Per la libertà di movimento, per i diritti di cittadinanza

«C’est gentil»

The third episode of the reportage «Crack. Testimonies and reflections from the central Mediterranean»


by Pietro Desideri, volunteer onboard the Nadir

«Crack» stems from my experiences and emotions aboard the sailing ship Nadir, as a volunteer with the German association RESQSHIP, during a monitoring, search and rescue mission. It is a five segments story that comes out every Wednesday in November, starting on 2.11.2022: an infamous day for the renewal of the agreements between Italy and Libya. «Crack» is part of what I would like to say to Fortress Europe 1.


These are the words of T., the person aboard the first boat in distress we found, with whom I coordinate during operations. It has always proved effective to identify someone among those we are rescuing as a focal point for information flows, from us to him to them, from them to him to us. It works almost like a human mic, of which we leverage two underestimated side effects: structuring an orderly interaction mechanism and repetition. Repeating twice is a good antidote for doubts.

C’est gentil,” meaning “thank you,” I hear him saying, when I explain that we would not take them on board, that we would instead escort them to Lampedusa. I was expecting a complaint-I would have understood it, agreed with it even. Because their boat, unseaworthy, clashes with the simultaneous presence of ours, and it is unacceptable that people are not rescued immediately. Instead those thanks take me by surprise, I regret even more not being able to take them on board.

What T. tells me exemplifies the general cooperation that the people we encountered have shown us, despite the difficult situations. I cannot say that I know them well; I crossed their paths very briefly only. I tell you about some of the exchanges I was able to have and the second and third rescues we carried out.

The second rescue is the one that takes place in the worst weather conditions. The waves are two meters high, the boat contains about forty people, and the engine is no longer working. People have no life jackets, just those black tubes that I think are inner tubes. Abbi, Gerd and I get into the rhib, our dinghy, and approach the boat.

What I have to do is called crowd control, communicating with the people on board to ensure calm and cooperation. I dislike both the first word, “crowd,” and the second, “control“. Common vocabulary like this and even just the term “rescue” structure stereotypes such as the relationship between rescuer-hero and rescued person-victim. I am not immune to this bias: before the mission I expected people to be panicked or difficult to collaborate with, much more than we actually encountered. The people we rescued were very capable of “saving” themselves, that is, capable of actively participating in their own rescue. During the operations I saw that focusing on cooperation worked and it came natural to me to use horizontal, friendly language: “frère” “papa” “amie“.


Transshipment with the rhib is long and tiring. It involves doing an initial assessment, distributing life jackets and then transferring three people at a time, from their boat to our rhib, to the Nadir. We shuttle at least 15 times. Some of the waves, very high, enter our dinghy, we are soaked. I cannot have in-depth exchanges, during the transshipments, but two people in particular strike me.

One person who, upon entering the rhib, lets the tension go and starts crying. What I know about their journey comes mostly from what she told me: “We have been at sea for three days, no food, no water, thank you, god bless you“. Hard to reply. And then there is V., my main interface on the boat, he is great. He helps us throughout the operation, facilitating the distribution of rescue materials, and he is among the last ones to be evacuated. When I tell him to board the rhib, during the last transshipment round, I thank him by calling him “champion” – he understands and smiles at me.

At the beginning of the operations we have a difficult moment when we are distributing rescue material. There are tensions: after three days at sea in a boat that could capsize at any moment, understandable survival mechanisms are triggered in some people. Those are risky for the stability of the boat, though. Several people ask for life jackets at the same time, or gesture to receive them them. Others answer that the material will arrive for all, and ask to keep calm. We pull our rhib away from the boat. In the almost unreal silence that ensues we re-establish the procedures we will follow, and safely complete the distribution.


As soon as the transshipment is finished, we are already heading towards another boat in distress. We start the engine of the Nadir that our rhib is not even fully secured and keeps swaying for a few minutes at the stern before we manage to bolt it. It is a race against time, or rather against the sun, as we must arrive before sunset: conducting search operations at night is much more difficult. The coordinates to which we are heading are 12 to 13 miles away, about an hour and a half. Johannes, very careful to let us rest so that we can squeeze our energies when we most need them, organizes rest shifts, and I am happy to be part of it. I undress and dry off, the bench in the kitchen becomes my temporary bed and I fall asleep for half an hour.

We manage to spot the second boat while there is still light -with our great relief. Once again, it is nearly forty people without any life jackets. Again, the engine has stopped working, the waves remain high. We decide for a direct transshipment, boat – Nadir. The sea does not help the operation, the rolling makes it difficult to keep the two boats side to side. We pass two ropes to two people on the boat, one at the stern and the other at the bow, asking them to try to keep the two boats as close together as possible. It is an exhausting job for them, who have to let go and then pull at every wave.


From the boat I am told that a little girl is sick and her evacuation needs to be prioritized. I pick her up and hand her to the doctor: less than four years old, weighs nothing, is unconscious with her head tilted back. It chills me. After five minutes I check in the small space that is Nadir’s emergency room and the child is fine, even playing, Abbi tells me she lacked nutrients to convert into body energy and heat.

The transshipment of other people is facilitated by J.’s presence on the boat, I interface with him continuously. J. makes sure no one grasp the side of their boats, lest they have their fingers crushed by the rolling. He does this for every single person-thanks J. Then there is a person who is afraid to make that jump, from their boat to ours. We pause, I see the courage return to her eyes, she jumps and is safely on board. One by one, everybody is evacuated.

We host more than 75 survivors on board, to whom we distribute water, cookies and emergency blankets against the cold of the night. They are exhausted, and soon fall asleep. Before long we have to wake them up to transfer them to the Italian coast guard vessel. I know that at least one person among them is likely to be arrested by the Italian police because of the policies of criminalization of so-called “scafisti” (the person/people who happened to drive the motor) – a research conducted by Arci Porco Rosso, Alarm Phone and Borderline Sicilia shows 2. Considering how problematic the relationship with the state is, I try to think instead at the cooperation that actually works. In the next article I talk about other civil society actors.

  1. The opinions contained in these articles are personal
  2. Dal mare al carcere. La criminalizzazione dei cosiddetti scafisti