Migrants Recall Horrors Of Mediterranean Shipwreck
DAVID GREENE, HOST:
There are more harrowing details emerging from a shipwreck off the coast of Libya last weekend. As many as 900 migrants were said to be onboard; only a handful survived.
RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
In a moment, we'll hear from the president of the European Parliament on what he thinks needs to be done about the ongoing exodus from North Africa.
GREENE: But we begin with firsthand accounts from some of the rescuers. NPR's Sylvia Poggioli is in the Sicilian port city of Catania.
SYLVIA POGGIOLI, BYLINE: The 28 survivors of the worst Mediterranean tragedy in living memory have been taken to a holding center near here. Their accounts to prosecutors have already led to the arrest of the boat's 27-year-old Tunisian captain and his Syrian first mate. They're suspected of multiple homicide, people smuggling and causing the shipwreck. Among the first people to talk to the survivors were rescuers from an Italian Coast Guard ship that arrived one hour after the smugglers' boat had capsized and sunk. A dinghy was lowered, and two medics began the grisly search. Thirty-year-old Dr. Giuseppe Pomilla says they had to steer through floating corpses.
GIUSEPPE POMILLA: (Through interpreter) We started pulling up bodies, then we heard screams. We shined a spotlight, and then we saw a guy holding onto a spare tire. We reached him, and pulled him on board. He was shocked when he saw so many dead bodies.
POGGIOLI: Pomilla has been on search and rescue operations in the Mediterranean since last June. But he says he never saw anything like this.
POMILLA: (Through interpreter) We saw another man. We couldn't tell if he was dead or alive. He looked at us with his eyes wide open. But he wouldn't speak. Once we got him on the Coast Guard ship, he broke out crying as he grasped the reality that he had lost all his friends.
POGGIOLI: Medic Enrico Vitiello is 22 years old, and this was his first big rescue operation.
ENRICO VITIELLO: (Through interpreter) They told us there were women and children on board. But they were kept in the hold below, so they didn't have time to come up when the boat capsized. I'll never forget what I saw, all those bodies in the water. It was a floating cemetery.
POGGIOLI: Pomilla and Vitiello accompanied the survivors to Catania. They noticed two men, lighter-skinned than the sub-Saharan migrants, who acted differently, distancing themselves from the rest. They seemed to feel superior to the migrants, the medics said, acting in what they called a racist manner. Only later did they learn that the two men were the captain and his first mate, escorted off the ship in police custody. Another person who spoke with the survivors as soon as they landed in Catania was Francesco Rocca, president of the Italian Red Cross.
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FRANCESCO ROCCA: (Through interpreter) They gave us a sense of total desolation. Normally, when migrants arrive here, they are euphoric. What I saw was the tragedy of the survivor, those blank looks.
POGGIOLI: Rocca was speaking at a press conference with the secretary-general of the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies. Elhadj As Sy, from Senegal, strongly criticized Europe for having ignored for so long the migrant crisis on its southern borders. He pointed out that countries in the Middle East such as Lebanon, Turkey and Jordan, as well as Kenya and Chad in Africa, host millions of refugees who have fled violence in neighboring countries.
ELHADJ AS SY: Countries in a better economic shape, like the European Union, can learn from those different experiences and then work in solidarity with all parties involved.
POGGIOLI: As Sy said it's time European politicians stop referring to illegal migrants and start calling them human beings. And he insisted everything must be done to stop the Mediterranean from becoming a vast cemetery. Sylvia Poggioli, NPR News, Catania. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.