On 3 October 2013, a boat carrying migrants sank off the Italian island of Lampedusa. Journalist Lidia Tilotta traveled to Lampedusa where she met Dr Pietro Bartolo who has welcomed and treated every refugee arriving on the island since the early 90s.
One day my editor-in-chief called me in to his room. ‘It’s time for you to go to Lampedusa,’ he said. ‘Your colleague has to come back and we can’t leave the island without a journalist.’
I was confused and excited at the same time. My colleague told me the first person I should call in Lampedusa was Pietro Bartolo, the doctor at the local clinic.
‘Why?’ I said. ‘What kind of help can he give me? I want to tell the story of the people who leave their country to survive. Why a doctor?’
‘Pietro isn’t a doctor,’ he answered. ‘He’s the doctor and he’s the first person the refugees meet when they reach Lampedusa. You have to talk to him.’
So when the plane landed at the island’s airport I called Pietro Bartolo. He looked very unassuming, but came across as calm and determined. He was my first contact on the island, and each time I went to Lampedusa he gave me precious advice. He liked my way of writing about what was happening and I liked the way he welcomed people as they arrived frightened after a terrible journey. So we became friends.
In 2014, a year after the horrific shipwreck in which 368 men, women and children died, I went to Pietro’s clinic to see a photography exhibition about that disaster. Back in 2013, on 3 October, a delegation of local healthcare professionals was in Lampedusa for a conference. When the news of the shipwreck arrived, Nino Randazzo, the bureau spokesman, went with Pietro and other doctors to the quay of the famous Favaloro pier. He started taking pictures and videos which became the first documentary evidence of the tragedy. I asked Pietro to tell me what happened that day and to describe the photos. Whilst Pietro spoke, my colleague Marco Sacchi and I cried. His voice was full of emotion and he conveyed to us the great pain he had felt as lifeless bodies began to fill up the pier. Only one picture made him proud: Pietro and a fisherman carrying a girl who seemed to have drowned. Her name was Kebrat and she was the only one Pietro could save. A miracle.
That interview was shown on Mediterraneo, a Rai national magazine show. At the end of the interview I told Pietro: ‘We have to write a book, we have to tell people what is really happening and we have to help these people who only ask to leave in safety and to save their families.’ At first, Pietro didn’t want to write this book because he feared that telling their stories was betraying their trust. But when Fuocoammare, Gianfranco Rosi’s film, won the Golden Bear at the Berlin International Film Festival I called Pietro to congratulate him and he told me: ‘Now we can do the book.’
So we started this incredible journey. We decided to arrange the stories in a way that put everyone on the same level. It was an exhausting experience; when Pietro told me the stories he relived every moment, and when I had finished writing I felt destroyed. When the book was finished I went to Lampedusa. Pietro, his wife Rita, and I shut ourselves away for two days. Every page was a punch to the stomach and by the time we had finished we had no more tears to cry.
But writing the book was just the first step. Our mission is to speak to people. We’ve visited schools all around Europe, theatres, town squares, universities, and each time people tell us: ‘We didn’t think it was so bad.’ We want to keep on discussing this, debating it, and telling everyone that we have to face reality, that we have to help these people, that we have to realise that there’s no alternative. We must welcome those who run away from hunger and war. Lampedusa’s people did it and sent a message to Europe. And Europe has to hear this message.