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My thoughts go to the young men and women in Libya. Interview with Dagmawi Yimer

by Giulio Cederna


Since his arrival in Italy almost ten years ago, Dagmawi Yimer has never stopped remembering the victims of the desert, of the sea and of migration policies that consider people as mere numbers. He has done so in his own original way, becoming a professional filmmaker and producing documentaries which have been well received both in Italy and abroad. He spoke out against the trade-off agreement between the Italian government and Gheddafi (Come un uomo sulla terra, 2009) and about the lack of adequate migration policies (C.A.R.A. Italia, 2010). He has paid homage to Lampedusa (Soltanto il mare, 2012), the island where he arrived in 2006, and to the 368 victims of the October 3rd shipwreck (Asmat-nomi, 2015). After the last apocalyptical tragedy at sea, together with Andrea Segre he has entrusted his thoughts to an open letter demanding that Europe make all the efforts to create accessible, legal and safe escape and immigration routes”.
“When it was time to speak out loud and to take action, everyone was silent and still – he comments harshly over the phone. When it was time to be silent, they all spoke out of place”. Dagmawi’s anger has long been focused on the inactivity of the African Union and of African governments, most of which have shirked their responsibilities, and in some cases have been a party to or responsible for the tragedies on one hand, and on the serious and repeated errors made by Italy and Europe in Libya in the past few years. “When the conditions were right, they were not capable of creating a dialogue, of proposing alternatives, of finding reasonable and civilized ways to assist people trapped in a country that was torn apart by war; now that everything has collapsed and it’s impossible to find intermediaries to guarantee a safe passage, they recur to desperate and counter-productive moves”. Such as the proposal, suggested by Italian and European representatives, to bomb the boats, a magic wand solution which according to some will solve all problems, but according to others is a difficult and probably unfeasible strategy, as well as dangerous and irresponsible. “Those who propose this, do not know what they are talking about or  pretend not to know. In Libya, right now, there are dozens of thousands of migrants who are caught up in a civil war. The sea is their only hope, the only possible escape route. In Tripoli and other cities, we know for a fact that many young people are hiding in houses, unable even to go out and buy food, terrified of being caught by the fundamentalists”.
The video of the barbaric execution of about thirty young men by so-called ISIS terrorists is still in Dagamwi’s eyes: “Two of those kids were from my neighbourhood, Kirkos, the place in Addis Ababa where I grew up. Their parents recognized them on TV. Their names were Balcha and Iyasu, they were inseparable, they left together and died together, one was shot and the other beheaded. A group of fanatics captured them in Ajdabia. In Addis Ababa, thousands have gone to Kirkos to pay their respects to the victims’ families. The protest march against the killing of the 28 youths turned into a widespread protest against the Ethiopian government, which reacted by clubbing and arresting the demonstrators. Many other young men and women risk the same fate, but the Italian and African governments do not seem to be interested”.
About the April 20th tragedy, Yimer has not much to add to what he has said a thousand times in the past. “I personally feel very sad and powerless. Those who had the luck to survive that trip, as I had, are destined to re-live those feelings over and over again, dying a bit each time. The only thing that helps me, is to believe in what little I can do”.
In his latest documentary, Asmat, shot in Lampedusa on the day the victims of the October 3rd shipwreck were commemorated, Yimer completely ignored the rules of commercial TV production and refused to adapt his storytelling to any format. The result is a not easily classifiable film, intentionally provocative and unsettling, a digital non-religious litany. “The Lampedusa disaster presented us with a new element: for the first time it was possible to identify almost all of the victims. This had never happened before. In Asmat, I decided to force the viewers to listen to each and every one of those names. I didn’t want to create a comforting commercial ad, to be viewed between one film and the next. I wanted to challenge the audience’s attention and patience, to turn the numbers of the tragedy into names and people. It took 10 minutes to read the names of the victims of Lampedusa out loud, how long would it take to read the names of the 900 victims of the last tragedy? But this time, nobody will be able to tell us who they were”.
As an acknowledgement of Dagmawi Yimer’s activity, the University of San Diego has awarded him with the James K. Binder lectureship in Literature, an honour so far conferred to such important European intellectuals as Gianni Celati and Tzvetan Todorov. “On May 6th, I will present a story I wrote for the occasion. It is called Names and Bodies, tales from the other sides of the sea. I have tried to evoke three episodes of my experience in Libya: my imprisonment, the meeting with the traffickers and the last day before boarding the ship; I avoided telling of the boat trip itself, out of respect for those who never made it across the sea, with all their suffering”.
A story unfortunately bound to remain very topical, who knows for how long.


(translated by Sara Triulzi)