Saving Lives at Sea: Onboard a Migrant Rescue Ship in the Mediterranean

Writer Erri De Luca on a Two-Week Rescue Mission

By  Erri De Luca

At six in the morning, 18 miles off the Libyan coast, Pietro Catania, captain of the Medécins Sans Frontières rescue boat Prudence, shows me on a nautical map where three inflatable dinghies were spotted during the night leaving from the beaches of Sabrata.

 

By six in the morning they’d managed the eight miles of distance.

I start my turn at watch with the binoculars. The ship’s radar system isn’t up to the task: it’s unable to find a low-lying vessel made of human bodies and rubber. From the other side of the bow, Matthias Kennes, the head of the MSF team on board, scrutinizes the rest of the horizon. Lights from the coast are visible; the dawn is crystalline.

Hours pass in vain. Eventually we learn that Libyan cutters have intercepted the dinghies and forced them to turn back. They’d gone 15 nautical miles out, and thus beyond the 12 nautical mile territorial limit (a distance of roughly 14 miles on land). They could have left them alone. As it is, if dinghies go down before they pass the limit, it’s a death sentence; we’re not allowed to intervene. Today the forces of order take them back to land and close them up again in cages. But not all of them. One of the dinghies towed back overturns. Ninety-seven drown. When writing about human lives, letters should be used rather than numbers. Twenty-seven are granted readmission to the lottery for survival.

Onboard the Prudence everything was ready. We’re left with our fists clenched, unable to open them, to put them to the work of collecting. I look at the evening sea: calm and flat as a carpet. Ships don’t wreck without waves. It’s either nonsense or a curse to speak of foundering in a calm sea, with no hostile force of nature involved—except ours. Our fists stay clenched.

I don’t get seasick; as a child I learned how to keep my balance on the waves. I don’t get seasick, but tonight I do feel the sea’s pain, its nausea after swallowing these sailors whole. The sea is a living creature, one the Latins affectionately called ours, because no one would ever say it’s mine. The ship I’m in would like to save the sea from more mass graves.

I brought the Aeneid onboard with me to read. Battered by tempests to this same stretch of sea, off the coast of Libya, Aeneas had left his homeland far behind, in flames. He went looking for Italy, the land promised by prophecy. Virgil speaks of shipwrecks, of those lost at sea. He is able to name names. Our vigil—both watch and wake—lasts another day and night.

So goes the transport of lives on today’s Mediterrean, either a carousel of cruise ships or rafts set adrift, entrusted to the judgment of whoever pockets the money, from either traffickers or from the European Union. Both are godsends: why forgo either source of donations? A raft or two lost at sea, the arrest of a random dinghy, just to pretend that treaties are being honored. Do the treaties make allowances for shipwrecks? Who would dare say such things? The treaties do admit collateral damage: the fault lies in unyielding masses that, force majeure, insist on making the journey. And they are forced: at night, collected from the fenced-in camp, a group of one-hundred-and-fifty is compelled to board an inflatable dinghy. Compelled: facing the darkness and an absurd level of risk, some want to drop out. They cannot. Some resist still. Weapons are drawn, then they also board. One of them, saved during a previous mission, had a bullet in his leg.

 

“If dolphins came to help those lost at sea, the empty-heads would accuse them too of conspiring with traffickers.”

 

The traffickers round them up, then they assign a compass and the tiller to one of them. They no longer use runners. One of the speedboats lowered from the Prudence to approach the dinghies asks the man holding the outboard’s tiller to turn the motor off. He answers that he doesn’t know how. The traffickers started it up; he only knows how to keep his hand on the tiller. The speedboat will to try to board the moving vessel. Lionel, an employee of MSF, has someone hold his feet, then jumps from the bow over to the dinghy’s outboard and turns it off. These days there are no runners.

In Sicily, in the port city of Augusta, where I board the Prudence, there’s an internment camp for people who came from the rescue boats. Next to it, giant cranes load scrap iron into cargo holds for shipping to foundries in Asia. Even rusty nails get sent abroad with the proper paperwork. But human beings in the camp next door are illegal cargo, waiting to be rejected. New procedures introduced by the latest misgovernment eliminate an asylum seeker’s right to appeal in cases where a first request has been denied. They take away the right to appeal—from those who have already lost everything they had to lose. In this country we write and pass cruel and barbaric laws. Some empty-heads pretend that the dinghies only leave because the rescue boats are out there. For 20 years now motorized rafts stuffed with bewildered humanity have gone to sea. The first ship was sunk in 1997 by an Italian military vessel, under orders to impose an illegal naval blockade in international waters. The ship came from Albania, and its name was Kater i Radës. The Italian state got away with paying only compensatory damages.

