Trigger Warning: mass state violence, racism, anti-immigrant violence, suicide.
N.B.: Dates in this post are written in day/month/year format.
Flavia Dzodan is a South American writer and media maker living in Amsterdam. She usually blogs at Tiger Beatdown and keeps a personal blog where she aggregates the different places that regularly publish her articles. She can also be found on Twitter.
Dying with no name, the Nomen Nescio of Europe
I used to hate my name. Not the name per se, but the way it was used against me, to admonish me, to tell me how I was bad. Inherently bad, Flavia es una hija de puta, he, they, many said. I was then my mother’s daughter. The daughter of. I hated the sound, I hated being named, I hated the way my name was pronounced to imply discipline, to coerce, to subdue.
My surname, though, I always associated with a lineage of hatred. The violence that ran in so many men in my family, the inheritance of rancor and clenched teeth and fists. I wanted nothing more than to change it. I wanted to be someone else, the one who did not belong to the violence, the one who managed to escape it through another name.
I got married and I desperately wanted to have my husband’s name. I had not met my father-in-law (it was a long and painful story of family separation for my husband), so his name came to me without the burdens of personal history. Here was this kind man, here was his name, and I could see myself as part of it.
The Dutch state does not allow the legal change of name through marriage, though. I could use his name if I wanted to, but no I.D. or paperwork would reflect this preference. It would be a mere pseudonymous choice without any legal repercussions as to my identity. My passport would remain the same, my ID would remain unchanged, my health insurance would be as it was before the marriage.
For a while, I tried to use it. I thought of myself as new. A new person, shedding what I perceived to be a legacy of violence. Then, every time I had to renew my residence permit or present proof of identity, I was reminded that I was going to remain who I was. I could pretend to change my name, but the intricacies of State bureaucracy would make sure I always had my heritage in mind.
One day, a few years ago, while dealing with the painful impact of my past as an undocumented immigrant, I came across the list of the dead. It was a harrowing file that detailed each death either in a European detention center or while in transit attempting to enter the European Union as an undocumented immigrant. I still remember my reaction when I first saw the list. More than 16,000 people had died either in the care of European States, or because of Europe’s neglect to protect undocumented migrants on its coasts. More than three quarters of those listed are simply N.N. The Nomen Nescio, as it is called in Latin. Literally translated, “I do not know the name”.
07/05/09 1 N.N. (49, woman) Tunisia suicide in the detention centre of Ponte Gallera, in Roma (Italy)
19/10/08 1 N.N. (60, woman) France suicide, set herself on fire to protest against the deportation of her Armenian partner
08/05/06 1 N.N. (57, woman) from China, suicide, hung herself in fear of deportation in a detention centre in Neuss (Germany)
I look at the ones that died on a day in March, like today, while I write this:
27/03/11 308 (yes, that’s 308 in a single occasion) N.N. unknown feared drowned, boat of 335 left Libya for Italy had been missing for 2 weeks, in spite of the fact that NATO helicopters were patrolling the Mediterranean.
27/03/02 1 N.N. unknown nationality died in minefield near river Evros (GR) trying to cross the Turkish-Greek border
I immediately thought of the mass graves of Argentina’s dictatorship, the thousands of Nomen Nescio political dissidents buried by the military, their bodies never meant to be found, to be forgotten, no heritage, no legacy, no place to be mourned. Just like those N.N undocumented immigrants, their bodies never claimed, their loved ones without a place to remember, without the possibility of tribute.
There is a long history of using N.N burial sites as a way to erase identity and dehumanize victims. Mass graves with unidentified bodies have been used by the Nazis to erase people and their identities. Enslaved Africans were buried in mass graves, as N.N., reduced simply to bodies and disposed of without ritual or care. In Guatemala, paramilitary squads interrogated, tortured and secretly executed dissidents, many of them indigenous people, their bodies dumped in remote sites or buried in mass graves as N.N.
Names have a distinctive function in contemporary Western societies, our names are seen as having the dual character of denoting the individuality of the person, and also marking social connections. Our names mark kinship, and the ways in which names can be, and are, used to map family connections as well as to identify unique individuals. We exist in the context of our names. These thousands of N.N dead on Europe’s footsteps, removed from the kinship, denied of the family connection and the community than comes with it. A nameless corpse, a victim of European State violence.
It was then that I realized that my name didn’t matter. I realized that there was privilege in the fact that I was afforded a name at all, that I could be named by my loved ones, that people could use my name and know who I was. It was then when I became comfortable with my name, because I realized I could have easily been deprived of it.
Let’s Talk About Names: Kristin is the previous post in the series.
Let’s Talk about Names: William is the next post in the series.