Luca Casarini - January 2020
(translation by Arianna Bove)
One day in July 2018, like in a typical movie scene of Italian immigrants abroad looking for work, two of us knocked on the door of the small Berlin headquarters of the German NGO Sea Watch. “We are Italian,” we said, “we want to get a boat to save lives in the Mediterranean. Can you teach us how to do it?” We were met with looks between disbelief and pity. “Are you crazy?” they replied. “Do you even realize how much it costs, how long it takes, the resources?” Yes, we did, but it didn’t frighten us one bit. It was as if we were set alight, fire burning within, and all we could think of was getting it done.
We started meeting people with skills and experience, who knew a lot about boats and the sea.
Money had to be raised. Our phone conversations with the old friends and comrades always ready to sustain mad causes had been heartening. We were raising more than we ever managed to in other “enterprises,” be it magazines or demonstrations. It was as if everyone we talked to about this project felt it had to be done, that it had to succeed. Nobody discouraged us, even though just the initial funding needed was half a million euros, an enormous sum for us. We built a network of sponsors, including ARCI, a large left-wing association, and the Bologna social centers with their association Ya Basta. We arranged to meet the Director of Banca Etica (Ethical Bank), a bank that finances humanitarian projects of solidarity. We turned up with a plan: buy a boat, equip it for sea rescue, launch it. Everything was documented in great detail: projected costs, crowdfunding and fundraising campaigns, the length and scope of each mission. Any serious banker would have laughed at us, but luckily this director was more human than serious bankers. And he said yes. Four left-wing MPs, old friends and comrades, signed up as guarantors, and the loan was secured.
Obviously, this all had to be done in secret. If the Italian government had found out about the operation, it would have stopped us in our tracks.
And so we found the boat: a 1973 tug boat, thirty-seven meters long, flying the Italian flag. In Augusta, Sicily, more at night than in daylight, we worked on setting it up. Improbable seamen and seawomen with earrings, dreadlocks, and antifa T-shirts cut, welded, painted, and mounted highly complex internet satellite systems and cranes to lift dinghies and rafts on board. All this, like in the best tradition, right in the “lion’s den,” a boatyard located just between a NATO military base full of war ships and the Port Captaincy of the Italian Coast Guard.
Death at Sea
At present, the central Mediterranean is the most dangerous border in the world. Certainly not an easy sea to sail: that, it never was, as Homer told us in Ulysses’ tales, particularly the tract known as the Sicilian Channel. But the reason it is so dangerous today is not the rapidly shifting winds, or the powerful waves or the tropical-like typhoons that now, courtesy of the “globalisation of climate,” also afflict these areas. The reason is that women, men, and children die there while trying to get from Africa to Europe: thirty-five thousand deaths in ten years—ascertained deaths, the actual number is surely higher. Even this basic fact can’t be ascribed to objective causes: people are left to die deliberately by right-wing and “left”-wing governments, because they are migrants and, as such, in Europe and the rest of the globe, they are the scapegoat of all ills. The more migrants they stop, whether by means of walls or shipwrecks, the more votes they gain at elections. If there were no migrants, I doubt that the mania with national sovereignty, all the vogue nowadays, would have found any semblance of reality. But the national-socialists of the extreme right in power in half of Europe and the social liberals who oppose them—here “social” has more to do with the web and its production of imaginaries—have something in common: they use the war against migrants as a formidable weapon of mass distraction on the one hand, and as a means of political propaganda on the other.
It is as if the sea and borders in general had turned into a modern circus, like the Colosseum in ancient Rome: a macabre and blood-filled spectacle fed to the people. The people watch on social media and screens, as if from stands, shouting, inciting violence, calling for death, pointing their thumb down, and suddenly forgetting all of their own misfortunes: lack of income, unemployment, shrinking access to health care, pollution, education cuts, the housing question, and so on and so forth—a permanent political, social and economic crisis. After all, migrants are the poor. The color of their skin, its darkness, makes them identifiable from a distance, it makes their condition unequivocal, stamped on their body. But in cities, borders are
reproduced more and more markedly for the poor who, even when white, are rejected and pushed back from their attempts to land there too.
