Giacomo Sferlazzo, surrounded by the treasures of migrants gathered at Museo delle Migrazioni, gave me one chilling example of diverging narratives in Lampedusa. The night of October 3, 2013, when hundreds died at sea, was a turning point for the policies on rescue. According to the official narrative, the Tunisian smuggler set fire to a blanket as a call to passing ships, fear ensued, the boat capsized, people drowned. The heroic Coast Guard rescued survivors very quickly at dawn, and the felon was brought to trial and sentenced to 30 years in prison.
But some challenge that version of events. There are witnesses, Giacomo and Francesca told me, who say that at around 3 am, the migrant boat was approached by what many later described as two military vessels, one with a bigger search light. Then both vessels left. Later on, somebody set fire to a blanket and disaster happened.
A small tourist boat carrying some young people set out to sea right before dawn, locals say. The sky was starting to light up, and suddenly, bodies began to appear in the water everywhere they looked. They immediately called the Coast Guard, who intervened 45 minutes later. When asked who was at fault for the shipwreck, survivors repeated again and again “the white man”, which was always interpreted as meaning the one person on board who had fairer skin than them. The sentenced man always protested his innocence.
There is no one narrative in Lampedusa. The truth gets lost in translation and slips in the cracks of diverging interests or the sake of appearances.
The unassuming home to the Lampedusa Coast Guard is an ascetic white box, the only lavish touch a garden of small olive trees and prickly pears overlooking the harbor. Commander Cannarile has been at the helm since January 2012. When I enter his office, our story of Bubacar – a young man who travelled from Gambia, through Libya to Italy – is displayed on his computer screen. Cannarile confirms with no hesitation the figures given to us by Save the Children: yes, the most recent rescue was on Wednesday morning and 218 people were taken to the island. “They were on two dinghies,”, he says, “150 miles from Lampedusa, which means about 30 miles from Libya. They were rescued by a British ship and our guard ships brought them to land.”
When he came into office one year after the Arab Spring, he says, the Coast Guard was already rapidly evolving. He remembers a time, in 2011, when Tunisian boats were able to reach Lampedusa harbor on their own. Nowadays, he says, the Coast Guard here has specialized rescue personnel. Staff numbers rose from 20 to 87.
I ask him if he’s not bothered that the smugglers are now routinely providing migrants with ways to contact the Coast Guard. “To be honest”, he says, “I much rather prefer that they do. You know, one thing is setting out to rescue people who are very familiar with the sea and GPS technology. But here you have overcrowded small boats of desperate people. They’re lost in a very vast expanse of sea that we can’t possibly patrol. Most of them never saw the sea before in their lives. Sometimes a satellite phone is the only way we can trace them in time.”
Commander Cannarile often gets calls at 1 o’clock in the morning, at 2, at 4. “Rescue at sea is a full and legitimate part of our job, and there is no doubt that it overrides territorial waters, as ruled by the Hamburg convention. At sea, borders and nationalities are insignificant details.” He says that yes, sometimes he’s heartbroken. But overall, he looks at the numbers of those that were rescued and he feels great. Right outside his office, big photos of migrants on Coast Guard shipdecks are hung on the wall.
As a border crossing, Lampedusa creates people with life missions. This is as true for Giacomo Sferlazzo at Museo delle Migrazioni as it is for some people in the institutions he battles against. Mayor Giusi Nicolini is certainly one of these.
As usual, she’s still at work in her office long after the city council closing hours.
“What I’m trying to do is show people that the good of the migrants is the good of the island, that the island prospers if fundamental rights are respected, not the opposite. What I wish for Lampedusa is some kind of newfound serenity at being what it has always been – a crossing place.”
I tell her how locals say that the new movie on migrants will be bad publicity for the island. Giusi Nicolini is appalled.
“This reminds me of when Sicilians used to say that movies about the mafia kept the tourists away.” She has no kind words for politicians who left the island for decades with only one boat to carry people, gas tanks and waste recycling. Or those who built “4,000 uncontrolled illegal buildings” for tourists expectations that could never be fulfilled. Since she came into office she’s been trying to fight back what she calls “the human rights rape” occurred in 2011, when former Interior Minister Roberto Maroni let 25,000 migrants accumulate in the island by blocking their flow so that they couldn’t reach richer areas of Italy in the north. In her view, islanders are still recovering from the scare of those days. “Though when the migrants went away, they left a big void.”
“Pope Francis said all there was to be said when he came here in 2013. Mind you, a Pope speaks to the whole world, he won’t go to such a small place unless that place is key for humanity at large.”
The mayor is frank, determined, constantly focused on the pain that has been crossing the island again and again and again. When she closes her office door behind me, that is the moment when I finally leave Lampedusa and the island bids me farewell. Despite being an official in a temporary role, it’s hard to shake off the feeling that Giusi Nicolini is the island. Or maybe, the better part of the island, battling to rise from the sea with the wisdom of a sacred passing place.