By Nick Gier
“I felt like if I didn’t do anything, I would regret it all my life, and I would feel like a coward.”
—French journalist Raphaël Krafft
Over treacherous mountain trails that Jews fleeing Nazi-occupied Italy once used, hundreds of refugees are now are searching for a better life in France and beyond. Some brave and compassionate locals are helping them reach their goals.
For 20 years French writer Raphaël Krafft had been a war correspondent in the Balkans and the Middle East. He had commiserated with hundreds of victims of violence and deprivation in these areas, but he had always maintained his professional distance.
Back in Paris he witnessed the desperate straits of refugees, some living under bridges without basic necessities. When friends asked him to help shelter more refugees, he did so indirectly.
But when Krafft met a Sudanese man named Ibrahim in October 2015, he decided that he, too, had to be directly involved. After Ibrahim refused to fight for the brutal janjaweed militia in Western Sudan, his phone shop was burned.
Fearing for his life, Ibrahim fled across the Mediterranean to safety in Italy. He then made his way to Ventimiglia on the southern border with France, where he met Krafft. Krafft was especially impressed with Ibrahim’s sincerity and his professed love for French culture and philosophy.
Ibrahim told Krafft that “my destination is France. I want to live there. I want to stay there. I am seeking peace and life and education.” Krafft was so moved that he committed himself to help—and to break the law.
Ibrahim and others had made it to France by train or car, but they had always been caught and sent back. (A 17-year-old Eritrean woman was killed while walking through a train tunnel.) Krafft decided that a mountain route would be the best bet.
Krafft agreed to take Ibrahim’s friend, Ahmad, and with a shepherd as their guide, the four of them started on their arduous journey. After hiking up the Col de Fenestre and crossing an 8,000-foot pass, the small group descended to the French town of Menton.
As they sneaked across the border, they saw a stone plaque. It was dedicated to Jews who had taken the same route in September 1943. Tears came to my eyes as I heard this story on NPR.
Last October Pierre-Alain Mannoni, a geography teacher from Nice, was arrested for transporting three Eritrean women to the hospital. Mannoni was visiting an alpine village where the women had sought refuge.
Mannoni reported that the women “were hurt, they had wounds and they were cold and frightened.” The police sent the two adult women back to Italy, but they were required by law to offer medical care to the minor.
People from these towns are now taking food and clothing across the mountains to Ventimiglia where hundreds of refugees are stranded. Incredibly, Italian authorities have made it a crime to feed and clothe these poor people.
Bernard Duchatelle, one of the French chefs, has decided that the only option is civil disobedience. Referring directly to Henry David Thoreau, he said: “If you believe your government doesn’t show morality then you have to go against your government. This is real morality.”
After spending three days in jail, Mannoni was released after a judge ruled that he had not broken any French law and that his actions were in line with the European Convention on Human Rights.
A French citizen who aids an undocumented foreign national and takes no fee has not committed a crime. The judge concluded that Mannoni was not a human trafficker; rather, he was a humanitarian.
Another judge in Nice interpreted the law differently in the case of Cedric Herrou, an olive farmer in Provence’s Roya Valley. For months he had been transporting Eritreans, Sudanese, Syrians and Afghans over the mountains. He had been arrested twice but was released when prosecutors declined to file charges.
After his third arrest, he was brought to trial. When the judge asked him why he did this, Herrou answered: “There are people dying on the side of the road. It’s not right. There are children who are not safe.” Conceding that his cause was “noble” but still illegal, the judge gave him a suspended sentence and released him.
Outside the courtroom, his cheering supporters were holding signs saying “Je suis Cedric,” “Long Live the Righteous of the Roya,” and “France, Where is Your Humanity”?
Herrou has vowed that he will continue his humanitarian efforts, and many in the Southern Alps are willing to support him.
Nick Gier of Moscow taught philosophy at the University of Idaho for 31 years.