On 3rd October
a barge carrying 518 people
arrived in Lampedusa
Having survived a brutal dictatorship
and a journey full of pitfalls
they stood atop their raft in the dead of night
and saw the lights of the promised land
Believing their suffering had reached an end,
they raised a chorus and praised the Virgin Mary.
While waiting for those ships to rescue them,
men and women, children and grownups,
the sick and the healthy began to sing hymns!
ስምኪ ጸዊዐ መዓስ ሓፊረ፣
I wasn’t ashamed when I called out Your name,
ማሪያም ኢለ ኣበይ ወዲቐ:
I called out to Mary and didn’t fall
ስምኪ እዩእ’ሞ ስንቂ ኮይኑኒ:
Your name sustained me throughout my journey
እንሆ ምስጋናይ ተቐበልኒ!
and here is the grateful echo of the song I raise to thank you!
Suddenly the raft
started filling with water;
they began flashing
red lights to sound the alarm;
switched their lanterns on and off!
Alas, all was quiet on the island.
Meanwhile the water rose, stoking fears the ship would sink.
To send a distress call,
they set a sail on fire, and as the
flames began to spread, some frightened people
jumped overboard and tipped the boat.
They were all adrift in the freezing sea!
Amidst that storm, some died right away,
some beat the odds and cheated death,
some who could swim tried to help
some drowned using their last breath
to send messages back to their native land,
some called out their names and countries of origin
before succumbing to their fate!
Among the floating corpses
Mebrahtom raised a desperate cry
Yohanna! Yohanna! Yohanna!
But Yohanna didn’t answer;
all alone, and in
an extreme act of love,
she brought her son into the world,
birthing him into the fish-filled sea:
yet nobody in Lampedusa
heard the seven ululations welcoming his birth!
Because after a superhuman struggle
Yohanna died alongside her son,
who never saw the light of day
and perished without even… drawing his first breath!
A baby died
drowned in the salty sea!
The baby was born and died
with its umbilical cord still unsevered!
A woman died while giving birth!
368 people died! 357 Eritreans died!
On 3rd October
3000 feet from Rabbit Island,
in the heart of the Mediterranean,
a tragedy struck the Eritrean people,
one of many they have endured.
Notes on this poem
Ribka Sibhatu’s poem was based on the real-life events of the night of 3 October 2013, when a boat of migrants from Libya sank off the coast of the Italian island of Lampedusa. The boat had many Eritrean and Ethiopian passengers on board. Ribka met with one of the survivors and wrote this poem in Italian as part of her activism on behalf of refugees from East Africa and elsewhere. In exile from her native country for over thirty years, Ribka has become one of Eritrea’s most prominent voices. The poem was read out on Italian state radio in June 2015.
– André Naffis-Sahely