I have been in Lampedusa for a week. Much of that time has been filled with orienting myself to the community and the work that is to be done here. Within my first 24 hours, there was a “landing” to attend to, meaning that the Italian Coast Guard had picked up migrants in distress on the sea. Fifty young Tunisian men and boys were on board a ship that was in trouble, but all were brought safely to the port. My job, along with Mediterranean Hope staff members, was to carry water, snacks, and blankets to the Coast Guard dock to offer a tangible welcome to those in transit before they were taken to the area reception camp for governmental processing.
It was easy to smile at these obviously frightened and exhausted young men and hand out cups of water. I expected the rest of my time here would be spent in similar ways. The remainder of the week included some meetings and casual tours of the island, and the natural beauty of the place was quite evident. It’s still tourist season here, so nightlife is lively and the streets are full of restaurants, coffee shops and places that sell tourist junk like shells and t-shirts.
Yesterday brought a quiet afternoon, so when a new volunteer arrived and a staff member asked if we wanted to go to the beach, I jumped at the chance. The skies were bright blue with a smattering of clouds. The small beach was not crowded, and I rented a beach umbrella for sun protection. The clear waters of the Mediterranean sparkled in every hue of blue and turquoise. We ate marinated octopus in the shade and cooled off in the chilly water along the sandy shore. A perfect day.
Today is a different kind of day. Not only is it cloudy with storms moving toward the island, but we got word in the early morning that a ship was in distress 6 miles off the coast. A small boat was overcrowded with migrants and listing to one side. The Coast Guard was moving in for a rescue, but it turned ugly when the boat holding 50 or so flipped over and began to sink. An early report said twenty-two was lifted safely from the sea, but there were deaths. Two women had died.
Our small team of four were placing flowers and offering prayers at the local cemetery for the two who were known to have perished, but at the cemetery, word came that eleven more bodies were recovered. Thirteen in total, all-female, some pregnant. The local authorities were scrambling to properly care for the deceased while dealing with an ongoing rescue attempt and the prospect of handling grieving survivors. The local Catholic priests met us at the dock, and a decision had to be made. A judge had determined that these deceased persons needed to be identified, and police needed a large and secure facility to complete the identification process. The priest offered his church’s fellowship building located a half-mile outside of town.
We met Father Carmelo there and moved tables and chairs to provide as much open space as possible. Joining us were officers from the local police, the National Coast Guard, and the Italian Finance Guard. Social workers, translators, and immigration officials were present. Three trucks arrived carrying 13 coffins which were placed inside the church building. The lids were removed, and inside each coffin was a body bag. Another van arrived with 3 of the survivors who were asked to identify the deceased. Interpreters and social workers assisted each survivor so they could ID those they knew, among whom was one’s sister and 8-month old niece. The grief was palpable. It was one of the most sorrowful experiences I have witnessed, and that’s after 35 years of pastoral ministry. I’ve seen a lot.
After police took fingerprints and other records from each victim, the bodies were prepared for burial, though it’s not clear where they will go. A local community forum was called so residents had input on how to respond to this tragedy, and the suggestion was made that an ecumenical funeral is held at the local church. Others felt we should wait a bit to see if there are other losses.
We’ve heard that recovery efforts had to be stopped due to the continuing storms in the region. It’s still unknown exactly how many were on that boat, and whether or not more bodies will be brought to shore. But the two faithful staff members of Mediterranean Hope, assisted by a couple of rookie volunteers, are here to help as needed. Tonight, though. rest. It’s been a different kind of day.
Ronald Dauphin serves with Mediterranean Hope, Italy. His appointment is made possible by your gifts to Disciples Mission Fund, Our Church’s Wider Mission, WOC, OGHS, and your special gifts.