When Black Water Dashed the Hopes of 700 Souls

04/20/2015 05:33 pm ET | Updated Jun 20, 2015
MATTHEW MIRABELLI via Getty Images

I don't know how to swim. I'm one of those people who, if you throw me into six feet of water, sinks in about 10 seconds, my mouth gaping and my lungs filling with water. I don't know how to swim, just like most of the immigrants who get on walnut-shell boats and hand their lives over to the mercy of Poseidon, as if saying: "Let the seas be calm, my lord."

They say that when you drown, you have a perfectly clear perception of death: the water envelops you like an incredibly tight piece of clothing, one you can't free yourself from. Gelid, black, it embraces and paralyzes you: you gasp, struggling to move your arms and legs. They say that bodies naturally float, but the people who say that don't know the panic that grips your stomach and unhinges your mind, preventing you from giving your body the right commands: "Don't move. Relax."

A drowning person is a person fighting a battle against an enemy who feeds on desperate cries as the pathway through which to penetrate the body. The mouth opens to scream and breathe, and instead swallows mouthfuls of water, which wind up straight in the lungs. You search for air, but all you find is water, as you slip slowly down. You move in desperation, slapping waves in the hope they'll hold you up, but with each slap you find yourself further underwater. Your legs kick and thrust, trying to push you, but there's nothing for them to push against. There's no hope. The last thing left of you before Poseidon takes your soul are your hands: they're the last thing to slip down, swallowed by the wet tomb destiny has assigned you.

That's exactly how 700 poor souls passed on Sunday: water taking the place of air in their lungs. Their arms thrashing and their legs kicking. They died at night, surrounded by the dark sea and swallowed by the dark night. They died as their water-covered eyes continued to search for the water-covered eyes of their children, their brothers, their wives and husbands. They died just out of reach of safety, which came in the reassuring shape of a Portuguese merchant vessel. They stretched out as far as they could reach, these castaways, searching for their promised land, asking for help with the faith of those who believe that now, finally, the worst is behind them.

But it wasn't. The worst was yet to come. The worst was a walnut-shell that tipped over and vomited 700 hopeful souls into the water, consigning them to death's definitive embrace.

Seven hundred poor souls who died drowning, instead of blown apart by bombs: this should open up the stubbornly closed minds of those who have become trapped in the rusted chains of ignorance. If you're willing to set sail without knowing how to swim, if you'll pay all of your meager life savings just for the chance to climb aboard a rickety vessel that looks more like a coffin than a boat, then you must be so desperate you'll choose chance over the certainty of death.

It's horrifying. It's inhumane. Yet there are men and women who are forced to make that choice every single day: whether to die at home, for certain; or to take to the sea and maybe die, or maybe live. After all, if you make it through the sea, there's life on those distant shores.

It doesn't matter how miserable that life over there may be: at least it's not pierced by air raid sirens and the rumble of mortar fire. It may be full of hands stretched out to beg for a crust of bread; it may be full of the fear of finding none; but it will be life. It will be freedom.

And freedom is worth every folly. We, who are born here where there's life, can't even imagine the value freedom truly has. We can't even imagine what it means to dig up our life's savings and hand them over to an assassin who promises -- guarantees even -- our safety and survival.

We can't possibly imagine the prayers sent to a God, who, no matter what name He's given, is still the protector of life for those who beg it of him, deaf and distracted.

We can't possibly imagine the agitation in the stomach they must have felt climbing up into a boat, shoeless; this one rolling up the hems of his pants, that one pulling up the edge of her skirt, eyes darting between one last goodbye aimed back home, and forward toward a coast they hadn't yet seen.

And we can't possibly imagine that black water, good for no one save the fish, that envelops the body, that makes its home in the mouth and settles down for a spell in the lungs, suffocating the hopes and lives of 700 souls.

This post was originally published on HuffPost Italy and was translated into English.