Ustica, known locally as the “black pearl” of the Mediterranean, and whose name is Latin for “burnt”, is a small volcanic island 30 miles off the coast of Palermo, Sicily. Presently home to approximately 1300 people, historically it was populated by Phoenicians, Carthaginian mutineers (who were left there to die of hunger), Romans, a Benedictine community, and a small group of settlers from the nearby island of Lipari.

The harbour of Carla Santa Maria during the time of the first Libyan deportations in the 1910s (L), and today (R).

Ustica remained a place of exile and captivity for Italy’s undesirables until 1961. Thousands of Mussolini’s political opponents, including many Libyan notables and leading members of the resistance against the occupation were banished to the island during the fascist period. The island also hosted homosexuals expelled from mainland Italy during this time. In the early 1940s Yugoslav war prisoners were held captive there, many of whom died from malnutrition and tuberculosis. Later in the 1950s, they were followed by Mafiosi expelled from Sicily.

While much of the literature refers to the island’s history as a “fascist prison”, it was the then Prime Minister of Italy and prominent leader of the Historical Left and the Liberal Union, Giovanni Giolitti, who was responsible for initiating the collective deportation of Libyans onto prison islands in the Tyrrhenian and Adriatic Sea, Ustica among them. More Libyans were held captive in these penal colonies under his command during the first four years after Italy’s invasion of Libya than during the entire reign of Mussolini.

On the evening of September 28th 1911, the first Italian fleet was seen off the Tripoli coast. It was not until October 3rd that Italy began the bombardment of the port. While it was expected that the Turks would defend the territory, what was unexpected was the ferocity of the Libyan resistance. By the time the first 1500 Italian soldiers disembarked on October 10th 1911, although a small proportion of locals (mainly Libyan Jews) had welcomed and soon began to collaborate with them, a larger proportion of local Arabs and Bedouins, organised by the Turks, revolted against the invasion.

On October 23rd 1911, the Italian soldiers stationed at the small oasis village of Shar al-Shatt as part of the defense of Tripoli, came under surprise attack by Turkish and Arab fighters who quickly overran and decimated the camp. It is reported that 503 officers and light infantry lost their lives in the attack. It was the biggest loss of life for Italian troops prior to WW1. The revolt angered the invaders who had anticipated a docile Arab population and the quick conquest of Tripoli.

It was after this event that Giollitti proposed the forced captivity of anyone who he considered as standing in the way of their conquest. In a telegram to the general Carlo Caneva, Giolitti refers to his victims as “rebels”, and informs Caneva of his plan to send them to prison islands to live under “house arrest”. The victims were in fact mostly civilians, of all ages and from all walks of life, and included the poor and wealthy, merchants and peasants, women, children, and the elderly.

The events of Shar al-Shatt were also significant in changing public opinion about Italy’s invasion of Tripoli. Home grown Italian anti-military sentiment was prevalent, amongst the political left and anarchists in particular, among whom Mussolini was a contemporary. Mussolini had been arrested and served a five month prison sentence for protesting the Tripoli invasion. Once a leading member of the Italian Socialist Party, and a proponent of neutrality, Mussolini changed not only his stance on military intervention but his political allegiance soon after Shar al-Shatt, and frequently cited the revolt as he imposed his programme of pacification of Libya.

Between October 25th and 30th 1911, Caneva had embarked almost 3500 Libyans to 26 different penitentiaries. The largest numbers were sent to the islands of Tremiti and Ustica. The first group of Libyan prisoners, 920 men from Tripoli and surrounding towns, aboard the steamship Rumania, arrived at Ustica on October 29th 1911, disembarking at the island’s rocky beach harbour, Carla Santa Maria. An archival photo of the arrival shows men in traditional garb huddled together on the harbour, with more men ferried to shore in dinghies, as soldiers stand guard overseeing proceedings. This was the first of two waves of deportations to Ustica and lasted until June 1912.

The first group of Libyan prisoners to Ustica disembarking at the island’s harbour on October 29th 1911. The ship is said to have approach the harbour flying a yellow flag at her foremast to signal victims of cholera were aboard. Photo from Centro Studi e Documentazione Isola di Ustica.
Libyan prisoners being led through the town. Photos from Centro Studi e Documentazione Isola di Ustica.

