Lessons from Lampedusa

This article was published in the Sunday Herald last October following the the drownings of around 300 Eritrean migrants when their boat capsized 100 metres off the shore of Lampedusa.

Lampedusa is on our minds again.

For a while that symbolic island had faded, after the trauma of early 2011, in the wake of the Arab Spring, when the welcome centre failed to cope and thousands of Tunisians huddled on the rocky bluffs above the town. By late March that year they outnumbered the local population. Rome could have sent boats to take them to the mainland or Sicily. But for two months nothing happened. International media swarmed to the refugee camp on Europe’s doorstep. Silvio Berlusconi descended to announce the rescue operation. Afterwards, Lampedusa’s then-mayor, Bernardino De Rubeis, told me it was a deliberate strategy proposed to him by the ex-prime minister: “Deliberately, a tragic moment was created so that Europe would wake up to the problem. I am convinced of this and I take responsibility for it.”

As mayor, the bear-like, bearded De Rubeis was even then under investigation on bribery and corruption charges. In the intervening period his star has fallen. In May 2012, his term as local leader ended. In July, he was sentenced by a court in Sicily to five years and three months in prison.

The mayor has changed and Lampedusa – indeed the story of migration into Europe – has now found another tragic moment. No-one would argue this one was “created” like the 2011 crisis. But since more than 300 Eritreans drowned when their boat caught fire and sank within sight of shore in the early hours of October 2, the island of hope/horror has been back on Europe’s conscience. The call from Rome is exactly the same as it was two years ago: “This is a European problem. Italy can’t be left to cope on its own.”

So why are we back at this Groundhog Day moment? Was the 2011 strategy a failure? Did Italy not get help from Europe after it incubated a crisis?

The answer is: yes it did. Italy has been given extra funds in recognition of the fact that it shoulders more of the burden for migrants and refugees’ first arrival. Just six days after the October 3 tragedy, the EU sanctioned an emergency payment of €30 million.

Dare we ask whether this EU policy of throwing money at its southerly member states – not only Italy – is working? We must, says Georges Alexandre, a French-Canadian activist who has devoted the past three years of his life to an extraordinary voyage aimed at highlighting the plight of the migrants. I first met Alexandre on Lampedusa in May 2011. He had gone there in November 2010 to circumnavigate the island by kayak in what he termed “a gesture of solidarity”.

The 45-year-old former office worker then decided to embark from Tunisia on a 3500-kilometre Kayak for the Right to Life ending at the European Parliament in Brussels. More than two years on, he is still going. From Sfax in Tunisia he has kayaked via the migration hotspots of Lampedusa, Malta and the southern coast of Sicily, up the Italian boot to the Cote d’Azur. I spoke to him as he laid up in his tent at Marseille on Friday. His funds are running out, he is plagued by logistical problems, but in the next week he will take his five-metre boat up the mouth of the Rhone, hoping to reach Brussels via rivers and canals by Christmas.

He will arrive with a petition calling for the creation of an entirely new EU body, an organisation for the Management of Immigration and Asylum Claims. This would place in joint hands the responsibility both for ensuring safety of migrants at sea, and administering asylum claims. Of those two areas, currently only the first is being tackled jointly, in the form of a new satellite surveillance system, Eurosur. Alexandre echoes the view expressed by other campaigners: it is both unworkable and hypocritical to separate the safety of so-called irregular migrants at sea from their subsequent reception on land. A fully joined-up body is the only realistic solution, he claims, in order to prevent the lapses and alleged abuse of migrant rights which currently take place under systems operated by each member state.

He has gathered support. In Rome last September he obtained an unlikely ally in the form of Italian senator, Giacomo Santini, from Berlusconi’s Forza Italia party. His petition’s 600 signatures are hardly overwhelming, but Alexandre is convinced popular pressure will force Europe’s politicians to act: “It’s the people who are not prepared to let these tragedies continue,” he told me. “The politicians just look out for themselves. It’s the people who are going to force them to act.”

* Following an injury sustained when his kayak capsized, and a lack of winter equipment, Georges Alexandre had to halt his voyage in December. He will resume later this spring and aims to take the petition to Brussels by the summer.


