The immigrant behind the eyes
By Darrin Zammit Lupi
“Go get 13i38 from warehouse 2,” barks the army NCO to his subordinates. We know his name now, but the military personnel providing security in the detention center continue to refer to him, as with all detainees, by the reference number given to him when he arrived here.
He is Mohammed Ilmi Adam, a 17-year-old, from Mogadishu, Somalia. The piercing gaze which made him an iconic figure is gone; he’s just like so many other teenagers of his age, eyes flicking from side to side, rarely making eye contact. Slouching on a chair in a small office at the army’s Safi barracks detention center, he looks dejected, submissive, sullen, lost, and indifferent to our presence.
Mohammed arrived in Malta in the early hours of July 10, after being rescued from a tightly-packed rubber dinghy along with 67 other, mostly Somali, immigrants. He arrived hours after a political storm blew up when the Maltese government threatened to deport a group of new arrivals without giving them the opportunity to apply for asylum, only backing down at the eleventh hour when the European Court of Human Rights issued an urgent injunction to block the action.
Though he was safe, at least for the time being, from the threatened pushback, the picture of his apprehensive and piercing eyes quickly became a symbol of the uncertain future he and others like him faced. Soon after I photographed him arriving in Malta and realized the impact the picture was having on many people, I set about trying to identify him.
Visiting two detention centers on an organized media tour nine days after his arrival, I started showing his picture to a group of Somalis I came across sitting in a window. It wasn’t long before someone recognized him, and dashed off to get him. Once he appeared in the window, I immediately knew I’d found my man, though he didn’t immediately recognize himself in the picture. However, hampered by an insurmountable language barrier, and being told by guards to get a move on, meant I couldn’t actually do anything then.
I tried to find him when we entered the warehouse about twenty minutes later, but without success. I turned to the government and army officials accompanying us, and made an official request to return to the camp to meet him quietly, without all the commotion that the media tour was creating. Within a few hours, he was identified from the picture. Now I had a name, nationality, age and location. All I had to do was navigate my way through a minefield of government bureaucracy.
Fast-forward three weeks. Accompanied by an interpreter, himself a Somali refugee who had been released from the very same camp less than a year before, a journalist and a videographer from the Times of Malta, the local paper I work for, I waited outside a high-security block inside the camp. Mohammed was being housed in a different block, but it was the only place where we could have a quiet room in which to conduct our interview.
Mohammed arrived minutes later. The first thing I noticed was that he seemed a lot younger than in the photo.
As we sat down to do the interview, he appeared unsure of what he was doing there. We explained who we were and why we had asked to meet him. He replied in very soft undertones. I felt something wasn’t quite right; but then who was I to say? Here was a teenager who’d undoubtedly undergone a very dangerous and traumatic journey and had now been locked up in detention for almost a month. Yet, he slowly warmed up to us and, bit-by-bit, his remarkable story began to unfold.
Mohammed was born in Mogadishu in 1996. His father disappeared around the time of the millennium. When his mother left home to try to find him, she too went missing. Being an only child, he was raised by relatives. Last January, he decided to follow in the footsteps of some cousins and head for Europe in search of a better life, and more importantly, try to find his parents who he believed fled to the West.
“I wanted to come to Europe because I thought I would get help to find my missing parents and build a stable life for myself.” He traveled to Libya via Ethiopia and Sudan. Libya was hell, he said. When we asked him how he would feel if he were to be sent back to Libya, he fearfully but forcefully replied, “I would rather die.” A disturbing truth, without a shadow of doubt.
He said that in his time there, he was beaten and robbed several times by armed militiamen taking advantage of the lawlessness gripping the country since the 2011 revolution. In Tripoli, he was told how to find Somali brokers, who advised him how to cross to Europe. The brokers, working in partnership with the Libyan smugglers, charged him $400 for a place on a boat. Expecting an easy ride on a big ship, he was shocked to find that once they got to the beach, he was expected to board a small rubber dinghy with dozens of equally desperate Africans.
He quickly changed his mind about making the trip. “I did not want to go on board but I was forced. The Somali brokers and the Libyans beat me with wooden bats and iron rods. That’s how I was forced,” he said. “On the boat, most of the other people were bigger than me so they pushed me around until I was in a very small, crammed place. I was confused, nauseated and very dizzy until someone gave me some water.”
They were at sea for three days. Several people suffered agonizing petrol burns and one woman gave birth on board. When a Maltese military patrol boat spotted them, the situation on board was so dire that some immigrants jumped into the sea to make sure that they were rescued. After a momentary apprehensive hesitation on my part, as I had no idea how he’d react, we showed him screenshots of his photo as it appeared on several international news websites. I handed him a print of it to keep. A half-smile finally creased his face.
“I had no idea my photo was even being taken but I’m glad… maybe my parents or someone who knows them will see me and recognize me. Maybe they will help me find them.” Those words left a lump in my throat. Though I often photograph arriving would-be immigrants, it’s very rare that I’m able to speak to them afterwards, and gauge their reaction to being photographed. Hearing what Mohammed had to say gave shooting these pictures a stronger sense of purpose than ever before, however remote the odds of his finding his parents through the photo may be.
Mohammed remembered feeling an almost overwhelming sense of accomplishment when he was on the police bus staring outside the window. “I felt happy, like I had achieved something. I managed to escape a place in which I suffered a lot… Libya.” How did he feel now, after a few weeks in detention, my colleague asked. His answer was heartbreaking and explained his morose mindset.
“When they took me out of the warehouse this morning, I thought I was going to be released, so I was happy. Now I realize I was brought here for a different reason.”
“It’s OK,” he reassured us, putting on a brave face in an attempt not to cry. What can one say to that? Sometimes it’s better to remain silent but with a look, let him know that you understand even if in truth, you can’t understand unless you’ve been through it yourself.
I wanted to take a few pictures of him in the warehouse where he lived with around 300 hundred other asylum seekers. As I expected, several other immigrants swarmed around us as we entered through the barred gate. Many wanted to ask us questions, ask for help, or just talk and have their picture taken. Normally I’d linger and take the opportunity to interact with them, but this time I’d only been granted five minutes inside the building. As I photographed Mohammed next to his bunk bed, the number of curious onlookers swelled and the print I’d given him was handed from person to person. I wonder if he eventually got it back. I promised him I’d get another done for him in case it didn’t.
In a matter of days, Mohammed could expect to be released from detention as he is still a minor, unlike most of his fellow detainees, who will spend between three to eighteen months in confinement before being released, or deported if their asylum application is rejected.
Will he ever find his parents? Has the photo given him a sense of false hope? Is that better than no hope at all when, as my colleague put it, you live on a diet of despair? These are questions I keep asking myself, and for which I have no answer.