The night of the stars

Leggi in italiano

Lampedusa, 6 september 2021.We wanted to see the stars, and here we are. We get a call for an autonomous disembarkation in Cala Pulcino (one of the Lampedusa coves, near the Spiaggia dei conigli, ed). The sun has gone and you can barely see the road. We get out of the car, taking our bottles of water, glasses, juices, snacks, garbage bags and thermal blankets with us.

What now? We look to each other, it is risky to go down to the cove, the path is long. It takes 25 to 60 minutes to get down it. It is riddled with slippery stones, roots and rocks, not to mention the risk of falling rocks as indicated by signs posted here and there. What if someone gets hurt?

All this pales into insignificance as we get a call from an UNHCR worker: there are children down there, the women are distraught, and the men do not know what to do. Four of them decide to climb up; they are the first to arrive. The rest of them stay put on the pebble beach, some children sleep as they are exhausted.

The rocks divide the land from the water, they are barely visible on a night like this. I don’t know how they managed to land without any fatalities. One woman’s foot is bleeding. The moon is hidden; above us is a mantle of stars that tries to show us the way.

We go by car to reach the nearest accessible point marked by a barrier at the edge of a labyrinth of stones and earth. We split up. Two of us go down, together with the other UNHCR worker, a doctor from Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) and a member of the Italian police force. We put some basic supplies in a bag, like two bottles of water, a few glasses, juices and foil blankets. We have no way of knowing what we will find, considering the danger of landing in such a place of equal peril and beauty.

It is dark, very dark. The lights from our cell phones, together with the mountain lights, distributed by the MSF doctor, help us find our way down the winding path. It’s my first time. I don’t have the slightest idea of what lies in wait for us at the bottom, or how long it will take. It seems to go on forever so, to keep our spirits up, we sing, say silly things and walk in line, as quickly as possible. Our calm appearance hides our disturbing worries within.

Once we reach the bottom, we pass a line of people, each one holds a child. We take them with us, because fatigue is inevitable after such a difficult and long crossing, from Tunisia to these rocky coasts. Some of the children continue to sleep, snuggled up to the person holding them in their arms, the little one cries every now and then. Some of them have soiled or wet themselves.

I try to take a little girl in my arms. Her mother is dazed, tired, and soaked through. She wriggles and cries, so we decide to calm her down. I put her down, after all I’m a stranger wearing a mask and latex gloves. The most important thing for her is not to be separated from her mother, she needs to be close to her. We begin the climb together, one hand holding on to her mother and the other squeezing me tightly. Every now and then she looks at my gloves or looks back at the most difficult passages, to make sure her mother is following us.

The fastest among us charge up the inclined trail. I hang back a little and find myself at the head of the line, to illuminate a track I do not know but that at that moment appears clear in front of us. Behind me, one of our team holds a very small child, followed by the policeman with a little girl who may have been over 10 years old. She sleeps, “She won’t let go”, he whispers quietly, once we’re at the top.

When the light illuminates the ground and stones in front of us, I realize that we are following traces of blood, that of the barefoot girl who raced up without taking a breath. These women have such tenacity. I have great respect for them. What a journey. It is horrible. It seems endless.

We stop to rest twice and offer them a glass of water and juices. The looks from the women with us, together with the deep eyes of that little girl, seem to ask us how far we have yet to go. We try to reassure them. I try to think of a song, but my mind goes blank, I can’t even think of one.

Behind me, my colleague sings a lullaby and tries to reassure the child who occasionally searches around his chest, perhaps thinking of his mother, as he is hungry and wants to be calmed. We tell everyone to hold on, I don’t know in what language anymore. We are all on edge, right to the last moment, careful not to fall, focusing only on the path and words of comfort (or discouragement).

Women are exhausted, in disbelief, the path seems endless. When we glimpse the wooden stairs, the older woman surprises us by dashing forwards. At the top, a desperate wife looks for her husband. They ask us if everybody has come up and if we are the last. They will find him later on, together with another man, at the beginning of the Isola dei Conigli. All the confusion in the darkness of the night probably led them on an even longer and more tortuous path.

There are lots of lights, and doctors, the police, the military are lined up in front of us. They continue to hand out more water, juices and thermal blankets. The little girl I had taken by the hand walked alone. She hadn’t said a word, she even refused the water; she was angry. When she arrives at the top and sees the rest of her family again, she drinks a juice. I help her open it and she looks fixedly at me. A man, perhaps her father, tells her to say thank you ‘tatà’. He rubs her tummy. Unexpectedly, she looks for me from the minibus, and waves. It reassures me that she understood I did not want to harm her.

Everything ended well, they are all physically okay, albeit shaken by that night under the stars none of us will ever forget. Even the cove still bears witness to the event. More than twenty days later, between 12 and 13 August, the life jackets are still there, piled up among petrol cans, a pair of slippers, shoes, plastic bottles and other bits of rubbish that mark the happening of this nightmare, alongside the tents and umbrellas of profuse tourism.

That night, the stars guided the hope and tenacity of eighteen people, including eight children, who gave us a lesson in the tenderness and importance of life. The strength that flows from motivation has no boundaries or limits.