At sea on O-platz

With temperatures dropping and a new winter residence found in Friedrichshain, the status of the Oranienplatz protest camp in Kreuzberg remains uncertain. We asked one Lampedusa refugee living at the camp to tell us his story.

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Photo by Tania Castellví

Vincent’s journey took him from Libya through Lampedusa to Berlin. Now living in Kreuzberg’s Oranienplatz refugee camp, the young Nigerian immigrant is out of options… and dreading the coming winter.

It was a very bizarre experience.” That’s how Vincent describes the Libyan civil war and the NATO bombing campaign that started on February 15, 2011, a war that drove him from Tripoli to the small Mediterranean island of Lampedusa and, more than two years later, to the protest camp on Kreuzberg’s Oranienplatz.

Vincent’s journey started in Tripoli, where the young Nigerian was working on building sites – just one of 1.5 million immigrants from sub-Saharan Africa doing menial jobs in oil-rich Libya. When the Western military intervention started, he recalls, “I was hiding indoors for seven days without food or electricity. Eventually, I said to myself: If I die, then I die, but I have to go.” On the streets of Tripoli, he was stopped by Gaddafi’s soldiers. They asked what Vincent was doing: “Starving,” he answered, “and looking for food.”

The Libyan authorities wanted to send a message to the European powers: if Gaddafi fell, then there would be no one to hold back a flood of refugees across the Mediterranean. So Vincent, along with hundreds of African workers, was rounded up and taken to a seaside camp outside the capital. It was just before midnight when government soldiers told them all to get on a boat. “We didn’t know where we were going,” he recalls, and most people refused to get on board. “They beat people – I got a slap in my face that I will never forget for the rest of my life.” Eventually, 400 people were forced onto the boat, and Vincent was stuck on one of the lower decks.

After six hours the boat stopped dead in the water. “Christians were calling to God and Muslims to Allah,” Vincent recalls. The motor’s fan belt was broken and there was no replacement. After half a day, the problem was resolved and the boat headed back to Tripoli. “We were just 100 metres from the port we had started from,” he says.

Twenty-four hours after their original forced departure, they took off on another boat.

But that same night, the second boat stopped: “It was leaking. We had to carry up water in buckets.” When it was fixed and started moving again, the captain still wouldn’t reveal their destination. “We ran into fishermen who spoke with the captain in Arabic, and they said we were heading to Lampedusa. Around two in the morning, we saw a red light.” Eventually, a big rescue ship appeared behind them.

When they arrived on the island, the police, the army and Amnesty International were there to meet them. “We slept there for one night, then a ship from the Italian government took 2000 people to the mainland.” The ship stopped at different ports in Italy, dropping off refugees at each one, and Vincent got off in Genoa after six days, together with about 100 other refugees. He was lucky to have made it that far: another man at his camp was on a boat with 750 people on the same route, and after three hours they capsized. Half of the passengers were never found. These shipwrecks are not uncommon: just days before our interview, 270 more refugees had died off of Lampedusa.

The refugees got temporary asylum in Italy, but their refugee status allowed them to travel for up to three months within the 26 European countries in the Schengen Area. Very unofficially, Italian immigration officers suggested that they would have better chances if they went to northern Europe. “Some of us were empty-handed, others got €500.” After some time spent begging on the streets of Milan and a failed attempt to find work in Paris and Helsinki, Vincent eventually set his sights on Germany. “It took a long time to gather €80 from begging, but with that money I got a ticket to Berlin.”

At first Vincent stayed with another Nigerian in Berlin, but they soon ran out of money. Searching for help, they found the Oranienplatz camp, open since October 2012. Vincent has now been living there for four months. Like most of the ‘Lampedusa residents’, he’s overstayed the three months his Italian refugee status allows him, and the German authorities could deport him at any time.

On O-Platz there’s little German to be heard: mostly French and Arabic (which Vincent learned in Libya) or English. Often there is nothing to do but stand around, and the atmosphere can be tense – many people survived serious trauma but never got any professional help.

So far, Friedrichshain-Kreuzberg district mayor Monika Herrmann has been allowing the camp to stay. And some Berliners have been donating clothes, food, German classes or money for electricity. Yet the temperatures at night are quickly dropping, and Vattenfall has just sent the camp a €6000 electricity bill. Everyone here sleeps in tents – none of them adequate for cold weather. Once determined to squat the square no matter what, the O-Platz refugee-protesters are now hoping not to spend a second winter in the open.

With his Italian refugee document, Vincent can’t work in Germany; he would do nearly anything to earn money, though. “But I don’t want to be a notorious guy,” he adds, referring to drug dealing in nearby Görlitzer Park. Vincent is turning 30 next April, and every time he phones home his widowed mother asks him for money. “I don’t have a wife or children of my own, I don’t have a job. I really, really don’t know what I will do,” he says, standing in the tent that shelters him and 20 fellow Nigerians on O-Platz.

Originally published in issue #121, November 2013.