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Amiel Yako's journey from Iraq to the Italian coast

Their eyes are glazed. They sit in the shadow, dozens of men and women, waiting for what will happen next. Some men shuffle stiffly in circles, straightened by steel corsets that support their injured spines, Band-Aids cover their bruised foreheads. Women cradle their children. A little girl sits in the dirt, playing with an empty box of cigarettes.

They literally wash ashore almost every night on Italy's southern Adriatic coast: Kurds, Kosovar Albanians, Afghans, Ethiopians, and lately, Chinese. Those who are caught by the Guardia di Finanza, the Italian police, end up at the Casa Regina Pacis, a refugee center at the far end of this wind-swept fishing village.

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Albania's people smugglers say they are providing a service to these refugees. And, they like to point out, nobody forces them onto their speedboats.

But don't use that line on Don Cesare Lodeserto, the director of the center. "Look at the faces of these people," he snorts as he points at the haggard men and women outside his window, "and then tell me if these are the faces of people who have been taken here by good Samaritans."

Don Cesare, as everyone here respectfully calls him, is a burly man with a round, bald head and thick hands. He has seen too much hurt to be diplomatic in his assessment of the smugglers. "People get killed," he says. "They get on these boats with no life vests and babies in their arms. They pay outrageous amounts of money, and nobody tells them about the danger."

Wittingly or not, the volume of refugees risking their lives to escape poverty or persecution at home is staggering. In just the first 10 months of this year, Italian security forces report intercepting 21,000 people in the 42-mile wide channel between Otranto, Italy, and Albania. For Americans, a comparison of scale would be the flood of 30,000 Cuban "boat-people," who fled across the Caribbean in 1994.

Last year in Italy, some 35,000 refugees filed for political asylum (about half from Kosovo), up from 7,100 in 1998. Kosovars have the right to claim political asylum if they can get here. For many other illegal immigrants, Italy is a convenient stepping stone to other parts of Western Europe, where jobs and relatives are waiting. In fact, the Italian and Albanian mafias originally set up the networks to smuggle drugs, guns, and prostitutes into Italy. For some time now, the bulk of the business involves moving people.

Most of those who arrive here at the refugee compound will be returned to the countries and the lives they tried to leave behind. Last year, Italy expelled 65,000 people. A few will be granted political asylum. But it has become increasingly difficult for refugees to establish a "well-founded fear" for their lives in their home countries. It helps to be a Kurd from Iraq, a "rogue state" with a despised leader. It is a different story for a Kurd from Turkey, an important NATO ally.

Amiel Daniel Yako understands the fears and the needs of the people at the Casa well. The young man with jet-black hair and dark-brown eyes now works as one of Don Cesare's assistants. But he came here just the way they did, on a speedboat from Vlore, after what seemed to him a never-ending odyssey from Iraq.

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He started in Baghdad, where he left a father who Mr. Amiel says was often harassed by the security police because of his Kurdish roots and his underground work for Kurdish autonomy. Friends helped Amiel to cross into Turkey, where he set out for Istanbul, the main hub for immigrant smugglers in the region. He had heard that the place to find a smuggler was the Hotel Kaskul, and he did. There he paid $6,000 for a fake Iraqi passport and a promise to be taken to Italy.

A few days later, Amiel was sitting among 30 other Kurdish refugees in the back of a truck en route to Bulgaria. They drove for two days and two nights. In Bulgaria, they waited for five days in a house without furniture. Then they took a bus to Albania. The border guards were bribed, Amiel says. A day later they finally arrived in Vlore, but the Adriatic Sea was too rough for the speedboats to cross, and again they had to wait for days in an empty house with little food. "For 20 days we lived on nothing but cheese," Amiel recalls. "We cut it with a knife and ate it in big chunks. We had to pay the smugglers for it, and they didn't even give us bread." But the worst part of the journey lay ahead.

He had been pushed and slapped before, Amiel says, but the smugglers in Vlore beat him with a stick. He touches his head, neck, calves, and ankles to show where they hit him. His head injuries were so severe, he says, that after his arrival in Otranto he had to stay at a hospital for three days. "They were ruthless," Amiel says. The smugglers demanded another $500 for the crossing and when he refused to pay, they took his necklace, his ring, and all the money he had left. And then they gave him a beating.

When Amiel and the other Kurds finally boarded the speedboats in Vlore one night, they had to curl on the floor in fetal positions, with no space to stretch or move. "Like animals," he says and presses his arms against his chest to show how the refugees cowered next to each other. There was a skipper and a lookout with binoculars and a cellphone, he says. They gunned the boat full speed, without lights, through the darkness. Amiel opens his right hand and repeatedly slaps it on the back of his left hand to show the enormity of the impact each time the boat hit the waves. He vividly remembers the moment when he first saw the lights of Otranto. "I prayed and thanked God," he says, and then he folds his hands as if in a prayer and raises his head and looks at the sky.

