Dear Blog Readers –
It has been a rocking and rolling week in Italy as the new populist government decided to take a tough stand on migration or “raise our voice” according to Italy’s new Interior Minister Matteo Salvini. The new policy is to block any ships that are not Italian from disembarking migrants in Italian ports.
It started on Monday when Italy refused to provide a safe port for a French ship carrying 629 migrants rescued off the coast of Libya. The rescue vessel, the Aquarius, run by the French non-profit SOS Mediteranee, was stopped at sea more or less half way between Italy and Malta as the drama unfolded. The migrants were seated on deck and included 123 unaccompanied minors, 11 children and six pregnant women.
AP Television sent me down to Sicily to try and find a way to get out to the ship. I was working with our Catania based freelance cameraman, Gino Maceli, who has a great sense of humor and a Sicilian way of getting things done.
At first, we were going to rent a helicopter to fly over the ship but since SKY Italia beat us to that, we decided to rent a boat to take us the 35 nautical miles out to sea to where the Aquarius was idling. Colleagues from the British Television Broadcaster, Channel 4, agreed to split the hefty cost of the boat. The problem was finding one. The closest port was Pozzallo in the South of Sicily.
Finally, Salvatore Cavallo, AP’s freelancer photographer in Sicily, found a boat in Pozzallo to take us out. Gino and I started racing down there – an hour’s drive from Catania.
Gino has the hair-raising habit of driving extremely fast and getting right up behind other cars, so the bumpers almost touch, and flashing his headlights. He does this while answering phone calls and writing text messages.
I pointed out to him several times that there were speed trap warning signs (autovelox) all along the highway and he was sure to get ticket. “They’re fakes,” he declared happily pressing the pedal to the metal, “it is all a big fake, not a single real one along here.”
I heaved a sigh of relief when we finally pulled off the highway onto smaller two-lane roads, but that was short-lived. Gino, one hand on the wheel and the other on his phone, began overtaking cars on hills and curves, roaring past as I gripped the dashboard uselessly declaring, “you’re not supposed to pass on a curve!!” “This is a hill, Gino, a hill, you can’t see what’s on the other side!”
At one point, as we were overtaking a small car, a medium sized truck was coming the other direction, “What are you doing Gino???” I gasped, “we are going to hit that truck head on!!!!!!”
Gino steered right down the middle line and we went smack through the space between the truck and the car going opposite directions. Gino laughed, “Treeeeeshaaaa, what are you so worried about, a huge truck could have fit through that space.”
We finally got to the port, alive, to find our boat waiting with our canny captain and his fishy first mate friend and the team from Channel 4 which included their friendly reporter Paraic O’Brien, their Rome-based video-journalist Luca Muzi, and a taciturn cameraman who said only four words during a six-hour trip, “Hi, I am Stephen”. And that was in the first 3 minutes on board. There were eight of us total, 7 men and me.
We figured out the coordinates of the Aquarius, in international waters roughly 39 nautical miles out and off we went. Canny Captain and Fishy First Mate warned us that the sea would be rough, and it wasn’t long before we were flying along at 18 knots and bouncing on waves that were about 1 meter high (about 3 feet). Whee-boom-splash, Whee-boom-splash.
Before I got out of cell phone reach, I got a couple calls from my Rome boss Karl Ritter. He was fretting about whether our boat was seaworthy and worried that I might end up bobbing in the water clinging to a life-vest and needing to be rescued rather than reporting on migrants. I wasn’t even sure there were life-vests on board.
The last we heard before getting out of cell phone reach was that the migrants would likely be transferred to Italian Navy and Coast Guard ships.
It took about two and a half hours of flying up and then smashing down on the water, bang, bang bang. We discovered that the best technique was to stand at the back of the boat and told on tight and let one’s legs and knees work as shock absorbers.
The sky was cloudless and a perfect day for a trip out to sea, except that we weren’t on vacation. We are on a mission and I knew my office was expecting us to get to the Aquarius and convince them to let me get on board and interview migrants, the captain and rescuers.
We hardly saw any other ships as we headed South towards Malta – bam, bam, bam – a sailboat while we were still near Sicily, and a gigantic container ship at one point. Finally, in the distance, we started to be able to make out the Aquarius with its distinctive orange hull and white top. To its left was a large metal grey frigate that we later discovered was the Italian Navy ship Orione, P410. A Coast Guard covered dinghy was loading migrants off the Aquarius and taking them over to the Navy ship.
Canny Captain became increasingly anxious as we got closer. “I am going to drive straight past,” he told me, “and then we will go back to port”.
I consulted with Gino and we agreed that the best strategy would be to pass around the back of the Aquarius then turn towards them while I contacted them on the radio using Radio Channel 16. We had been told by colleagues that we could initially contact the Aquarius on that international emergency/distress channel and ask them to switch to another channel for a private conversation. Although it is for safety emergency, one can also use it to establish contact and move to another channel.
