Don’t Tell Me You’re Afraid

Giuseppe Catozzella translated by Anne Milano Appel

July 29, 2016 
The following is from Giuseppe Catozzella’s novel, Don't Tell Me You're Afraid. Catozzella has published two collections of short stories, The Life Cycle of Fish and Fuego, as well as Explants and Hive, a novel about the Mafia in Milan that has been adapted for television and four different plays. Following the Italian publication of Don’t Tell Me You’re Afraid, Catozzella was appointed a UN goodwill ambassador for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.

Knowing where to find the human traffickers was easy. All the Somalis in Addis Ababa knew it, and in recent weeks I had asked the right questions. Sooner or later every Somali living in Ethiopia would turn to them in order to get to Sudan. And from there to Libya. And then finally to Italy.

It wasn’t difficult to track down Asnake.

As a cover, Asnake worked at the Addis Ababa market. I would have to pay the equivalent of seven hundred American dollars in reali, the Ethiopian currency. He or one of his friends would take me to Khartoum, in Sudan. I didn’t’ have much more money, but I had no choice, and I didn’t want to wait any longer. So I went to Asnake and he told me to be patient, that I couldn’t leave right away; they would let me know when my day came.

I waited those last ten days trying to stay calm and note let on to Amina and Yenee; I didn’t’ want any questions; I didn’t want to explain myself.

Then one morning around ten o’clock Asnake sent a boy to the house to summon me.

We would leave three hours later. The first time I’d met Asnake he had warned me that I would have no time to prepare, that when the time came, it came, and I would have to leave immediately. But I really didn’t need to prepare; I had been waiting for that moment for days now.

So I tossed my few belongings in my bag, rewound Hooyo’s handkerchief with the shell around my waist, took a bottle of water, left a note for Amina and Yenee, and left.

As I resolutely performed those small acts, I had no idea what I was committing myself to.

The meeting place was a garage that was used to store motorcycles or bicycles. When I arrived, almost everyone was already there waiting. All together there were a lot of us; I had always thought it would be just me, or at least just a few of us. Instead I counted seventy-two of us.

We were left there for an hour, not knowing what to do, inside that garage with the rolling shutter pulled down. Crammed into a tiny space. With each passing minute I wondered what would happen. I hugged that bag tightly under my arm. It was my past, my history: Right away I felt the need to make contact with something familiar, a memory. Surrounded by so many people you’re likely to lose yourself, to give up; I realized that right away. There were mothers with children, a lot of women, and even some elderly people. The acrid smell of gasoline and burned oil quickly tainted what little oxygen there was; in addition, the sweating bodies soon gave off a nauseating odor. We were close together, packed so tightly that the skin of our arms touched. Under the veils we were drenched; the men had drops of perspiration on their faces. And so we waited. No one knew exactly for what.

After an hour the children began to cry. That senseless wailing was getting on my nerves. We would have to wait longer. After another hour the shutter was rolled up and a Land Rover arrived with six men.

When I realized that all seventy-two of use were expected to crowd into the open bed of the jeep, my legs buckled and I had to grab hold of the woman standing beside me. Some of the others were desperate; a few seemed to know it all.

With no time to think, we were ordered to pile everything we had in a corner. Everything. They would see to our bags later. Each of us was allowed only one small plastic bag. One of the traffickers distributed them. Nobody wanted to be separate from his baggage: Inside was all that remained of our live. Like premature butterflies, we didn’t want to leave our cocoons. I thought about the headband, the newspaper clipping; I touched the shell at my waist. Then, like a lightbulb going off, came the thought of returning, returning back to the house, tearing up the note on the table and acting like nothing happened. Sooner or later the documents would be found; I just had to hang on.

The traffickers came forward to seize the bags of those up ahead who didn’t want to let go of them. A few people tried to protest; the answer was that if they didn’t like it, they could stay there.

