Every year on the 3rd of October, Vito Fiorino closes his ice cream shop for a day. He pulls down the blinds at around 2AM, then, alone with his thoughts, heads towards the seafront of Lampedusa, Italy’s southernmost island, and goes over a small pile of letters he’s been exchanging with an unlikely friend for the past seven years.
“Even amidst the worst of tragedies, something good can come out, depending on what we make of it,” Fiorino told VICE News.
The night of the 2nd of October, 2013, was an evening like any other in this corner of the Mediterranean. After closing his shop, Fiorino headed over to the port with some friends for their weekly midnight swim, followed by a quick nap and a fishing session at dusk aboard his boat.
The group was sleeping soundly a few miles off the island’s coast when Fiorino woke up at around 5AM to the sound of what he thought were cries of seagulls.
“But the screaming seemed too loud, too human, to be birds,” he recalled. “I felt in my guts that something was wrong, so I turned the boat’s lights on and pointed them towards the water.” Everyone on board suddenly woke up.
None of them were ready for the scene unfolding in front of them: dozens of people screaming and waving their hands in a cry for help.
They were some of the 400,000 migrants who, over the past 20 years, have crossed the Mediterranean trying to find safety in Lampedusa, whose location has earned it the nickname the “door to Europe”. Residents of this 22-square-kilometre piece of land between North Africa and Italy have been trying for years to extend their hands towards the thousands of migrants and asylum seekers making the treacherous journey to Lampedusa, to the point that their efforts earned them a nomination for the Nobel Peace Prize in 2014.
“We didn’t have time to think, we had to act fast,” said Fiorino, his voice breaking slightly. “They were so exhausted, we had to pick them up aboard ourselves. But most of them were naked and covered in fuel, their skin so slippery that some dropped again into the waters and never resurfaced. My biggest regret is that we could’ve saved many more.”
Fiorino was the first person to raise the alarm and alert the Italian coastguards, who only showed up an hour later. In the meantime, two more boats of amateur fishermen approached the area, attracted by the unusual lights.
Overall, the three boats recovered about 80 people that night; for this reason they became known locally as the “fishermen of men”. Only when sunlight broke out could rescuers begin to unpack the magnitude of the human tragedy they had just witnessed.
Of the 523 people who departed from Libya’s port of Misrata that night, 368 died. In 2016, the Italian Senate officially recognised the 3rd of October as a National Remembrance Day for the Victims of Migration.
For three years, Fiorino wouldn't speak about what he had experienced. The three amateur fishermen still struggle to come to terms with their sense of guilt for not having saved more people. One of them, after taking part in therapy for a year, decided to never go fishing again. In 2015, he left Lampedusa for northern Italy.
For Fiorino, exchanging letters with Eritrean refugee Aregai Mehari has helped him cope with the trauma of that evening. “It actually saved us both,” Mehari told VICE News. “I immediately felt a connection with Vito.”
Fiorino and Mehari first saw each other during that unexpected rescue mission. But it was only a few days later, at the ceremony in Lampedusa for the victims – mostly Eritreans, whose bodies were laid to rest in cemeteries across Sicily – that they started to build a relationship.
“I was speaking on the phone with my parents, to let them know I was still alive, when I recognised Vito’s face among the crowd, and I approached him,” Mehari said. “He began screaming ‘My father! You’re my father!’ and then passed me his actual father on the phone. I felt very confused at first, then I understood.”
“For me, Vito really is like a father,” Mehari said. “Because that was the day I was born again. He gave me life for the second time.” Although he was not one of the 47 people directly saved aboard Fiorino’s boat, he still considers him his saviour, because of the way the fisherman co-ordinated the impromptu rescue operation.
After two months in Lampedusa, Mehari left to Sweden, where he knew it would be easier to apply for asylum. During those first months alone there, nightmares would often keep Mehari awake at night, as he remembered the waves that had almost swallowed him. Speaking to Fiorino helped him to heal.
“I’d write to him about anything that comes to my mind, from our shared trauma from two different perspectives, to how I adjusted to life in Sweden, to my past life in Eritrea,” Mehari explained. “This unexpected friendship helped us both get through the loneliness and alienation in our post-October 3rd lives.”
After receiving asylum in Sweden, the 43-year-old began working as a bus driver in Uppsala, a 40-minute train journey from Stockholm. Seven years later, he feels he’s finally taken back control of his life. Thanks to Fiorino’s encouragement, he was even able to come back to Lampedusa a few times to face down his lingering demons.
Mehari had left Eritrea in 2010, after serving 15 years in the military, then lived in Sudan for almost three years before crossing the desert to Libya. There, despite being aware of the risks, he decided to board a dinghy to Europe in search of freedom.
In Eritrea, he said, mandatory military conscription – usually extended to life-long service – is what pushes thousands of Eritreans every year to attempt reaching Europe through desert and sea routes.
Today, Fiorino works as a human rights advocate trying to shed a light on stories like Mehari’s, and the need for Italy to find a safer path to migration and integration.
Every year, during the first week of October, Lampedusa turns into a big open space for public conversations about Mediterranean migration, organised by Comitato Tre Ottobre, an organisation that raises awareness of migration through lectures and testimonials.
Tareke Brhane, president of the organisation and an Eritrean refugee in Italy, said it is fundamental to keep alive the memory of these tragedies for future generations. “Every year we bring survivors and their families to Lampedusa, and organise public lectures involving schools in Italy and abroad, so that the youth can become more aware and be inspired to take action against the political status quo,” Brhane told VICE News.
More than 15,000 migrants have died in the Central Mediterranean since 2014. While the EU released a new migration pact that tries to strike a balance between solidarity and responsibility for member states, at least six more shipwrecks were reported off the Libyan coasts in late September, with an overall death toll of over 200.
Fiorino said that, like many, before that unexpected friendship with Mehari, he didn’t think much about migrant casualties, despite living on an island where it’s almost impossible to ignore them.
But now his late-life goal has become helping to disrupt the wave of anti-migrant fears spread by the far-right in Italy. “They say I saved migrants, but it's them who saved me from my numbness,” he said. “Maybe if I speak about it I could help save more people?”