasses.

Trafficking organizations in Libya now make cheap dinghies that can only last for eight to nine hours in the water before they sink, Marshal Tonio Panzanaro said. The traffickers then take what he calls “last-minute” smugglers, migrants who are sometimes given a free ride, and make them drive the boat. Behind it all is a “huge movement of money,” he noted, with professional traffickers earning 100,000 euros ($105,000) from a dinghy that costs just 2,000 ($2,100).

“Our problem is that we know how they are operating in Libya, but since there is no government we can’t take the final step, that of arresting the organizers,” he said.

Not all boat drivers and navigators are treated as smugglers. On Sept. 7, Gigi Modica, a judge in Palermo threw out the case against two accused smugglers, a Somali and a Gambian. The men were driving and holding the compass on a rubber dinghy with 118 migrants on board. A dozen passengers died, and the men were accused of multiple manslaughter.

Modica concluded that the two presumed smugglers were actually migrants forced by armed Libyans to drive the boat. Neither seemed to have any experience, they spoke different languages and they couldn’t communicate with one another. In his statement, he wrote that they had been threatened with death, and he ordered them to be freed immediately.

Modica said Libyan traffickers are choosing sub-Saharan Africans to drive the boats and take the compasses. He said defendants had told of friends being killed by traffickers because they refused to lead the boats.

He added that it is clear when those directing the boat aren’t the real smugglers.

“They are weak. They are fragile. They are scared. They can only talk with lots of difficulty,” he said. “It’s evident that they aren’t part of the problem. They are a victim of the problem.”

In the small Sicilian town of Pachino, eight young African men live in a home run by an organization called Open Europe. Like Samie, many of them were accused of either driving the boat or holding the compass. Several received expulsion orders.

The organization allowed The Associated Press to talk to a Gambian who says he is 15 years old, on condition that his name not be used because he is a minor.

He was on the beach in Libya waiting to climb into a dinghy when armed men told him he had to hold the compass. He replied that he didn’t even know how to use a compass. They threatened to kill him, and beat him with a pipe. He slides up the sleeve of his green sweat suit to reveal a 6-centimeter (2-inch) scar.

Migrant boy shows a scar on his wrist where he was beaten with a pipe by traffickers who said he had to be the "compass man" on a packed rubber dinghy headed for Italy. Photo by Salvatore Cavalli for Associated Press, Pachino, Sicily November 11, 2016

Migrant boy shows a scar on his wrist where he was beaten with a pipe by traffickers who said he had to be the “compass man” on a packed rubber dinghy headed for Italy. Photo by Salvatore Cavalli for Associated Press, Pachino, Sicily November 11, 2016

“I got inside the boat before they killed me and my mother wouldn’t see me again,” he said.

When he arrived in Italy, he was arrested and held for 15 days before receiving an expulsion order, which he is appealing.

Samie also spent 15 days in jail before he was asked to sign an expulsion order. He then headed back to the port in search of news of Louise, but there was nothing.

He is now appealing his expulsion order. In the meantime, he has sent off various emails to organizations, looking for Louise. He has no idea if she is alive or gave birth to their baby.

“The last time I saw her, she cried,” he said. “I just said to her, we’ll meet here … I will wait for her.”

Marc Samie looks out at the see in the fishing port of Marzamemi, Sicily. Photo by Salvatore Cavalli for the Associated Press. November 11, 2016

Marc Samie looks out at the see in the fishing port of Marzamemi, Sicily. Photo by Salvatore Cavalli for the Associated Press. November 11, 2016

Trisha Thomas
Trisha is a TV journalist working for AP TV News in Rome. She is married to an Italian and is a Mamma of three.

6 Comments

  1. Alan
    2016/12/14

    . . any one with an open mind can pinpoint the root cause of the problem. That so many in Europe are blind to the causes, the perpetrators and the victims is an indictment of our so-called enlightened democracies. A plague on all their houses!

    Reply
    • Trisha Thomas
      Trisha Thomas
      2016/12/15

      As you say, with an open mind one can pinpoint the root cause….but what can we do about it now. Some days it all seems so overwhelming.

      Reply
  2. Nancy Rockwell
    2016/12/14

    Such a stunning piece of writing, and a story to shatter your heart. I find myself wanting to turn the page and read more about what becomes of Samie, and also the many whose stories I don’t know.
    I also am stunned by the numbers, over 175,000. What country can absorb so many with so much need with ease. I dislike the rise of right wing politics everywhere, but have some sympathy for the problem of where to put so many people, whose homeland has only harm to offer them. And what do good governments do when there is no Libyan government to work with on this?
    And everyday the news from Syria worsens. I want someone to airlift all the people in Aleppo out of there. But to where? They face rejection and insults everywhere, and death in the place that is supposed to be their home.
    Keep writing to us, and to the world, about all this, Trisha.

    Reply
    • Trisha Thomas
      Trisha Thomas
      2016/12/15

      Thanks Nancy — it does shatter one’s heart and we all get so overwhelmed by all the bad news coming at us. A Catholic group based in Rome called Sant’Egidio has organized airlifts of Syrians. They have been coming for about a year now from Beirut to Rome. The group then helps them find housing and I believe all of them are granted asylum in Italy. But there are so many more left behind. Also, no one seems to be paying any attention to the sub-saharan Africans now who continue to flow into Italy.

      Reply
  3. Joan Schmelzle
    2016/12/15

    Trisha,
    Truly another terribly sad story. I know I have read at least most of it before but don’t remember where. I will say it does not hurt us to read these stories more than once to remind us to pray for refugees and hope for better lives for them. Thanks for making us aware once again. I expect I could have missed your byline on the story since it is so much the same. If I did I’m sorry. Take care.
    A presto, Joan

    Reply
    • Trisha Thomas
      Trisha Thomas
      2016/12/15

      Thank you Joan. I hope that what you read before was my story. Newspapers that take AP stories are not obliged to put in our byline so it might have been mine. But there are a lot of similarly tragic stories out there. I know “The Guardian” did a story on migrants being forced to drive the boats too.

      Reply

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