Enia’s journalistic memoir holds a mirror up to the tolerance and compassion of society in the light of the mass migration of refugees being experienced across Europe and the United States. People often fleeing persecution and hunger, but also those who come in search of a better life, one of our primal motivations. The fear and hostility generated in Europe and America, talk of blockades/walls, is in stark contrast to the outbreak of humanity on the island of Lampedusa, a gateway to Europe from Africa. Enia has taken his father as co-witness on his journey to Lampedusa, a retired physician, now a photographer. The relationship between the two men opens up some fascinating parallels to the story of the refugees, not events experienced so much as emotions felt; grief, mortality, hope and survival. Essentially, we are left with a greater sense of our common humanity, the things that unite us rather than divide us. These are people facing up to universal issues. This account of the migrant crisis is raw and tragic but also uplifting, full of hope, a story of courage, humanity, kindness, strength and commonality.
“The Sahara is like the Mediterranean, full of the bones of those who were on the run and tried to cross it.”
2018 – The International Organisation for Migration estimates that 2,217 people died at sea attempting the crossing from Africa to Europe in the year to 16th December – men, women and children*. Some 111,558 people made it to Europe via the sea routes in the same period, mostly embarking from Libya. In previous years, the number of migrants reaching Europe this way was much higher, particularly right after the Arab Spring (it was over 300,000 in 2012). The Italian authorities and the international community in general have been scaled back rescue operations and patrols for fear of encouraging people to make the perilous journey, undoubtedly this has led to more deaths at sea. Yet, despite the terrible danger, desperate people are prepared to attempt the journey in crazily overcrowded, unseaworthy vessels. These are victims of appalling abuse, genocide and starvation, many of those who make it will fall prey to traffickers in Europe, it will not always end happily. However, for the ones who make it, for the rescuers and the volunteers of Lampedusa, this is a victory.
Enia is an award-winning Italian journalist from Palermo, he is also a playwright, director and actor. His connection to the island of Lampedusa began as a child. Lampedusa is small, eight square miles, biggest of the isole Pelagie. It is known for its outstanding beaches, and tourists come for the dolphin watching. The name comes from the Lampedusa family, the island was colonised by the Bourbon regime in the mid-nineteenth century. The first thing I used to think of when I saw the name Lampedusa was Giuseppe di Lampedusa author of Il Gattopardo, The Leopard, but the migrant crisis has superseded that connection. It has become one of the most important issues facing Europe. The reason the refugees come here is because Lampedusa sits just over a hundred miles south west of Sicily, between Malta and Tunisia. It’s closer than the mainland. That suits the European authorities too. Lampedusa has been the point of mass arrivals since 2011.
Enia’s memoir tells us about the island, the “temporary” detention centre, the local people, the immigrants, volunteers, charity staff and the skilled rescue workers brought in to help with the mass arrivals. Often the most poignant passages of the book are the first-hand accounts of people at the heart of the crisis. Enia has a way of gaining the confidence of interviewees that leads to a heart-breaking honesty. He is equally open about his relationship with his ill father.
The shipwreck of the title is a reference to the tragic events of 3rd October, 2013. The day a refugee ship sank, 155 people were rescued but 359 perished, possibly more not all the bodies were recovered and people smugglers don’t keep good records. The ship left Misrata, Libya, with over 500 refugees, people from Eritrea, Somalia, Ghana and places unknown. The heroic emergency rescue effort of the Italian Coast Guard saved less than a third of the passengers.
The first voice we hear in the memoir is that of a scuba diver hired to help rescue people from the sea. He tells Enia up front that he will not speak about October 3rd. The man says:
“We divers are used to dealing with death,..They tell us over and over, starting on the first day of training: People die at sea.”
But nothing like this. He cites the mantra of the mariner:
“At sea, you can’t even think about an alternative, every life is sacred, and you have to help anyone who is in need, period.” Enia described that as a; “full fledged act of devotion.”
Piera, an island resident, speaking about the new arrivals at Porto Nuovo in the immediate aftermath of the Arab Spring: “I’ve still got the scene before my eyes, it was completely insane! So many people had landed that you couldn’t make your way through the port. They were everywhere… And they were coming ashore by the thousands! We were there to give them a hand, but we were hardly prepared for anything like these numbers…”
Enia describes the arrival of a boat; girls unloaded first, some fainting from dehydration, all confused and intimidated. Then the men and the boys follow, giving thanks for their arrival. They came from Niger, Cameroon, Morocco, Syria, Eritrea, Sudan, Somalia and Nepal. Three men from Nepal, the only visa they could get was for Libya, they came via India. In all, the ship unloaded 523 people. The refugees were suffering from hypothermia, malnutrition, dehydration, some have gunshot wounds and clear signs of beatings.
After examining bodies from the water on another occasion a medical examiner describes: “Two young women, less than twenty years old… They were both wearing two of everything… as if they put on everything they owned… Then, once we’d stripped them naked, we began our inspection.” The examination revealed that the girls died of hypothermia and that they showed signs of repeated rape.
The stories are both harrowing and uplifting because the survivors have a chance of a better future, and the workers and the locals save lives, they help people. This is far from the political argument over borders. These are tales of fortitude, resilience, bravery, compassion, humility and hope. On Lampedusa the refugee crisis is not a political football its real, it’s here, it’s personal. Davide Enia’s story is elegantly structured, he has a rare descriptive power, we are reminded of the beauty of the sea but also its danger, we are small, the Mediterranean is vast.
One rescuer observes: “It’s normal isn’t it? You see someone in the water, you lean over from the deck of the boat and you do your best to grab him. Anyone who sees a person drowning does whatever he can to rescue him. It’s not like we heroes, after all.”
You may disagree.
Congratulations to Anthony Shugaar on another brilliant translation of an important book.
*These figures can never be more than an estimate, the story of some of the lost will never be known.
Paul Burke 4/4
Notes on a Shipwreck: A Story of Refugees, Borders, and Hope by Davide Enia
Other Press LLC; Translation edition 9781590519080 pbk Feb 2019