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Raphael Vassallo

The Great White Lie

Zoto was ultimately killed, not just by kicks and punches, but also by a lie.

Raphael Vassallo
2 July 2012, 12:00am
The fact that Zoto was so brutally murdered illustrates that violent racism is clearly a reality in Malta
Let's call him by his nickname, Zoto: if nothing else because I've so far seen his real name spelt in at least five different ways, and to this day it remains unclear which is the correct version.

But let's call him Zoto for another reason, too. To consciously dehumanize him... to reduce him to little more than a vaguely comical sobriquet one might associate more with a cat or a dog than with a human being... or better still, a cartoon character: as if it were not a person at all who was kicked to death last Saturday, but only a cast member of 'Southpark' or 'Family Guy'. And let's face it: it is slightly difficult to feel any genuine horror when confronted with the violent death of a cartoon character (though I concede that the same cannot really be said for dogs and cats, which tend to have monuments erected to them when subjected to comparable treatment).

In any case, 'dehumanizing migrants' is a charge very often levelled at the local media... and sadly, not without very good reason. It was after all our State broadcaster that once compared a wave of migrant arrivals to a corresponding bloom of jellyfish. I remember the original headline on PBS' 8 o' clock news, and to be honest it still sends a chill down my spine today: "Once again summer is upon us, and so is the season of illegal immigrants and jellyfish..."

Elsewhere I myself can attest that it is actually hard not to dehumanise such people when reporting their plight. How can you do otherwise, when your country's entire immigration policy is geared specifically towards reducing them all to the status of nameless, faceless statistics... and in fact refers to them exclusively through the universal language of mathematics?

You know the sort of thing I mean: '800 arrived in three boatloads on such and such a date'; '2,000 housed in so many detention centres', '28 immigrants relocated to six countries in four months'... and on it goes, a steady stream of numbers, numbers, numbers and more numbers, crunched out endlessly by the State's PR department.

And yet, even when stripped of all humanity and relocated to a fictitious, numerological dimension - the numbers alone still have the power to shock. More specifically they speak volumes about the futility of the system that cost Zoto his life, and many other people their sanity and human dignity... while also challenging the very basis upon which so much of our national prejudice is actually built.

Consider the following detail: before his re-arrest on Friday, Zoto had spent three years 'on the run'. This means that, following his first escape from detention in 2009, his whereabouts remained officially unknown for just over 1,075 days. In all that time he did not show up on any local radar - unlike us 'regular' folk, who betray our existence every time we receive a water and electricity bill, or apply for an Internet account, or pay our national insurance/VAT/income tax, or vote in a local council election.

Throughout all this time - at least before last Friday -  Zoto was also very plainly alive: something that can only realistically have been possible if he found some form of employment, or at least subsistence, for at least part of the time he was at 'liberty'.

Even in this respect he proved one of a facless, dehumanised multitude expressed only in mathematics. Off-hand I do not know the exact number of people who find themselves in similar or identical straits... either because they were never picked up by the forces of law and order on arrival; or because they escaped from detention, and remain undetected; or because they are failed asylum seekers who cannot be deported to their country of origin for any of a dozen reasons.

It is probably safe to assume that some of these people will have migrated elsewhere in the meantime; but many others will almost certainly have vanished into the shadows of the black economy: living, like Zoto must have done, on the occasional odd-job here and there.

This is certainly what many vocal critics of immigration believe; and they routinely argue (on the comments boards of online newspapers, and on Xarabank and other gladiatorial media arenas) that these same people are 'stealing Maltese jobs', thus jeopardising the local economy to the detriment of us all. And yet, it was only a few weeks ago that a local newspaper (In-Nazzjon) ran a front-page headline claiming that there were currently more jobs on offer than there were applicants to fill them.

Faced with this contradiction, the question automatically arises. How can this even be possible, with an unquantifiable number irregular migrant workers busy snapping up all available employment opportunities? And if all such jobs are filled by immigrant workers... why isn't there a 10-mile queue of unemployed Maltese citizens outside the ETC offices?

The sad reality of their situation is that it had to take the violent murder of a Malian asylum seeker to illustrate the sheer dishonesty of the xenophobic anti-immigration argument. And it is a self-perpetuating dishonesty, too: the fact that Zoto was so brutally murdered illustrates that violent racism is clearly a reality in Malta. And why is violent racism such a reality in Malta... if not in part because of the unfounded fears that immigrants pose a threat to employment?

This in turn suggests that Zoto was ultimately killed, not just by kicks and punches, but also by a lie. And a great big whopping 'white lie' it is, too. A lie fanned relentlessly, both by the extreme right and the extremely stupid... because, just like the dehumanisation of migrants serves the purpose of making their subjugation more palatable, the groundless fear of minorities provides palpable benefits to those who would destabilise any given system, and seek to augment their own power and influence.  

But it remains nothing more than a lie. Contrary to popular sentiment, Malta actually needs workers like Zoto... infinitely more than it needs brutes of the kind who kicked him to death. And yes, I know this will never be a popular argument... but since when has the truth ever been popular?

