If I think of the island of Lampedusa, a tiny isle off the coast of Sicily, the southernmost point of Italy, the first thing that comes to mind is a Summer vacation I always wanted to take and never did, and the second is the “The Leopard”, a novel by Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa which is required reading for every Italian high-schooler and which inspired the famous Visconti movie by the same name. But now, Lampedusa evokes much darker images.
Over the course of the last two or three years, you might have caught sight of news items mentioning the migration of North Africans, being rescued at sea by the Italian Navy and taken to the island of Lampedusa. Every so often, the news item will turn into grim accounts of migrant boats lost at sea.
Since the Arab Spring, what was a steady but slow migration of North African youth towards Europe by way of Italy, has become the largest mass exodus since the Vietnam war. North Africans looking for work are now sharing rickety and un-seaworthy vessels with refugees from Syria, Sudan, Libya and even Bangladesh – their common denominator the exorbitant fee they paid the smugglers and the hope to start over in a more stable environment.
Italy has had to bear the brunt of this exodus and, for two years, the Italian Navy has acted as the first port of entry for thousands of people: sailors trained for military maneuvers had to quickly become skilled in rescue operations, each vessel spending months at sea, deployed wherever boats were spotted, in a back and forth from Lampedusa, where the migrants would disembark, be sorted and lodged while documentation was established and their status, and fate, determined. As most of the arrivals do not plan to stay in Italy, this is not just an Italian problem but a European one which is why, last January, the Italian Navy was relieved of the command of the entire operation and now boats from every corner of Europe patrol the Mediterranean alongside the Italians. But not enough. A couple of days ago, 900 people, trapped in a boat that capsized, died before help arrived. The Mediterranean, that I have always thought of as such a gentle sea, has become the deadliest piece of ocean on earth.
Among the Italian sailors and doctors engaged in this massive rescue operation, all men, stands out the reed-thin and steely figure of Navy Captain Catia Pellegrino, the first (and, so far, only) female captain in the Italian Navy. A documentary crew recently filmed Catia for 6 months as she took command of the ship Libra which was engaged in such rescue missions. A pretty and young-looking 39-year-old is seen at the beginning of the film, alighting from a helicopter and greeted by a curious and slightly incredulous crew of 80, all men, many of whom do go on camera expressing their reservations about a woman commanding a ship.
But command she does, with a mixture of strength and empathy (and a proper foul mouth), and certainly competency and experience. Day after day, she earns the trust and the respect of her men, many nearly teary-eyed when, a year later, Catia leaves the ship the same way she arrived, boarding a helicopter, to take over the command of a different vessel.
“I am about to retire, this was my last mission,” one of the sailors says, “and I am proud that Catia Pellegrino was my last captain.”
While women might be commonplace in Armies such as the American and Israeli ones, they are on the par with unicorns in Italy, especially in the Navy. But, while the documentary was about Catia, her unusual choice and her life (does one have a life, when spending months at a time at sea, one has to wonder), the subjects who stand out, alongside her, are the refugees, those faces behind which untold horrors and hopes hide.
“On my first rescue mission, we picked up bodies, just bodies. They were all lined up on the bridge of my ship and I vowed I would never let that happen again” says Catia, before turning around and exhorting her men to move faster, shouting to get the children out of a precarious inflatable boat.
The majority of men who enlist in the Navy are young and poor, the product of a rural South that, in over a century, for many reasons hasn’t been able to catch up to the industrial North. In a sense, it’s their only hope to escape a life of odd jobs or crime and, for many, it’s not a big stretch to imagine that, had they been born a few hundred kilometres south, on the African coast, their roles would be reversed.
Enlisting in any army, anywhere, signifies following the orders you are given, no matter who is giving them, provided they are your superior which, in the case of Cpt. Pellegrino works to her advantage at the onset of each mission – most of the men she commands are poorly educated and come from regions where tradition often reigns supreme, including gender roles. Trust and respect are hers to earn and she does it by working tirelessly alongside her crew.
“I wouldn’t ask of you anything I am not asking of me. I know we have been up for two days straight and it’s not over yet but I am right here. If I can do it, you can do it” she tells the men she has assembled to discuss the grueling schedule they still have ahead. And she plunges in.
“Do we have enough food for 200?” she asks of the bewildered cook who was not expecting to feed a second boatload of migrants.
“We have pasta. I think I can make enough tomato sauce.” And sauce is whipped up from scratch for famished women and children up on deck. (Incidentally, in the Italian Navy cooks prepare meals from scratch – no pre-packaged food, the assumption being that Italians are used to home cooked meals and nothing else would do).
Keeping a distance from the men and women they save is not easy. Entire Syrian families, with small children, have left with only clothes on their backs and all their savings and passports in Ziploc bags. A crying child is soothed with the chocolate egg one of the sailors was given by his son upon departure. “I gave your gift to a little child like you” he writes home “because he is not as fortunate as you are.”
By the time the “passengers” disembark, the main deck is littered with trash, vomit, small objects left behind: the wrapping of a Libyan candy; a lipstick; a sweatshirt. While in Italy, and elsewhere in Europe, the debate rages on what to do with so many refugees, and xenophobia is rampant, these sailors and their captain have come close up with what real desperation looks like.
“Where were you when I wasn’t able to take everyone in” Catia says, in an unguarded moment, watching the priest and the politicians lined up at the dock for a photo-op, waiting for her ship to come in and let out her human cargo. “Where were you when we didn’t sleep for three days? And when we couldn’t get there in time?” A life is a life is a life. It’s sad how easy we tend to forget it if we are not on the trenches.
“But I did save 400 lives today” and the pride in Catia’s voice is hard to disguise.
The documentary, titled “Catia’s choice – 80 miles south of Lampedusa” can be watched on the video blog on the Corriere della Sera website, where it’s divided into 6 minutes segments.
The whole movie can also be watched on YouTube – in Italian only.