02 April 2009

Brave Captains

Il salvataggio del GhibliMAZARA DEL VALLO - "We are in the same area. It is our fishing zone, and they pass through it". Almost every day, Sicilian fishermen cross the migrants' boats on their route to Lampedusa. And often they rescue them. Last time it happened on 28th November 2008. With a stormy sea and waves 8 meters high, five crews of Sicilian fishermen courageously rescued 650 people on two boats adrift. When I visited the port of Mazara del Vallo, in Sicily, in order to meet them, I even discovered that it was not the first time. During the last years, Mazara's fishermen have saved hundreds of men and women from the sea. Their stories are incredible, and at the same time dramatic, when not even cruel and unspeakable. They are stories of deep humanity. Stories of anonymous heroes who refused to turn their back. Because "when you see a three months old baby at sea, you don't think any more about the money and the time you'll lose. You only think to save him."

Il capitano Pietro RussoAnd she was a few months old baby, the first one who got on board on the Ghibli. It was the afternoon of 28th November 2008, in Lampedusa. "Her mother had covered her with a blanket. I looked at her and did some grimaces. She laughed." She had been in the sea for three days, with her mother, and the 350 people crammed on that 10 meters old wooden boat. They went adrift and were blocked in the storm, 10 miles southeast of the island. Captain Pietro Russo will not easily forget the face of that child. It was the Coast Guard commander who asked him to intervene. Coast Guard's motorboats were too small to take the sea in those dangerous conditions and there were no warships of the Navy in the area. The only ones who could defy such a stormy sea, were the 35 meters long fishing boats of Mazara. When he was told that on board there were women and children, the Ghibli's captain decided to take the risk. As the captain of the Twenty Two, Salvatore Cancemi, did the night before, defying the stormy sea to rescue 300 passengers in danger of life.

Il capitano Salvatore CancemiThe last sighting before nightfall, reported the boat at 15 miles west of the island, near the cliffs of Lampione. Five fishing boats of Mazara went on the zone, after the Coast Guard asked for their help, despite the prohibitive conditions of the storm. "There were  eight-metre high waves and wind gusts of 70 km per hour" remembers captain Cancemi. "The sea was too strong. We couldn't make a boarding - he says – and we couldn't tug them. That's why we decided to shield them against the wind. We sailed sideways and we brought them as close as possible to the coast." It was a wooden boat 12 meters long, overcharged of people. The waves beat on its deck. They casted anchor around midnight few meters from the cliffs of the island, near Cozzo Ponente. And then started the boarding, profiting of the backwash to take people on board. It was the most difficult moment, the captain says. In those conditions, the slightest wrong movement, can cause the boat to capsize. It had already happened once.

Salvataggio notturno del Twenty TwoNicola Asaro, born in 1953, is the captain of the Monastir. It was the night of 17 July 2007. They were fishing red shrimp off the Libyan coast, when a small boat carrying 26 people approached them. "They needed fuel. They asked us for gasoline, but we use diesel, we couldn't help them." Asaro ordered to put a ladder and take them on board. The sea was flat. It all happened in a blink of an eye. Someone stood up, from behind, and began to push the others. Suddenly the boat capsized and all of them fell in the water. "We immediately threw some life jackets in the sea and some ropes. They were not able to swim. They pulled themselves under the water, one after the other." At the end the crew managed to rescue 14 people and recovered a dead body. "I saw the other 11 drowning with my own eyes."

Uno dei gps a bordo dei pescherecci di altura mazaresiThe same thing happened a few months ago, in June, to the Ariete's captain, Gaspare Marrone. They were tugging a tunas cage in the open sea. The boat, with 30 people on board, capsized at a distance of just two metres from the Ariete. The crew saved 22 of them. Five people managed to cling to the cage, waiting to be rescued, while three other people disappeared among the waves. One year before, in September 2007, captain Marrone saved 10 other men. He met them in the high seas, hung to the keel of a sunk rubber boat, a tube 20 cm wide and 4 metres long. They had been in those conditions for a couple of hours, completely naked. The other 30 passengers had drowned. “When I saw them, at distance, they looked like buoys. When I realized they were men, I didn't want to believe it. We threw them the life-belts. One of my sailors jumped in the sea to help them, they were too weak to swim."

Il porto di MazaraThe young Mauritanian who was found by the Ofelia, alone in the middle of the sea, 70 miles off Lampedusa, was also too weak. It was the 23rd August 2007. "It was dawn - captain Antonio Cittadino says. I saw him by chance, from the window. At the beginning I thought it was a ball. Then I saw something moving. He was raising his hand. It was a man."He had spent 48 hours sitting on three planks of the wooden hull of a dinghy, which sank with its 47 passengers. He was the only survivor."He collapsed on the deck as we took him on board. He did not speak. His skin had become white from the salted water. When he felt better, the day after, he called me the friend of God."

Russo, Asaro, Cancemi, Marrone, Cittadino and all the other anonymous heroes of the sea, are an honour to Italy. That's why the High Commissioner for Refugees of the United Nations awarded them the prize “Per Mare”. An important prize, established in 2007, which publicly reaffirms the value of saving people. Meanwhile in some Courts, solidarity at sea is judged as a crime.

Il capitano Zenzeri, a destra, con l'armatore NouiraIt's the case of captain Zenzeri and six Tunisian sailors. Since 2007 they are being judged in the Court of Agrigento, in Sicily. When the captain saw the two children and the pregnant woman among the 44 passengers on the half sunk dinghy, he did not hesitate for a moment. They took them on board. It was the 8th August 2007. Today the public prosecutor asks for two and a half years of imprisonment for each sailor and a fine of 440,000 euros. The charge is abetting of illegal immigration. The sentence is expected for the 4th May 2009. When I met captain Zenzeri in Tunisia, he told me that if he could go back in time, he would do exactly the same thing. It's the law of the sea. Solidarity is never a crime. He has no doubt. And his lawyers - Leonardo Marino and Giacomo La Russa – have no doubt either. In case of conviction, they promise a harsh battle till the case is brought to the European Court.