TEARS OF SALT.
TEARS OF SALT
By Pietro Bartolo and Lidia Tilotta
Norton $25.95, 208 pages ISBN 9780393651287 Audio, eBook available
Pietro Bartolo runs the sole medical clinic in his homeland of Lampedusa, a tiny Italian island 70 miles off the coast of Tunisia that has become the gateway--and graveyard--for an unending stream of refugees trying to escape the varied horrors confronting them in Africa, the Middle East and Asia. Bartolo's Tears of Salt, written with Italian journalist Lidia Tilotta, is equal parts memoir, celebration of his birthplace and report from the front. Above all, though, it is a plea for compassion.
Bartolo begins his narrative by describing how, at age 16, he nearly drowned in the icy Mediterranean after falling unnoticed from his father's fishing boat. The sensation of going under, gasping for breath and feeling left behind, provided him with a template for understanding the terror of countless others who have suffered the same fate--but without the happy ending of survival. Now he treats the living and anatomizes the dead who reach Lampedusa's shore. By his count, he and his medical team have treated nearly 300,000 refugees over the past 25 years.
But it's not the massive numbers that give Bartolo's account its emotional impact--it's the attention he focuses on individual survivors, such as the teenage brothers Mohammed and Hassan. Because Mohammed, the eldest, is paralyzed, Hassan carries him on his back all the way from their native Somalia to Libya and then vigilantly guards him against further injury throughout the perilous ocean passage. Once ashore, he fiercely resumes his burden. Bartolo tells many such stories of courage and sacrifice.
"Whenever I see images of migrants being callously deported in their thousands, forced to return to the hell they have escaped, I am outraged," Bartolo writes. "What kind of person has the nerve to seal the destiny of all these people with a mere signature on a piece of paper, then smile about it to the cameraman and pose for photographs?"