For 20 years now motorized rafts have traveled across the Mediterranean lacking any form of support. And today, now that an international community equipped for emergencies at sea finally exists, apparently it’s their fault the rafts are leaving. You might as well say diseases are caused by medicine.

If dolphins came to help those lost at sea, the empty-heads would accuse them too of conspiring with traffickers. The truth instead—this tall tale is intended as an accusation, because the rescuers have dared to interrupt the normalized occurrence of shipwrecks.

Because we are and apparently must remain unfeeling contemporaries, confronted with the longest and largest mass drowning in the history of humanity.

The next day at dawn we again scrutinize the horizon with the aid of binoculars. We know this past night that more left from Sabrata. My cabinmate Firas, who hails from Syria, has read Facebook messages in Arabic where this news was posted.

 

“A middle-aged Senegalese man, when he was brought aboard during an earlier rescue, was amazed by the reception. So much so, in fact, that he asked her with a smile, when would the aperitifs be served?”

 

We manage to locate the first overstuffed inflatable dinghy, with men straddling its tubular gunwales, its bow is half-deflated. A speedboat is lowered; the first thing needed is to distribute life vests. Often just the prospect of rescue causes dangerous agitation onboard the dinghy. The sea is flat as yesterday. Firas, at the bow with a megaphone, explains what comes next and keeps everyone calm. Once each of them is wearing a life vest, the Prudence comes close and hooks the dinghy to its side. On a small rope ladder they climb aboard, one at a time, strong arms helping them up. Some are unable to stay on their feet after so many hours kept in a cramped position on the dinghy. Some pregnant women climb up, as well as two children. Everyone is immediately given a small backpack containing a tracksuit, energy bars, fruit juice, water, and a towel. The medical team gives everyone a preliminary examination.

On the bridge, three cargo containers are equipped as a hospital unit, divided into intensive care, emergency room, quarantine for the infectious, and a small delivery room. Stefano Geniere Nigra, a young doctor from Torino, oversees these services.

Onboard the Prudence, terms such migrant, refugee, and the like are not used. They call them guests. And these guests receive the most urgent form of hospitality, given to people who come from the desert. Their welcome on board is so full of solicitude it’s worth retelling a story I heard from Giorgia Girometti, the local press officer for MSF. A middle-aged Senegalese man, when he was brought aboard during an earlier rescue, was amazed by the reception. So much so, in fact, that he asked her with a smile, when would the aperitifs be served? Onboard the Prudence they serve up smiles.

I look out the window at the deflated dinghy; its deck is held together by only a flooring of loose planks. It carried one hundred-and-twenty-nine people, powered by a small, 40-horsepower motor.

Between six in the morning and the following evening, three more dinghies, scattered beyond the 12 nautical miles, plus those transferred from a smaller rescue boat already filled to the limit. By evening six-hundred-forty-nine guests have been gathered aboard. The Prudence can carry up to a thousand; it’s the largest vessel in the area.

I’ve learned by heart only one verse from the Aeneid: “Una salus victis, nullam sperare salutem”—the only hope for the vanquished is to have no hope at all. To me this explains why human nature under threat will gamble, despite the highest possible risk, in order to free itself. So long as they stay on those floating air chambers, these lives—bagged up and thrown into the sea—don’t have the luxury of hope: even hope represents a failure to resist. To survive they need keep their obstinacy alone intact.

That evening a course is set for Reggio Calabria, a destination set by headquarters in Rome. The guests—finally safe, nourished, and warm—begin prayers and songs, and dance together, these people who come from different lands, each far from the other. They are onboard, and Italy is the next stop. This is the only part of their journey that costs them nothing. It is the only gift, the one free ride they’ve encountered. And it’s the best form of travel. Here at sea the economy has been turned upside-down. The worst sort of travel cost them dearly, and the best nothing. They rejoice in their release.

They are young, not a single elderly soul among them. They are the thin, wiry athletes of an endless marathon, selected out from the desert’s Russian roulette, from Libyan prisons, from chance rescues.

