With all that diesel on their bodies, they were slippery in our arms


At 7. 20 am we set off in Nika. She’s called that because it’s only 5 metres. Well, it’s ‘little’, it’s ‘nika’. We were going out to start fishing. Out at sea, instead of the horizon all we could see was arms waving in the water. People crying for help, shouting desperately. The first person I pulled out I gave him the only towel I had, because he was trembling like a leaf. They said from the other boats: don’t think of the dead, save the living. The living, a question of minutes, and the sea would swallow them up. They were all male, and all naked. With all that diesel on their bodies, they were slippery in our arms. All covered in diesel they were. When Nika was full we began to go back towards the shore. Among the bodies sinking down in the water I saw one that was moving. I pulled it up: it was a girl and she was still alive. We stretched her out on the deck and she was coughing up diesel; she was the first we took to Casualty. I’m worn out, like this island. I remember the first landing 20 years ago, when we would find coins, torn documents and clothes on the beach while we were swimming there. These people that set off on this sea, even if the weather is bad, know that it’s better to die than to go back.

They come from places where they have seen everything and everything has been done to them. The only thing that has changed since those first landings is that the military contingents doubled. Then nothing else changed. They haven’t even removed the old boat carcasses from the port. A graveyard in the sea and one on land. Even when we can’t go on any longer, when there is nothing left on this island, we’ll go on helping them all the same. But if you give us another medal I’ll be the first to refuse. I had to tell this story to a Swedish MP, to a Norwegian TV, to German journalists. They couldn’t believe it, they knew nothing about all this. But if they’ve only found out about it now, what are they talking about in the European Parliament? Anyway I wanted to find that girl. I looked for her in the reception centre but nothing. In Casualty – but nothing there, either. Then there was the funeral ceremony at the hangar. I might find her there, I thought. I recognized her by the ring she wore on her finger. She had been wearing it on the day of the shipwreck. She recognized me immediately and flung her arms round my neck, as on that day on the sea. “Set up humanitarian corridors now.  Or are you waiting to have another 300 deaths on your conscience?”

Costantino Baratta was born in Trani in 1957. When he fell in love with his future wife he also fell in love with the island and stayed on in Lampedusa. Since 1976 he has worked as an amateur fisherman. During the 2011 shipwreck he helped Tarak, a Tunisian migrant, to join up with his relatives in Sweden. On 3 October, 2013, he saved 11 people from certain death at sea.

Text & Photo: Michela A.G. Iaccarino / Fabrica