Did I really want to stay in Adds Ababa? For how long? My whole life? For how long would I have to run by moonlight, like a cockroach? I opened my bag and took out Aabe’s headband, the photo of Mo Farah, a qamar, and a garbasar, and I left the rest in the corner.

Immediately my bag was buried under a thousand others.

In silence the six men set out two benches in the center of the jeep’s bed, so as to form four rows of seats. It seemed impossible that we could all squeeze in. But slowly, with a surgical precision that suggested the skill of certain craftsmen, they fit us in like pieces of a puzzle.

We had to keep our knees open to make room for a stranger’s leg between them.

I was so wedged in that I was barely able to breathe. Again I had the urge to get out of there. Then a baby started wailing in my ear, and I came to my senses.

I tried to remember why I was there. I had to keep going.

The trip was to last three days; it was critical that we bring nothing with us but the plastic bag: The jeep would be our living space for seventy-two hours, they told us. We couldn’t even bring water. They had jerricans for all of us.

They did another round of inspection and confiscated a few things from those who thought they were being smart.

After half an hour packed in like sardines, our breath already caught in our throats, we finally left. With the driver and his backup in the cab and seventy-two of us in the bed. The other four men stayed behind to scoop up the baggage.

We knew it once we were on our way: We were leaving our bags behind forever. Just as I was leaving behind forever my life as it had been up till then. I realized it right from the start, crushed between those unfamiliar bodies. Nothing would ever be the same. I was leaving behind Africa, my family, my land. My cocoon, big or small, good or bad though it might be. All that was left of my past was crammed inside a white plastic bag.

Was that all my life was worth up to that point? My heart told me otherwise, even as it pounded in my chest.

I held back tears, biting my lip hard. I closed my eyes in the midst of all those arms, shoulders, elbows, and prayed to Aabe and to Allah. That they would let me find the way.

My way.

The first stretch was through the city. During those twenty minutes driving through Addis Ababa, I felt shame. A shame not divided by seventy-two but multiplied by seventy-two. I felt like a nonentity. We stopped at a traffic light, the one that led onto the national boulevard. The eyes that watched us were filled with a mixture of pity and suspicion.

Why had we let ourselves be reduced to that, they wondered.

Then we finally left the city and took the great desert highway, as everyone calls it: the big road leading to the north. At each jolt I thought my liver would burst, or my spleen, because of the dozens of elbows poking me on all sides. The city’s asphalt had given way to the usual dirt road, which, exposed to the rain and brutal sunlight, was studded with deep potholes.

The road was absolutely straight, and we kept up a steady speed of about eighty kilometers an hour, but after a while some people began to feel sick in those conditions. I was having trouble breathing; every now and then I felt faint and had to make a super-human effort, prying aside the others, to sit up a little and find some fresh air. I kept thinking of the wind, which Ali used to tell me to ride. Stretches of green swept by wind and graced by yellow butterflies. That’s the image I had in my mind. That’s what filled my eyes. That’s what I forced myself to picture, so as not to think.

At first no one had the courage to complain; it was more like a subdued moaning. Then the lament became louder until it spewed into vomiting.

Since we couldn’t move our arms, the vomit ended up on everyone around us. We couldn’t shield ourselves; we were windows open to the world and all types of weather.

We passed through two villages with not many inhabitants.

Those small communities had been preceded by huge, colorful billboards: a pair of lions with flowing manes and underneath the name of a travel agency advertising safaris: a big off-road vehicle, all polished and gleaming, with the inscription CAPTURE YOUR DREAMS.

At the sides of the road stood a handful of vendors exposing the vegetables or fruit picked that morning to the exhaust fumes of passing vehicles. Or wooden shacks selling potato chips, water, cookies, pretzels, juices, and chewing gum.