How many times by miracle have they saved? Why should the wheel of providence not keep spinning, keeping them alive? They don’t have the luxury of asking such questions. Whether their guardian angel might still be nearby, or whether he has finally collapsed from exhaustion, the will to keep going keeps them together. May it be long-lasting, this blessing, given with a parent’s farewell and the holy water of tears.

I have my passport with me. None of them have documents or baggage. Their exile has taken away their name, that they’re alive is all the identity they have left. Their children and grandchildren will want to learn, want to find again the impossible paths they’ve traveled, to recite this legendary epic. Today it appears only as a few lines on the back pages of newspapers, where the dead are numbered. “Umpteenth” is the obscene adjective used in the headline, next to the neutral noun “shipwreck.” “Umpteenth”: some journalist is tired of having to keep count, of having to raise an eyebrow for the umpteenth time.

On the banks of Lake Kinneret, called Tiberias by the conquerors from Rome, the youthful founder of Christianity found his first comrades. They worked as fishermen. The youth was fond of metaphors. According to Matthew (4.19) he said, “Follow me, and I will make you fishers of men.” I find myself in a time and on a boat where this metaphorical whimsy is applied to the letter. I’m here with people who have begun to fish for men, women, and children. The Mediterranean is Lake Kinneret, only bigger, with salt water.

Who are these fishermen? During the events described here, by chance there were 13 aboard, a team with no Iscariot. Four medical personnel, three logistics officers, three interpreters/cultural mediators, a psychologist, a communications officer, and the coordinator. All of them have worked on MSF interventions in various parts of the world. They’ve chosen rescue as their profession and in practice competence isn’t all that’s needed. You need an interior catapult, set to launch anywhere there’s a cry for help. They have passports from many nations, but their title is “without borders.” Here in international waters they’re in their native environment. Wherever their presence is indispensable, boundaries don’t matter—which is why they often disrupt the behavior of the governments involved. They’ve chosen not to accept funding from the European Union—which is why they aren’t liked by its agency Frontex, responsible for border control in the Mediterranean. Frontex doesn’t tolerate independent organizations, even if they save lives that would be lost without them.

A strange profession—inaugurated in this new millennium, a double distance from the inventor of the metaphor.

I am the oldest person onboard, including the sailors. In the maritime republic of this boat, founded on the principle of equality, the average age is much less than on terra firma. Though elderly, I’m also a novice in this business. I listen, I lend a hand, and—to the extent I can—I take it in.

 

“It can be done. Official procedures can be combined with a sense of human solidarity.”

 

Here too I continue my readings in ancient Hebrew; a couple of psalms to wake me up, by breathing a bit of life into them. I sense that here, even more than on land, they’re good for my health. They deepen my breathing, mixing more oxygen into the blood. More than the salty air, this boat is the cause, this parenthesis of quiet, a pause in the lives of these people called guests.

It is a parenthesis in mine too, and perhaps only for me is this boat a metaphor. It carries me whole—only the present time matters, here and now.

It’s Sunday morning when the Prudence comes within sight of the port of Reggio Calabria. Given the holiday will we find a sufficient presence there to disembark? Doubt vanishes as we enter the port: the first thing we see, by the number and color of their blue T-shirts, are the young Catholic volunteers singing a welcoming chorus. Then the entire medical personnel, police officers from the immigration service, and a line of buses to transport the new arrivals to various destinations. The volunteers give each person coming down the gangway a pamphlet written in multiple languages, informing them about rights and official procedures, a confirmation of what has already been explained to them onboard.

I come ashore and receive greetings from even the mayor; he came to the pier accompanied by some members of the municipal council. I can hardly believe it: it’s Sunday, but they’re all set to proceed, with efficiency, cordiality, and respect. In Reggio Calabria, I’m told, this is how it’s been done for the last two years. Matthias Kennes assures me that at the port in Palermo they have a similar ethos of service during disembarkations.

Men and women come ashore separately. One woman turns around, as if she’s lost. An immigration officer asks an interpreter to find out what she’s looking for. She’s missing her husband. The officer goes to look for him, locates him, and makes certain that the couple will travel together.

It can be done. Official procedures can be combined with a sense of human solidarity. Thank you, Reggio.

Back at sea the next morning, after refueling and restocking in a hurry. We maintain all due speed; there’s another emergency in the area. A large number of inflatable rafts have gone out, and on the spot the Phoenix, one of the MOAS (Migrant Offshore Aid Station) boats, is already full, with another nine rafts around it—in other words, a thousand people without water or life vests. They’re being kept together by a few ropes. We have at least 30 hours to navigate the rough seas that are slowing us down. We won’t be able to arrive in time. One of the rafts founders and no one can do a thing.

Traffickers send rafts out with no concern for the number of rescue boats nearby. Their only condition is that the seas are calm, not for humanitarian reasons, but simply because if the seas are even slightly rough, one-hundred-and-fifty people by powered by a 40-horse motor won’t manage to get to open waters.

Onboard the Prudence these sorts of departures are called launches, because they’re launched by a trafficker who never leaves the shore.

The intensity of these April launches was caused by our decision to furnish the Libyan Coast Guard with a great number of new speedboats, which they’ll begin using in May. In this uncertain environment the traffickers rush as many launches as possible, depending on meteorological conditions.

Captain Pietro Catania and his team are engaged body and soul in these operations, because they’re sea people. They don’t worry about taking turns or counting the clock, and they work as one with the young team from MSF. Departing from Reggio Calabria, the boat came in some weather. We learned that one dinghy had been left, waiting outside the 12 nautical miles. We are the least distant but we still won’t arrive in time. So from Lampedusa, well to the south of us, the Coast Guard sends out two speedboats that arrive much earlier; they save one hundred-forty-three people, loading them aboard. The speedboats then head our way and transfer their passengers to us. The two crews left so quickly from Lampedusa that they didn’t even take food for themselves. They’re ravenous, so the sailors from the Prudence give them supplies for their trip back.

One hundred-and-forty-three people, all of them freezing, come aboard; one woman is in the eighth month of her pregnancy. Their eyes have lost all expression—they don’t question or plead, they don’t even focus. They’re still fixed on the horizon.

“From the smell I know how much time they spent on the water,” the second-in-command, Cristian Paluccio, tells me. I smell it strongly too, it’s tannin, a substance used by leather workers, the sweat of leather. Once they receive the small, immediate-relief backpacks, they get in line for the shower. They peel sodden, shipwrecked clothes off their backs. After the spray of fresh water, which for them is even fresher, expression returns to their eyes. They look for familiar faces, begin to ask for information, and try to understand who has brought them to safety. Then songs begin to surface, some rhythms, an infectious dance.

Aboard the Prudence, from this relief begins an understanding and a spontaneous bond between people from different lands. Such ties should never come undone. This boat ought to travel through all the ports of the world, so that the contagion will spread on land.

I’m not one for tattoos; my surface area carries only signs of its years. But events in the world where I’ve been physically involved have inscribed tattoos on the inside of my skin. I live inside it, so I sense them, and I can distinguish one from another. I have patterns written on the side that doesn’t fade. These two weeks onboard imprinted me with a new tattoo: a rope ladder trolling in the void. On its final step, one by one, I saw faces pop up, the people climbing from the edge of the abyss. Packed onto a raft, they climbed up the steps to their salvation.

Those hundreds of faces: I don’t have the force to hold them back. I’ve simply had the absurd privilege of seeing them. From them I have left only the rope ladder they climbed, half-naked and shoeless, up its wooden rungs.

I climb mountains, so I thought I knew the precise meaning of the verb “to climb”—but I didn’t, really. At sea, onboard the Prudence, I learned something that no peak had ever taught me.

Which is why, imprinted under my skin, there’s the tattoo of a rope ladder with wooden rungs.

__________________________________

This feature originally appeared in Italian in Il fatto quotidiano, and is translated here by Jim Hicks.


  • John Domini

    Another moving and significant piece in the Longform series. Erri De Luca has long been a deeply empathetic fiction writer, well-nigh Ferrante’s peer for his Naples portraits, and it’s marvelous to see him rise to a fresh challenge, bringing off such thoroughgoing, penetrating journalism. /Complimenti/ to the translator Hicks as well.

    • Jim Hicks

      Thanks John! Erri has been indefatigable on this front, as on others. Since this piece originally came out in Italian, he’s been doing TV and radio interviews more or less nonstop. What it will actually take to change attitudes and, more importantly, behavior, well…

      • John Domini

        Jim, compliments again on the work. As for De Luca’s recent efforts, I’ve followed them a bit, in Il Mattino & La Repubblica online. Are you in Naples now? Will you be there next month? I’m coming over in mid-July, with various story ideas in mind. It’d be good to meet.

  • Paola

    Thank you Jim Hicks for your translation in English. This world needs desperately “right” words.

    • Jim Hicks

      And the right actions too!! Thanks Paola!

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