Io Capitano is not fiction

We publish here an article by a member of a humanitarian rescue boat from today’s Il Manifesto, a daily left wing newspaper in Italy, that shows the events fictionalised in Garrone’s film currently reviewed on this site are taking place today, right now. Translated by Dave Kellaway with additional clarifications


Federica Rossi, LIFE SUPPORT (= rescue boat)

“I never want to go back to Libya,” exclaims a young man as soon as Emergency’s (Italian NGO) humanitarian workers get him into the rescue raft. He breathes a sigh of relief only later. We are in the international waters off Tripolitania, in one of the deadliest stretches of sea in the world. Yesterday, Life Support, on its eighteenth mission, rescued 200 people here.

It is 6.25 a.m. when the radios of the 29 crew members crackle in unison: the radar has spotted migrant boats in distress. Helmets, gloves, and life jackets: for the members of the search and rescue teams, it is a matter of seconds to go from their beds to the deck. There are two boats ‘in distress’, the technical term for danger at sea. They are both wooden vessels that have been on the horizon for three days in sight of the rescue boat, Life Support, which left the port of Augusta on 2 April.

The ship launches two RHIBs—rigid-hull inflatable boats—which operate in synch during the rescue for two hours and five minutes. The crew’s movements are precise, focused, and coordinated as the sun rises behind them. No time can be wasted. Beyond the two boats is a third dinghy, with three men in balaclavas on it, looking threatening.  It is not clear who they are—possibly the Libyan militia. No one meets their eyes, and the rescue operations continue.

Tensions are high after the recent news of shots fired from a patrol boat from Tripoli in the direction of another rescue boat, the Mediterranea, during the rescue of about fifty shipwrecked people. This is the umpteenth act of violence by the self-styled ‘coast guard’, which has been showing itself more aggressive in recent times. A Libyan patrol boat can be glimpsed in the distance. The number stamped on the side, 658, tells us that it is the same one that went after the Italian NGO: it is called Fezzan; it is a Corrubia-class patrol boat, grey, built for the Italian financial police and then given to the Libyans.

The rescue goes ahead. First, the children are brought to safety. Soon after, it becomes clear that the people to be helped are not only the visible ones; there is a second floor in one of the boats. Inside, a young man is unconscious. Fellow passengers help to move his body to get him as quickly as possible to the boat, where medical personnel are waiting for him. “He has regained consciousness but remains under observation,” says Sara Chessa of the medical team.

The two boats, measuring 10 and 12 metres, left the coasts of Libya on the same night, between Thursday and Friday, but from two different ports: Sabratha and Zawiya. For the migrants, however, the journey began much earlier. Malek left Eritrea when he was 22 years old; today he is 26. The former Italian colony is under the yoke of a dictatorship; the country is militarised, and compulsory conscription is often indefinite. “What I want most is to be in a safe, peaceful place. I cannot return to Eritrea,” he explains, looking at the sea. Then he smiles, finally.

Mohammed, 21, had a shorter journey. He left Bangladesh six months ago. “I fled Dakka because I did not know how to eat; there is extreme poverty,” he says. “My dream is that my family will one day join me.” After leaving, he travelled through Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and then Libya. The expression on his face changes when the latter is mentioned. A reaction common to many others.

Among the 200 rescued, 21 are women and 14 are minors. Among them, eight are unaccompanied. “I am here with my brother; we would like to reach relatives in Holland,” says Fatima (not her real name), a teenager of Syrian origin. “We want to continue studying, but in our country there is war, hunger, and poverty.”

While I am writing this, Life Support rescuers are preparing for a third intervention. In mid-afternoon, a call for help arrived from another boat; all that is known is that it is overcrowded. The fact has been reported to the authorities, and instructions are awaited: the Piantedosi decree (passed by the Italian government) hinders and punishes NGOs that carry out more than one rescue. There is a risk of the ship being detained.

This time, at least, the people in danger are on their way to the port assigned by the Viminale (Italian Home Office). A distant port, as happens every time: Ravenna. “It’s an extra four days of navigation,” says Anabel Montes Mier, an expert mission leader who has sailed the length and breadth of the Mediterranean with various NGOs. “A practice that increases the level of suffering of the people could have been avoided by assigning a closer destination, in Sicily, for example.

IN ITS FIRST YEAR, Life Support, which has already rescued 1,542 people in total, was forced to spend half of the total number of days sailing on the routes to distant ports. Distances and waits that empty the sea of rescuers while people continue to drown.

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Dave Kellaway is on the Editorial Board of Anti*Capitalist Resistance, a member of Socialist Resistance, and Hackney and Stoke Newington Labour Party, a contributor to International Viewpoint and Europe Solidaire Sans Frontieres.

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