Italy plans a cemetery for refugees drowned at sea

A field beside a former fascist concentration camp could soon become the final resting place for hundreds of refugees.

Statue in Tarsia town dedicated to persecuted people - Please do not use
Statue in Tarsia dedicated to persecuted people [Rosie Scammell/Al Jazeera]

Tarsia, Italy – Few refugees imagine ending up in a field in the toe of Italy’s boot. But this rural slope between Tarsia, a hilltop town in the Calabria region, and the remains of the country’s largest fascist concentration camp, may soon become the final resting place for those who lose their lives en route to Italian shores. 

“Dedicating a part of our territory to the burial of these victims is simply an act of great humanity,” says the town’s mayor, Roberto Amerusa, who is spearheading a campaign to build the first cemetery for victims of the Mediterranean refugee crisis. 

Amerusa governs a community of just 2,000 people in Tarsia – a “land of peace and solidarity”, according to a sign at the top of the windy road into town.

While rural Calabria may appear an unusual location for such a project, the mayor insists such a gesture is in the “cultural DNA” of a town living with the legacy of the Ferramonti concentration camp.

Refugees from another time

Established by fascist leader Benito Mussolini in 1940, the camp housed more than 3,000 people, mostly foreign Jews who the Italians interned there with the intention of later moving them to Nazi Germany.

The transfer never happened, and Ferramonti was liberated by British forces in 1943.

Among those freed were survivors from a shipwreck. Around 500 Jews had been picked up by an Italian warship in 1940 after their boat, the SS Pentcho, was shipwrecked in the Aegean Sea. They had attempted a dramatic escape down the Danube River from Bratislava. 

“The story of these people that were saved from the water, moreover in the Aegean Sea, today the theatre of this migratory wave … makes this history ever more current,” says Amerusa. 

Model of Ferramonti concentration camp [Rosie Scammell/Al Jazeera]
Model of Ferramonti concentration camp [Rosie Scammell/Al Jazeera]

‘Dignity at least in death’

A total of 8,632 people have died or gone missing trying to reach Europe by sea since the start of 2014, according to UN figures. While many of the bodies are never recovered, those brought ashore have in the past been buried in various cemeteries in southern Italy. 

It was one particular shipwreck – when 360 people drowned on October 3, 2013 – that prompted a Calabrian activist to call for a rethink of the somewhat haphazard burial practice. 

“Seeing those coffins and those people without a name, because they were buried and almost all continue to be buried with a number, is inhuman,” says Franco Corbelli, who approached various town halls before his idea was accepted in Tarsia. 

“We must give [them] dignity at least in death … Each one has a relative; each one has a mother, a brother, a sister. If one day they want to go and bring a flower or say a prayer, where will they go?” he asks. 

A refugee cemetery

Putting the plans for a refugee graveyard into motion has fallen to Francesco Sansone, Tarsia’s technical officer, who has spent more than 30 years working at the town hall. Surrounded by project diagrams and maps, he outlines the cemetery design, which includes a memorial and a chapel. 

“You need to take account of the religions, because they’re very important,” Sansone says, explaining the different burial options, including space for funeral urns. “No one knows which religion these poor people are from. It’s thought the majority would be Muslim, but not only … also Christians, so we’ve prepared for a bit of everything.”

The one-hectare Tarsia site also fills a local need, as there is no space left in the town’s nearby graveyard. Sansone’s plans, therefore, include a large section dedicated to Italians, separated from the refugee cemetery by Purgatory Street.

Amerusa says citizens were initially sceptical about the idea, but have come round to it.

The mayor is also aware a refugee cemetery could have financial benefits for his town, likely drawing visitors and creating jobs, although he says such an evaluation was not a motivation.

A signal of unity

On the streets of Tarsia, one local describes the project as “a beautiful thing, to do this for the migrants”. Joining the debate outside a cafe, where most conversation is conducted in thick Calabrian dialect, another man says the cemetery is “the right thing to do”.

But elsewhere one business owner says he doubts the government will pay for the project, reflecting on the high costs of sea rescue operations which he has heard about on TV. 

A detailed outline of figures puts the projected costs at 4.3 million euros ($4.8m), with Tarsia seeking co-financing from the Calabria region and Italy’s interior ministry. Neither office was immediately available to discuss the plans, which were submitted earlier this year, leaving Sansone awaiting a response on works which he says can begin as soon as funds are allocated. 

Current Tarsia cemetery - as seen from the proposed site for the new cemetery [Rosie Scammell/Al Jazeera] 
Current Tarsia cemetery – as seen from the proposed site for the new cemetery [Rosie Scammell/Al Jazeera] 

“Unfortunately, [it’s] the bureaucracy in Italy. It doesn’t depend on us sometimes but we are, in this way, accomplices but also victims,” he muses. 

There are hopes in Tarsia that the cemetery could host many of the victims of the worst shipwreck in recent decades. On April 18, 2015, at least 800 people were killed when their boat capsized.

The few bodies that were recovered at the time were buried in Sicilian graves, while an Italian exercise is currently under way to raise the wreck, within which are the remains of hundreds more victims. 

But the head of Italy’s missing persons commission, Prefect Vittorio Piscitelli, who is involved in the operation, says under current plans the remaining April 18 victims will be buried in cemeteries across Sicily. 

Reflecting on the Tarsia plans, Piscitelli is positive about the concept but says it seems officials running the region of Calabria have not been very active in pursuing the project. 

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“It could be good to give the image of our country as a welcoming country and the gate to Europe. A signal that migrants are welcome,” he says, likening the cemetery to those for fallen US and UK soldiers in Italy. 

Piscitelli has also heard suggestions that a refugee graveyard be built on land seized from the Calabrian mafia – the vastly wealthy Ndrangheta, which wields huge power over the impoverished region. But such an idea has not made it to the planning stages and so the Tarsia site, which would take up to a year to build, seems the most likely option.

Carlotta Sami, a Rome-based spokeswoman for the UN’s refugee agency, UNHCR, says dedicating a place to shipwreck victims is good, although another priority in dealing with the dead must also be addressed.

“The important thing is that real support is put in place for the identification of victims and the possibility to put in place contact with relatives,” she says. “This should be the priority. Then if there is the possibility to remember and give a place for these people to be buried that is positive and commendable.” 

Sign in Tarsia that reads: 'A land of peace and solidarity'  [Rosie Scammell/Al Jazeera] 
Sign in Tarsia that reads: ‘A land of peace and solidarity’  [Rosie Scammell/Al Jazeera] 

One of the few victims to have been identified is Alan Kurdi, a three-year-old Syrian boy whose body on a Turkish beach prompted a massive outpouring of sympathy for refugees fleeing to Europe. 

Amerusa says the Tarsia project will be named after the Syrian toddler, with hopes that the new cemetery will serve as both a memorial to the victims and a political message in Europe. 

“Through this cemetery we want to give an important signal to civil society. A signal of unity, a signal of humanity, a signal of civility,” says the mayor. “Today there is perhaps the need for great courage, which those who represent states must have. To not think of the next elections, but the next generations.”

Source: Al Jazeera