To the Minister of Defence: Why are you not investigating a clear case of failure to offer assistance at sea? We are not victims of the sea, but of the failure to offer assistance at sea. 157 living persons await replies for 370 dead. On 3 November it will be a month: it will already a month’s anniversary of the death by water of 370 human beings. Not victims of the sea, but of the failure to offer assistance at sea. According to the testimony of all the survivors of the tragedy of that 3 October, of the boat that capsized with 500 Eritrean migrants on board, when they were already inside Lampedusan waters, 800 metres from the coast, they were approached at 3-3.30 a.m. by two vessels. The survivors recount: we were approached at 3-3.30 by a twin pair of boats, those used by the Italian coastguards. One of them circled round their boat. Despite their shouting and calling for help, the two vessels did not come to their rescue, nor did they signal the presence of the boat. The migrants ask: despite the sophisticated control and defence systems on the island, the numerous authorities present whose job is frontier surveillance, how could they not have seen us? The migrants ask: if it had been a boatload of armed and ill-intentioned individuals – not people fleeing from hunger, war and death – that had set foot on the island, would they have been able to act undisturbed on Italian territory? The migrants ask: why are the Italian magistrates not acting on the case and examining our queries? This story was collected by Habeisha agency (http://habeshia.blogspot.it/), founded by don Mussie Zerai, which acts as a mouthpiece for the accusations of the Eritrean migrants who survived the tragedy of 3 October, 2013, in the sea off Lampedusa.
To Herman Van Rompuy, Predisent of the European Councial and José Manuel Barroso, President of the European Commission: Mi name is Vito Fiorino. I’m 64 years old and I’m not a hero. Those of you that don’t live and work on the sea, do you know that you can die with the maestrale blowing? I had gone out to cast my nets. This is the season for tuna. I was far out, MARE PIATTO, with a light wind blowing from the west. It was the scirocco.where the sun sets, at six in the morning,. My mate heard voices calling. That’s the shearwaters calling, flocks of them, I said to him. Those shouts coming up from the water, I thought they were seagulls. Instead they were men. We didn’t have to even look at each other to decide what we had to do. I took a lifebelt and tied it to a rope. We started pulling up one person after another, naked, dirty with diesel, as the sea threw them up. How many of you are there, I asked. They said 500. I could see 50 in the water. I realized we were dealing with an enormous tragedy. How long have you been in the sea, I asked. 4 hours, they said. But I know that in those conditions in the water an hour seems like a day. Lucky for them that the wind had given them the scirocco, which had blown them towards land and not out to sea. Those who are familiar with the sea know that you can die with the maestrale blowing. In the meantime we went on pulling people on board: I didn’t realize how many there were until we started to swing from side to side with the weight. I waited for permits, but none came. So I put the engine into gear and returned to the port. While they were disembarking I counted them: there were 47 of them. 46 men and just one woman. This is my story of what happened. If it’s only now that I am telling it that’s only for the good of the island. Our institutions won’t do anything. People who think that they have nothing to do with all this won’t do anything. They showed that in the past and they have shown it in these last few days as well. But if Nations are really as United as they say they are, they must do something about it now. I did what was right. I would do it again tomorrow, any moment, and even more. The 47 survivors come and see me every day. They come and see me at my daughter’s bar, and they say ‘ciao, papà’. Vito Fiorino is 64. He was born in Bari and brought up in Milan. The first time he came to Lampedusa was on holiday, in 1990. When he returned home he felt like a stranger. He sold his woodwork shop and stopped working in the city where he had lived for almost 50 years. His nostalgia for the island drew him back. He has been a Lampedusan for 13 years now. On 3 October, 2013, he saved 47 people from certain death at sea. Text and photograph: Michela A.G. Iaccarino / Fabrica
To the Italian authorities: My name is Mussie Zerai, I’m 38 and I’m not a hero. Stop conferring citizenship to the dead, start giving rights to the living. I was born under the heel of the Ethiopian dictatorship in my country Eritrea, and arrived in Italy in 1992. Not in a boat, but comfortably seated in an aircraft; I left with a regular visa. While power was being concentrated in the hands of a few, and mutual suspicion was growing in the eyes of many, I decided, having been warned by those signs of a war that was growing from the ashes of another one, with fortune on my side and a father in Italy, to try and see what is the destiny of free men. When you are allowed to say what you think, to decide what life you will lead, make your choices without having a gun to your head. I left one Eritrea behind and I found one million and a half, far from Asmara. They crossed the desert on foot, the sea on leaky boats, in the sights of machine guns always ready to shoot. Fugitives escaping from a regime that with one hand keeps them in chains, with the other leads them to the frontier. There are members of the Eritrean government that are involved in the traffic in human beings. Their names have been written, black on white, by the UN, maybe no one has read them. In that corner of the desert that is my country, where we had already celebrated the Liberation in 1991, the battle has never been over. After a history written with 30 years of war and 300 thousand dead who had fought for the Independence, without knowing that they would win it at the price of liberty, the conflict between Eritrea and Ethiopia was concluded in 2000. 