Of this first group of deportees, 137 are said to have died (according to documents published by Centro Studi e Documentazione Isola di Ustica); five enroute and whose bodies were thrown overboard, and 132 after arriving onto the island. Many credit Antonino Cutrera, the penitentiary director, for improving conditions at Ustica by increasing daily meals and urging the ministry to provide appropriate clothing to the prisoners. First hand accounts paint an altogether different image. By his own account, Cutrera described the prisoners “piled up in a manner not suited neither to human respect nor to our dignity”. A physician employed in Ustica asked for the penitentiary to be closed, and reported that that the barracks of fUstica prison “must not be considered as shelters for human beings”. Paulo Valera, the only journalist who managed to visit the detention centres, describes the conditions of the Ustica Island prison as “disease and stench ridden”, and reports that cholera had “killed off more than 500” Libyan prisoners in a short space of time. In an article for the socialist newspaper Avanti! (a paper which would later be edited by Mussolini), Valera reports:

It is undoubtedly the most frightening colony of state prisoners that I have ever visited. It smells of infected air ten minutes from the beach. One blanches as if at the gates of a lazar house. The closer the steamer approaches, and the more the people become silent. It seems the beginning of a sacrifice. The camp of all this army of prisoners of war is, without a doubt, anti-human.

Deportees were piled together in small spaces and slept on straw. There were allowed to go outside for only an hour or two per day, and always supervised by guards. Overcrowded and starved, in the first week, a cholera pandemic swept through the island. The residents of the island were hostile to the arrival of a vast number of Libyan prisoners, with whom came illness and disease. As the spread of cholera became unrelenting, measures were quickly taken in an attempt to thwart it and reassure the natives that authorities were taking the necessary measures to protect them. These included forcing the prisoners to strip naked on the harbour and scrub themselves in the freezing waters. An archival photograph shows a mass of bodies waist deep in the sea, attempting to tackle the freezing temperatures and oncoming waves. Many caught pneumonia and bronchitis after this. Another measure was the public burning of the prisoners’ clothing, the jerd; a strong and heavy woolen outer garment, in the island’s central square. The spectacle of the fire was symbolic, and is said to have transfixed the island’s residents. Although the apprehensions of Ustica’s residents regarding the sanitary conditions of the prisoners and the spread of disease were valid, the way in which they expressed their concern and discomfort denoted their racist views of the Libyan deportees. Libyans were considered “sickening individuals plagued by thousands of infectious diseases”, and “a vehicle of infection”.

Libyan prisoners were forced to scrub themselves in freezing waters in one of the many methods of disease control enforced. Photo from Centro Studi e Documentazione Isola di Ustica.
The public burning of the prisoners’ clothing in the island’s central square. Photo from Centro Studi e Documentazione Isola di Ustica.

After the first week of deportations in October 1911, and with the death toll among the prisoners rapidly rising, Ustica’s penitentiary director, Cuterera, found it necessary to construct a separate cemetery on the island that remains today adjacent to the Catholic cemetery. The cemetery would be known as “The Cemetery of the Arabs”. Between October 1911 and June 1912, the 132 Libyan deportees who lost their lives on the island would be buried here, mostly by other deportees. The prisoners died from cholera, tuberculosis, dysentery, syphillis, internal bleeding, nephritis, meningitis, pneumonia, and starvation.

Those of this first group of deportees who survived endured months of sickness, squalor, and humiliation were repatriated in May and June of 1912. 489 Libyans left Ustica aboard the ship Washington on May 4th 1912, and a further 270 left in May 23rd. It is reported that two more Libyan prisoners died in the folowing days, and that remaining deportees left Ustica on June 16th 1912.

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In 2004 the Libyan government paid for the renovation of the cemetery. I visited the cemetery in August 2019. The following are a series of photos from my trip.

