It was the morning of October 3rd, 2013. I arrived at Palazzo Chigi very early. As I was reading the newspapers, I received the first call of the day. It was the minister of Defense, Mario Mauro, usually efficient an early riser. His tone of voice was worried. He told me that the news received last night from Lampedusa suggested that the shipwreck happened near the coast of the island and that it would have probably assumed frightening proportions. Tens, perhaps hundreds of victims. The newspapers ended up in the trashcan. Began a meeting that lasted till the day after. The minister of the Interior, Angelino Alfano, did his best to go to the island of Lampedusa in the afternoon and offer a first signal of support for survivors and for the inhabitants of the island who, under the guidance of the mayor Nicolini, were desperately trying to save as many lives as possible.
It was one of the worst tragedies that have ever happened in the Mediterranean sea. We intensified to the maximum the mobilization of the State apparatuses. It was obvious, however, that the classic tools would have proven to be insufficient. Harrowing stories and images. Unbearable levels of discomfort for such a small reality as Lampedusa. This time, the ordinary management of emergencies was not enough. Because torment was there and bore testimony to what the whole Europe should have understood. That is to say, the fact that what was going on in the Mediterranean sea, with its huge price of human lives, was the weight of the failure of contemporary crisis management. Uncontrolled flows of refugees who were fleeing from States that failed, that were unstable or in the process of dissolution of the Maghreb, of the Horn of Africa, and that of the Middle and Near East.
We contacted Brussels to illustrate the seriousness of the situation. Considering that in October there was a meeting of the Council of Europe on the agenda, we tried to create consensus to put the necessity to rethink immigration policies at the center of the discussion. A few days later occurred another dramatic shipwreck in the waters of Malta. Military structures from Rome and Valletta intervened jointly. The collaboration with the young and pragmatic Maltese premier, Joseph Muscat, proved to be fruitful and the old misunderstandings between the two countries were archived. It is in this context that we decided to ask the European institutions to visit Lampedusa. We wanted them to see with their own eyes what it meant for the residents, volunteers, and for the State bodies to carry out the pitiful task of recovering dead bodies, organizing obituaries and assisting survivors. Cecilia Malmström told Alfano she was ready to do so. I was struck by the willingness of the president of the European Commission, Jose Manuel Barroso, to be there as well. On the phone, I explained what was likely to happen on the island. I told him frankly that we would have faced the exasperation of the residents who were out of control. He understood everything. Yet he confirmed his commitment to come.
We prepared that journey with many concerns. I remember the cautions of my counselors. We arrived at Lampedusa on October 9th. The intensity of the meetings constrained us to stretch out the program every hour. As I announced to Barroso and Malmström, we literally went through a fire of reproaches The population was exasperated, prostrated by the emergency and shocked by the pain it had to witness. We decided to break the security protocol and visit the reception center, the camp in which the refugees were herded.
We sat down to talk with the volunteers, extraordinary examples of a honorable Italy full of strength. The cameras were there, but this time at a distance. They would have made false that meeting which was necessary first of all to us, to me, in order to know what was happening and decide what to do. We listened to the mayor, the president of the region, the prefect, the military men, and other local government officials and traders. There was also the bishop of Agrigento, Francesco Montenegro, who in January 2015, along with Archbishop Menichelli of Ancona, was one of the two new Italian cardinals appointed by the Pope. We knew him simply as Father Franco.
The meeting with the survivors of the shipwreck was very intense. Their fears, helplessness, their staring into a future shattered forever by what had happened. I was struck by a young man who spoke up. Little more than a child. He had fled from the Horn of Africa, the black hole of a continent unable to break the vicious circle of its eternal tradition. He spoke with a clarity that kept me breathless. Not even a tear. Only a raw story told in plain language typical of those who have seen so much, that nothing shocks them anymore. I do not think I will ever forget the expression of that child who was already an adult and from whom life had taken away everything.
From “Going together, going far away”