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below was originally published in La Stampa.
Among the cries of joy and relief from the Tunisian refugees on the dock of this tiny Italian island, a very different voice joined in: a sheep bleating almost as if to say: “I made it too!”
Authorities had rescued the immigrants, like so many before near Lampedusa, from a 10-meter long fishing boat. The Tunisian vessel was carrying 12 men, six women, a nine-year-old boy…and yes, one sheep. It was white, curly-haired, and an illegal immigrant like all the others. The sheep had been brought along to supply fresh milk for the boy.
The boat arrived in the harbor, with a show of 19 pairs of hands raised in the “V” sign for victory, and a triumphal pair of animal ears. “There is a sheep aboard,” said one of the rescuers by radio to the harbor police station. “What..?” the operator asked. “A sheep,” the policeman replied. It can happen on this island, the crossroads between two continents, the landing place for people who leave North Africa to run away from hunger, and to find a new place for their children to live.
Since the outbreak of revolutions in North Africa, some 40,000 immigrants have landed on Lampedusa. The stories on the island seem to be inspired from Aesop’s fables or biblical tales. “This is an island for travellers of life,” says Paolo La Rosa, a lawyer from Palermo. Young people in search of luck, women about to give birth, an 80-year-old blind man, and even a small dog have passed by this dock. This is the first sheep.
For a moment, the rescuers thought it was a joke. But the sheep was a treasure these immigrants could not afford to leave at home. “They brought the sheep along to feed the boy with its milk during the days spent at sea. In Africa, it is a valuable asset,” said a rescuer.
This was just a small group compared with the many others who arrive every day from Libya. On Tuesday, around 290 Libyans landed on Lampedusa. On this day, the humans were pushed into a van to go for identification. One had been sent back from Lampedusa to Tunisia just last week. Some people try up to six, seven or eight times.
They would wind up being unlucky again this time. But the sheep was the most unlucky of the group. The men, the women and the boy were put on a list to be sent back home, in accordance with treaties made between Italy and Tunisia. The ovine as it was called in the bureaucratic documents was sent to its death. “The law states that illegally imported animals must be put down. We have no choice. We cannot send it back home or keep it.” said Piero Bartolo, director of the Lampedusa emergency center.
Over recent months Dr. Bartolo has helped woman give birth, saved Tunisians who had swallowed razor blades to protest against the repatriation, and shut the eyes of the dead. And the other day, he found himself face-to-face with an illegally immigrant sheep.
A vet, who was by chance on the island, provided the solution. He took the sheep away. If sheep had feelings, maybe the animal thought for a moment that she would be safe at last. The vet gently took a blood sample to check if she had foot and mouth disease.
The analysis was not to make the sheep feel better, but to decide if pest control was necessary. The boat was sealed up as a precaution. The immigrants were sanitized, and kept in confinement. The sheep’s end was death, as for many humans who left their homes and never reached Lampedusa.
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