A La Stampa journalist sets off from the Tunisian coast with 112 immigrants, risking their lives to arrive on European shores. They all nearly died together in a 10-meter boat that kept breaking down. Here's their story.
Over the past decade, the tiny Italian island of Lampedusa has become one of the main points of entry into Europe for illegal immigrants crossing over from North Africa. Even though the 90-mile open sea journey has already killed thousands, a new wave of migrants are now flocking in the wake of the unrest in the Arab world. Veteran reporter Domenico Quirico decided to take the clandestine journey, which costs 1,000 euros, and took some 22 hours. Here's his personal account...
LAMPEDUSA - From first sight, I hated that boat. I hated its rusty broadside, its filthy, scraped 10-meter-long hull, which even in the harbor seemed too small and weak to face the open sea. And I hated the fact that it had no name.
Maybe once it had been a fishing boat for real. Maybe it had confidently chartered the winds and the rough waters. Maybe. But things need names to prove they exist, and that boat had no name. I asked the captain, the smugglers who sold me a place, and even some of the 112 Tunisians aboard why the boat had no name. "I don't know. A name? Why should it have a name? It's a boat," they all answered. Karim and the others kept teasing me, saying that the boat was good, that the pilot was top rate. "Don't worry, buddy, we'll arrive in Lampaduza in a flash," they said.
Karim and I were not making the the same trip. We left the same harbor, we were on the same boat, and paid the same fee. We both risked our lives. On the surface, I did not have anything more than Karim, not a lifejacket nor a satellite phone. But our trips were different. Karim and the others on the boat had something I did not. They had the hope which lightens the souls, erases fears, blinds reason.
During the days when we were hiding in the smugglers' house, waiting for the bad weather to end, we spoke all the time about the "big boat" for our trip to Lampedusa. We told ourselves that we would travel in a big, beautiful boat. It would be different, we thought, from those worn-down crafts on which the ill-fated usually leave, destined to sink and die in the middle of the sea. And now, there it was: our boat with no name. It was only 10 meters long, made of old steel, and an engine that wheezed.
Night rules in Zarzis
The harbor was crowded and noisy. There were cars, trucks, and motorbikes everywhere. Men armed with sticks were in charge of opening the barriers, instead of the customs agents who are there during the day. By night, the rules are different in Zarzis, a costal town of southeastern Tunisia. A bribe of few dinars is enough for anyone to pass.
The first time I saw the boat, I thought it would just bring us a little further offshore, where a bigger craft would wait for us to take us to Italy. Only when the crowd on the dock started to jump in, screaming and pushing, I understood that it was the boat.
We all squeezed on the deck, from stem to stern, sitting down close to each other. Some travelers climbed a small platform over the pilot's cabin. When the boat left the dock, the men armed with sticks were hitting those who were still trying to jump into the boat. "God is great," people yelled.
The stars and the moon lightened the sky. A line of boats left the harbor, like a fleet. I noticed right away that the deck was taking on seawater. Shoes and clothes were getting wet. Being squeezed so tight, it was impossible to move. The sea was taking over. For the first time, I was scared. Then, I saw Karim and the others sitting close to me. They were all happy, like kids starting a new life, convinced of their immortality.
Crossing the sea with one hundred illegal immigrants is like going back in time. Today, we are all afraid of intangible things: illnesses, poverty, a radioactive cloud. On the boat, our fears were real, there in front of our eyes, touching our skin. We were afraid of the sea, of the wind, and of the waves. During the trip, we exchanged simple things like water and bread, like the ancient travelers did. It was not because of for our common fear of dying that I became a brother of these 112 human beings, but because of the journey itself. It took 22 hours of very real pain to erase years of my own biases. The real miracle of course would be if prejudices could disappear without one having to risk their life.
When the engine died
Around 7.30 a.m, the first warning came. All of a sudden, the engine jerked to a stop. Boiling jets of water splashed on the deck. Once the boat had stopped, the waves started to play with it, surrounding it, to showing us who's in charge.
The pilot, a big man with a white mustache, walked through the crowd without paying attention to people's arms and legs. He went down to inspect the engine, holding only a screwdriver. He unscrewed, screwed back on, connected parts of the engine, fixed pistons and plastic bottles, full of grease. Everyone was nervously staring at him. All joy was gone. Someone explained that the engine fuels the suction pump in the hold. If it stops, sinking is unavoidable, they said. On the open sea, without a radio, without mobile phones, it is impossible to call for help. It is part of the deal of boarding one of these boats.
The pilot came out of the cockpit, and the engine started to whine again. After that, the engine stopped two more times during the trip. And every time the screwdriver miraculously did the trick.
I had thought that during the trip I would get the chance to speak with the other travelers. I would have asked them why they left, and so easily accepted risking their lives. But a boat filled with 112 passengers is silent. We were so tightly squeezed that I could see only those next to me. And on my right side there was Karim, who battled seasickness the whole voyage. He had big, good eyes. He told me that after Lampedusa, his final destination was Paris. "There are lots of Tunisians there, relatives and friends who can help me to find a job," he said.
He also said, somewhat ashamed, that he had no particular skills, only his arms and his will to work. In Tunisia that had not been enough, but maybe it will be in Europe. "What do you think, am I right?", he asked.
'Arab countries are stuck'
On a boat full of illegal immigrants there is a clear hierarchy. The strong men reign over the others. They are the pilot's friends and have the best places, safe from water and wind. The others sit on the prow, where they get splashed and very few pieces of bread and bottles of water arrive. They spend the 22 hours being half asleep, without asking when the pain and the risks will end.
I made the journey because of my arrogant desire to understand why these young men risk their lives to reach Europe. It is not just poverty that drives them. In Tunisia, even if people have always been poor, they are not starving. They are driven by the same force that has always made young people dream and leave their hometown. They are just looking for another life. They want to dream, and to try. They know that Europe means hardship, humiliation, pain. They know that few get lucky. But they leave anyway. "I love the way you live," said Karim. "Arab countries are stuck. Maybe now they will change, but it will take years. This is why I left."
When the engine broke for the fourth time, it was the middle of the night and we could see Lampedusa's lights twinkling in the distance. The boat eventually started to sink, but the Italian Coast Guard had no choice but to rescue us. That day, we were just one of the many boats full of half-dead people they had to save.
I went to the shelter yesterday, where the immigrants wait to depart once more. From afar, I could see some of my fellow travelers laughing together. I did not have the heart to go to them. Their trip has just started, mine was over.
Read the original article in Italian