But in the final moments of their journey there was chaos, Amiel recalls, and tragedy struck. When they approached the shore, the skipper ordered the refugees to jump in the water and swim. He threw their plastic bags after them, turned the boat around and vanished. "There were about 10 children and one woman who couldn't swim," Amiel says. "We were able to help the children, but the woman drowned." And when they finally made it to the shore, the Italian police were waiting for them. For many, the hope of a life less painful ended on the very shore they had given all their money and all their strength to reach.

Amiel was granted asylum, but many of the others were sent back. There are scars on his chin and his wrists, and only after being asked about them does he tell the whole story of his flight from Iraq.

The Iraqi security police wanted him to work as an informer, he says, and they already had a target for him - his father. When he refused to cooperate, they put a gun to his temple, Amiel says, and then they slashed his chin and wrists. He knew then that it was time to go, and he fled to Turkey. That was more than a year ago, and he hasn't yet been able to contact his parents. He knows that to hear from him would put them in danger. And he knows that as long as the Saddam Hussein regime is in power, he will not be able to go back.

Amiel is safe now, and he doubts that he would have made it to Italy without the help of the smugglers. But he would never do it again, he says, and he is not grateful. "They live off our misery," he says. "They know we have no choice." Amiel hopes to find a job as a mechanic soon, and he longs for a peaceful life in Italy, even though he knows it will never be complete without his parents. He now wears his baseball hat backwards and runs around in Adidas sneakers. And, as if to shed all the painful memories, he took a new name. He now calls himself Johnny.

Italy's long coast is almost impossible to control adequately, and the government has called for greater international coordination to combat the traffic. "We are facing one of the most dangerous organized crime networks operating in the Mediterranean," Italian Interior Minister Enzo Bianco said last week.

Italy wants the European Union to establish its own police force. "Europe must understand that its external frontiers do not belong just to national states, but to the whole European Union," said Mr. Bianco. Germany and Italy recently agreed to an exchange of police officers in border areas. Bianco is working on similar agreements with Spain and Britain.

Meanwhile, the smugglers continue to elude the authorities, and refugees continue to drown. "Our first priority is to save lives," says Lt. Paolo Soro, a section chief for naval operations at the Guardia di Finanza in Otranto. "That is why we wait for the smugglers to drop off their passengers before we start chasing them."

The police have arrested skippers as young as 15, Lieutenant Soro says, and these young men resort to extremely dangerous maneuvers when pursued by Italian patrol boats. Often they manage to escape because they know that the police will try to avoid collisions. "They have no shame and no fear," Soro says. "Sometimes they make people jump out of their boats 300 feet offshore. Many of the refugees can't swim, and they are still cold and sore when they jump in the water."

The sea between Otranto and Vlore is narrow, and the lighthouse at the Cape of Otranto is a good point of reference for the speedboats, says Soro. And when it comes to the smuggling business, the Albanian and the Italian mafias work together well, he adds. Italian informers are positioned along the coast and guide the skippers of the speedboats with cellphones. The Italian authorities have a radar station on the Albanian island of Sazan. They see the speedboats leaving Vlore, but there is nothing they can do until they enter Italian territory. "It has become a routine," Soro says in frustration. "It's the same story every night."

The question of how to curb the trade is a contentious issue between the authorities on both sides of the Adriatic. The Albanians complain about condescending, colonial-style behavior by the Italians. The Italians accuse the Albanians of inaction. "The problem is that the Albanian government can't control this problem," Soro says. Asked if he is trying to imply that the Albanian government doesn't want to control the problem, Soro sheepishly smiles. "That's not my problem," he says and shrugs. "That's a political problem."

[On Tuesday, Rome praised the fact that a new law enacted two weeks ago has enabled the Albanians to seize 15 speedboats used by smugglers.]

At the refugee center, Don Cesare deals with the problem in his own way. Every night, when the smugglers in Vlore prepare their speedboats on the opposite coast of the Adriatic, he opens the gate to the Casa and leads a group of refugees across the street. There they stand on the rocks in a circle, facing the sea they crossed. As the night falls, soaking the sea in darkness, Don Cesare, glowing in his white gown, raises his arms and begins to pray. The refugees speak after him, their eyes fixed on the water reflecting the orange lights of the village. Their faces look serene, as if illuminated by a flicker of hope. But as they're moving their lips, some closing their eyes, there is no way to tell if they are thanking God that they made it here safely or if they're asking Him not to send them back.

Last in a series. Parts 1 and 2 were published on Nov. 14 and 15.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society