Book review: What price a passage to Europe? Danger is no deterrent when you're desperate
Journalist Davide Enia's account of migrants crossing over to Europe is heartbreaking and powerful
An estimated 2,275 people fleeing war, human rights abuses and poverty, died while attempting to cross the Mediterranean last year, reports the UN Refugee Agency. That’s an average of six deaths each day. On the most trafficked and the most treacherous migration route from Libya to Italy, one in every 14 people perished. Grim odds, but then danger is no deterrent when you’re desperate.
Despite the risks, and the increased clampdowns and “pushbacks” – whereby more and more arrivals are denied entry and asylum – thousands of refugees will continue to risk their lives at sea this year on perilous journeys towards European shores. Not all will make it. Some of those who do may be able to speak out and add their story to the ongoing narrative of an unresolved humanitarian crisis.
One man who recorded migrants’ stories, and the testimonies of those who participated in rescue efforts, is the Italian writer and journalist Davide Enia. Notes on a Shipwreck – expertly translated by Antony Shugaar – is an account of his fact-finding mission on the island of Lampedusa, the southernmost place in Europe. It is the gateway to a new life for exiles from North Africa and the Middle East.
Remarkably insightful and profoundly moving, the book comprises a broad range of voices that articulate extreme hardship, immense fortitude and miraculous survival.
The book begins with an interview with a fisherman and the first of many searing images: hauled-in fishing nets containing drowned bodies.
Using his friend Paola’s bed and breakfast as his “base of operations”, Enia ventures out to hear from eyewitnesses. A rescue swimmer trained to deal with death breaks down when narrating the chaos of overturned boats and the agony of a recurring predicament: “If you’re face-to-face with three people going under and 25 feet [seven metres] farther on a mother is drowning with her child, what do you do?”
Other residents also open up. A coastguard tells of the morning he and his team pulled 1,300 people out of the sea. Doctors reveal examples of unspeakable violence inflicted on migrants before setting sail or while on-board the flimsy boats. Paola recounts how in the days following the Arab uprisings, 10,000 refugees poured in, arousing fear, curiosity, mistrust and pity among the 5,000 islanders. And a volunteer who has witnessed 200 landings reflects on a particularly horrific one resembling an “apocalypse here on Earth”.
Then there are the survivors. Bemnet’s tale is arguably the most traumatic. After paying brutal, unscrupulous traffickers and leaving behind everyone he knew and everything he owned, he departed his native Eritrea and crossed the Sahara to Libya. From there he sailed, and then drifted, with 79 others in a single rubber dinghy without food and water for 21 days. Only he and four others reached Lampedusa alive.
During his stay on the island, Enia becomes more than just a listener. Again and again he is told by locals that you never forget your first mass landing. Eventually, and perhaps inevitably, he gets to experience one, helping bring more than 500 dehydrated and exhausted men, women and children on to dry land. One landing turns into 20, and when Enia finally leaves, he has a better understanding of what people are escaping from, what ordeals they face during their crossings and what they endure at the other end.
Unsurprisingly, Notes on a Shipwreck makes for a sobering read. The last section, devoted to the eponymous tragedy and “watershed event” that claimed 368 lives, is predictably devastating.
And yet Enia ensures the book isn’t a complete catalogue of suffering. Just as the sea for him is “the eternal crown of joy and thorns”, so too are his “notes” a blend of darkness and light, pain and solace. Complementing the tales of woe and depravity are stories of humanity and solidarity. The islanders overcome their suspicions and join forces to lend a hand.
“There are no colours, no ethnic groups, no religions,” says a rescue diver. “That’s the law of the sea.”
There is similar relief during Enia’s exchanges with his travelling companion and fellow witness, his father. A distant relationship is slowly rekindled through valuable moments spent together sharing grief.
When asked about his first landing, Enia struggles to find the right word to describe it: “Heartbreaking. Overwhelming, Powerful. A combination of the three, maybe.”
All three words perfectly sum up Enia’s book. His tough but necessary memoir ably illustrates the plight of migrants and the situation on Lampedusa – a place that will remain for many a promised land.
Updated: April 26, 2019 10:57 AM