Streaming news of deaths at sea had become a daily occurrence. It seemed incredible how easily they were talked about, not a trace of decency or shame. On top of that, the government strategy was so crystal clear. It sanctioned these deaths, it would accept anything but let these people land in Italy. All the humanitarian NGO boats that for the past three years had been trying to rescue as many lives as possible had been to be stopped: blocked by legal pretexts and inquiries, kept at a distance through the rhetoric of “closed ports,” criminalized by the “pull factor” theory that claims that thousands of people risk their life crossing the Mediterranean in dinghy boats because they are “attracted” by rescue boats.
Our indignation was mixed with impotence. We were speechless; words failed when confronted with reality. To try and change the situation, it was no longer possible to decry its lack of humanity. It was necessary to practice humanity, directly and without shortcuts and roundabouts. That’s why we thought of buying a boat and sailing the sea. We named this effort ANG (non-government action) so as to try to communicate that we only wanted to react practically to an unacceptable and horrific reality. Political debates would ensue from our practice while we, at sea, crossed the liquid border that was being built trying our utmost to sabotage its function, so deadly and dangerous to human beings.
Life at sea
On the night of October 3, 2018, three months after our visit to Berlin, the Mare Jonio of Mediterranea—the name of our AGN—set sail towards the center of the Mediterranean Sea to reach the place we had to be. Being on board of a 1973 tugboat is not that comfortable. The boat is designed for work, not cruising. When I first got on, it was still docked at the boatyard
where we were getting it ready. The first impact was harsh. “How am I going to manage to sleep down here, in four-people cabins, on such tiny bunk beds?” I asked myself, without letting on to the others; it was not the right time to spread doubts and worries. We had to get out there, in the sea. The entrance to the cabins located under the bridge looked like a submarine hatch. Heavy steel, steep stairs to descend, and that feeling of being a mouse, trapped. Luckily, air and light came from a skylight that looked right to the outside. There was a small emergency ladder, in case water entered from below or the main entrance was blocked for some reason.
Instinctively, I immediately tested it to check that my large frame would manage to get through, and once I saw it could, I felt reassured. The boatswain who had been working on the boat for two years gave me precious advice: “Go down the steps facing ahead, or you’ll hit your head on the steel frame”; “when you’re down there, always make sure the emergency hatch is closed if the sea is rough, because the waves come in and flood everything”; “always tell someone when you go somewhere, whether on top of or under the deck: if you fall in the sea, if you feel unwell, you can be there and nobody’ll come to look for you unless you’ve told them.” Now, after months of sailing, I say the same things to novices.
Being on such a Spartan boat that size is a bit like being in prison (in fact, the Italian term galera means both boat and prison). The corridors are so narrow that to get past when there’s someone else, you need to take or give way. Two bathrooms with shower and WC, metal walls and large handles to hold onto when high waves make you “dance.” I immediately thought of
“Alcatraz.” As soon as I got in, it felt like a prison cell.
But after a while aboard, having made the baptism of the rough sea, no matter what kind of boat it is, your boat feels like the best place in the world; because you know that it’s that bundle of wood and metal that carries you home, that saves you. Love develops between the sailor and his boat. I respect that old lady called Mare Jonio and often I have thought that she respects us in return and I am grateful. After a life spent carrying stuff along the Sicilian coast from one dock to the next, now the Mare Jonio was sailing the open sea to rescue lives, closing out its time in style, becoming for an instant more famous than boats ten times its size and of nobler provenance.
A “proletarian” boat, the Mare Jonio, a tug, a boat made for hard work, an unsophisticated shape. But the right boat, a good and brave one, sailing in defiance of a pre-written destiny that was condemning women, men, and children to die. Yes, the Mare Jonio loved us and always took us home. And with us many others who thought they were dead until she appeared on their horizon.
The Law of the Sea
When we started, on the night of the October 3, 2018, we weren’t so sure about how to carry out a mission. The task we set ourselves was to “monitor” the Central Mediterranean along the thirty-third parallel from West to East and back, roughly forty-five miles of Libyan coastline. The main objective was to be there, where the Italian government and the rest of the EU wanted no witnesses. It was obviously there that assistance was needed the most, no ifs or buts.
