Can Europe Make It?: News

CommemorActions: Remembering those lost at Europe's borders

Families of the disappeared and dead come together with activist supporters to protest abandonment and organised border violence

Maurice Stierl
9 March 2021, 1.19pm
A CommemorAction in Berlin, Germany, in February 2021
Nora Boerding

At the start of February, protests took place in Saida in Morocco, Brussels in Belgium, Dakar in Senegal, Sokodé in Togo, and many other places in Africa and Europe, to commemorate an atrocity that had occurred seven years earlier.

On 6 February 2014, the Spanish Guardia Civil police force fired rubber bullets on people who were trying to swim around a border fence that separates Morocco from the Spanish city of Ceuta. Dozens drowned at sea and corpses were found on both the Moroccan and the Spanish side of the border. Other bodies disappeared and were never found.

Every year since, relatives of the disappeared and dead, together with activist supporters, organise CommemorActions – commemorations of the dead and missing fused with protest, outrage, and direct actions against forms of border violence that kill and disappear.

Then, on 9 February this year, CommemorActions once again took place at various locations in Africa and Europe. This time they were protesting the disappearance of 91 individuals exactly a year beforehand.

In 2020, the 91 had attempted to escape from Libya on a rubber boat and had reached out to the AlarmPhone activist hotline that assists people in distress in the Mediterranean Sea. Although the activists alerted authorities to the migrant boat, and provided them with its exact location, no rescue searches were sent out. The 91 have been missing since.

Ten months after the incident the EU border agency Frontex sent AlarmPhone an image of a deflated black rubber boat near the location the activists had provided. No human remains were visible in the image – it remains unclear whether this was indeed the boat that carried the 91 migrant travellers.

This year’s CommemorActions, which took place in quick succession, highlight different kinds of border violence in the Mediterranean context. The case along the Moroccan-Spanish border exemplifies acts of direct border violence that kill people on the move, while the case off Libya’s coast exemplifies acts of abandonment and letting people drown. Although different, these are connected strategies and enforcement methods along contemporary borders. Like the academic and prison abolitionist, Ruth Wilson Gilmore, we refer to them as “organized abandonment alongside organized violence”.

Necropolitical borders

What leads to the suffocation of Black and brown people in the Mediterranean are both rubber bullets shot at those trying to circumvent a border fence and the decisions of European authorities to non-assist and let people drown. Necropolitical borders work through direct and indirect forms of violence and through the selective presence and absence of authorities.

The disappearance of bodies, according to Suvendrini Perera, the John Curtin Distinguished Professor and Research Professor in Cultural Studies at Curtin University, has both a secret and public function. “They are unnamed, undifferentiated, hidden from sight, but also signs of sovereign power over life, markers of warning and spectacles of ‘deterrence.’”

The disastrous effects of acts of border violence and abandonment have led to the loss of tens of thousands of lives over recent years. The drowning process is cruel. When someone drowns, liquid enters their airways and stops them from breathing air. The human body suffocates due to hypoxia, the deprivation of oxygen, and shuts down. Dead bodies float for about one or two hours before they sink. They may surface again, days later, but very few bodies are ever found washed-up along African or European coasts – the majority vanish.

Ritualised goodbyes

The disappearance of loved ones haunts relatives and friends. As the philosopher Gaston Bachelard once wrote, “death associated with water is more dream-like than death associated with earth: the pain of water is infinite.”

Disappearances mean a particular kind of pain for relatives, friends, and often entire communities. When a body is absent, and hope of return and reunification can persist, common rituals associated with mourning the dead cannot begin.

A CommemorAction in Palermo, Italy

For the psychotherapist Barbara Preitler, standard descriptions of grieving processes are based on the presupposition “that the reality of death can be verified and […] constitutes an irrefutable fact.” Due to the hope “that the disappeared might return”, relatives of the missing do not have “opportunities for ritualised goodbyes”. In her book, 'Grief and Disappearance', Preitler writes about a “state of freezing” in which relatives of the disappeared find themselves: “The pain caused by the immeasurable loss cannot be expressed since this would mean to concede death. It would imply that all hope of the beloved ‘disappeared’ still being alive has been given up.”

In the absence of ritualised goodbyes, the psychotherapist points to the invention of new rituals. The Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo in Argentina, for example, found collective coping mechanisms. Preitler writes: “They rallied, hoping to find their beloved ‘disappeared’ alive, but at the same time their efforts were part of the process of overcoming their fear of being confronted with the terrible truth of their offspring’s death. The joint struggle and resulting social support makes it possible to then also move on with life.”

CommemorActions have come about to do precisely that, to invent a form, a practice, and a language of collective mourning despite the absence of a body and certainty about someone’s death. For families of the disappeared in the Mediterranean Sea and along other borders, CommemorActions may be a way to leave a state of freezing, invent a language of mourning, and create rites that signify the transition from the time shared with loved ones to the time without them. Whether, however, these processes will indeed allow them, one day, to ‘move on with life’, is less than clear.

Political efficacy

As invented rituals, CommemorActions respond to European border violence and what the British artist John Akomfrah has described as a “political project of annihilation” that disappears and erases lives. Paraphrasing Akomfrah, one could conceive of CommemorActions in this way – as a practice and language of mourning and protest that resist the project of annihilation by remembering the missing and by contesting the forces that made them disappear: “Something has gone, and I want to have now a language of mourning and elegy, which is not just a poetic language but has a certain political efficacy. Which is to say to power: you thought they disappeared, well think again, because they are back.”

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