At the beginning of April, in normal times and without the virus, in the square of Aragon at lunchtime you can hear the sounds of cutlery beating on the plates, while in the air you can already feel the thrill of Easter, the feast that fills the streets with thousands of people for the ritual of the meeting. And on Good Friday, always in normal times, the sacred urn arrives with the representation of Jesus inside, carried on the shoulder by the faithful.
This year no, it did not happen. And in the ancient inland town of Agrigento there was no rite, no party. There was only silence.
And it is in silence that she dragged on for days the agony of Ali Saibu, 20 years old, thin and tall boy, coming from Ghana and arrived in Italy to work as a laborer, first in Messina and then in Aragona, in the province of Agrigento. Until Saturday 4 April, when Ali died, always in silence. His body will leave the reception center only on Sunday evening, closed in a coffin carried on the shoulder by the men of a funeral agency, all harnessed from head to toe for fear of the virus that is terrorizing Italy in those days.
“Natural death”, say the men of the Aragon municipal police, without specifying anything else. The post mortem buffer for Covid (only one, whose result arrived 3 days after death) was negative. From the extraordinary reception center (Cas) it is said that “perhaps” the boy died “from stress”.
What is certain is that Ali, like many of his countrymen and like the other guests of the reception center of Aragon (Prince Institute Foundation) he worked all day in the collection of oregano: bent for several hours, he had always gone to the fields even during the quarantine period, among other things in a week in which the rains had given no respite. And even in those days, when Ali told the other laborers to “not feel so good”, he continued to work. Only on March 31 he decided to stop, because he could not get out of bed: he had high fever and diarrhea, he was not standing.
From here on it is a film of anguish, and not with a happy ending. One of his roommates tells the Espresso, one who has shared the last few hours with him and who, although in tears, manages to reconstruct the pieces of a story still largely to be deciphered.
From the morning of March 31st, therefore, the boy has been lying helpless on his cot. Friends see that he is sick, he complains and his forehead is getting hotter. At the reception center there is no doctor and then the companions go to look for one whose address they know. But when he learns the symptoms of Ali – high fever and diarrhea – the doctor refuses to go to visit him. The boys insist, at least ask him if they can transport him to his study, he still says no, these are the days when the virus is too scary. The comrades do not give up, they call the reception center operators on the phone, they too try to convince the doctor who, however, is adamant. “He only told us to give him some medicine for diarrhea,” says the friend.
In the following hours, Ali’s situation worsened. The comrades do not know what to do, they are lost, afraid, anguished. However, they do not have time to go to a hospital: “I still have those images in mind,” says the friend. «On Saturday morning Ali tries to get up to go to the bathroom again but after a few steps he falls to the ground. Dead”.
Only then does the ambulance arrive. The emergency room doctors nail in front of Palazzo Principe, the historic home of the founders of the town, then inherited by the nuns: harnessed from head to toe, in full emergency, all they can do is note the boy’s death. With them are the men of the municipal police of Aragon, who will then take care of the investigation, never passed to the police.
“The doctors who arrived with the ambulance touched Ali’s neck and only told us:” he is dead “. Then they made the swab for Covid-19 and left, “taking away the report to be analyzed.
In the meantime, the news of Ali’s death spread and pending the results of the buffer, panic broke out in the country: the symptoms are all attributable to the virus, so that of Covid-19 becomes the most probable hypothesis. The sanitation of the reception center premises is decided, other guests are forbidden to go out. The fear of an outbreak within the country is so great: Ali, dead in his bed, becomes a corpse from which to stay away. For everyone, except for the migrants: “They locked us in,” says the young man’s friend, “with Ali’s body still there on the bed”.
For a day and a night nobody comes to pick up the corpse: he remains closed in the center, between the incredulous and fearful eyes of the other guests, about twenty, who ask for help as they can through their contacts. To intercede for them is the priest of the country, Don Angelo Chillura, who warns the mayor and other institutions about that little human act that is taking place in that center. Those who can also call a lawyer, others alert their friends: “We are afraid”, they say, with Ali’s corpse next to them, while the result of the swab still does not arrive.
Those dramatic moments are documented by one of the boys in the center, who with a video shows what is happening in those hours: a document that perhaps will be able to say something about a death that has been tracked in the moment of maximum alert for Italy: «Let’s go from here, we are treated like beasts », says someone who is filming, in a broken English” pidgin “, taking back Ali’s lifeless body on the bed, with his shirt raised and his arm outstretched. “This Ghanaian boy is dead and nobody comes to get him.”
On Sunday afternoon, after several solicitations, Alì’s corpse, still on the bed, after a prayer from his friends in the center is taken to be directly buried in the Aragon cemetery, without any other medical tests. The municipal police, who follow the investigations, do not have an autopsy or any other test to clarify the reasons for the death pending the swab.
The results of the swab on Covid-19 will only arrive on April 7: to announce it is the mayor of Aragon Peppe Pendolino, who on Facebook gives the news of the negativity of the dead boy.
Upon hearing the outcome of the exam, the waters calm down a bit in the village. But in reality there is still a margin of uncertainty on the swab itself (which has only been done once). But paradoxically, the possible negativity increases even more the doubts about what happened. If it wasn’t Covid-19, what did this healthy and sporty boy die of, who until ten days before seemed to be doing very well? And why was an autopsy never done? And what does “natural death” mean, the formula used by the municipal police?
So Alì’s tragedy becomes the subject of a complaint in the prosecutor’s office, presented by a group of activists, the Borderline association: «After the unsuccessful autopsy we made a complaint», explains Alberto Biondo, member of the association that deals with the rights of migrants. “We ask for honest answers and await clarification on this story.”
What did Ali die from? This is also the question that crawls among the most aware and supportive citizens of Aragon, some of whom on Facebook have launched the hashtag “VeritàperAlì”.
Almost 100 days after the events, after all, Ali Salibu’s death certificate still has a big hole to fill: the one about the causes of death. “The boy did not die from the Coronavirus,” Gabriella Giacco, the director of the reception center, says today. «Maybe it was the stress of those days. What we do know is that the swab was negative. “
In the meantime, the Istituto Principe Foundation has launched a fundraiser to help the family (who has been tracked down in Ghana and informed of what happened) and to try to repatriate the body. Even the oregano harvesting company for which Ali worked (with all the credentials) says he wants to collaborate to make a contribution to the family. Despite the climate of apparent cooperation, however, very few of Ali’s comrades want to speak: “We are afraid”, almost all respond when asked about Ghanaian. The same silence now closes the mouth even to most of the almost 10,000 inhabitants of Aragon, who would like to put the story behind them.
In this atmosphere of sewn-in mouths, Ali’s only fault is that of falling ill with something – too much work or something else – at the wrong time, in full Covid-19 emergency. And to have parents so far away that their cry for help is not heard. The body of Ali is still in the cemetery of Aragon, without a plaque, the name badly written on the concrete, with a withered flower next to it, while on the other side of the world to wither is the heart of a mother who ignores how her son died, but he knows he won’t be able to give him one last caress.