My wife and our colicky three week-old baby are in bed beside me. The baby’s crying but I’ve got headphones in and I’m watching one of the great gorefests of European horror cinema, Dario Argento’s Suspiria. A woman is being stabbed by a masked killer, and bright red soupy blood is pouring down the screen of my laptop. My wife looks at me accusingly and shakes her head. All I can hear is the frantic dun-dun-dun of the soundtrack by Argento’s prog rock band, The Goblins.
I actually don’t make a habit of watching this kind of film. That I’m watching Suspiria now may seem perverse but is actually only a result of my above-average suggestibility (I saw a Mark Gatiss documentary about eurohorror on TV yesterday). To be honest I don’t enjoy the genre at all. Every twenty minutes I have to look up wikipedia to find out the next plot development so I can continue watching with a steady enough heart to observe the opulence of Argento’s visuals, rather than just cacking myself because I don’t know if someone’s about to get butchered.
For the record the film is about a new American student’s arrival at a sinister German ballet school, run by two women with the physique of nineteen eighties shotputters. The story is entirely ludicrous but I think this is the whole point. Argento wants his audience to realise that the characters are no more than puppets at the service of the cinematic gods: the god of lighting, of set design, sound effects, etc… and behind them all, the god of the bottom line. ‘This is what you want’, he’s saying. ‘This is what you’ll pay to see…’
In other words – Suspiria is a classic example of why horror can be a genuinely subversive genre. Still doesn’t make it fun to watch though.

My take on a Russian classic

Leafing through last week’s Radio TImes I came across a column by an English archbishop recommending five things people should do at Easter. One was read a book; another was watch the humdrum BBC nature show, Countryfile; yet another was (original this) eat chocolate eggs. I can’t remember the rest, but I went for the first one, and to go one better, I decided to review the book as well.
Actually, even before spotting the archbishop’s wise words, I was already well into reading, for the second time, Mikhail Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita. This tale of mischief wreaked by the arrival of Satan and his entourage in thirties Stalinist Moscow is appropriately Easter-themed. It contains a novel within a novel – a reimagining of the crucifixion and its aftermath, with Jesus metamorphosed into ‘Yeshua Ha Notsri’, but secondary to Pontius Pilate, the antihero of an account ostensibly written by the novel’s eponymous ‘master’ – a version of Bulgakov himself.
Echoing Bulgakov’s frequent rejection during his lifetime by censors and critics (The Master and Margarita was only published in 1966, 26 years after his death) the master’s portrayal of Pilate is ridiculed by a fictional Moscow literary establishment. There’s no disguising the relish with which Bulgakov portrays this bureaurcratic cultural elite being tormented by Luciferian antics. Only the master’s lover, Margarita (said to be based on Bulgakov’s second wife, Yelena) has faith in his work; and she is rewarded with gentle treatment from Satan (referred to as Woland) and his retinue, Koroviev, Azazello, Hella the Witch, and a large black talking cat, Behemoth. With the help of an ointment smeared on her body, Margarita is turned into a flying witch and made Queen of the Satanic Ball, an event attended by murderers and schemers from throughout the ages.
Far from being a night of hedonistic fun – as Mick Jagger ‘s self-stated inspiration from the novel for the song Sympathy for the Devil might suggest – for Margarita the ball is a gruelling test. Satan demands that she meet and greet each one of his murderous guests, hiding her exhaustion as the night unfolds under a mask of unfailing charm and gaiety. At the ball’s climax she witnesses the sacrifice of one of the most odious of all Moscow’s empty cultural vessels. This character’s blood is collected in a skull by Woland, who “strode over to Margarita, offered her the goblet, and said in a commanding voice:


Reading this, I couldn’t help wonder how Jagger got his ‘sympathy’ for Bulgakov’s Satan/Woland figure. Certainly, it’s not hard to see the novel’s attraction to the sixties counterculture, with Woland and his assistants taking on bourgeois conservative society with a combination of showmanship and libertinism. As Will Self points out in his introduction to the Vintage edition translated by Michael Glenny, “there’s a lot of nudity in The Master and Margarita and, , nudity just is sexy”. But – and it’s a big but – what are the implications of these sexy events being set in motion by a Satan whose mischief is underpinned by an iron-fisted, terror-inspiring authority?
Surely it’s impossible to consider Woland outside the context of the figure who, at the time the novel was written, dominated Russia with just such a combination of charm, charisma, and arbitrary cruelty.In making the case for Woland as Stalin, it’s worth noting Bulgakov understood better than anyone that the dictator had not just the power, but the inclination to make or break an artist’s career at a stroke. From the mid-twenties onward, when he learned Stalin had enjoyed his play, Life of the Turbins, about two brothers in the Tsarist White Guard, Bulgakov’s career was inextricably bound up with the Premier’s approval. After his satirical novel, Heart of a Dog, fell foul of the censors, Bulgakov wrote to Stalin personally, pleading to be allowed to leave Russia if his work wasn’t allowed an audience. In the followng year, 1930, Stalin telephoned Bulgakov to ask him if he intended to make good on this threat. The author held his nerve and astutely replied that no Russian writer would ever happily leave his homeland. Impressed, Stalin, then ensured he continued working in the Moscow theatre.
The letter and phonecall episode showed two things: firstly that Bulgakov was not afraid of Stalin – he would be open with the strongman in much the same way as both the master and Margarita are unflinching in their encounters with the supernatural Woland – unlike most of the novel’s characters who shrink away in terror from him. Second, the incident proves Bulgakov expected Stalin to be interested in the literature he was producing, to consider its content on its own merits and then make a decision personally, not trusting to the party censorship bodies.
That in mind, as he worked through the thirties on what he knew would be his defining novel, Bulgakov would have known publication could only come with Stalin’s approval. He would also have known that to write the great novel of his time that he wanted to, he had to comment truthfully on the pivotal figure of those times. How to do both must have seemed an impossible conundrum. But, in a stroke of extraordinary audacity, conflating Stalin into the figure of Satan would mean he could do that. As the leader’s rapid banning of a hagiographic play about his early life written to order by Bulgakov showed – any attempt to portray him realistically was doomed. The only way to flatter Stalin was to cast him in grander terms than even his supremely powerful reality allowed. Woland could be Stalin as Stalin himself wanted to be: not a country boy made good on talents of brute strength and limitless cunning – but a louche, suave, and above all, immortal fallen angel. Fallen in the service of the people of course – and no doubt Uncle Joe would have understand Woland’s desire to purge Moscow of its corrupt obsessions with money and hollow status. So if there was to be sympathy for the Devil from any one reader of The Master and Margarita, you might expect it to have come not from a young Mick Jagger, but an ageing Joe Stalin.
When Bulgakov died of nephrosclerosis in March 1940, he would have had no way of knowing the novel he’d spent the last decade working on would ever find its way into the world. In the story, the eventual physical death of the master and Margarita and their spiritual passage into the afterlife is facilitated by Satan. Bulgakov died believing the preservation of his work into posterity would depend, more than anything, on Stalin giving it the nod. The fact that in the end it wasn’t published until thirteen years after Stalin snuffed it – the manuscript having been lovingly preserved by Yelena – is the perfect ironic ending. Thanks to the model for the fictional Margarita, there was no need of a compromising stamp of acceptance from one of history’s most diabolical figures, as the fate of Bulgakov’s novelist within a novel prefigured there would be. So instead of compromise, The Master and Margarita‘s other great theme – courage in the face of tyranny, ended up being the spur for its preservation.

Champions League: Why Milan Barca will mirror Silvio’s last stand

ImageFrom Nyon, where Thursday’s Champions League Draw was made, you could almost hear the groans across the Alps in Milan. When the rossoneri were unscrewed from their starry little last 16 ball, it was to hand them football’s closest thing to Jim Bowen’s BFH . Yes Milan could come through a two legged tie with Barcelona, but there’s about as much reason for thinking so as there is for thinking Silvio Berlusconi will be returned as Prime Minister of Italy in the election on February 24.

Barca’s representative at the draw, Armador Bernabeu, was impeccably polite when asked about his team’s prospects against the Milanese. The reality is that defeat for the Catalans would be unthinkable. Milan scraped past Zenit St Petersburg and Anderlecht in a group coasted by Malaga. They are a shadow of the side of previous years and it’s nigh impossible to make a coherent case for them beating the best team in the world over two legs.

All of which leads to the reflection that never have the fortunes of the Milan club and their president mirrored each other as closely as they do now.

By curious coincidence, the Italian general election will be sandwiched between the two legs of the last sixteen knock out ties. And just like Milan, the man Italians call Il Cavaliere is in the fight, but has the odds stacked against him. His Liberty People party are currently lying at around 15 per cent in the polls. If he manages to turn that round in two months, forget Jerzy Dudek and Istanbul – this will be the greatest big game comeback of all time.

It was only two weeks ago that Berlusconi declared he would even stand at all. In the phrase used by Italians ‘ė disceso in campo’; literally, ‘he has come onto the field’. To seasoned Berlusconi-watchers, this came as no surprise. Never mind the fact that on October 26 a court in Milan sentenced him to four years in prison for tax fraud, a sentence he is now contesting; or that separate charges related to his relationship with a minor, Ruby ‘Rubacuori’, are ongoing.

In the past week, Italians have been treated to a Silvio comeback spectacular reminiscent of Sly Stallone in Rocky VI. The crowning moment was an interview last Sunday on Berlusconi’s own Channel Five TV station. His message – that he had been forced to return to save Italy from right wing fiscal austerity, and left wing fiscal irresponsibility – was overshadowed by a gaffe: as the programme cut to an advert break, viewers heard him address the presenter – an ex-glamour model – with what he though was an off-air comment: ‘ask me this’.

