Lampedusa – Gateway to Europe is a book of extraordinary and moving first hand testimony from Dr Pietro Bartolo who runs the medical services for refugees landing on (or shipwrecked near) the island of Lampedusa in the Mediterranean. Those he treats are often in profound states of suffering after terrifying flights from their home countries. He is also deals with the bodies of those who have died on the journey. Often, the living and the dead arrive together.
Dr Bartolo interweaves the story of his own life, and particularly how he came to be doctor on the island where he was born, with accounts of individual refugees he has met over the last 25 years. His father was a fisherman, and his family are shown as hard working people with a deep respect for the sea. He writes: “There is an unwritten rule that you might only understand if you were born on an isolated island like ours: leaving another human being at the mercy of the waves, no matter who they are, is unacceptable – unthinkable, in fact. This is a law of the sea. It is taken so seriously that when the Italian government prohibited taking migrants on board a boat, fishermen often defied the law and ended up in court” (p. 87). He recounts one maritime disaster after another, relentless deaths and terrible injuries, which continue to this day.
He tells the story of the miraculous revival of one young refugee, Kebrat, who has been given up for dead when she is landed on the pier during the catastrophe of 3 October 2013, in which at least 368 people lost their lives. After 20 minutes of emergency work, her heartbeat is re-established: “I had experienced the greatest surge of emotion in my twenty-five years of first aid work” (p. 190).
The author and his team were seen in the film Fire at Sea. Newly translated from the Italian, the book is recommended by Philip Gourevitch, who wrote the extraordinary story of the Rwandan genocide We Wish to Inform You that Tomorrow we will be Killed with our Families.
My personal view, shared by many others I am sure, is that when the histories of our period are written, future generations will be incredulous that we allowed so many to die while they were fleeing death at home.
The nightmare in the Mediterranean is not over. Bartolo is frustrated by the variation in media coverage, which is sometimes at saturation point and sometimes completely absent. This book stands as a lasting corrective to that. It is an instant classic of refugee and migration writing, and an overwhelming indictment of the human actions that make this happen.