As we drove by, the few people on the street followed us with their eyes. Maybe they thought we were funny or ridiculous. Or maybe they were used to it and looked at us with no more curiosity than you show about a leaf that falls to the ground after being carried along by the wind. At the beginning, for the first few hours, I didn’t want to feel like I was part of the group, and I did all I could to think of it as temporary situation. I thought about the London Olympics in 2012 and I told myself that I had nothing to do with these people. But then I gave in. I accepted the fact that this was my condition now. I had turned into a journeyer. I had no choice; if I wanted to survive.

And in any case, we had become a single body.

Each time I shifted, I had to adapt to the five or six people next to me.

Every now and then along the way, we encountered women returning from the fields with huge baskets of their heads, or groups of barefoot children chasing after nothing, who stood dazed as they watched us go by: a jeep jam-packed with people.

Around eleven o’clock that night, after ten hours, we finally stopped. In the middle of nowhere. We had turn onto a side road and followed it for thirty minutes. It was pitch dark. There was nothing anywhere except a shed.

Getting out was much more difficult than getting in.

My joints were stiff; I had a hard time bending my knees and walking. The race. The race flashed in my mind like a bolt from the blue. The older people couldn’t straighten their backs. Too many hours with their weight on the sacrum, and some hadn’t even been able to rest their feet on the floor of the bed.

With a great deal of effort they made us get out, one by one. A woman who in Addis Ababa had smiled at me encouragingly now looked at me resentfully. She didn’t recognize me. Hardened. Everyone seemed much more hardened. Withdrawn inside their armor.

We had to sleep in that shed lit by a single small, central neon fixture. The light was cold and eerie. On the floor, no mattresses. They brought the jeep in as well and closed the door.

Only then did I realize that until that moment I’d been living in suspension, as if I’d been holding my breath since the boy had come to summon me at the apartment in Addis Ababa. When they barred the door from the inside with a big bolt, and I found myself on the floor in a corner without so much as a mat, that’s when it hit me.

This was the Journey. Hodan had already gone through it.

In an instant it all came back; along with the urge to vomit. My body had become accustomed to potholes and abrupt jolts; lying still made my bowels churn. Many people threw up on the floor wherever they happened to be. I recalled people’s eyes at the stoplight in Addis Ababa; They’d looked at us as if we were worthless bodies, as if we were mere things being transported from one place to another.

None of us had said a word; none of us had protested. In the two house we’d spent locked in that garage in Addis Ababa, with its reek of gasoline and sweat, we had managed to efface our dignity.

Before turning off the light they handed out cereal bars and advised us to get some rest. We would leave again at dawn, in six hours, at five in the morning.

The second day was even worse. The aches and soreness, which until then had been held in check by anger, had all intensified. My right shoulder was giving me excruciating pain. Having to sit still, squashed in without being able to move, was enough to drive you crazy. After a while I began to feel the need to move. I tried and tried; the only thing that I was able to do was sit up a little straighter, which was a lifesaver. I was confined in a straightjacket.

Every once in a while someone screamed into the air.

Then, after a while, he quieted down.

We passed only one village, larger than the other two. It must have been market day because the road was lined with a parade of stalls selling clothes, shoes, straw hats, sunglasses, American jeans, motor oil and windshield wipers, women’s veils, men’s turbans, cucumbers, peaches, lettuce, tomatoes, cookies, milk, Coca-Cola, you name it. It all passed swiftly in front of us like a mirage.

Someone yelled at the driver to stop, but he kept going as if he hadn’t heard.

Then the terrain turned to low-lying brushes; the trees vanished altogether, giving way to scrub that was all around. Like the ever-present durst that was kicked up as we drove along, coating the jeep and our heads within minutes. That fine powder. I loved it. It was just like the dust that Ali and I used to kick up, which ended up in the old men’s shaat. I caught myself laughing. The woman next to me looked at me as if I were nuts. She didn’t approve of me. She clicked her tongue to say that I was unspeakable. I ignored her. I went on laughing to myself, lulled by memories of being safe.

That night around midnight, one day early, we were told we had arrived.

We were just outside a town and could see some lights in the distance. The men stopped the jeep and ordered us to remain on board. Some people immediately started celebrating, making a racket, thinking we’d made it. They were mistaken.