Brian Azzopardi •
I hope that for once justice and truth prevails in this sad story. I very much doubt it. We feel sorry for these people when we watch them on tv with a lot of flies on their faces and walking skeletons children. We boast how charitable we are as a nation. Than when these same people step on our island behind our doors than we feel sorry for them no more. Unfortunately we are one big racist society. Its no wonder that we picture Jesus as a blond, blue eyed person where as the devil is a black person. If you want proof of this just visit one of our 'festas' and have a look at St Michael the Archangel and the person beneath his feet.
Twani Cassar •
Thank you, Raphael, for putting in clear and crystal terms what many of us have been thinking in the fury and frustration of the past three days. May Zoto rest in peace, if they let him. A small disagreement, with regards to the premise that the nickname Zoto dehumanises him. It will obviously depend on how it is used, and by whom; as far as I know, it was Zoto's friend Nelly who first published his photographs and nickname, on two different facebook group pages. When somebody calls me Twani instead of Antoine, I feel more human, more befriended to the person calling me. Unless of course my nickname is used disrespectfully... Getting Zoto's name right will prove more important than it seems in the coming days and months. I would still like to know whether or not the name "Abdalla Mohammed", which I first heard on MaltaStar/OneNews, is a cheap Islamesque invention intended to influence the public's reaction... It appears that this is also the name being used in the court proceedings. Zoto's friends, meanwhile, insist that his real name is Mamady Camara. (It is normal to find several spellings of this name, being a transcription from another language. It may also be the case that, for cultural reasons, Zoto had one 'religious' or 'official' written name, and a more real name in his own language.) More importantly, of course, I hope the events leading to Zoto's murder will be clarified in good time. Thanks again, Raphael.
Twani Cassar •
Thank you, Raphael, for putting in clear and crystal terms what many of us have been thinking in the fury and frustration of the past three days. May Zoto rest in peace, if they let him. A small disagreement, with regards to the premise that the nickname Zoto dehumanises him. It will obviously depend on how it is used, and by whom; as far as I know, it was Zoto's friend Nelly who first published his photographs and nickname, on two different facebook group pages. When somebody calls me Twani instead of Antoine, I feel more human, more befriended to the person calling me. Unless of course my nickname is used disrespectfully... Getting Zoto's name right will prove more important than it seems in the coming days and months. I would still like to know whether or not the name "Abdalla Mohammed", which I first heard on MaltaStar/OneNews, is a cheap Islamesque invention intended to influence the public's reaction... It appears that this is also the name being used in the court proceedings. Zoto's friends, meanwhile, insist that his real name is Mamady Camara. (It is normal to find several spellings of this name, being a transcription from another language. It may also be the case that, for cultural reasons, Zoto had one 'religious' or 'official' written name, and a more real name in his own language.) More importantly, of course, I hope the events leading to Zoto's murder will be clarified in good time. Thanks again, Raphael.
C Zammit •
The problem is not Mathematics; it's the innumerates who throw around numbers to impress. Consider: The EU has a population of 500-Million. For a statistically significant percentage, the number of newcomers must be at least 15-Million (3% of the population). IF ... if, a boatload of 300 (three hundered) were to land in any European port, such as Malta, on a daily basis, it would take almost 137 years to reach that figure! Between innumerates and irrationals, the immigrant has very little chance of survival. For shame!
truth seeker •
Dehumanizing people is what made the Holocaust possible. How could 6 million people be murdered if the murderers considered them as human beings? Am I exaggerating? Just read some comments on online fora and FB, making fun of Zoto and his death.
Gecko •
@Progress: Yes of course, everyone wants the whole truth to come out in court....unless, unless... there's some mistake in the charge sheet!!
not amused •
Of all the bloggers, yours have got to be the most hard-hitting and but, probably due to the bile in your mouth, you were more concerned in taking over part of the blame rather than objectively seeking how things got so far. Is this anti immigrant sentiment an imbedded flaw in our character or something which has been fermented over the time by self righteous politicians who surf-ride this wave of xenophobic madness to feed their own megalomaniac traits. Several years back, I was involved in group conversation about a local black market racketeer who used to make speed boat runs with illegal immigrants to Sicily. Most agreed that he was doing a 'Christian' act especially since, not once, did he have to dump his human cargo in the sea to escape the ‘Polizia della frontiera’. I remember being left speechless and chilled with disgust that I just muttered a strangled excuse and left the round. What shocked me the most was the cold detachment, completely void of any human feelings, with which this subject was being discussed. It was then I realized, that it was I, who was detached from reality while everybody else were simply mulling over the facts of life. Dear Mr. Vassallo, you may have made a very strong case for the illegal immigrants stranded on our island but frankly if someone smuggles them to other borders for a fair personal return, they would be perceived as doing more of a sterling service to the nation. Shocking you say, but then the truth usually is.
Tony Fenech •
It seems you have so much evidence that there is no need for the three accused to go to a trial. Please let's wait, maybe you might be right but please let's wait, I ask again, for the whole truth and nothing but the truth to come out in court.