We had already told a spokesperson for SOS Mediterranee that we were going to attempt to reach the ship and were hoping that the captain would be open to letting us come near and get a better idea of the situation.
Gino urged Canny Captain to move forward and put us in a position where we could film the boat properly and see the migrants. But Canny Captain and Fishy First Mate were becoming increasingly jittery and the Captain revealed to me that his “Matricola” type of license only allowed him to go 12 nautical miles out to sea and since we were 43 nautical miles out to sea he could get in a lot of trouble, so he was going to turn around and go back.
I got mad. I told him I was a journalist, I did not know what “matricola” he was talking about but it was certainly too late to start raising these issues.
We were interrupted from a call from the Aquarius on radio channel 16 asking who we were. We recorded the rest of the conversation as I spoke to them:
Me: We are journalists, we would like to come closer to the Aquarius so we can find out what is happening. Can we talk on a private channel with you?
Woman on Aquarius: “I kindly ask you to stay away from the Aquarius not to complicate our situation. Thank you for understanding.”
Me: “We don’t want to complicate your situation at all, we are just trying to see what is happening and if these migrants are going to be taken to Valencia or there is continuing to be a stand-off and if they will be stuck here for longer.”
Woman on Aquarius: “This is an emergency channel so please stop this communication.”
We did stop the communication with the Aquarius and moved to about 500 meters from the vessel where we tried to film the transfer of migrants.
But then a small grey dinghy- known as an RHIB – Rigid Hulled Inflatable Boat – emerged from the Navy frigate and charged towards us. There were two men on it in white hygienic suits. We thought they would come up close and were eager to explain to them that we were there not to interfere just to see what was going on.
We got out on the front of our boat with cameras and microphones ready to talk to them. But they stopped a little ways away and then turned and sped back to the frigate.
But they stopped a little ways away and then turned and sped back to the frigate.
Then we noticed that a large Coast Guard Patrol ship was charging down on us from the opposite direction.
Our canny captain and fishy first mate were becoming apoplectic. Gino and I told them not to move that we would talk to the Coast Guard. We would explain that were journalists doing our job. But the Coast Guard Patrol boat just raced towards us then swooped to our right as two sailors stood on deck staring down menacingly.
At that point, we realized things could get a bit ugly and did not want to get ourselves into a messy situation with the Coast Guard or the Navy.
One of the basic rules of journalism is to report the story not become a part of it. We also did not want to interfere in the delicate operation of transferring migrants between ships at sea.
So, we decided to head back. The Coast Guard did not follow us, but our antsy crew was out of there in a flash, speeding full force towards Sicily.
Canny Captain and Fishy First Mate reminded me of my wimpy cocker spaniel Set when he sees a German shepherd at the park, he takes off running in the opposite direction tail between his legs. When he gets about 50 meters (yards) away, he glances back fearfully to see if by any chance he is being followed.
I pulled out my computer and attempted to edit video while sitting facing backwards in the cabin area – bam, bam, bam – hurtling forward and then plunging down on the waves. I felt like my vertebrae were getting crushed like garlic cloves in a mortar on every bounce. And while the boat was rushing headlong towards Sicily, I was trying to scan through video, that was bouncy and out of focus, to find the parts that could be edited. It was dizzying.
While I was doing that, I heard Canny Captain and Fishy First Mate launch into a diatribe with Gino and Luca about how they should get 1000 more euro because of the risks they took. Good grief! They wanted cash in hand before we got to port. Unbelievable! Gino handled it with typical Sicilian flare – raising his voice, gesticulating, cajoling and coaxing. He promised to do a wire transfer once we were back in our office – something our crew was not interested in. They wanted hard cold cash. Finally, Gino pulled out his own wallet and declared that from the kindness of his heart he would give them everything he had, and emptied it of several bills. In the end, they accepted that.
I managed to put together four minutes of material and then began to write up what I could. As soon as I got back within cell phone range, I transmitted the images to my AP colleague, Paolo Santalucia, back in the Rome bureau. It’s a miracle I didn’t lose my lunch.
We arrived in port at 7pm after a 6-hour journey. I was feeling discouraged as though it had been a wasted effort, but later we learned that 146 broadcasters used AP Television’s material. And Salvatore got good pictures for AP photo. We did not get a scoop, but it wasn’t a complete loss. Just another day on the job.
NOTE: The Aquarius, accompanied by the Italian Navy Frigate Orione and Coast Guard Ship Dattilo spent the rest of the week crossing the Mediterranean and docked this morning in the port of Valencia, Spain. The Aquarius stand-off has sparked a major crisis in Europe over how to handle the migrants who continue to attempt the sea crossing from Libya to Europe. European nations are bickering over who saves them, where they are taken to disembark, and where they will end up. It promises to be the central issue on the agenda at the EU summit coming up on June 28-29.