A reflection by Mauro Armanino, Italian SMA priest working in Niamey, Niger
No national day of mourning has been declared, none of what is decreed for military members who die in battle, for civilians who lose their lives in dramatic circumstances or natural disasters. No mourning for, a 14-year-old boy who died in the landing gear of the plane where he had hidden for his only trip to Paris. From Abidjan, the capital of the Ivory Coast, it’s a five- or six-hour flight and the temperature can drop, according to specialists, up to minus 50 degrees Celsius. Laurent Barthelemy, a student in junior high, died at the age of fourteen while the unsuspecting passengers on board passed the time as usual, waiting to land. Laurent Barthelemy was with them without knowing and perhaps without wanting to.
According to the first reconstructions of the incident, the boy climbed over the airport wall, hid in the bushes that runs alongside the runway, and then embraced the landing gear of the plane that held him until arrival. A simple student, rather silent and delicate. His parents raised the alarm after he didn’t return home from school in the popular Yopougon neighborhood of Abidjan.
He had left without knowing, or perhaps he had understood how much the others did not even dare to think about. Another life with more chances than that which fate, often blind in Africa, had offered him. Who knows how many times he had heard, and perhaps even seen for himself, the planes moving far away, closer to that world he saw on television. The world his few friends had made him imagine. Abidjan’s Plateau neighborhood boasts of its skyscrapers and the Cocody neighborhood of its embassies and presidential residences. At fourteen he already knew how the world that his parents had entrusted to him works. He had only heard of the struggles for the Presidency and the division of the country into two because at that time he was too young to understand. Over the years he had figured out that those who found themselves in high places, those whose pictures smiled from campaign posters, had betrayed him and others like him. They talked about things he did not even imagine, because the macroeconomy was doing very well and the poor, on the other hand, increased. He hadn’t had time to think about it because very soon, shortly after the plane took off at 10:55 pm that night, he was tired and scared. He fell asleep soon after, thinking of the mother who would soon hear from him, and the father who would be proud to have a son to look after him in old age.
Upon arrival at Charles de Gaulle airport in Paris, at 6 am the following day, his sleep had become endless and at 6:40 he was found curled up as if he were in his mother’s womb. The last time someone was found in similar conditions was back in 2013. Just seven years apart, a biblical number that indicates the fullness and realization of plans that no one dares to imagine with impunity. So little that no day of mourning has been decreed by the authorities, who have instead limited themselves to ensuring greater security around Houphouet Boigny Airport, the international airport in Ivory Coast’s economic capital. Construction and installations around the airport that could facilitate a repeat event will be moved farther away, the Transport Minister has promised. No word of compassion or blame for what constituted the motive for Laurent Barthelemy ‘s last trip. If he had been an honest person, he would have first stayed silent, gone to visit the boy’s parents and then proposed 14 years of national mourning to the President: the age of Laurent Barthelemy.
The Minister did not understand that Laurent Barthelemy ‘s journey of no return represents a defeat for everyone. Above all for his country, unable to offer its children a future. Then for Africa, which allowed itself to be transformed into a terrain of conquest for the neoliberal horror. Finally, for the other world, the West, which betrays that which distinguishes civilization from barbarism: the hospitality to strangers.
Laurent Barthelemy is not the first and he will not be the last to dig under a wall. Building higher walls or adding barbed wire will not suffice to end this story. The investigation into the cause of Laurent Barthelemy’s endless slumber was entrusted to the Air Transport Police. Instead, it should have been entrusted to the country’s politicians. One truly illuminating comment on the incident, published by the French newspaper Le Figaro, was “Couldn’t he just stay home? We don’t want any more.” The investigation has already ended.
Mauro Armanino, SMA, Niamey, January 11, 2020[Editor’s Note: This story was reported in the news in French and English. One of them was the Daily Mail from UK