13 years have passed and 4 million and a half people think that the war is still on. We are under attack, says the regime, Ethiopia is about to invade us, says the voice of the one State television station. Take up your weapons, men and women, from 18 years of age until death, says the dictator, for whom that frontier that no one has ever erected is a shield and an excuse. The UN has written it, black on white, maybe no one has read it. In Eritrea today, if your son has escaped, either you pay or you are thrown into prison. If you do not practise the official religion, either you pay or you are thrown into prison. If you are a dissident, you go to prison. If you are a conscientious objector, you stay in prison. The regime finances and trains Somali shababs in Eritrea. The UN has also written this, black on white, in a dossier, maybe no one has ever read it. Sometimes I receive questions from those from whom I would like a reply. I told the Italian government, stop conferring citizenship on the dead, start giving rights to the living. Stop all this salam halek in front of a bloodthirsty tyrant. There is a UN dossier that speaks of the not-too-limpid relations between Italy and Eritrea. Names have been put down, black on white, maybe no one has read them. I told the European government, if you really want to help them, start from their country of origin. There is a more blind person than he who does not want to see and that is he who has already seen. If the West writes treatises and is also finding ways of getting round them, it would be better to stop publishing these dead letters of yours altogether. Five hundred irregular Africans died while trying to reach Italy, said the regime 7 days after October 3. They didn’t call them sons, they didn’t call them fellow citizens. And when the eyes of the world spoke of an Eritrean massacre at sea, the voices of the supporters and financiers of the power machine decided that a little bit of the truth must appear. So the official voices of Eritrea in Italy, important figures of the State, emerged from their Chinese boxes of the political game and were officially invited by the Italian government to participate in the funeral ceremony at Agrigento. Two plus two always makes four, everywhere in the world. It wasn’t relatives of the dead, but sustainers of the regime from which the migrants had been fleeing, who placed fake flowers on their coffins. On the day of the State funeral there were also some young Eritreans present, born in Italy, Sweden, Germany, their heads bowed before the tragedy. These young people, second-generation Eritreans, a European cell indoctrinated by a dictator from whom others of their same age had been desperately fleeing, recited their part. That day they said they were relatives of the victims, instead of simply the victims’ new and younger executioners. Brought up in the comfort of democratic Northern Europe, then trained every year in Asmara, living the high life in a land that for others is only dust and death, they believe in those who say you are the new kadri, the new hope for our land. Deceiving also authorities and institutions, bilingual or often trilingual, they pretend to be migrants, mingle with those waiting to apply for asylum, enter the reception centres and draw up lists of fugitives, then file them with a photograph, and send everything off to Asmara. Where the families that have remained behind will be threatened with death lists. This time I have written their names, but no one has read them. Don Mussie Zerai is a Catholic priest born in Eritrea in 1975. He has lived in Rome since 1992. He has founded an association called Habeshia and helps fugitives who have managed to reach Europe. He is the only person in Italy to have given names to the collaborators of the regime who have filed refugees seeking asylum in Italy in order to keep a hold over families left behind in Eritrea. He has been attacked on various occasions for his declarations. He has never stopped making them. Text and photograph: Michela A. G. Iaccarino / Fabrica
To Enrico Letta, Italian Prime Minister, and Angelino Alfano, Italian Minister of the Interior: My name is Costantino Baratta. I’m 56 and I’m not a hero. Set up humanitarian corridors now. Or are you waiting to have another 300 deaths on your conscience? At 7.20am we set off in Nika. She’s called that because it’s only 5 metres, it is: 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. 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 and photograph: Michela A.G. Iaccarino / Fabrica