This is and has always been the law of the sea for thousands of years: at sea you help and rescue those in need. It is also written law, according to national and international frameworks, and it is written in the Constitution.
But the more powerful law is the law of the sea. It is the one that still resists all the bureaucratic artifices played out to affirm its opposite, namely, that at sea some people can be left to die. Whenever we met a fishing boat at sea, whether Tunisian or Sicilian, we’d exchange a few words, a greeting, and ask if they need anything. So would they. And when we’d tell them what we were doing, we’d get the same response: “it’s the law of the sea.” This assumption, spoken by the sea, is far more meaningful and powerful than any other legal dictum, no matter how indisputable. It was like saying “you can talk as much as you like, argue on whatever you like, demonstrate anything and the opposite of everything, but we are at sea here. And here, the law of the sea rules.”
As capo missione (head of the mission), I shared my responsibilities with Captain Pietro Marrone. He would always say: The sea is not just water. It’s a way of life, a community, a world.
The first night we set sail from Augusta on the coast of Sicily, we recognized it was the anniversary of the Lampedusa tragedy of October 3, 2013, when half a mile from the island, four hundred people sailing from Libya shipwrecked and lost their lives. Obviously, the authorities knew about that struggling boat full of Eritrean refugees and children. Yet despite having come that far after two days of sailing, nobody intervened to rescue it. The engine had failed, the boat capsized. Fishermen who went out with their boats managed to rescue one hundred and fifty-five people. The coast guard arrived an hour later. That event was there, in my heart, when for the first time in my life I was a crew member trying to sail in the open sea. I felt we had to do this for all of them, the people buried at the bottom of our sea.
Subcomandante and Cook
I have served as capo missione on the Mare Jonio on several trips, including an operation that rescued fifty people on March 18, 2019. First and foremost, a capo missione is tasked with coordinating the smooth functioning of the relationship between activists and professional crew members; and you must be a “subcomandante,” that is, someone who gives orders and obeys them, just like the Zapatistas have taught us. The first commandment is always you must achieve the mission’s objectives. To be in a position to rescue people, everything must be in working order, there can be no tensions, the energy released by that mix of adrenaline and anxiety for what may happen at any moment must be turned into a positive push, rather than turn to panic and frustration.
Being at sea, you realize that, really, anything can happen, but always at the pace of the sea. The time of the sea is measured in hours and days of navigation, not minutes. You have to take time, get used to it. And then, you find that between getting a target signal of a boat asking for help and getting close to it, you have all the time you need to prepare everything and everyone, and check that everything is ready.
At the beginning, you follow to the letter the protocol written by different people based on the training you received from the “instructors” from other NGOs and adapted to the situation of your own mission. Depending on the mission, the boat you have, or the volunteer activists on board, there may be a different protocol. The capo missione must know everything about everything and takes decisions together with the captain of the Mare Jonio and the captain of the support vessel (a twenty-meter-long sailing boat).
Between the captain and the capo missione there’s true cooperation. The captain studies the boat course with the navigation officer. His goal is to bring everyone home safe, including the rescued. The capo missione makes decisions on the operations, in close collaboration with others: the person in charge of the rescue teams (two teams of three people each); the “guest coordinator,” who organizes the life onboard of the people rescued; the doctor; and the legal team volunteer. The helm station becomes your home during the mission. There you have a computer, maps of the course, satellite, and the Navtex, which receives “alerts.” This is also the highest workstation in the boat and the one that moves the most: if you suffer from seasickness and become capo missione, get ready to vomit frequently.
During my first trip, I thought about what the other most “useful” role would be for someone like me who had to learn everything and fast at the same time as becoming acquainted with a crew with whom we had had no previous shared experiences. Speaking to sailors on land, I understood that it was the role of “onboard cook.” And I like cooking, so for two months I became a cook.
