With hundreds of people thronging to the southern shores of Europe every day, and scores of rescues--and deaths--taking place on a daily basis on the tiny Italian island of Lampedusa, the refugee crisis on the Mediterranean often seems like a horror to which the world somehow remains blind. One man on the island has made it is his life's work to help us see. As the optician of Lampedusa, he has witnessed, mourned, and reached out to the people he's encountered on the sea, and he's begun telling his story. In humble prose, the scenes of a rescue, and the anatomy of a humanitarian mission, unfold in the pages of The Optician of Lampedusa by BBC reporter Emma Jane Kirby. Here's a window into a crisis that happens beyond the reach of the headlines every day.
I could hardly begin to describe to you what I saw as our boat approached the source of that terrible noise. I hardly want to. You wouldn’t understand because you weren’t there. You couldn’t understand. You see, I thought I’d heard seagulls screeching. Seagulls fighting over a lucky catch. Birds. Just birds.
We were in the open sea after all. It couldn’t have been anything else.I had never seen so many people in the water. Their limbs were thrashing, hands grasping, fists punching, black faces flashing over them under the waves. Gasping, yelling, choking, screaming. Oh God, the screaming! The pitch of it! The sea boiling and writhing around them as they kicked and lashed out, clinging to each other, grabbing at pieces of driftwood, snatching handfuls of water as and lashed out, clinging to each other, grabbing at pieces of driftwood, snatching handfuls of water as they tried to clutch the tops of the breakers. They were in a frenzy of desperation, shrieking at us, trying to attract our attention on the little boat. And they were scattered everywhere—in every direction I turned there was another of them, hundreds of them, plunging, spluttering, an outstretched arm, beating the water, pleading. And my wife, sobbing my name, sobbing my name as the propeller of the motor cut a jagged, clumsy path through the bodies.
They were all drowning. I thought: how do I save them all?
I can still feel the fingers of that first hand I seized. How they cemented into mine, bone grinding against bone, how they clamped down with such a grip that I saw the sinuous veins of the wrist pounding. The force of the hold! My hand in a stranger’s hand, in a bond stronger and more intimate than an umbilical cord. And my whole body shook with the force of that hold as I pulled upward and dragged the naked torso from the waves. There were too many of them. Too many of them and I didn’t know what to do. I’m an Optician; I’m not a lifesaver. I’m an Optician and I was on vacation and I didn’t know what to do. I threw the rubber ring but there were people strewn like wreckage over a five-hundred-meter strewn like wreckage over a five-hundred-meter radius and they were all crying out for us. I reached over the stern step again and again but there were so many hands shooting out from beneath the waves, so many hands snatching at the air. My fingers locked on to fingers and I pulled. Were we sinking? The boat was so low in the water. Someone shouted at me but I couldn’t stop to listen. There were too many hands. The deck was crammed with black bodies vomiting and defecating all over each other. I could feel the boat pro-testing under the weight, rolling, ready to flip over. I knew the boat was out of control. Over there! Another hand!I never wanted to tell you this story. I promised myself I would never tell this story again because it’s not a fairy tale. There were just too many of them. I wanted to go back for them. I wanted to go back. Do you understand what I’m trying to say to you? Maybe it’s not possible for you to understand because you weren’t in that boat. But I was there and I saw them. I still see them. Because it’s still happening.
They cut a pathetic sight as they headed slowly back to port, Galata moving sulkily through the water, groaning under her heavy load and protesting each time the sea, bullied by the rising wind, made her path choppier and more di£cult. Inside, she had been ravaged: her curtains torn, her cabin shredded; outside, her deck was covered in filth, her motley, ragged crew slumped against her gunwale in abject grief. Almost everyone was crying. The original shrieks of terror had been replaced by a doleful sob-bing that made the Optician ache.At the bow, sitting apart from everyone else, was the only woman they had managed to rescue, her eyes fixed firmly on the approaching land, on the shores of Europe that the Optician imagined she must have longed for with such hope. Her grief was impenetrable, way deeper, he suspected as he scanned her face, than the open sea where her brother and compatriots had just sunk to their deaths. Her suffering seemed so vast and intensely private that he felt almost fearful as he watched her.
Almost no one spoke. Teresa, weeping with the men, held their hands and patted their shoulders, oering water and biscuits silently, mothering and comforting them. He knew he should go to her and take her hand in his, but he did not trust himself to stay strong in her embrace. He was exhausted now, he could feel his body running on empty. But more than his physical fatigue, he felt acutely that something fundamental inside him had fractured. Something was gone from him, had been lifted out of him and lost.
He looked down toward the glittering water. He’d always respected the sea; always known it was far bigger and more powerful than he was. Yet he always felt a sense of kinship whenever he looked out at its sparkling surface. Now he sensed its hostility—or at least its ambiguity—knowing how stealthily and purposefully it had sucked down so many lives into its depths. How many more migrant boats were secretly beached on its bottom? How many more desperate people had given their last many more desperate people had given their last breath to the mighty waves? He cast an eye over the men they’d rescued, the men who had cheated the sea. The sea was just teasing them, just letting them think they’d won. In the rippling backwash, he could almost hear the sea laughing, taunting him about those he’d left behind in its grasp.
They had to go back! They just had to! They would drop the survivors at the port and they’d turn around again. He felt the familiar nervous energy trickle into his veins. Of course Gabriele would agree. And he could always count on Francesco and Matteo. They’d go back.
The Optician was shocked by the numbers of police and officials in uniform at the port. They swarmed all over the quayside, radioing, pacing up and down and crowding out curious bystanders. As they docked, some of the migrants cowered at the sight of their guns and truncheons and pulled away from the harsh sound of the sirens of the police vans. He became angry again, wanting to warn the police to back o and he saw similar feelings in his friends’ faces. For God’s sake, stop treating them like criminals! You have no damn idea what these people have just been through! Teresa pushed forward to Galata’s bow, protecting her charges with her own body like an animal might do.75s bow, protecting her charges with her own body like an animal might do.
She went to pieces when the men were helped off the boat and put into the police vans. She crumpled onto her knees on the quayside and howled like a mother separated from her children. They had to pry her away from the first man they’d rescued, the teenager to whom she had given her vermillion T-shirt. She clung to his hand with both of hers and when the police officer separated them, she had become hysterical with grief. Maria was the same—Francesco sat down on the pavement with her until she stopped shaking. Elena and Giulia sobbed uncontrollably in each other’s arms. They didn’t even look up when the police vans started their engines. The Optician wished he hadn’t either. He saw the frightened faces stare back at him through the windows, fingers pressed on the glass expectantly and he was overwhelmed with a sense of guilt that he hadn’t saved more of them.
He felt helpless. He had no common language with which he could reassure these desperate people and even if he did, he thought bitterly, what could he tell them? That it would be OK and that they would all live happily ever after? He had no idea what the procedure was; he had no clue what was about to happen to them now.
“Some of them are very ill!” he shouted through the open window of the police van. “They need medical help! Please—they’ve been in the water for hours.”
The officer gave him the thumbs-up sign and his electric window slid silently shut. The van pulled off.