In the early morning half light, Ajad Miccoli stops his scooter on his way to work and contemplates the scene unfolding across the scruffy, shuttered-up bay. What he sees is both familiar and eerily disturbing. At the quayside, beside a hut advertising seafood treats and boats offering “sunset aperitivi,” a ship with dozens of people on board has docked to unload its exhausted cargo. Altogether there are 210 new arrivals — mostly Syrians, with some Eritreans and Nigerians. Thirty-seven are children. Miraculously, after a perilous journey thought to have begun on the Libyan coast, they are in relatively good condition. One man waves to reporters from the window of a bus sent to drive them away from the port.
“These people have probably known death,” local musician Miccoli says. “Here, maybe, they have a hope.”
“Here” is Lampedusa, the not-quite 20km2 of Italian territory in the Mediterranean that has become known the world over not for hope, but for tragedy. For years, its sparkling waters and postcard-pretty beaches have provided a jarring backdrop for migrant boat landings; the island is conveniently closer to Africa than Europe — about 112.6km from the Tunisian coast and further south than Malta. Yet even for a place well-acquainted with human suffering, the horror brought to its coastline in the past two weeks has been a shock.
“It’s awful,” fisherman Pietro Riso says, watching the first arrival on Tuesday morning last week. (Soon after there was another boat at the dock — this time carrying 90, including four pregnant women.) “These landings have been going on for about 20 years. However, these last disasters have upset the balance. You get up in the morning and you don’t know what to expect.”
In the early hours of Oct. 3, near a beach once declared the “world’s best” by users of TripAdvisor, a boat packed with more than 500 Eritrean men, women and children caught fire and capsized. Only 155 people survived, and 364 bodies have since been recovered. It was one of the worst disasters to occur in the Mediterranean in recent years, possibly the worst ever. Absolutes are hard to establish when many victims, in the grip of an illicit people-smuggling trade, are never recovered. As the images of tiny white coffins and vivid testimony from survivors went around the world, tragedy struck again. On the night of Oct. 11, Maltese and Italian rescuers raced to the site of another stricken vessel, this time carrying mostly Syrians fleeing their war-torn country. More than 200 people were saved, but at least 38 died.
The double tragedy has prompted outrage from prime ministers, presidents and the pope, who had chosen Lampedusa for his first papal visit outside Rome in July. However, on the ground, locals are not setting much store by their words. When European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso and Italian Prime Minister Enrico Letta visited the island, they were greeted with heckles by people who feel abandoned by both Rome and Brussels.
“I hope that they have finally understood something,” Riso says. “This is a political task. We are fisherman and workers, and we do workers’ work. Now the politicians must do their bit. Because we can’t tolerate so many deaths.”
Up and down the main street of Lampedusa’s town center, a pleasant promenade dotted with pavement cafes and tourist shops, the stories of those deaths — and people who survived — are everywhere. There are more mundane realities that follow in the wake of a disaster. Three Eritrean women who have come from Sweden to identify their dead relatives struggle through red tape to replace a missing passport. A couple of Syrians, smoking and drinking black coffee out of plastic cups, wonder how to celebrate Eid al-Adha.