It’s an important role: lunch and dinner are strategic moments for anyone working at sea. Everyone sits around the table at meal times, you chat and laugh off the difficulties, and experience the “crowded loneliness” that is a boat on the open sea. You get to know one another and make friends around the table, and if he’s not too bad, everyone treats the cook with the greatest respect. He’s the one who takes care of the whole family, who organizes survival and supplies. The kitchen on board is like a bank vault when you are at sea: it cannot be profaned or accessed without the cook’s authorization; he’s its custodian and sovereign. The cook knows what can and can’t be consumed, what needs rationing. He plans the menu to vary the diet; he controls the use of water, oil, and fresh vegetables so that nothing goes to waste.
In the kitchen, the cook is also a priest to whom anyone passing confesses, sooner or later: they tell you of problems with this or that person, confide their life trouble, but above all they tell you of their doubts about the mission: “So when we rescue someone, what do we do? Do we go back to Italy? Will we get arrested?”
When Humanitarian Aid Becomes a Crime
Around sea rescue, Mediterranea has built an open platform that tries to deploy the “operational” know-how needed to be effective and competent while also allowing everyone who wants to a chance to participate in this experience. What was developed in these months both on land and aboard the Mare Jonio boat is a veritable search of forms of organization from below.
From the start, it was clear that forming a new NGO would not be enough. This is not to say that the precious and highly technical competencies of the NGOs operating in the Central Mediterranean, with their boats and airplanes, do not comprise an important model from which to draw know-how and skills. But Mediterranea emerged at a turning point, a fundamental shift of “status” of so-called “humanitarian work”—a shift from being “authorized” work, in some cases even planned by, compatible with, and complementary to the action of the authorities, be them war or welfare cuts policies, to becoming an operation that governments consider “unwelcome,” not tolerated and in many cases instrumentally made “illegal” action by means of the production of decrees and laws conjured up against it ad hoc. In the whole of Europe, both in countries ruled by governments that are markedly on the right wing of the spectrum and those headed by social democrats, “solidarity” has effectively become criminalized. From the distribution of blankets and food to migrants or the poor in general, to hosting them in conditions that are not prison-like, to going to rescue lives at sea: all of these practices proliferating in towns and cities and across terrestrial or marine borders, or in the countryside where migrant labor is exploited, confront more and more obstacles, set up by the ruling powers: legal, bureaucratic, juridical, police obstacles. In order to build ever higher fences to block practices of solidarity, new images are created that turn reality upside down: it’s the boats saving lives at sea that attract migrants, it’s the volunteers who distribute food to the hungry that create areas where the poor gather, it’s those who distribute blankets that turn the city into a homeless camp . . . and so the fiction goes on.
The function of political propaganda is two-fold. On the one hand, it’s used to build a “foundation” to justify abhorrent laws that go plainly against human rights and constitutions. On the other had, following a known trope, it helps create an external enemy used to gain consensus even in the absence of solutions to the crisis. A “foreign” enemy whose semblance is described, daily, in the media chatter that promotes improbable theories with no scientific evidence—such as the so-called “migrant invasion,” proven completely wrong by the facts, yet turned into highly successful fake news. So, Mediterranea came to life at a time when humanitarian work had become a field of conflict. This is why as it develops it traces a path that looks more to the concept of “organized social movement” than that of nongovernmental
organization. One of the criticisms levelled against Mediterranea from the world of NGOs, especially from the large ones, was “you are doing politics.” But today anyone prepared to defend any form of human right, and to do so in the name of its universality, whether they want it or not, not only “does politics,” but is immediately drawn into a field of conflict. Since those
in government are not prepared to negotiate, the clash is necessarily harsh and concrete. Radical.
The Underground Network
At the time of writing, in late spring of 2019, Mediterranea has accomplished fifteen missions and participated, indirectly or directly, in the rescue of six hundred people. Crowdfunding has gathered eight hundred thousand euros in eight months, through thousands of small donations. Mediterranea is a vast network extending throughout Italy, and has started taking its first steps in Spain, France, the UK, and US. The crews working for Mediterranea are both on land and at sea. Together, they give life to the general assembly.
