Luca Prestia - Emmaus Italia, March 5 2020
(translation by Arianna Bove)
A report from Licata’s port aboard the boat that is no longer impounded (February 27, 2020)
I left Palermo in the morning of a Thursday that promised to be as hot and sunny as recent days. In dazzling anticipation, Spring came to Italy -- north and south -- nearly two months ago.
A few hours’ drive through a stunning hilly landscape takes me from the northern coast to the southern sea shores of the island, in Licata, where the Mare Jonio and its sailing boat Alex have been docked and impounded for several months, and have just been freed by order of the judicial authorities.
I am going to meet Giovanni Viva, first officer on board, whom I had first spoken to a few days ago; he is now waiting for me on the dock of the port with some of the boat crew, busy finalizing the works of preparation in view of a hopefully imminent departure. As I take a few photographs, I start talking to Antonio, Valentino, Vincenzo and Antonino who welcome me aboard with great courtesy; I get the impression that I am joining a large family where daily routine tasks are shared in a pleasant climate of helpfulness. I had already been on the Mare Jonio in February last year, when with Franco Monnicchi (President of the Emmaus Italia, an organisation where I deal with communications), I came to Palermo for the press conference that officially announced the support of the movement founded by Abbé Pierre to the project Mediterranea Saving Humans. Since then, much has happened and many are the search-and-rescue missions carried out in the past months. An amazing collective effort shared by an increasing number of associations, volunteers, and groups from all over Italy and some European countries. Thanks to the project, many people were rescued and saved from a certain death in a stretch of the Mediterranean sea that has turned, over time in a climate of unprecedented cynicism, in an endless and unforgiving liquid desert.
As a photographer, I have been witness for some years to what is happening on the European borders, along the routes people use every day to try and cross, with enormous difficulties, into ‘fortress Europe’, whilst the latter continues to reject masses of human beings who are looking for a new life fleeing violence, war, and a misery we cannot even imagine. Over time I realized that the Mediterranean is, if anything, worse. It is the most dangerous border in the world: a status unfortunately confirmed by the high number of deaths of people trying to cross it on makeshift boats in the hope of being intercepted and rescued. Hundreds of women, children, men. Squeezed and cold, with no water or food, condemned to wait hours or days under a blaring sun surrounded by a nothingness of dark water that destroys hope and slowly kills.
This is what I have in mind when I board the Mare Jonio; I try to fathom what the sound of the crew’s voices and the lights from the bridge look like to the rescued, as they emerge from the pitch dark of the night, with the SAR lifeboat units that approach with dry clothes and safety jackets: a handhold to safety, a rebirth to put an end to a terrible nightmare. ‘Rebirth’ is the most recurrent word in my conversations with first officer Viva. Twenty-eight-years-old Giovanni is the youngest member of the crew, at his second mission with the Mare Jonio. I ask him what it means to him to be there, having taken a decision that I think must have been all but easy. The answer is straight to the point: to save the lives of those who risk disappearing under water. To Giovanni, who had been going to sea for some years, embarking on this experience seemed inevitable. An experience that, he says, is so strong and intense, it doesn’t leave you and marks a turning point in your life, with a before and an after. He also recalls, as if it was today, the mission of last August, the last mission of the Mare Jonio, when they rescued ninety-eight people and many young children and infants; the bright sound of their voices, their irrepressible liveliness and contagious cheerfulness, despite everything.
As I listen to him, I think of those troubled days when we followed the story of the disembarkment on the national newspapers (first women and children, then the men), the seizure of the boat, the sanctions to the captain, and finally the impounding and transferment to the port of Licata. From those days, they kept a memento I noticed as soon as I came aboard: a tiny soft toy that someone hung up at the jetty. A sign that instills joy and lightheartedness, it is impossible not to stop and look at it.
Before exchanging a few words with the captain who is waiting for me on the command bridge, a last question to Giovanni: you are young. How do you see your future? Again, his answer is direct and straightforward, and convinces me that the decision he made was right and just: to try and save those risking their lives is the most natural thing to do; when you have such a strong and total experience, nothing is as it was, because you helped a fellow human being, and the differences in language, skin color, religion and provenance lose all significance, all meaning.
Giovanni Buscema is sixty years old and has been at sea for nearly forty. He became captain of the Mare Jonio last summer. He was in charge during the mission that rescued those ninety-eight people. Two chairs, a desk full of equipment, maps, and navigation manuals: here Giovanni tells me about himself, the years he spent on ships that crossed the world’s seas, months on end away from home, surrounded by sky and water alone, the chill and the heat measuring the days and nights in navigation. He came across the project Mediterranea nearly by chance. Friends and colleagues told him that the people in charge of the social platform were looking for a captain and he decided to accept. So began an experience that, in his case too, he never thought he would have; so strong and meaningful to mark him deeply for life. With a smile, Giovanni tells me of the lives of people who work at sea, the difficulties, the efforts, but also the rewards, of the routes and seas he knows of, their history and features. Then, the work with Mediterranea and the Mare Jonio changes everything: his professionalism is employed in search-and-rescue missions, to command the boat whilst trying to intercept vessels full of people that need rescuing before it is too late. And here, the captain uses the same words as the first officer. The two are at different stages of their lives and have different work histories, yet when I ask what it means to be operating on a search-and-rescue unit, he shows no doubts: in that natural and ancient gesture, the deep meaning of being human, solidarity, and the inevitable need of doing the only necessary thing in those moments, rescuing someone’s life. Nothing else.
Seen from here, the southernmost part of Sicily, where the azure of the sea is dazzling and so bright it is almost unbearable, the surreal media management of the potential viral pandemic that for the past week has thrown Italy into an unpredictable panic seems lightyears away, unreal in its mad dynamics as it blacks out the unsolved emergencies of our times, such as the one that forces thousands of people to risk their lives to try and start living again with dignity. Now the Mare Jonio and the sailing boat Alex, docked a few meters away, are finally free to set sails again, and they might do so soon, after months of forced inertia.
It’s necessary to sail back into the heart of the Mediterranean as soon as possible, and this can only be done with the help of those who believe that saving the life of a fellow human being is really the only act that can restore humanity to us all, no one excluded.
Original article from: La Guida, informazione quotidiana in Cuneo e provincia
Luca Prestia was born in Turin in 1971. He graduated in Modern History at the University of Turin, where he also earned his PhD in the same discipline. He started his experience as freelance photographer in the 90’s and he has been registered in the Association of Journalists of Piedmont since 2000. Prestia collaborated (as scenery and backstage photographer) on the production of documentaries about the social environment; his pictures have been published on several Italian and foreigner magazines as well as on printed and online newspapers or used as book covers. Since several years, his interest is mainly focused on landscape and documentary photography (both analogue and digital). His latest work, completed in the summer of 2014, is S[s]tate Border, which has just been published in a photographic book.