A man quickly called for silence. We’d better try to understand when the two traffickers were telling us in a language that wasn’t ours: a mixture of Arabic and Sudanese. Luckily someone in the group understood Arabic and acted as interpreter.

“We are not in Khartoum,” the trafficker said. “We are two kilometers from Al Qadarif, which is just across the border in Sudan. Anyone who doesn’t like it can continue on foot.”

Without giving us time to react, the two men got back in the keep and restarted the engine. Al Qadarif is a small town in the desert. The bad news was that we were not where we had paid to go. The good news was that we were no longer in Ethiopia.

They took us to a garage again, and without a word, handed us over to another group of traffickers, who were already there waiting for us. When we went in, we found ourselves facing the same scene as in Addis Ababa. An off-road vehicle and six men who appeared nervous. They smoked and spat on the ground, swearing in a language that none of us understood.

We’d been swindled.

Getting out of the jeep was even more difficult than it had been the day before.

Our bodies were getting used to not responding to commands, to being forced into unnatural, painful positions and to constant, rapid motion.

A couple of men, two Ethiopians, tried to say something. They raised their voices. One was alone; the other was traveling with his wife and small children. They’d been sitting side by side for hours. Now they were beating their breasts and their heads with their hands, saying things I didn’t understand but that didn’t seem friendly toward the first traffickers. The latter, ignoring them, restarted the motor and said that anyone who was unhappy was welcome to come back with them.

Immediately. They would even return their money, they said. I couldn’t tell if they were kidding or not. In any case, no one budged.

In an instant they were gone, along with the keep that had been our home for two whole days.

We were left starting at one another, not knowing what to do. I would soon realize that, more than anything else, this is the one thing about the Journey that changes you forever: No one, at any time, can ever know what will happen a moment later.

While we were still standing there, I tried to strike up a conversation with a Somali girl who was traveling with her sister, to have the comfort of a voice. A voice that spoke my language. Everything had happened so fast. In two days, I had forgotten who I was.

“Where are you from?” I asked. “Are you from Mogadishu?” She didn’t answer. She kept her eyes on her younger sister, still hunched over on the ground, uncramping her knees and throwing up.

“Are you Somali?” I tried again.

The girl turned around; her face was powdered with white dust up to the hairline, even under her hijab. She looked like a ghost, a white mask with lifeless eyes.

“Yes,” she replied in a faint voice. Then she bent over her sister and stroked her head.

We soon learned that we needed another two hundred dollars to get to Khartoum.

Another rusty old Land Rover.

We would leave Al Qadarif in a week.

Those who had the money could pay immediately; the others had to find a job or have relatives send the funds to a nearby money-transfer location that they showed us. The traffickers had a satellite phone that could be used to call home. But for those who didn’t have the money right then, the two hundred dollars would become two hundred and fifty.

I didn’t give it a second’s thought; I paid.

For a week I slept in that room on a mattress that was damp from dog or goat piss.

Outside there were hordes of goats, bleating as though possessed at all hours of the day or night: thirsty, starving, crazed like us. May a thousand liters of putrid, stinking water fall on their heads.


From DON’T TELL ME YOU’RE AFRAID. Used with permission of Penguin Press. Copyright © 2016 by Giuseppe Catozzella. Translation copyright © 2016 by Anne Milano Appel.

More Story
Madeleine Dubus On Hearing Her Father's Voice Again Sun streams through the slats in the window shades, and with these hints toward spring I am reminded of the passage of time,...

Become a Lit Hub Supporting Member: Because Books Matter

For the past decade, Literary Hub has brought you the best of the book world for free—no paywall. But our future relies on you. In return for a donation, you’ll get an ad-free reading experience, exclusive editors’ picks, book giveaways, and our coveted Joan Didion Lit Hub tote bag. Most importantly, you’ll keep independent book coverage alive and thriving on the internet.