At 2:30 a.m., as the town sleeps so deeply that not even the bell tower’s toll disturbs them, a group of sleepwalkers leaves the church. They walk wrapped in layers of colorful, absurd clothes. One wears a moccasin on his right foot and a boot in his left. His friend has his shoes wrapped in plastic bags. They walk onto the church yard, among the SUVs of British and French tourists. A group of “bénévoles” follow them — the volunteers without borders who for months have been finding migrants ready to climb mountains after surviving sea wrecks.
The last link in the chain of solidarity has broken in Claviere, a small, tolerant town just 100 meters from the French border. Now, they’re making demands.
On Friday night, volunteers and migrants squatted here in this granite church and heard the news that a woman had died in a Turin hospital after giving birth in France and being sent back to Italy like a parcel by the gendarmerie.
Beauty S. had arrived from Nigeria with her husband, a baby in her womb and a lymphoma in her chest. In early February, the gendarmes caught them aboard a bus in Nevache, well beyond the border. The man, without a residency permit, was sent back, together with his family. They took them to Bardonecchia railway station, where Rainbow for Africa volunteers look after them. Beauty was sick and checked into Turin hospital, where doctors kept her alive so she could give birth. She hung in about a month, until her two-pound (.9 kg) baby was born. His name is Israel.
“Without Beauty, my life is over,” said her husband.
This is the world’s breaking point. It’s the moral failure that may finally shine the light on truth. Whatever life escapes from here must start from solidarity — two countries that fully agree on the principle that migrants’ misfortunes do not end at the edge of the sea.
The only thing to do is let the tragedy erupt, blasting open the door of the Claviere church’s basement, letting in the dozens of migrants who arrive every day. Walk beyond the ice sheet, take a left after the flight of stairs, and you’ll arrive in one of history’s slums — asking neither pity nor compassion. Migrants lie down just long enough to rest and get out of hypothermia, drinking the tea a couple brought from the valley because they couldn’t think of anything better to do on a Friday night than drive up here with their car chock-full of thermoses.
“Am I afraid of some snow and ice in the night?” Mohamed, 20, asks smiling. “I fell into the Mediterranean Sea — and I can’t swim. I learned. And now I’m here. I’ll get to Paris.”
The priest aren’t speaking up. The bishop of Turin keeps quiet. Saturday night, around 60 migrants were under the central nave of the church where the priest usually says Mass. Susa’s Waldensian pastor Davide Rostan does talk: “We don’t want to substitute the state. We did all kinds of solidarity to prevent people from dying. This happens because borders are closed — not because it’s cold and there’s snow. Borders need to be crossable. They squatted in the church because it was necessary, because we need to finally face the absurdity of these closed borders.”
Philippe, a Frenchman from Briançon, arrived on Saturday in his rickety old Renault overflowing with mattresses. Sure, solidarity. Sure, aid. But most of all, a caution: “Don’t come to our house in France, because we’re 60 there and there’s only really room for 15. Don’t leave, stay here.”
But the migrants don’t stop. The “strada del davai” had to be this way: snow, -20 degrees, frozen feet. And on you go.
Strange characters arise from the shadows. There are secret meetings about secret passages, unrealistic offers: “I’ll take you there, it would only be €100 each, I know the way.” Migrants are castaways in a sea of sharks who demand money for everything. When the first ones arrived in these mountains, groups of volunteers had to rescue men, women and children from the claws of an army of smugglers: then the white hair of the NoTav movement came in.
Today, anything banned inevitably happens in the Susa Valley. When migrants were few, they were escorted into barns, in towns in the valley floor. They could remain hidden for weeks: scenes that old people remember well. Then fathers, mothers and kids would be loaded into a trunk and taken into France. Old couples dressed up as though they were out to celebrate: men with lodens, women with red gloves and golden pins. They would get to the checkpoint in Monginevro, and the gendarmes would salute the respectable old couple in a respectable car. A few miles after the checkpoint, migrants would jump out of the trunk, and everyone would hug.
But then pressure became overwhelming, border checkpoints tightened and old couples’ trips too frequent. Dozens started to roam among skiers, with snowboards and pints of beer, on the tracks that end up in France.
Saturday, at 4 a.m., as the thermometer falls to -8, a mother, a father with a months-old kid tied to his back with a brown blanket, and another child of about 3 years old decide to set off for Briançon. It’s a 20 kilometer journey with two border checkpoints: a five-hour trek, if nothing happens.
The situation is unsustainable; solidarity matures and becomes open confrontation with the Italian and the French state. Some are thinking of a rally toward the frontier in the next few days. The French are planning action in Briançon. Meanwhile, the four start their journey in the cold and the darkness, without fear, convinced beyond imagination, even annoyed by the bénévoles’ behavior who try to tell them in any possible way that it’s never too late to postpone a contest against death.
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