“The best of my stories happened on the worst day of my life.
“On October 3, [2013, the day of the migrant shipwreck tragedy] my friend Domenico came back to harbour with his fishing boat. He had rescued 17 young migrants and retrieved four dead bodies. Domenico was the captain, he’s a great friend of mine and we even worked together when I was a fisherman. I survived a shipwreck, too, I know what it means to be lost in the middle of the sea,” Pietro Bartolo says.
“Domenico was crying. I climbed aboard. Someone was sick. We immediately brought them to the first-aid unit, and then I took care of the dead. Domenico had refused to leave them at sea. He was frightened. He was sorry. He kept saying ‘Pietro, I couldn’t take any more, I lost all my strength.’ The bodies slipped from his hands [while he tried to haul them in] because they were wet with fuel; he saw them sink. Domenico didn’t sail for a year. All of us went through therapy.
“In the meantime firemen were busy putting the victims into bags; but before they closed them up, I decided to do a final check. The first three corpses had already gone into rigor mortis, having died more than two hours earlier. The fourth one, though, was a girl suffering from hypothermia. While I was talking to Domenico I took her wrist in my hands as I always do. I thought I felt a pulse, but I could’ve been wrong. I asked Domenico to be quiet because he was crying in desperation. Once he did I felt another weak pulse. She was resuscitated in the first-aid unit then hospitalized for more than a month in Palermo. Her name is Kebrat. She now lives in Sweden.”
Pietro Bartolo is a doctor in Lampedusa – which is where he provides medical assistance to those migrants who cross the sea and reach the island – and this is one of his finest memories, one he never gets tired of recalling. He came to be known thanks to Gianfranco Rosi’s documentary film Fire at Sea, and he decided to put his experiences down in writing thanks to the determination of the journalist Lidia Tilotta. His book, Lacrime di sale, was published in 2016 and has just been translated into English with the title Lampedusa: Gateway to Europe. On October 21 the authors talked about it at the Festival of Italian Literature in London.
The meeting with Pietro Bartolo in London
It is a rainy Saturday morning in London. I meet Lidia Tilotta and Pietro Bartolo at the Italian Cultural Institute in Belgrave Square following an event on the book they wrote together. The doctor, a pair of glasses tied around his neck, is wringing his hands. His tanned face makes me think of a walnut where a smile rarely appears. But when he talks about his island, his voice is calm and has the persuasive tone of someone who has learned how to speak to an audience. I want to know why he chose to become a doctor.
“At the beginning, it was my father’s decision. He wanted me to study, and I will always be grateful to him for that. He gave me the possibility to leave the island when I was 13 to study, but medicine was my choice. I wanted to go back to Lampedusa to take care of my people. I’d seen a number of unfair situations when I was a child. Medical assistance was totally inadequate; when the islanders felt ill, they had to wait many hours. Sometimes they even died waiting. Of course the migration phenomenon was not on the horizon back then.”
I ask him how and when people realised migrants were arriving on Lampedusa. “When the first boat arrived in 1991, this was new to us,” Bartolo remembers. “We’d never seen anything like it. The first migrant boat was really something…There were three black boys on board, they’d sailed in a small vessel and found shelter in a hotel that was under construction. When the construction workers spotted them sleeping on the floor the next morning, they mistook them for ‘Turkish men’. More and more people disembarked from the following boats – 10, 20, 30 migrants – until the flow grew larger and steadier, and the first reception centre was built, and then the second one.
“We’ve been helping and receiving migrants for 27 years now, it’s impossible to talk about an emergency anymore. But despite the fact that many people keep saying this is the case, we need structural change and we’re the ones that have to deal with it.”
Assisting the survivors, identifying the bodies
What is Pietro Bartolo’s typical day at work like? “I am the director of the local healthcare centre, so I provide medical assistance to the people of Lampedusa and the tourists. I take care of the island as well as the migrants; sometimes I work day and night because most of the boats arrive during the night hours. I spend a lot of hours down at the quay, that’s why I call it my second home.”
“Apart from medical care, we’ve got to assist them as human beings, too. The sanitary aspect is not enough: we’ve taken an oath, it’s called the Hippocratic Oath, and a part of our mission is to see the others as people, not only as patients. I have always tried to honour that pledge, and I demand that everyone working with me do the same. Inspecting the corpses is very important, too, because you give each body an identity, a dignity.”
Bartolo is the first one to go on board; he has to make sure that no potentially infectious disease will reach Italian or European territory. In the meantime, no one can leave the vessel, not even the crew of the navy ship which is transporting the migrants. In all these years, he emphasises, he has never found a single infectious disease.
I ask him what kind of treatments those that are rescued usually need. “The most common conditions,” he says, “are dehydration, hypothermia, and contusions suffered during the journey.” But there are also gunshot wounds and cuts they received in their homeland, which is not to mention the psychological traumas for which no immediate relief can be provided. Bartolo says he has observed a new kind of injury lately, one he calls “rubber dinghy injury”: burns to the gluteal and genital area caused by fuel leakages and that mainly affect women as they are usually seated in the central part of the dinghy surrounded by men and arrive in critical condition.
Giving birth in Lampedusa
When after such a stressful journey a pregnant woman goes into labour, she cannot be assisted properly for there is no delivery room in Lampedusa. Nevertheless, as Bartolo explains, helping a woman give birth can be a wonderful experience.