The struggle for the respect of human rights and sea rescue is the direct expression of a concrete practice. Denunciation and counter-information regarding what happens at sea and in Libya, where women, men, and children are locked in concentration camps with the complicity of the EU and the Italian government in particular, are also part of the activities of the legal team of Mediterranea, which is working to bring charges against the Italian government for crimes against humanity at the International Court of Justice at the Hague.
One of the most beautiful aspects of this adventure, which continues despite criminal charges, impounding of the ship, and thousands of obstacles that government and the authorities try to stop us with, is the hidden network of cooperation established amongst the people who decided to support this “conspiracy for humanity”: old comrades who now work as insurance brokers for large ship owners, naval engineers, union officials in international maritime organizations, ex-officers and officers in the Coast Guard, skippers—in short, people who know an awful lot about the sea, who work with it. They have put their competence and skill at the disposal of a shared goal that is unpalatable to the authorities. During the first, non-public phase, dozens of people cooperated in secret to make it possible for us to be ready to sail in only three months: us, with no experience. At no point did these people meet. Yet, without perceiving it, they worked together around that boat, as partisans did during the Resistance.
They materialize all of a sudden. Though you’ve been ready for hours, because you got the signal several hours earlier. You max the engines to get there fast, to not leave them alone. But when you see that half deflated rubber dinghy full of people, it’s as if it just appeared. They are silent, as if the hours passed floating in that liquid desert could only lead to death. Their eyes are lifeless to start with, maybe because they haven’t recognized you and think you are Libyan. This is the most dangerous moment: if they think you are a patrol boat of the prison guards from whom they are trying to escape, they could try to kill themselves rather than be captured. It’s happened before. Many times. But if they understand that they are safe and the boat has come to their rescue, their enthusiasm and fear of being left behind could cause them to move around too much and sink the dinghy. This is why the Mare Jonio sends inflatable rescue boats first before approaching. From the safety of the rescue boat, the first thing we say is stay calm, you’re safe, and we distribute life jackets. Then, once they board rescue boats that go back and forth between their sinking dinghy and the boat, they realize that they really are safe: “Hello my friend,” says the sailor who lifts them up onto the rescue zone, on the bulkhead of the starboard side. And there, at that moment, their eyes transform. They become full of life again. They laugh, pray, and sing even through they are sick from spending so long in such conditions.
Then, the doctor finds out that they are full of scars from torture, dehydrated, undernourished. But as soon as they come onboard, as soon as they receive the embrace of the crew, they hear words of friendship and fraternity, they feel that you will protect them from now on, and they raise their eyes to the sky. Their tears are of joy, like ours.
Original article from: The South Atlantic Quarterly 119:1, January 2020
Luca Casarini has been the leader of the "Tute Bianche movement", one of the prominent groups within the no-global movement, which in July 2001 changed its name to "Disobedient". In the following years, the group was characterized by numerous "blitz" initiatives, symbolic violations. In his capacity as leader of the Disobedient, Casarini led protests, among others, against temporary employment agencies, temporary stay centers, the European Constitution, the war in Afghanistan and Iraq, numerous international summits, the high-speed trains, construction of the new US base in Vicenza. The best known action in which Casarini has played an important role, both in the field and in the relationship with the national media, is undoubtedly the protest against the G8 in Genoa: previously known only within the movement and in politics local, Casarini became one of the main public faces of those days in his capacity as spokesperson for the Disobedient, a group distinct from the Genoa Social Forum.
In particular, his "declaration of war" caused a stir to world leaders in the days leading up to the summit. Casarini has been a consultant to the Minister for Social Solidarity Livia Turco in the first Prodi government.
On March 29, 2015 he joined the national presidency of the party Sinistra Ecologia Libertà,. He joined the constituent process of the Sinistra Italiana (Italian Left), was a member of the promoting committee and is a member of the national leadership of the party elected to the SI Founding Congress held in Rimini from 17 to 19 February 2017. On April 30, 2017 he was elected with Bianca Guzzetta to the office of Secretary of the Italian Left in Sicily by the Regional Party Congress.
In March 2019 he was the head of mission of the Mare Jonio ship which recovered 49 migrants off the Libyan coast and landed in Lampedusa.
Casarini has published his first novel, La parte della Fortuna, in March 2018,