The previous afternoon, the horizon had turned a bloody red over the smooth, calm waters of the Mediterranean. Calm but dark – a bad omen, a sign that something was going to happen. Sailing conditions were very good. If one happened to be in Lybia, waiting to board a migrant boat to leave war and poverty behind, this would be a perfect moment to sail off towards the unknown. Towards Europe. Or towards the bottom of the sea.
We talked it over that night, inside the tiny cabin that Stefano Frumento, commander of the Italian frigate Grecale, had generously let us occupy. I had the top bunk, Carlos Spottorno had the bottom one. We slept – or maybe he was sitting at the small desk inside the cabin, editing photographs until the early morning hours like he often does when he is working.
A helicopter will take you aboard the frigate Grecale. For the moment, the duration of this trip is not defined”
It was our third night with the Italian sailors who were dealing with the black hole of the immigration drama. We were somewhere between Africa and Europe – the biggest, most desperate gap in the world. Nearly 22,000 people have died at the gates of our continent since the year 2000. Most of them sank in the watery pit we were patrolling aboard the Grecale, one of the military vessels deployed as part of the Italian Defense Ministry’s Operation Mare Nostrum, which sought to prevent another tragedy like the one that saw nearly 400 migrants drown in Lampedusa. This mission has since been discontinued.
It had taken us nearly a month’s worth of negotiations to be there on that ship. Our journey had been preceded by a large collection of emails in Spanish, English and Italian, a language in which Spottorno is fluent. There were also letters written on official EL PAÍS letterheads to embassies, military command posts and members of government.
Things finally came together when we were in Sicily, walking out of Cara di Mineo, Europe’s largest refugee and asylum seeker center. It is an apocalyptic place, where 4,000 migrants representing more than 40 nationalities are crowded together inside an old US military compound on the island with a capacity for 2,000. As we stood outside the front door, we read the email from a Navy lieutenant: “A helicopter will take you aboard the frigate Grecale. For the moment, the duration of this voyage is not defined.”
We went off on the adventure. There were three days of calm travel aboard the ship, then came the ominous afternoon. We spent the night tossing and turning on our bunk beds. Waiting. The gently rolling motion of the waves against the ship lulled us to sleep. We were awakened by the frantic sounds of a helicopter’s blades as it took off from the ship’s stern. It was still early morning. We jumped out of bed and flew to the ship’s command center. One of Commander Frumento’s first words were: “We have contact. Very likely migrants.”
Events whizzed by after that. I remember Spottorno hanging both cameras around his neck, both ready for video and photograph action. He had been practicing his moves with military precision for the last few days. It was an enormous challenge to do your best in such an extreme situation – and to do so in two different formats. Very few reporters, until now, had had such direct access to a live sea rescue.
On March 11, they pulled 219 immigrants out of a decaying wooden shell 15 meters long
The 206 Italian sailors on board worked with the precision of an elite unit. Each crew member knew exactly where to stand and what to do. On that March 11, they pulled 219 immigrants out of a decaying wooden shell 15 meters long. Most of them were fleeing Pakistan and Syria. The commander gave us permission to come near the migrant vessel on one of his motorboats. I remember the 100 or so faces looking out from their vessel with a combination of terror and relief in their eyes. And I also remember Spottorno taking shots and videos nonstop.
The piece that just won third prize in the Short Feature category of the World Press Photo contest has not been altered in any way. We were first-hand witnesses to one of the most dramatic phenomena of our century. And Carlos Spottorno managed to convey that raw reality in images, doing nothing but sticking to the facts – doing nothing but good journalism.