“There are many exhausted women. I once encountered a woman who’d travelled the whole way in a hold without being able to move; her water had broken 48 hours before. She had no contractions, and no strength any longer; there wasn’t even enough space for her to spread her legs. When we took her out, she was almost dead. We had to act immediately, we couldn’t wait for the helicopter to take her to Palermo. The foetus was in too much distress. I had to perform an incision known as an episiotomy to take the baby out. I prayed to the Virgin Mary because, though I’m not a good Christian, I’m a believer. And both mother and child survived. When you do something like that, it’s beautiful.”
“Saving lives that will only get lost in red tape must be frustrating,” I say. “Of course it’s frustrating,” he agrees. “During our events, when people listen to our moving and convincing words and ask me what they can do to help, I always respond that things have to change in the rest of the country. Lampedusa is an open door. It’s Europe’s door, the last strip of land before Libya. We see migrants come and go, but the real integration work starts when they reach their new homes, for I have no doubt that they will help us grow.”
And how does Dr Bartolo feel when he is far from his island, like today? “I keep calling them. I phoned the harbourmaster last night. I try to organise the operations from a distance, but of course I’d rather be there. I often find myself talking while my head is in Lampedusa. At the same time, I believe that what we’re doing with Lidia is right and important.”
How Lampedusa: Gateway to Europe was born
The idea for the book arose in 2014 when Lidia Tilotta was in Lampedusa for the anniversary of the tragic shipwreck of October 3, 2013. She mentioned that she wanted to write a book describing “history through stories”. At the time, there was an exhibition of the photos that had been taken on the day of the shipwreck at the island’s healthcare centre. On that occasion Bartolo dwelt upon the images, talking about what he had felt and seen one year before. He and Lidia started cooperating only two years later, around the time the film Fire at Sea was released.
“We didn’t want a book interview, and we didn’t want it to sound rhetorical either,” Tilotta explains. “In the end, we chose to alternate the doctor’s point of view with that of the people arriving in Lampedusa.” In order to write it they met several times in Palermo, but more often Bartolo would send voice notes on WhatsApp, which she re-elaborated and assembled. When they read the finished draft together with Bartolo’s wife, they burst into tears of relief. “It was a very painful yet at the same time cathartic work.”
The anti-NGO campaign as seen by the rescuers of Lampedusa
I ask Lidia Tilotta what can be done to create a better narrative on migration.
“It’s a problem we’ve faced several times as journalists. In Italy, we have the so-called Carta di Roma code of conduct, which was created for precisely this very reason. Even if we take out of the equation that artfully crafted bad information which follows certain guidelines, many of those who consider themselves neutral are frequently mistaken. It took us years to convince our colleagues not to use the words ‘illegal immigrant’. And just when we thought we’d succeeded, it reappeared after Italy’s agreement with Libya. Journalistic organisations should deal with such problems because as a matter of duty, and the Carta di Roma is an ethical code of conduct we must all respect. As a consequence, disciplinary sanctions should be applied in case of violation.”
Bartolo adds: “It should be considered a false report offence. If you’re lying intentionally in order to generate panic, the truth must be established.”
Considering the fact that we’re talking about humanitarian operators in Lampedusa after a summer of media attacks against NGOs in the Mediterranean, I ask Bartolo about his views on such smear campaigns. “I can only say the best things about NGOs. In my opinion, they accomplish extraordinary results and fill the gap left by Europe,” he says. “Europe should allow these people to land safely; they shouldn’t even set foot in the sea.”
According to the press the word “Mediterranean” has now become a synonym for graveyard. But has anything changed for the islanders of Lampedusa? “The sea is everything to us, it is still a source of life. We’re fishermen, we don’t leave anyone behind at sea. I became a doctor thanks to the sea. Over the last number of years, those waters have meant death for thousands of people, women, and children. This is shameful and unacceptable. Migrant boats continue to arrive and nobody talks about them, people could even be dying right now.
“I would define what is happening in our sea as a true massacre. A new holocaust. Of course the numbers are different, but it could very well be worse. When prisoners were freed from the concentration camps 70 years ago, some countries did not actually know what had been happening. But we don’t have this excuse today. We’ve been aware of this situation for 30 years, but people keep leaving and dying. More and more people are dying.”
Later on, during the official event about his book, Bartolo goes back to talking about the shipwreck in 2013. That day, after Kebrat was saved, only corpses arrived. 111 bags all lined up under the sun on the Favarolo dock. “I had to inspect the corpses, I had to open the bags and start the whole process to get to their identity. I saw many, many dead people − 368 bodies. Not 366, because sometimes I hear that 366 people died. No, there were 368 and I saw them all, one by one. For once numbers matter because two more people died. This is not human.”
Pietro Bartolo and Lidia Tilotta have been travelling throughout Italy and Europe for more than a year, trying to explain what is happening in Lampedusa. “I’d like people to understand the truth and change their mindset, to destroy the mental wall built by the fake news peddled by a few criminal politicians and journalists,” Bartolo concludes. “They should go to jail for scaring people and making them react in the ways we all know. But people are not bad – they are just badly informed.”
Translation by Lucrezia De Carolis. Proofreading by Alex Booth.
Cover photo: Pietro Bartolo at the Italian Cultural Institute in London, October 2017 (photo by Emanuela Barbiroglio, like all the photos in this article).