The cemetery is located very close to the coast on the north east of the island. A plaque marking the memorial can be found on the west border of the cemetery, although the cemetery itself can only be accessed by walking through the Christian cemetery and chapel to the east of the plot. In the satellite image the Muslim cemetery is highlighted in red (R). With its mild climate, wildflower meadows, rocky beaches, and crystal clear waters, Ustica is an increasingly popular holiday destination for Sicilians (but there are few non-Sicilian, and fewer non-Italian tourists). It is particularly popular with divers and snorkelers. There are frequent direct ferry services from Palermo.
Only a narrow road separates the cemetery from the coast as seen in the top left photo. The memorial plaque reads “to the Libyan victims of the deportation to Ustica”. The cemetery is bordered by a white wall on three sides. It is separated from the Christian cemetery by a series of domed pillars. Inside are ablution facilities, as seen in the bottom right photo.
There are two further plaques commemorating the victims within the cemetry.
The plaque on the right reads “in this cemetery from 29th October 1911 to 9th June 1912, 132 Arab captives were buried”.  The plaque on the left reads “this cemetery belongs to/is managed by the colonial..” (the last word is indecipherable).
Part of the Christian cemetery (and the more recent tombs) that is passed through to access the memorial. The domed wall that now marks the beginning of the Muslim cemetery can be seen in the distance (L). The cemetery soon after it was renovated in 2004 (R).
Faiez Serraj is pictured at the cemetery in November 2018. He traveled to Ustica while in Palermo for a conference. During the Gaddafi regime, an annual delegation from Libya were sent to pay their respects; this once included a son of Omar al-Mukhtar. Photo from Libya Herald.

In December 1999, Centro Studi e Documentazione Isola di Ustica published a list of the known names of the 132 Libyan deportees who died on the island, in order of their deaths, during the first wave of deportations between October 1911 and June 1912. Their ages, and when known, their hometowns and occupations were also listed. Those listed include a 32 year “deaf and dumb” man, a 16 year old weaver, a 70 year old, and two men from Sudan. May Allah elevate these men, and may their graves become meadows of the Garden:

  1. Anonymous, 29 years old
  2. Anonymous, 27 years old
  3. Anonymous, 26 years old
  4. Anonymous, 36 years old
  5. Anonymous, 42 years old
  6. Anonymous, 40 years old
  7. Anonymous, 40 years old
  8. Anonymous, 38 years old
  9. Anonymous, 28 years old
  10. Anonymous, 40 years old
  11. Anonymous, 33 years old
  12. Anonymous, 25 years old
  13. Mchemed, 30 years old
  14. Musatfà, 25 years old
  15. Ali, 40 years old
  16. Dsza Ali, 30 years old
  17. Ali Massum, 29 years old
  18. Desmet, 34 years old
  19. Mened, 41 years old
  20. Ali, 28 years old
  21. Anonymous, 43 years old
  22. Anonymous, 29 years old
  23. Anonymous, 30 years old
  24. Anonymous, 39 years old
  25. Ali, 35 years old
  26. Ali, 23 years old
  27. Mohamed, 50 years old
  28. Anonymous, 24 years old
  29. Anonymous, 36 years old
  30. Anonymous, 50 years old
  31. Gumma Menadem, 20 years old
  32. Anonymous, 46 years old
  33. Anonymous, 40 years old
  34. Anonymous, 30 years old
  35. Anonymous, 29 years old
  36. Anonymous, 32 years old
  37. Anonymous, 35 years old
  38. Anonymous, 38 years old
  39. Anonymous, 40 years old
  40. Anonymous, 41 years old
  41. Anonymous, 29 years old
  42. Anonymous, 34 years old
  43. Ali, 23 years old
  44. Mohamed, 35 years old
  45. Ali Solim, 35 years old
  46. Jasur, 45 years old
  47. Ali Teberen, 37 years old
  48. Manni, 40 years old
  49. Mammed, 36 years old
  50. Ali, 40 years old
  51. Disza, 29 years old
  52. Medem, 45 years old
  53. Milmiz, 27 years old
  54. Enver, 32 years old
  55. Hlifa Ben Ahmed Ali Segur, Tripoli, 30 years old
  56. Braem Ben Adea, 34 years old
  57. Mazam Ali, 40 years old
  58. Mamed Ben Zai, Tripoli, 29 years old
  59. Sieben Ben Mansur, 29 years old
  60. Ben Mahamed Ales, Tripoli, 50 years old
  61. Mahammed Ben Hdalla, Tripoli, 40 years old
  62. Mahammed Ben Mahammed, Tripoli, 50 years old
  63. Mahamed Ben Macham, Tripoli, 40 years old
  64. Ali Ben Mohamed El Get, Tripoli, 20 years old
  65. Anonymous, 30 years old
  66. Anonymous, 26 years old
  67. Anonymous, 28 years old
  68. Anonymous, 29 years old
  69. Anonymous, 24 years old
  70. Anonymous, deaf and dumb man, 32 years old
  71. Racuma Ben Ahmed, Garyan, 30 years old
  72. Mabruch Ben Mesi, Tripoli, 60 years old
  73. Ali Ben Ahmed, Tripoli, 20 years old
  74. Mohammed Ben Sellam, Tripoli, 30 years old
  75. Said Ben Mohammed, Orfella, 39 years old
  76. Kir Ben Albeni, Sudan, 53 years old
  77. Abdichirin Ben Amara, Tripoli, 52 years old
  78. Amed Ben Atmen, Tripoli, 25 years old
  79. Ascuir Ben Hat, Kasr, Al-Jifārah, 27 years old
  80. Mahammed Ben Ahmed, Tripoli, 28 years old
  81. Mohammed Ben Amorr, Tripoli, 23 years old
  82. Messaud Ben Salem, Tripoli, 35 years old
  83. Ahmed Ben Brahim, Shar al-Shatt, 35 years old
  84. Mohammed Ben Salah, Tripoli, 30 years old
  85. Saarad Ben Ali, Tripoli, 25 years old
  86. Salak Ben Ali, Tripoli, 25 years old
  87. Mohammed Ben Hir, Tripoli, 22 years old
  88. Mahammed Ben Asceriff, Tripoli, 35 years old
  89. Amorr Ben Haliffu, 30 years old
  90. Mahammed Ben Hay Mahammed, Tripoli, 42 years old
  91. Harifs Ben Saad, Tripoli, 60 years old
  92. Sebem Ben Hasmedeni, 30 years old
  93. Mahammed Fhalim Mahammed Ben, Tripoli, 30 years old
  94. Miled Ben Mohammed, Tripoli, 50 years old
  95. Selen Ben Miled, Tripoli, 25 years old
  96. Mohmed Ben Ali, 20 years old
  97. Ali Ben Budaker, Tripoli, 35 years old
  98. Abdesed, 24 years old
  99. Ben Mahamed Hag Amurr, Tripoli, 53 years old
  100. Mahammed Ben Ali, Tripoli, 20 years old
  101. Ben Mahamed Abdalla, 38 years old
  102. Age Ben Ali Mahamed, Tripoli, 50 years old
  103. Abdalla Ben Basciura Sed, Tripoli, farmer, 35 years old
  104. Ali Ben Hia, Tripoli, 23 years old
  105. Ben Mahamed Mahamed, Tripoli, 30 years old
  106. Nur Ali Ben Ben Ettik, Tajoura, farmer, 50 years old
  107. Haig Hemud Ben Ali Marub, 60 years old
  108. Abdeselem Ben Saad, Gesara, farmer, 25 years old
  109. Abdel Kader Ben Brahim, Tripoli, farmer, 41 years old
  110. Haig Ali Ben Atmen Tripoli, 60 years old
  111. Nafsar Ben Abdallah, 17 years old
  112. Mamed Ben Mahamed, Tripoli, 32 years old
  113. Ali Ben Hliga, Zanzur, 26 years old
  114. Scereb Mausur Ben Abdallah, Tripoli, 30 years old
  115. Messand Ben Abid, Ben Abid, Tripoli, 60 years old
  116. Ali Ben Mohammed, Tahrma, farmer, 20 years old
  117. Nagi Ben Buargeb, Sudan, 35 years old
  118. Hlifa Ben Haidg Amida, Tripoli, farmer, 26 years old
  119. Brahini Ben Mohammed, Tripoli, weaver, 16 years old
  120. Rumdan Ben Mohammed, Zliten, farmer, 60 years old
  121. Mohammed Ben Ali L Abeni, Tripoli, farmer, 35 years old
  122. Mahamed Ben Abdeselem Bellud, farmer, 55 years old
  123. Ali Ben Mohammed, 45 years old
  124. Hayg Matg Ben Hessen, 70 years old
  125. Mersell Ben Abdolla, farmer, 20 years old
  126. Mohamed Ben Belgasem, Tripoli, farmer, 20 years old
  127. Amur Ben Hadg Scirif, Tripoli, 40 years old

128 – 132 are not listed in the published document.

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