Sicilian fishermen risk prison to rescue migrants: ‘No human would turn away’

First posted August 03, 2019

NB: This story is moving because our time is filled with animosity. It reminds us that there are still amongst us those for whom compassion is a primary instinct. If there are people in danger at sea, sailors save them, without asking where they come from or the colour of their skin. The legend of the Madonna del Soccorso and its association with Sicilian fishermen is a lesson on the significance of folk tradition (of whichever religious denomination) for human societies: To reject the sacred is to reject our own limits. It is also to reject the idea of evil, for the sacred reveals itself through sin, imperfection, and evil; and evil, in turn, can be identified only through the sacred. To say that evil is contingent is to say that there is no evil… The order of the sacred is also a sensitivity to evil.. Leszek Kolakowski, The revenge of the sacred in secular culture. DS

Daya dharm ka mool hai/ paap mool abhimaan/ Tulsi daya na chodiye/ jab tak ghat mein praan

with the appearance of the human – and this is my entire philosophy – there is something more important than my life, and that is the life of the other. That is unreasonable. Man is an unreasonable animal. Emmanuel Levinas

Photo: Allessio Mamo / The Observer

A father and son describe what it’s like to hear desperate cries on the sea at night as Italy hardens its stance against incomers. Fishermen in Sciacca are the only ones authorised to carry, barefoot, the one-tonne statue of the Madonna del Soccorso during religious processions. Legend has it that the statue was found at sea and therefore the sea has a divine nature: ignoring its laws, for Sicilian people, means ignoring God. That’s why the fishing boats generally bear the names of saints and apostles – except for the Giarratanos’, which is called the Accursio Giarratano. “He was my son,” says Gaspare, his eyes swelling with tears. “He died in 2002 from a serious illness. He was 15. Now he guides me at sea… with every rescue, Accursio is present.” If there are people in danger at sea, sailors save them, without asking where they come from or the colour of their skin. 

Having suffered such a loss themselves, they cannot bear the thought of other families, other parents, other brothers, enduring the same pain. So whenever they see people in need, they rescue them. “Last November we saved 149 migrants in the same area,” says Carlo. “But that rescue didn’t make news because the Italian government, which in any case had already closed the ports to rescue ships, still hadn’t passed the security decree.” … He doesn’t want to be a hero, he says, he was just doing his duty. “When the migrants were safely aboard the coastguard ship, they all turned to us in a gesture of gratitude, hands on their hearts. That’s the image I’ll carry with me for the rest of my life, which will allow me to face the sea every day without regret.”

Captain Carlo Giarratano didn’t think twice when, late last month, during a night-time fishing expedition off the coast of Libya, he heard desperate cries of help from 50 migrants aboard a dinghy that had run out of fuel and was taking on water. The 36-year-old Sicilian lives by the law of the sea. He reached the migrants and offered them all the food and drink he had. While his father Gaspare coordinated the aid effort from land, Carlo waited almost 24 hours for an Italian coastguard ship that finally transferred the migrants to Sicily. News of that rescue spread around the world, because not only was it kind, it was brave.

Ever since Italy’s far-right interior minister, Matteo Salvini, closed Italian ports to rescue ships, the Giarratanos have known that such an act could land them with a hefty fine or jail. But if confronted with the same situation again, they say they’d do it all over 1,000 times. “No seaman would ever return to port without the certainty of having saved those lives,” says Carlo, whose family has sailed the Mediterranean for four generations. “If I had ignored those cries for help, I wouldn’t have had the courage to face the sea again.” 

I meet the Giarratanos at the port of Sciacca, a fishing village on the southwestern coast of Sicily. I know the town like the back of my hand, having been born and raised there among the low-rise, colourful homes built atop an enormous cliff overlooking the sea. I remember the Giarratanos from the days I’d skip school with my friends and secretly take to the sea aboard a small fishing boat. We’d stay near the pier and wait for the large vessels returning from several days of fishing along the Libyan coast… read more: