Sometimes I think I cannot hold out any longer. I cannot take this pace of work, and more importantly, I cannot handle this much suffering, this much pain. Many of my fellow doctors think I must have got used to it by now, that the postmortem must have become routine. That is how it is. You never get used to seeing dead children or women who died giving birth on a wrecked boat, their tiny babies still attached to them by their umbilical cord. You never get used to the indignity of having to cut off a finger or an ear from a corpse to be tested for DNA so that the victim might be given a name, an identity, and not merely a number. Every time I open a green body bag, it feels as if I am doing it for the first time. Everybody carries the marks of long and tragic journey. (Pietro Bartolo and Lidia Tilotta, Tears of Salt, W.W. Norton & Company. Translated from the Italian by Chenxin Jiang.)
A young Syrian man was hooked up to a drip. His face was blank. I tried to talk to him, but he would not respond. The woman who sat next to him was cradling a nine-month-old child in her arms. She, too, was staring straight ahead with glazed eyes.
She was cradling her baby in a strange way, alternately clasping him to her and holding him away.
After an hour or so, the man decided to speak to me. He explained that the woman was his wife. When the boat was wrecked, they had been thrown into the water along with eight hundred other passengers. He was an excellent swimmer and was carrying the nine-month-old at his breast. He held his wife’s hand with one hand, and clasped his three-year-old’s in the other. They started swimming side by side, treading water continuously and trying desperately to stay afloat. They waited for help, but none came. They were exhausted.
At a certain point, the man realized that he was running out of breath, while the waves were getting higher and the current stronger. He had an irrevocable choice to make. Right then, suspended between life and death, he had to weigh his option and make a decision. If he just kept treading water, all four of them would drown. In the end, he opened his right hand, and let go of his son. He watched him disappear forever under the waves. As he told me this, he could not stop weeping, and nor could I. I did not have it in me to hold myself together. I felt guilty, since a doctor is not supposed to let his patients see that he is overwhelmed, but I couldn’t help it. I couldn’t just remain impassive in the face of such grief. The man was tormented by the fact that, only a few moments later, the helicopters arrived. “If I had held out just a little bit longer, my son would be here with us. I will never forgive myself”. (Pietro Bartolo and Lidia Tilotta, Tears of Salt, W.W. Norton & Company. Translated from the Italian by Chenxin Jiang.)
The excerpts you read above are from the book Tears of Salt, written by Pietro Bartolo in collaboration with the journalist Lidia Tilotta. Pietro Bartolo is a well-known doctor that, for twenty-five years, has examined and cared for an estimated 250,000 refugees who landed on the island of Lampedusa, Sicily, after the long, deadly trip across the Mediterranean. Bartolo has since become a member of the European Parliament, being elected on the Democratic Party ticket in 2019. With disarming depth, his book Tears of Salt recounts the daily life of the doctor in Lampedusa, who witnessed numerous stories of both those who survived the journey and those who did not.
Many times while reading this book I had to stop reading, since the suffering described is something absolutely overwhelming for emotions. How could I keep reading impassively about people tortured in the Libyan concentration camps, the shipwrecks, the drowned men, women, and children who are lost among the waves?
“You never get used to seeing dead children or women who died giving birth on a wrecked boat,” Pietro Bartolo says.
The sight of a woman with her child still attached to her through the umbilical cord: this is something that no one, not even doctors, can get used to. It’s something that we cannot forget. No: we must remember. We must know about it. We must know that children who drown in the Mediterranean call their mothers while dying. We must know that people who drown call for help and nobody replies, although the whole of Europe is watching them while this happens.
In Tears of Salt, Bartolo describes how difficult it is to do this job, both psychologically and emotionally. Many times, it happens that his collaborators quit the mission, although they often come back on their own later, understanding the importance of this work despite its overwhelming difficulty.
“A doctor is not supposed to let his patients see that he is overwhelmed, but I couldn’t help it. I couldn’t just remain impassive in the face of such grief.” (Quote: Bartolo)
I think that the ability to be overwhelmed and emotionally moved is the real strength of Bartolo and of so many others who work in the humanitarian field. This emotional connection is something necessary, because recognition of our shared humanity and a rediscovery of compassion are necessary to fuel the fight for a better and more just world. I believe that a better and more just world is not possible without the ability to be emotionally moved.
In this historical moment, and in every past moment of history when hatred has run rife, there are people who defend the dignity of the oppressed and stand up for human rights, resisting intolerance, racisms, and every kind of oppression through actions, both large and small, that are, I argue, revolutionary.
These people are the “Citizens of the world”, the “resisting humanity”: those who project their sight beyond the borders of fear, where hope stands up for freedom.
Tears of Salt helped me see that despite the painful news on the topic of migration and human rights from all around the world, the cultural movements of the “underground” fabric of society, instead, bring messages of resistance and keep the possibilities of big change alive.
There are people who live for hope. There are people who migrate for hope. And there are those who die for hope.
But, as I just said, there are also people who give hope to others: these are those who break the invisible borders made out of hate with the power of love, turning gestures, both big and small, into actions of beauty, resistance, and revolution.
The humanitarian emergency of migrants crossing the Mediterranean has returned thousands of bodies to European shores. All of them had a hope. They died of that hope. So, the last question that I put on canvas is very simple: in this moment, is there any Hope?
When I started my first painting on the topic of migration (titled “Exile”) I would have answered “no”. But then, when I started learning about Pietro Bartolo and hearing about several Italian mayors willing to disobey the orders of the central government in order to help and accommodate the migrants, I started feeling that yes, there is still hope, there is always hope.
Artists, journalists, and teachers are responding. Associations, volunteers, lawyers, writers, and musicians as well. Many persons and groups are actively opposing the inhumane choices of our governments, spreading a message of brotherhood without regard for the consequences that this might bring to them. For many, this is a conscientious choice to resist repeating the most horrible pages of our human history, which unfortunately have been repeating thus far. “Love your neighbor as yourself”: this is the simple message that two peaceful dissenters wrote on a cardboard sign during a political meeting of the Lega political party. A team of stewards violently dragged them away. It is all true. It seems that in this period of our history, loving your neighbor is the most revolutionary action.
In this last painting, titled “Hope”, I wanted to depict one of those mothers described by Bartolo that often die of hope, carrying their child in their bellies.
But I wanted to represent her as still alive. The decorations of her dress tell us a journey. An epic, heroic, timeless, and ancestral journey.
Stars fluctuate in her head, going beyond every border, since her whole body is borderless.
She is not carrying only her child, but the child of every population and the redemption of all past, present, and future generations.
In her belly, I placed a quote by Cesare Pavese, because I wanted her to bring these powerful words with her like a talisman:
“What world lies beyond that stormy sea I do not know, but every ocean has a distant shore, and I shall reach it.” (Pavese)
I kept painting her with these words in my mind, the words that every man, woman, and child with a dream feel as their own: in all of them there is hope, the hope that, as long as a human being is still able to generate beauty, the possibility to give birth to something good, even out of such a disaster, remains.
An Afghan saying goes, “Drops make rivers”: I believe that “drop by drop” each one in their own small way will be revolutionary enough, even, to form a sea: a sea that does not divide but rather connects. A Sea that does not drown, but embraces, accepts, and welcomes all the children of our Earth.
English translation edited by Christine Martinez