Made Old Without Having Lived
History remembers Mussolini as the buffoonish Fascist, the ineffective silly man of Italy who led a lame military campaign in the Second World War, but in Libya he oversaw a campaign of genocide.
The tribal population was marched on foot to several concentration camps across the country. Every family lost members in these camps. Several of my forebears died there. Stories of torture, humiliation and famine have filtered down through the generations.
It is not clear how many perished in the camps. Official Italian census records show that the population of Cyrenaica [Eastern Libya] plummeted from 225,000 to 142,000. The orphans, numbering in the thousands, were sent to Fascist camps to be "reeducated." Brand-new planes machine-gunned herds of livestock. An Italian general boasted that between 1930 and 1931 the army reduced the number of sheep and goats from 270,000 to 67,000. As a consequence, many people starved to death.
— Hisham Matar, The Return
Surviving one of the Italian concentration camps at El Agheila, the Libyan poet Rajab Abuhweish composed a thirty-stanza poem about the experience, committing it to memory. Now a famous poem in Libyan letters, it is called "I Have No Illness But."
Hisham Matar remembers learning the poem in school and was particularly haunted by the following stanza—
I have no illness but the loss of noble folk
and the foul ones who now,
with calamitous, shameless faces, govern us.
How many a child have they taken and whipped?
The poor young flowers return confused,
made old without having lived.