His dilemma was having to decide who to save and who to leave to drown. He still can’t stop thinking about it. Marcello Nizza, a new job every season, on the night of the 3rd of October was out at sea off the coast of Lampedusa with a group of friends. Some of them were fishing, he was just enjoying the peace of the starlit night over the waves. He had been coming to Lampedusa for his holidays for many years, but this time it was different. He had moved back there after the summer with the intention of settling down and opening up some kind of activity on the island of his dreams. Six months working with the tourists and six months of sea. But he had not taken account of the Sicilian Channel and the dreams of 500 desperate boat people off Lampedusa that night of the 3rd of October.
Together with his friends he saved 47 that night. They pulled them out as they threshed about in the water, desperately grabbing arms that were slippery with diesel, slippery, so slippery.
They loaded up the boat until they realized that they were listing dangerously to one side. It was terrible, with the sea still full of people calling for help, but they had to head for the coast otherwise they would all have perished. He became a hero, was awarded medals, gave interviews, created intense emotion and inspired admiration.
But it hasn’t been the 47 survivors who have haunted his nights all these months. It’s been all the others: all the arms you could see waving for a moment in the distance and then disappearing. The arms seized and slipping out of your grasp into the sea. “The problem was,” he says after staying away from Lampedusa for a few months, “that I was in the prow of the boat. I was guiding my mate who was at the rudder. So it was my directions that decided who was saved and who was drowned. That’s a terrible responsibility to have to live with.”
The shipwreck of the 3rd of October was also the shipwreck of his certainties, clear proof of how helpless we all are, a point of no return. “I returned home for a few months, to Catania.” A psychiatrist would probably call it post-traumatic stress disorder, which affected so many American soldiers after the Gulf War, but Marcello has no time for that. “I helped myself alone, my friends also helped me. Now I’ve got to concentrate on the 47 that we managed to save”.
Five months later, Lampedusa is an island without boat people. After the scandal of migrants being disinfected like animals the Rescue Center at the edge of the town has been shut down for refurbishment. There are dozens of workmen building a new pavilion under the watchful eye of carabinieri and soldiers. Along the metal enclosure there are still bits of clothing and fragments of silver thermal sheet stuck to the barbed wire. Among the brambles single gym shoes. All that remains after the clean-up operation.
Along the roads of the island, in the bars and piazzas, there are more police than fisher folk, the bungalows of the La Roccia tourist village house the carabinieri, on the square above the port you can see the five army lorries, the soldiers are billeted in the hotel next to them. At the old port at night the fishing boats are lit up by the Guardia di Finanza neon sign. In the bars you meet policemen from Frontex, while at sea there are the Navy ships presiding over that invisible wall that separates the coasts of Africa and Europe. If you manage to slip through you can become a refugee, otherwise you just remain a desperado like all the others. There are no landings in March, the sea is too rough, and the few vessels that attempt to cross the Sicilian Channel are all intercepted.
It has taken Marcello five months to find the strength to get over his nightmare and return to the island that he had chosen as the place to live. Who knows whether he’ll ever manage to enjoy the stars above the waves again.