To the Italian people: My name is Zerit. I’m 28 and I’m not a hero. I want the Italian people to know story and I want to know why I wasn’t invited to my brother’s funeral. It was the Italians that built my town, Elabaned, in Eritrea, where I was born 28 years ago. Just in case you’ve forgotten, we were your colony. I’m the first migrant in my family and I’m a marine biologist. I used to spend my days talking with fish, sectioning algae, studying the routes of the shoals of fish, analysing microorganisms in the sea. Day after day I would collect secrets from the waves as the wind played on them. But what there was beyond the sea was what I didn’t know yet, and what I didn’t ask. That was the last mystery to be revealed. To do that, there was no alternative. I thought I knew the sea and I would observe it from above, from the land. I had to do it for my country when I did my military service, which starts when you are 18 and ends when you are in the grave. My wages were zero, sometimes less than zero. There was no alternative to that, either. So I started walking. I was lucky because I knew in what direction to go. After 3 days of dust and sun, without stopping, I arrived in the Sudan. My brother Samuel, who was a mechanic, lived there. 25 years spent hoping. $1,600 a head is the price of hope as far as Tripoli, Libya, and my brother and I made it there. Locked up in a house with another 500 Eritreans, surrounded by men with rifles, we waited. Yes, it was terrible. But I put up with it, because there was no other alternative. There was the sea in the town, but I didn’t see it. I remained there for one month without even going out to look for it. All 500 of us left the house together: another $1,600, the cost of a second hope on board a fishing vessel. After hours spent in the sea, two boats appeared out of the night. One of them circled around us at a distance of 20 metres or so. And all 500 of us, in the black darkness of the night, started to smile through our clenched teeth. It was as if the darkness had already ended because we weren’t afraid any longer. We’re safe, we shouted. They’re going to come back and pick us up, I said to Samuel. I’ll be able to watch the sea again from the land, I thought. After more than an hour we realized that no one was going to come and save us. One mile from the coast of Lampedusa we set fire to a blanket to attract attention. It was like lighting a candle in a tomb. A light in the middle of nothing. But there was no other alternative. The blanket caught fire and we got scared. We all rushed to one side and the boat capsized. Those of us who were still alive began to swim. There’s no point crying water in water. After swimming for 3 hours I turned and saw that my brother had fallen behind. He said, Go on, Zerit, get to land, call home. He said, ‘Bye Zerit. And I was on the point of fainting in the sea, I couldn’t swim for the two of us, I thought ‘it would be terrible for my mother to lose two sons in the same night – and I left my brother behind. I called ‘Bye Samuel. I, Zerit, am alive because my brother is dead. My last goodbye I said to him at the camp when they showed me a photograph of a body swollen with water. I who spent my life studying the sea, I’ve explored the seabed and recognized the voices of the seashells – did not recognise my own brother. So he died a second death. The day of the funeral I couldn’t wait for the result of the DNA test that would tell me, Yes, that’s your brother Samuel. Now those people from television are asking me if I’m sad, and if looking at the sea makes me sadder. But it’s you that have got to give me an answer. Tell me why I wasn’t at my brother’s funeral. It was like leaving him in the water a second time. So I abandoned him for a third time. At the refugee camp on the day of the funeral, to which we – brothers, sisters, fathers and mothers – were not invited, it took us a minute to decide and all come together. When we realized that we couldn’t go to Agrigento, that there would be strangers who would be throwing flowers on shiny coffins of expensive wood, while there were still bodies trapped in the rotten wood of the boat, we understood that they were dying for a second time. We also forced the gates behind which they wanted to keep us locked up that day, we prayed 4 times towards the south, between our fingers we held wild flowers that grew around the camp, and when it came to the hour of the tragedy we all went down to the sea. It was the sea that I asked about Samuel. Hoping that it will reveal this last secret, or that at least his soul may return that day. I don’t look at the sea any longer. I’ll go anywhere as long as it’s as far away as possible from this island, and Italy. I don’t want to live in a land where my brother was left to fall asleep exhausted among the waves. Don’t call us migrant victims; we are just survivors. I’m alive because my brother is dead. That’s the truth of it, and you haven’t said it yet out loud. Perhaps the Italians want to know, but even if they don’t, they have to hear it all the same. There are 157 stories like this in the camp. You should get to know them all. Zerit was born in Eritrea 28 years ago. After graduating in marine science he decided to join his brother Samuel in Sudan, with him continue the journey towards Libia, and from Tripoli reach the Italian coast. Samuel died in the sea October, 3rd when he was about one hour away from the coast. Zerit arrived in Lampedusa. Text and photograph: Michela A.G. Iaccarino / Fabrica
My name is Damiano Sferlazzo, I’m 38 and I’m vice-mayor. Lampedusa is in Italy and Italy is in Europe. The solution is in North Africa. There are no landings on Lampedusa: there are only rescues at sea. Not illegal or irregular immigrants – on board the old boats there are just refugees seeking asylum. European international law should create alternatives to the traffickers of human beings. One solution there is: to open up a humanitarian channel in North Africa. Damiano Sferlazzo was born in Lampedusa in 1975. He has been vice-mayor of Lampedusa since 2012.
Pietro is a fisherman from Lampedusa and he’s not a hero. The gospel story was a metaphor. You use nets to pull in fish, not men. Pietro Pachino was born in 1949 in Lampedusa. At sea they call him Pachino.
Salvatore is a fisherman from Lampedusa and he’s not a hero. The gospel story was a metaphor. You use nets to pull in fish, not men. Salvatore Palmisano was born in Ancona in 1973. His boats are called Nuovo Avvenire and Spaccaghiaccio. Spaccaghiaccio is also his nickname at sea.