There were four cheers and four collective shouts of joy, because it required translations into four languages – French, Arabic, English and Tigrinya – to let everyone know that the Geo Barents had been granted entrance to the port in Salerno. A world comprising many worlds has been on the Doctors Without Borders ship since Sunday. Sixteen nationalities: Egypt, Eritrea, Guinea Conakry, Ivory Coast, South Sudan, Sudan, Syria, Ethiopia, Ghana, Gambia, Senegal, Cameroon, Liberia, Niger, Togo, Mali. A Babel of languages, cultures and life paths, which in the days spent together found ways to communicate across all barriers: with gestures and smiles, and with international languages – music, prayer, and then chess and cards, which the crew brought to pass the time.
“The first thing I will do ashore is call my mother to tell her that I am alive and far from Libya. She pushed me to leave because we had too many problems at home, but she didn’t know what was happening in that country. I didn’t go out anymore out of fear, she has been terrified for months,” says Dao (all names are fictional). He was born in the Ivory Coast, is now 16 years old, tall, and speaks like a mature man. He has things to look forward to now, and his eyes are wide with hope. It’s a very different look than that of those forced to recall recent memories from across the sea.
Odette is 20 years old, from Cameroon. She speaks French. She agrees to talk only when we tell her that the Italian government wants to block people in Libya. “In Libya? But it’s hell on earth!” she blurts out. She sits down and calmly retraces her journey. Her flight from home to reject an arranged marriage: “I want to be with the man I love, not the one my family chose,” she says. Her face darkens as she recounts crossing the Algerian border. “I heard shooting for the first time in my life. They stole everything from us, beat the men and took the women,” she continues, describing the beginning of the nightmare.
“In Libya, there’s no pity for those with black skin. I was beaten and tortured. I was hit across the ears every day. Now I hear very little. I have known the kalabush, prison, in places like Sabratha and Zawyia. It is hell on earth. It is written even at the entrance. Men see you, point at you and take you away to rape you,” Odette manages to say before bursting into tears. Mohamed, a 15-year-old Ivorian who approached us alone to tell his story, goes on to say, “You can’t describe everything that happens there. You can’t.”
Others have fared better, particularly Egyptians and those who were in Libya a few months. But experiences of violence and terror have marked the path of most of the people, and virtually all the women, rescued by the NGOs. That’s why here on board they call them “survivors.” Survivors twice over: of the Mediterranean and of Libya — the country where Italian and European money finances detention centers and militias, with various names, that go after sub-Saharans and Horn of Africa natives. The plan is to kidnap them and extort money from relatives.
Nobody believed Abraham would survive, his friends recount. He is 20 years old and was born in Eritrea. He ran away to escape mandatory military service for an indefinite period. He did not want to take part in any war. He wants to study and work to help his parents. His hands and pelvis are full of scabs. Medical personnel said it was an infection secondary to scabies, itching to the point of consuming the skin. They arrested him and sold him, first in Niger and then in Libya, where he ended up in the Korciafana concentration camp, where up to a thousand people are crammed into a room, with no room to lie down and with very little food and water.
Whenever racist propaganda, masquerading as realpolitik, talks about “stopping departures,” it wants to confine migrants to that kind of place. The 254 rescued from the Geo Barents and the baby born on board were lucky. It also worked out well for them because they didn’t have to wait for a port for eight, nine or 10 days, like every time in the last five years, under governments of all political stripes. It’s as if the particular kind of suffering that people left behind justified anything, including abandoning them on the decks of ships — to sleep on the floor. To wash themselves with a bucket of water. To eat the emergency food offered by the crews.
Friday was almost a record: the first and only port request was sent at 9:12 a.m., and the response came in a phone call at 3:10 p.m. “Choose Bari or Salerno,” the coast guard said. DWB opted for the city in Campania, a bit closer but still 262 nautical miles away. Over a day’s journey. “The first reaction is one of surprise and astonishment,” commented Anabel Montes Mier, rescue coordinator for Geo Barents. “The safe harbor must be assigned as quickly as possible, and in this case it was relatively quick. Previous missions had normalized a too-long wait, which should not happen. Even though the port is far away, we’re happy about the information. However, uncertainty remains as to what the reason for this novelty is.”
It is hard to believe that the Meloni government has decided to comply with international law and is not instead rethinking its strategy to hinder rescues, after the defeat of “selective landings” and the diplomatic clash with France that began a month ago.
But in the meantime, Dao, Odette, Mohamed, Abraham and all the others will finally be able to set foot on land. They will have to begin their fight once again, because they are unlikely to be met with such care and attention as the DWB crew has given them in recent days. Perhaps Defense Minister Guido Crosetto is right when he calls humanitarian ships “floating social centers.” Not because of the negative meaning that a politician like him, long active in the arms industry, automatically assigns to places that stand for peace and solidarity. But because, like self-managed social centers on land, humanitarian ships are charting a radically different course at sea, away from racism, mistrust, isolation, and the trivialization of evil.