The gaffe – proof, as if it were needed, of the channel’s conflict of interest – was what the non-Berlusconi media picked up on. Predictably, he then accused them, as he had the judges who condemned him, of being institutionally biased. He has since gone on to lash out at the man who took over as Prime Minister when he was ousted in November 2011, Mario Monti. Hardly a Messi or an Iniesta, academic economist Monti has been every inch the technocrat Italy expected. The man they call il professore has been a political exponent of catenaccio, tying up public purse strings like old school Italian defenders did opposition flair players.

Monti has attracted Berlusconi’s ire as expectations grow that rather than stepping aside, he will announce his candidacy to stand on a centre right platform in February’s election. Having earned the trust of Italy and Europe’s business elite – including, coincidentally, Fiat and Juventus owners the Elkann family, Monti – if he stands – shows every sign of humiliating Il Cavaliere at the polls on February 24.

By that time Barcelona will have already returned from San Siro, and Milan will be preparing for the trip to Camp Nou. If Berlusconi has made it back to be Italy’s Prime Minister, then there’s no reasons why his team can’t overcome all the odds and dump out the tournament favourites in their own back yard.  

Why MiFID II should be this winter’s big action blockbuster

‘Banker bashing’. That term seems passé these days. And so it should be. We should have refined our sensibilities to the financial system enough to know that ‘banker’ is a less-than-helpful term. ‘Market abuser bashing’, now that would be better.
But not as catchy. In fact that’s the trouble with campaigns to rein in the kind of casino trading where taxpayers ends up footing the bill. Too catchy and they risk sounding too leftist-populist and hence easy to dismiss (see the Robin Hood tax); too dry and nobody remembers them (see Robin Hood being AKA the Financial Transactions Tax).
Well done then to the World Development Movement, whose campaign to end ‘betting on food’ – or regulate trading on commodity derivatives – is specific and technical, but delivers the stark message that the poorest die because the richest gamble on the prices of food.
WDM, and plenty of others, say traders, especially investment banks, do this by causing sudden spikes in the price of basic foods like maize and wheat. In developing countries, where up to 90 per cent of income is spent on such foods, if they double in price – as happened in a matter of months to wheat and maize in 2008 – that can mean the difference between two meals a day and one; or nourishment and starvation.
WDM is calling for public pressure on George Osborne to ensure commodities trading cannot continue in its present form. Osborne will soon join the 26 other EU finance ministers to debate proposals drawn up by the European Commission. The regulation package known as MiFID II, though it sounds like a sci-fi action sequel is actually the Markets in Financial Instruments Directive II. It’s Europe’s great white hope for regulating banking, equivalent to 2010’s Dodd-Frank Act in the USA.
MiFID II contains many proposals, but those WDM is calling on Osborne to support as a moral imperative relate to curbing the electronic Wild West that is modern commodity derivatives trading.
The European Commissioners have proposed two ways to do this: firstly by imposing position limits, meaning traders will be limited in how many derivatives of a single commodity they can possess; secondly by forcing them to reveal more information, such as announcing deals before they go through. Crucial to implementing both rules is the abolition of most over-the-counter or ‘dark’ trading, forcing not just commodity derivatives but many other types of deal onto organised trading facilities, where transparency can be guaranteed and limits enforced.
So will Osborne sign up to commodity derivative regulation when the EU finance ministers meet in November? Not a chance, the smart money says.
He’ll even have an excuse ready when voices like WDM’s accuse him of putting City profits ahead of developing world lives.
It’s a question of evidence, he’ll say. The link between commodities speculation and unpredictable price spikes is, to borrow Scots criminal law’s most controversial verdict, not proven.
He’ll have precedent on his side. It was long assumed that supply and demand was the first driver of commodity derivative prices. Logic said the derivatives market in futures and options followed shifts in supply and demand, not the other way round.
Making the case for regulation means showing that natural relationship has been turned on its head: that now the derivatives market leads where it used to follow, causing far greater spikes in actual commodity price than supply and demand fluctuations alone ever could.
Technical. Very technical. And therein lies the trouble. In the mysterious world of economics, pinning one effect down to one cause is well-nigh impossible. There’s always another fly in the ointment.
When MiFID II was proposed in 2011 by the European Commission, the UK government sent it to the House of Lords for scrutiny. The Lords’ EU committee considered it, calling on a series of expert witnesses to do so. While most of the witnesses broadly approved of the commodity derivative regulations proposed, one – an apparently neutral academic economist- said it couldn’t be proven that derivative trading was the main cause of market volatility. The report the Lords committee produced in July, with more than a hint of pro-City bias, fastened onto that academic’s view in its conclusion:
‘The Commission’s proposals will not eliminate the price volatility of markets such as those dealing in food commodities. Such volatility is dependent on a range of factors, and is in particular driven by supply and demand.’
So when Osborne plays hardball with MiFID II’s attempt to regulate commodity derivative trading, he can say to WDM and others: ‘what’s the point when even the experts think it won’t work’.
The truth is the experts aren’t sure. I contacted the one whose evidence the Lords had so eagerly seized upon. He is, of all nationalities, a Greek, Emilios Avgouleas, chair in international banking law and finance at my alma mater, the University of Edinburgh. He kindly explained to me his verdict of ‘not proven’. It was, he said, due to ‘the concurrent phenomenon of much higher living standards in a large number of emerging markets’. The fact that this happened at the same time as greater speculation on commodity derivatives meant that in his view it was not clear which factor had caused price volatility.
He was, in other words, displaying the intellectual rigour that would be expected from an academic of his reputation.
What he was not saying was that regulation of commodities speculation was a waste of time. In fact, he told me, if it could be conclusively proven that speculative trading caused food price spikes, then ‘other solutions will have to be considered, and not just at the European level, including suspensions of trading or, if necessary, even a ban.’
That didn’t sound very pro-City to me.
In fact Avgouleas’ concern was not so much that MiFID II would be destructive; more that it might not be enough to curb the market’s excesses:
‘MiFID’s disclosure and position limit requirements will merely make the market more transparent, and limit squeezes and other forms of market manipulation,’ he wrote to me.
That was a far-cry from the anti-MiFID voice he was made out to be in the Lords’ report, which George Osborne will surely carry in his back pocket when he flies to Brussels.
Still, you could hardly call it a ringing endorsement. So what to take from the whole thing? As someone angry at a financial system that seems to serve the interests only of a global super-rich, should I cheer for MiFID wholeheartedly? Or should I remember that it might not help the world’s poor as much as the World Development Movement hopes, and not be too disappointed if our chancellor helps to get it booted into the European long grass?
The question, it seems to me, comes down to two big philosophical arguments when it comes to thinking about the financial system.
Before a regulatory measure is implemented, does it need to be proven beyond reasonable doubt that it will have the desired effect?
And should we wait years and years for research studies to be carried out, so the legislation we create is nothing less than perfect?
I know where I stand.  I’m lining up in the MiFID corner.

