Bilal, a story of modern-day heroism

Every once in a while a book can have a profound impact on the way you see the world.

For me, this has been the case with ‘Bilal. Viaggiare, lavorare, morire da clandestini’ (BUR Rizzoli, 2007) by L’Espresso journalist Fabrizio Gatti, one of the most powerful eye-openers I have read in recent years.

In it, the prizewinning undercover reporter chronicles the long and hazardous journey made by tens of thousands of African migrants each year in search of work and a better life in Europe, and what awaits them in Italy if and when they eventually arrive.

Sadly, we have become all too familiar with the images of boatloads of desperate and exhausted migrants being brought ashore in southern Italian ports.

But how much do we really know about the journey that got them there in the first place? About the perilous crossing of the Sahara in unforgiving temperatures and at the mercy of ruthless people smugglers and unscrupulous soldiers who extract payment at every roadblock, leaving their victims stranded? Or about the conditions in the migrant detention centre on the Sicilian island of Lampedusa, the first – and often the only – port of call in Italy for those who make the sea crossing alive? Or about the slavery-like conditions reserved for migrant farm labourers in the tomato plantations around Foggia in the southern Puglia region?

In his book Gatti sets out to find out, and he does so by pretending to be one of them.

“Only by sharing the same spaces and the same hardship is it possible to break down the barriers of skin and enter into confidence,” Gatti explains to his Nigerian travelling companions as they await departure from Agadez in central Niger for Libya via the Dirkou oasis on the traditional slave route.

His mission involves crossing the impervious Téneré desert region in north eastern Niger by crammed lorry or pick-up truck no less than four times, secretly jumping off cliffs on Lampedusa and then posing as a migrant from Iraqi Kurdistan – the Bilal of the book’s title – when rescued in order to gain access to the local migrant detention centre and spend a week there, and getting himself hired by a caporale, or gang master, to pick tomatoes in Puglia’s lawless ‘triangle of slavery’ between Orta Nova, Stornara and Stornarella.

The result is a page-turner that is a great lesson in both journalism and humanity, as with perspicacity and skill Gatti treads the fine line between personal conviction, objective observation and profound compassion.

The book also has the important merit of blurring the ‘moral’ distinction between so-called economic migrants and refugees. Most of the migrants Gatti encounters and befriends on his journey are travelling in order to secure a better future for themselves and their families – parents, wife, children – back home. They are, in his opinion, undertaking an act of heroism and, given the huge risks they run and hardship they bear along the way, who can say he’s wrong?

The tragedy is that all too many of these modern-day heroes do not make it to journey’s end, and those that do often feel so betrayed by the reception they are given that they end up wanting to go home.