Dear Blog Readers– Today I am flying to the tiny island of Lampedusa off the coast of Sicily, to cover Pope Francis’s first trip.
Lampedusa is a treeless, strip of an island, 9 kilometers (4 miles) long in the middle of the Mediterranean, closer to the African mainland than to Italy. Every year thousands of immigrants attempt the 113 kilometers (70 miles) crossing in rickety old wooden boats and leaky rubber dinghies. They pay exorbitant fees (from 1000 euros and up) to human traffickers to make their way towards what they all hope will be a better future in Europe. In the past 20 years, over 20,000 immigrants have met their death at sea turning the Mediterranean into a giant graveyard.
Lots of others have made it, over 47,000 in 2011, and over 5,000 in 2012. The island, with a local population of roughly 5,000 people, has struggled desperately to keep up with the pressure. There is a holding center on the island which has room for nearly 400 immigrants but it is often packed with hundreds more waiting for a flight to transfer them to the Italian mainland.
Often it is the fisherman from Lampedusa who find the immigrants boats when they are out fishing.
Over the years, my AP colleagues and I have traveled to Lampedusa many times to cover the thousands of immigrants as they arrive shivering with cold, exhausted and scared on the small pier in the center of Lampedusa. In recent years there has been an upsurge in immigrants from Tunisia, Libya and Egypt as the Arab spring convulses those countries, but I also have interviewed immigrants arriving from Sudan, Gambia, Liberia and Eritrea. I will never forget interviewing a 30-year-old man named Newton Someday from Liberia just after he stepped off the boat looking cold and miserable, “I am so happy,” he said, “this is the best day of my life.” Many of the immigrants told me they wanted to pass through Italy to seek their fortunes in France, Germany and Holland. Others simply said they had to get away from wars and killing in their own countries. Others, weak and dehydrated were too weak to talk and were carried off in stretchers, wrapped up in shiny metal space blankets.
At first it was almost always young men, but now there are often women, sometimes pregnant, and children of all ages making the hazardous journey, all seeking a better future.
The Italian Coast Guard constantly monitors the waters both on the sea and from the air and rescues all the boats they find, taking the immigrants on board, or if their boat is still seaworthy, escorting it into the port. But the Italian Coast Guard does not always make it on time.
A few weeks ago Pope Francis was shocked and moved by photos of saw of 98 immigrants clinging to tuna fishing nets once they had lost their boat (11 died in the incident) before the rest were saved. The news prompted the Pope to make the trip.
In typical Pope Francis style, he has done away with all pomp. He will fly down Monday morning — no fancy welcoming ceremony, no red carpet, no bands– just a quick handshake with the mayor and then he will take a boat out into the sea to drop of wreathe on the water in honor of those who have died.
He will then be taken to the pier where the immigrants disembark and will meet with a group of African immigrants. From there we’ve been told that he will get in an old Fiat convertible that has been fixed up for the occasion (No pope-mobile this time) that will take him to the nearby soccer field where he will hold Mass.
Organizers say that in addition to meeting the immigrants, the Pope will meet with the sick, the old, the fishermen and the children who live on the island.
Interestingly the soccer field is right near what has become known as the “Boat Cemetery”, where all the old carcasses of boats that have made the crossing are piled up. I have wandered through that cemetery, looking into those old rotting wooden wrecks, there are old holey shoes, pieces of clothing, biscuit wrappers with writing in Arabic on them, bought before the journey and eaten on the way.
A local artist has taken the wood from one of the wrecks and made a chalice that the Pope will use during the mass. The Vatican has said the Pope will dress in violet, in Catholic liturgy a color used to symbolize pain, suffering and penitence.
To be continued from Lampedusa…
Trisha is a TV journalist working for AP TV News in Rome. She is married to an Italian and is a Mamma of three.