Eritreans call for international action on human organ trade at protest in George Square, Glasgow (December 2011).

photo by Eva Barton

A fifty-strong contingent of Scotland’s Eritrean community assembled in Glasgow city centre yesterday (Saturday 10 December 2011) in a bid to win the attention of Scottish and UK politicians who they believe could contribute to ending the dark trade in human organs centred in Egypt’s Sinai desert; a trade whose primary victims are Eritrean refugees trying to reach Europe.

‘Our objective is to tell the international community to intervene to stop this crime,’ said Teklom, an Eritrean who now lives in Glasgow. ‘The Scottish government, and the UK government as well – the more pressure the better. We’re really shocked by this crime. We’re here to be a voice of the voiceless people.’

Teklom and the other Eritreans at Saturday’s protest are the lucky ones – they have made it to Europe without falling into the hands of the traffickers who harvest organs which are eventually sold for use in transplants in richer countries.

Eritrea is a nation of just over five million people in the Horn of Africa. It broke away from its southern neighbour Ethiopia in 1993 after a prolonged conflict. Hundreds of thousands of Eritreans have fled since independence, often citing an oppressive regime which forces young men into lifelong military servitude and permits no freedom of expression, a situation which saw Eritrea ranked bottom of the most recent World Press Freedom Index below even North Korea.

In 2008 when the World Cross Country Championships were held in Edinburgh, six members of the Eritrean team refused to return home, managing to make successful asylum claims to stay in Scotland.

For most the option to fly to Europe does not exist. Instead they have to pay people smugglers to get them through the deserts of North Africa. Until a few years ago the most common route was east through Sudan and Libya, from where they would try to make it to the Italian island of Lampedusa by boat. Since Italian government crackdowns and the conflict in Libya, the more favoured option has been north through Sudan and Egypt, then across the deserts of Sinai into Israel.

The Bedouin-controlled waste of Sinai is where the harvesting of organs happens. Bedouin tribesmen trick the refugees into believing they will be shown a safe route across the border. For this they pay 2,000 to 3,000 dollars, but far from being helped to a safe passage they are then sold on into the hands of traffickers with links to organised crime. These groups demand ransoms of up to 30,000 dollars from relatives of the refugees back in Eritrea, Sudan, or Ethiopia. If the family fails to produce the money then the hostage’s organs are harvested as payment. Death almost always follows – a recent CNN documentary showed gruesome footage of bodies being uncovered from shallow graves in the desert with gaping holes where their organs should be.

The footage has shocked Eritrean diaspora communities around the world. Last month saw a demonstration in Tel Aviv in Israel, while yesterday’s protest in Glasgow coincided with a larger gathering of US-based Eritrean emigres in front of the White House. The demonstrations on both sides of the Atlantic were designed to coincide with World Human Rights Day. Eritreans like Teklom want the international community to exert pressure to force the Egyptian authorities to police the Sinai more effectively.

But the issue is complicated by several factors. Aside from Egypt’s current political instability, Eritrea’s President Isaias Afewerki has shown little inclination to fight on his own people’s behalf.

Some of the demonstrators in Glasgow yesterday expressed anger against the man who has ruled Eritrea since independence, arguing that he has failed to even acknowledge the victims of organ harvesting.

‘He says they are not Eritrean,’ said Yohans, an Eritrean pastor in Glasgow. ‘It’s strange – they show him the names, the passports, but no… It’s because he knows what is happening but he’s covering up. Because if he says “yes, this is our people”, then everyone will know what is happening in Eritrea.’

Another man, Hassan, agreed: ‘The root of the problem is the Eritrean government. If the people were living well there, then they would never go to this kind of risk to escape. This is my personal view, but the organisers today come with their own view, that it’s better not to speak about this. There are so many people here who are panicked to talk about the Eritrean government.’

Agostino Desta, an ex-fighter in Eritrea’s independence movement who has lived in Scotland for 21 years and bitterly opposes President Afewerki’s rule, said the Eritrean community in Scotland, as in the rest of the UK, were divided in their attitudes to the regime: ‘There are some who are pro-government, some who are anti-government, and some who want to hide because they are too scared to speak. Today was a step forward. We got them to come out. Even if they didn’t talk about politics… it’s a step forward.’

Agostino Desta holds the flag of post-independence Eritrea in his right hand; in his left the flag of the current government (photo by Eva Barton)

Organ harvesting in Sinai: the facts

  • Research was conducted by two human rights groups: the Egypt-based New Generation Foundation for Human Rights and the EveryOne Group based in Italy.
  • Evidence included testimony from refugees in Israel who survived the journey through Sinai, as well as the bodies of victims.
  • Torture and rape were also reported by the hostages
  • Both New Generation and the EveryOne group reported that more than 600 hostages were released by the traffickers after the publicity created by the documentary.

This article was also published on the Eritrean news website Assenna

More Fabulous Animals (published in ‘Flight of the Turtle’, New Writing Scotland 29)

 The Gambit

28 October 1998

Dear Doctor Velicka,

My name is Esperanza Whitman and I am a doctor at the Southern California Institute of Child Psychology in Los Angeles.  I read your article about Jelik – the wolf boy of Dnestr – in the September issue of International Cortex Debates.  Your piece made an enormous impression on me, for reasons which I will now recount.

Just over four years ago an extraordinary young girl entered our treatment program: a thirteen year old named Iris.  Iris had been resident in the ‘city of angels’ since the day of her birth, in a run-down suburb not far from Beverley Hills.  Nothing startling, until I tell you that Iris’s father kept her in a tiny locked room for her entire life.  There was only a bed in the room.   In the nights she was tied to it.  In the day she was strapped to a potty.  Apart from this, night and day were the same, because the room was sealed from natural light.  She was brought food and water but no-one spoke to her.  There was a mother and a brother too, but it was the man’s will that dominated.  That is, until one day in 1992 when, after her husband beat her up, the mother fled to a police station with Iris, and the whole story came out.

When she first entered the Institute, Iris was unable to make a sound.  She would crouch in corners looking at us with huge staring eyes (her eyes are a beautiful green).  Gradually, through constant attention, she became receptive to human contact.  She rapidly learnt words for things around her and appeared to be making great progress towards language.  Nobody was prepared when her progress suddenly stopped and even went into regression.  Despite her vocabulary the concepts of grammar and sentence formation would not come.  She could not go beyond words as arbitrary sounds for things, tiny stepping stones too far apart to cross a river, never mind an ocean.  So the capacity for developed language, the ‘greatest single sign of our humanity’ – seemed beyond her.  A scan showed that her brain was stunted due to lack of stimulation of the frontal cortex.  It was doubly devastating, because Iris, I am sure, was meant to be an intelligent girl.  When I took her out on trips I could see her grasping at connections, trying to relate this thing in the ‘now’ to that thing in her memory.  But the synapses were not there.  Frustrated she would bang her head on walls and bite her arms.  Believe me, it was hell to watch.  Almost exactly a year ago she jumped from the first floor window of her dormitory, and it was only luck that a tree broke her fall.

