Photo used with permission of authorIt wasn’t supposed to end this way. There were hopes and dreams and plans for a better life… and it came to this, five flimsy, body-sized cardboard boxes held together by sellotape, sitting on a sloping path in the partial shade of a line of Tuscan cypresses. Each box, surrounded by the contrastingly imposing mausoleums of local Sicilian families, is simply graced with a sparse handful of flowers scattered by kind local residents. At the first sight of these crude coffins, my eyes start to well up, then my wife and I stand silently among a solemn gathering of perhaps 50 or 60 townspeople, four or five carabinieri, the mayor and a priest, who slowly puts on his white surplus and collar, ready to officiate.
It is a sunny Saturday morning in the cemetery of the hilltop town of Polizzi Generosa, in the mountains of northern Sicily, where I live for much of the year – and the boxes contain the cadavers of five unknown refugees, whose bodies were plucked from the seas around Sicily by Italian coastguards. So many drowned, so many bodies in the last few months, that the state appealed to local municipalities to help bury them in a civilised manner – and my small town, 25 miles from the sea that ended their lives, has taken five. The sole inscriptions on the boxes, their only epitaph, is a printed label which reads ‘For the commune of Polizzi Generosa’.
The priest begins the short funeral service with the shocking admission that we know nothing at all about these people – their nationalities, their names, their ages, not even their genders… they are truly the ‘unknown’, more unknown even than the famous soldier who symbolises all the lost and forgotten of two world wars. Perhaps, in its way, this is a new world war. And then there is probably the most awful ‘unknown’ of all, the eternal unknowingness of their distant families and relatives, for ever ignorant of their deaths or how they died or where they are buried.
The priest, almost keeping a grip on his own emotions, and in a slightly tremulous voice, offers them the solemn Catholic funeral rites, despite the fact that they were almost certainly of the Islamic faith, from Syria or Iraq or Libya or Sudan or… who knows where? But in respect for their probable beliefs, he includes a short passage from the Koran… and tears begin to moisten the eyes of many among this kindly gathering of humanity surrounding these humble coffins.
Perhaps, I think to myself, this very same ritual is going on right now, in other cemeteries, in other Sicilian towns and villages, beneficent local people laying to rest the unknown victims of a refugee tragedy that has engulfed the Middle East and North Africa. It seems ironic that these desperate seekers of a better life in Germany or Holland or the UK, should be finally interred on a sunny hillside in an obscure town in Sicily, their hopes and dreams obliterated by the cruel Mediterranean. They weren’t destined for here, this is a poor land, one of the poorest parts of Europe… and yet still immeasurably more affluent and peaceful than the countries where they spent most of their lives.
Finally, a well-known, elderly folk singer steps up, and accompanied by a guitarist, his baritone voice ringing through the tombs and mausoleums, sings a corruscatingly doleful lament about the dangers that fishermen face in their fragile boats out on the sea – and the many who have died beneath the waves. By now tears really are falling, as the singer skilfully elides the lives and deaths of his own countrymen with the fates of these anonymous bodies in front of us.
The service ends, people stand around not knowing what to do or say… my wife and I steal quietly away with a handful of others. These poor, wretched, unknown people will soon be buried in an anonymous tomb, with no dates or personal dedications or family names to mark their passing. Certainly, the religious among this small cortege will have the consolation of believing that they are now in their Catholic or Islamic heaven. But as these two unbelievers walk away, moved and chastened, we can at least be proud of our little town, and of the small, humane effort they made to give these unknown foreigners a respectful place of rest.