The boat has seen things - By Emanuele Politi

This blog takes us back to New Year Eve and midnight had passed already. The song Bohemian Rhapsody was counted down on the rooftop of the red mansion. By 1 in the morning we headed downtown to have some drinks; just like any other person, in another city who celebrated the beginning of the new year, surrounded by some semblance of normality. Mytilini was ahead in front of us, dancing lights on the bay welcomed us to town. Few boats were docked at the berth, mainly small and coloured fishing vessels that were dozed off in the dark. Only one boat was not sleeping that night, double tonnage than the others. The engines were vibrating under the cold water nervously, waiting for something to happen. An Italian flag was waving in the night breeze on the top of the boat, the white hull standing out in the background. Like a ray of light in the darkness, the back door was semi-closed. From inside, an evanescent light was illuminating the surrounding.

A man was standing outside alone on the deck of the boat, steering in the dark while smoking a cigarette. ''Cortomaltese'' I thought, walking few meters away from him. Small exchange of looks was sufficient for me to take the floor and say spontaneously: «Buon anno». He was surprised that someone talked to him in Italian. «Hei, buon anno anche a te!» (Hey, Happy new year to you). He answered back asking what the hell I was doing on New Year Eve in Lesvos. I could not go into details; that short exotic conversation in a foreign language excited my tipsy friends, who started asking in a rudimentary mix of Italian and Spanish if he had Grappa or Limoncello on board to share. That was too much to understand, he was lost and started blushing. «Mi dispiace, non abbiamo ne limoncello ne grappa! Siamo in servizio… e anche se potessi bere abbiamo solamente birre sarde!» I translated  that for them: «He is sorry but they don’t have any liquor. He said they are on duty and even if he could…well they have only Sardinian beer on board!» Everyone laughed out loud and then the white boat, the Italian Coast Guard indeed, left the dock and ventured into the darkness patrolling the sea.

I wanted to know more about this man. I wanted to know more about what the Italian military force was doing in Lesvos. I had a surge of the journalist attitude growing inside me. Thus, one of the mornings, a few days later I went back to that white boat again. I was lucky; I bumped into Cortomaltese and his fellow sailors during the shift change: «Buon giorno, come state?» (Good Morning, How are you?) They were doing well, in particular those who were just starting the shift. They knew I was curious, and I knew they were also curious.«Sali a bordo, ti va? Ti offriamo un caffe!» (Get on board, will you? We offer you a coffee). Everyone turned towards the captain who with his sleepy face was ready to go to sleep. He agreed and he let me get on board whilst still warning his men not to talk about rescue mission in details. “Fair enough”, I told myself, “I would love a coffee anyway”. The cabin was small but welcoming. Blue benches surrounded two small tables on the side. From the little porthole I could see the sparkling see languishing outside. Four stout bearded men, all wearing the same sailor suit, encircled me. “Indeed, they are curious…” I thought. They were all in their thirties, but the fifth skinny shaved man, who was apparently the youngest, was asked to prepare the coffee for me.

They knew very little about the situation in Camp Moria, they never visited it in the three months they had been in Lesvos. I was speaking and they were listening attentively, frowning at the miserable situation I described. Then they told me that their area of responsibility was the sea, the large canal dividing the island of Lesvos from the Turkish shoreline. “Search and rescue” was the right title of their mission. Any time the Greek authorities sighted a “target” and communicated that information, they intervened and convoyed the boat to the closest port in Lesvos. In December, about 1171 people landed, wounded souls ferried from one side to the other of their misfortune. They said that there lacked organization in that they used to disembark refugees in front of tourists and military convoys were waiting for them to be transferred to Moria immediately. The local population was upset about the negative repercussions of the disembarkation. Indeed, tourists were running away from the island.

«In Lampedusa era diverso, li c’erano molte miglia di mare in fronte a noi…era un campo di battaglia.» (In Lampedusa it was different, there were many miles of sea in front of us ... it was a battlefield).  They came from Lampedusa, where they were operating for a few months before moving to Lesvos. Sometimes they arrived too late; sometimes there was nothing to do anymore. They said that they had to rely on others in such moments and all of them had seen horrible things. «Sarebbe utile avere uno psicologo a bordo, non parliamo mai di queste cose.» (It would be useful to have a psychologist on board, we never talk about these things). By that time, they knew each other very well; they shared tight bonds, even though they were not speaking a lot about the terrible things that had happened. Indeed, everyone but the skinny buddy that prepared the coffee for me was Sardinian. “That is why they carry Sardinian beers and they hanged up a Sardinian flag at the entrance of the boat”, I thought. «Ormai è uno di noi, lo abbiamo adottato. Gli stiamo insegnando il sardo.» (He is now one of us, we have adopted him. We are teaching him Sardinian). The young fellow was new, who had just finished military school in Palermo; he was the only one who was commanded to join the rescue team in Lesvos. All others were volunteers.

«Questa imbarcazione ne ha viste di cose!» (The boat has seen things). They pointed a picture to me that lay beside me on the wall. The same boat was crowded with hundreds of people, an inscription on the bottom right of the picture thanked the people involved in the rescue. Everyone but the skinny young guy was there that day. I felt a general excitement growing while they were speaking. They needed two more boats to complete the rescue, they said; there was not enough space on the deck! Cortomaltese started laughing:  «Vi ricordate quando stavo recuperando quel grosso tizio, quasi finiamo in acqua insieme!» Apparently, a man even bigger than him (he was big indeed) was so scared to jump from the sinking boat that was almost falling apart. Cortomaltese had to catch him and carry him on board with much difficulty as he was heavy. It was a great day indeed, everyone was so happy. He wanted to show me something, «Fanculo il regolamento!» (Fuck the rules!). Suddenly everyone had gathered around the table, trying to see the little screen of the smartphone; the skinny young man in front with me. They showed me a video that was taken that day from the cockpit of the boat of the situation when the last person was taken on board. Three military units were loaded with people, sailing in parade. Hundreds of people were clapping their hand in unison, everyone was singing in chorus in perfect synchrony. I felt a little shiver go down my spine; it was powerful. «Ci stavano ringraziando! Era il loro modo di dirci grazie…è stato bellissimo». (They were thanking us! It was their way of saying thank you ... it was great.)

By Emanuele Politi


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