Since then the situation has deteriorated much further.  Iris’s mother, after divorcing the husband, had her removed from our care and returned to the family home – the site of her abuse – for a short period.  When the mother was unable to cope, Iris was taken into a secure state mental institution under a different name.  I had no way of knowing what had happened to her.  This was very hard for me.  During her care I had developed a strong emotional bond with Iris. I found it morally impossible to abandon her.  After a long search I recently located her again.  She was in a huge institution with hundreds of mental patients, kept in isolation and given one hour of therapy a week.  This situation was intolerable to me, and I took steps to ensure it did not continue.

Doctor Velicka, I write to you because I see in your work with Jelik a source of hope where there was none.  In all the publicity after she was found many people called Iris a feral child.  But that was wrong.  Your Jelik was a feral child.  He was brought up with wild dogs in woods and parkland near a small town in Ukraine.  You say how he dug holes in the earth to bury things, rubbed himself on rough tree bark, scavenged for food in bins, and barked like a dog in many different tones.  There is no comparison between that and being strapped to a potty in a dark room in Los Angeles.  It’s a question of stimulus.  Iris had none, Jelik plenty, just not the kind we normally think of as ‘good’.  But what is good other than being able to live with yourself?  We were trying to start Iris in the wrong place – our place – where language is already alienated from the natural world.  It wasn’t even our fault.  As trained psychologists our only perspective was sophisticated communication as the ultimate goal.  But I see now that she could never be happy, living in a world of language and ideas.  Jelik was content was he not, even before he was ‘found’.  That is my impression.  Admittedly he knew no other possibility, but the life of the woods agreed with him.  Do you know how many people are on anti-depressants in the United States today?  How many in business suits yearn for the woods?

I know you are trying to teach Jelik to be fully human, and I am completely supportive of that aim.  But Iris is different.  Above all she must be taught that the world exists, that life is possible at a level deeper than language: a level of instinct and senses.  I think there is only one person capable of teaching her that.  Not me, and not you either.  I mean Jelik himelf.

I am suggesting this: I bring Iris to the Ukraine.  We introduce her to Jelik and the two spend time together – not pointing to animals in picture books, but in the wild, (in a controlled environment obviously) where Jelik shows her the first, raw life he led.  I promise you if there is any sign of regression in his rehabilitation program, the project would be discontinued.  But I firmly believe the opposite would be the case.  As teacher, what better boost could Jelik have than knowing that his experience was helping another human being overcome trauma.  It is said also, is it not, that the truest mark of our humanity is compassion?

I cannot convey to you how much this means to me.  During our time together Iris became like a daughter to me, and I cannot bear the thought of her ending her days in misery.

Yours in faith

Esperanza Whitman

The reply

21 November 1998

Dear Esperanza,

I regret the content of my article may have give a wrong idea of my comfort in the English language.  It was very corrected by a colleague who speak English.  When I write this I am help only by the dictionary, so many mistakes.

Esperanza, I find hardship understanding everything you say in your letter.  But I made a grand effort, and now I understand.  You want to bring the girl, Iris, to Ukraine, where is my boy Jelik.  You want that Jelik teach Iris the wild passages of childhood.  I must to say, I do not know.  I do not know if is a good idea.

In all circumstances, I have problems.  University in Kyev will give a way less money next year to my work.  We are not sure if it continues or not.

Esperanza, Andrei Velicka is not the asking species of person.  It is not my manners, but this is a scientific thing.  Your Institute of Southern California is rich yes.  For fifty thousand American dollars I think I can help you.  But I say again  I do not know if Iris is helped by this.  Jelik likes animals in books now.  When he makes noises like a dog is to make the people near to him laugh.  But I am a man of turning cards.  You must do that you think best.

Yours in faith

Andrei Velicka

The reply to the reply

28 November 1998

Dear Andrei,

Thank you for your kind reply.  It has not been easy but I have found the money you asked for.  Tomorrow Iris and I will fly to Kiev, and then I think we can take a night train and arrive in Lvov the next morning.  From there, travel plans are a little hazy but rest assured we will find you.  Sorry to be so brief, but I don’t think there is much more that I can say that I haven’t already said.

Yours in faith

Esperanza Whitman

*  *  *

Extract from Esperanza Whitmans diary: August 1999

I’ve been dipping into my book of Elizabeth Bishop poems a lot lately -so many about travel experience.  One poem called The Map goes like this:

            Norway’s hare runs south in agitation

Profiles investigate the sea, where land is

I don’t quite understand that last bit, but it’s a beautiful idea, and it gave me this idea for how to start the book.

The country of Ukraine is shaped like a dragon with a blunted horn and a stumpy wing.  It is a dragon that is trying to tear itself free of Russia, with Moldova tucked under its chin and Belarus, Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia balanced on its head like books on the head of a girl learning the etiquette of deportment.  The city of Lvov, in the west, is the dragons eye, and to the South, a range of mountains runs across the snout like a muzzle.  At the foot of the forested lower slopes of these mountains there is a small town whose main feature is a redundant aluminium plant where most of the men used to work.  Unemployment is high, but not quite as high as it was, and lying around on benches drinking in the daytime is once again becoming a minority activity.  It is a hot, dry continental summer and the ground in the park beneath the elm trees is baked and cracked.  The streets are dusty and the massive wall of the old factory that was painted blue and yellow to celebrate independence is peeling away – like the skin of a great reptile.  The youth of the town now think of going west into Germany, France, Italy.  There is a burgeoning black market trade in fake EU passports.  The existence of an unusual community in the woodland several miles to the south of the town has slipped back into forgetfulness.  It came to wider attention on two separate occasions, both years ago now.  Once, when a few of the first Chernobyl children born with deformities went there.  And once again the following year, when it took in the famous wolf boy of Dnestr…

Yes, I think I could make it good.  Well with the material I have to work from it should be.  Not that it could ever be published.  The only way would be to put it in a safe box with instructions ‘to be opened in a hundred years time’ or something like that.  Publicity spoils everything.  Andrei doesn’t even like me writing things in this diary. ’Oral is best’, he says.  ’Tongue lies are not running so easy as the pen’.  He favours the use of a Dictaphone.

Transcript of Dictaphone recordings, translated from the Ukrainian

Transcript 1: 21st August 1999

The set-up is this: the site of an ancient quarry has created a depression in the wooded landscape like a natural amphitheatre.  In the depression the vegetation is particularly wild.  A stream flows past its open end.  A path runs right round the rim of this naturally enclosed area, and at the highest point of the path, at the head of the old quarry rock-face, there is the hide: a camouflaged observation point.  You must not get the wrong the idea – the enclosure is entirely suggestive – there is no ten foot high electric fence.  Andrei and Esperanza are not conducting some grotesque Big-Brother style experiment.  The observed are free to come and go, just as are the observers.


Transcript 2: 25th August 1999

She was so cold when she arrived, poorly protected by cheap furs acquired in second hand costume shops – a foolish attempt to blend in.  But now the temperature is sultry even at night, and she’s quite comfortable lying out here in the roofless ruined bunker we have made into a hide.  If she rolls round onto her back she would see the stars make a ceiling more spectacular than any painter in history could create.  But she doesn’t roll over.  She nudges my baggy-jumpered, masculine form next to her, and gets me to pass the binoculars across.  I whisper something and pat her bottom, rise and rootle in the rucksack for the cheesy snacks I always carry.  Letting this female come from America was the best thing that could have happened, though I wasn’t sure at first.  It has been a thrill to help her – both of them.  She is watching our two proteges now through the infra-red binoculars.  I know what they are doing: naked together, they are scratching each others’ backs with peeled strips of tree bark.  Faintly I can hear the sound of them humming melodies too – one starts and then the other joins in harmony.  Soon they will make love, like any other animals, and though I feel like a voyeur I will want to watch them anyway.  As will she, ever eager to record things.  We will end up fighting over the binoculars as usual.

Language barriers were a problem at first, but in the hide, under the night sky, watching, silence seems so much more logical.  In the morning things will be different, less magical.  I will be back in the classroom and she…what will she be doing?  Will she join me, boosted by the confidence tonight gives her?  Or will she go off into the run-down town again, voraciously photographing everything she sees?  She is still riveted by the newness of the place, I can tell.  Both the American women are.  And yet they have changed things since they came.  With their help, we have discovered things.  We have all advanced immeasurably.  But who other than Andrei Velicka could have seen that this was the way to do it?

I look at her now, slyly, and make a grab for the binoculars.  Hissing at me she manages to hold on to the right ocular, and we grapple, each trying to loosen the other’s grip.  This will not go into International Cortex Debates.  I press her face into the ground hard and when she goes limp in submission I begin stroking her coarse American hair, putting the binoculars to my eyes with my free hand.  I look down into the gulch.

Andrei and Esperanza are rubbing dirt into each others’ bodies now.  The melodies have stopped and I can see their lips moving, forming words.