I did not learn of the tragic events in the Mediterranean of last Saturday to Sunday night until lunchtime on Sunday. If I had been aware of them as I gazed at the peaceful sea at the Marina di Ragusa on Sunday morning it would have been hard to believe that they had happened only a few hours earlier, for it was a perfect spring day in Sicily, there was little traffic and all seemed calm and "right with the world". Life, as we all know, goes on and perhaps that is the hardest part.
This is my Romanian friend, Anca.
One week on and my thoughts are still with all who have set out on this perilous journey.
Let's have a recipe for a change: I love pasta al forno and it's on my list of the great comfort foods of the world. Last weekend, I invented this vegetarian [but not vegan ] version:
Pasta al forno vegetariana
First of all, peel and cube 200 gr pumpkin. Cook the cubes in salted water till tender. Drain and set aside.
Take 2 white and 2 green courgettes and slice 3 of them as thinly as you can [or do it in a food processor]. Grate the other courgette. Heat 4 tablesp olive oil in a wide pan and cook the courgettes, stirring, until they are tender. Now add a sliced white onion and a chopped clove of garlic and continue cooking everything until these, too, are tender. [Yes, I know this is the wrong way round for making a soffritto but it works!] When the onion and garlic have softened, add the pumpkin along with 300 gr sliced mushrooms, a little chopped parsley, seasoning and 400 gr passata. Stir and cook on a low heat for 15 mins.
Meanwhile, heat the oven to 160 C and cook 400 gr rigatoni for the length of time indicated on the pack. Drain the pasta and oil a large, rectangular, Pyrex-style oven dish. Put a layer of pasta in the dish, followed by a layer of sauce and then a layer of thinly sliced provoleta orother pasta filata cheeese [about 10 slices]. Add another layer of pasta and finish with another layer of the sauce. Sprinkle some fresh breadcrumbs or pane grattugiato and some freshly grated Parmesan over the top.
Three days on from the worst migrant tragedy that the Mediterranean has seen, the main facts of the disaster are being reported in every media outlet and language but perhaps I can add some detail and reaction from here, including my own:
The images of the survivors landing at Catania last night are heartbreaking and many Sicilians who were present have commented on the sadness in their eyes. The bodies that have so far been recovered have been taken to Malta and, although the numbers are not yet official, it is thought that the final toll will be around 825. Some of these were women and children who were locked in the hold. Shocking accounts are emerging of survivors who had to cling to corpses in order to avoid drowning.
As was reported on Sunday, one of the causes of the tragedy was that many of the migrants rushed to one side of the boat when they saw one of two merchant ships approaching the area. The other cause, according to survivors, was that one of the people traffickers, the "captain" of the boat, was steering carelessly, causing a collision with the nearer merchant vessel. It is not clear which event happened first. This man and another people trafficker from the boat have now been arrested and are under investigation for aiding illegal immigration and for multiple homocide.
Here in Sicily opinion is divided between those who feel that the Italian Coast Guard and Navy should not be going so close to the Libyan coast to save migrant boats in trouble and those who feel that Mare Nostrum, or an operation like it, should be restored. Everyone, however, has expressed profound sorrow for the migrants. Premier Renzi said on Sunday that Italy cannot remain indifferent to boats in difficulty in an age of global communication and has today called for the entire international community to act against the people traffickers who, in the words of President Mattarella, are causing the slaughter of innocents. Mr Renzi has also today ruled out military operations within Libya.
Meanwhile the boats keep coming and you will have read of the deaths off Rhodes yesterday and possibly of two other rescues in which Italy has been involved in the last 24 hours. We have also learnt that richer Syrians have been paying up to €8,500 each for a safe passage to Italy and yesterday a yacht carrying 98 such migrants was rescued when its engine failed off Siracusa. The passengers, among whom there were many families with young children, have been brought to Pozzallo. Well, if you or I were in Nazi Germany or today's Syria and our family's lives were threatened, wouldn't we do it if we had the means? I will say again that for me, the logic is simple: if we agree that the régimes in question are awful, then we cannot blame people for trying to escape from them, in whatever way they can.
You may read for yourselves the European Commission's ten-point plan on migration: yes, destroy the smugglers' boats before they leave but what about the people who are in fear of their lives? Then there is the point about reinforcing joint operations "but within the Frontex mandate". We shall see but it still seems to be more about protecting borders than people to me. An "EU resettlement project" sounds good, until you read the part about "offering a number of places to persons in need of protection." What number? I am always suspicious when statistics are mentioned before humanity.
Humanitarian organisations are calling for a European or UN Mare Nostrum operation and Cécile Kyenge, among others, is suggesting that this should be Italian-led.
Finally, an extraordinary European Council has been called for Thursday to discuss the situation. How many people will die before that?
As some of you will know, I have been writing about the migrant situation in the Mediterranean since 2006 and during all these years, having documented tragedy after tragedy on this blog, I have been asking myself just what it would take for the rest of the world to take notice. Today we have the answer: a sensational incident that feeds current prejudices has prompted Sky to send Enda Brady to Sicily and UK online newspaper editions to report the events further up the page - for a while.
What appears to have happened is this: About 105 migrants, most of whom were from Senegal and the Ivory Coast, were travelling on a boat which left Libya on 14th April. A few miles from the Libyan coast, a fight broke out and some Ghanaian and Nigerian passengers, who were in the minority, were threatened by a group of 15 other migrants. The group of 15, who were Muslim. said they would throw the Christian migrants into the sea and they subsequently threw 12 of the Christians overboard. Others survived only because they formed a human chain, according to eye witnesses. The group of 15 have been arrested by Palermo police and, although the incident occurred in international waters, the Italian authorities have the right to carry out the investigation and to pursue the matter as the perpetrators are now in Italy and because of the gravity of the crime.
Another incident that is being widely reported is the explosion of a domestic gas cylinder in a house in Libya where migrants were being kept prior to making the crossing. Five people, including a baby, died on the spot. Horrifyingly, 18 other migrants who were seriously burned were forced onto a dinghy bound for Italy and one woman died during the crossing. The migrants were rescued by the Italians and brought to Lampedusa, from where those with the most serious burns were transferred to burns units in Catania and Palermo.
In yet another tragedy, a group of migrants rescued and taken to Trapani yesterday said that 41 people had drowned during their crossing. The people trafficker involved has been arrested.
It is now estimated that 10,000 migrants were rescued in the Mediterranean between last Friday and this Tuesday alone. As you will have gathered from the incidents I have mentioned above, the situation is daily becoming more dangerous, not only for the migrants but for all involved in the rescues. Reports today of an Italian fishing boat being seized by Libyan security forces will add to growing unease here.
The world may now be noticing but the world continues to fail Italy, which is largely shouldering the burden alone. Dimitris Avramopoulos, who a few days ago was advocating a coherent and long-term approach, has today warned that the EU does not have a magic wand. No one has, but surely the situation is now so serious that it is a matter for a wider body than the EU. Someone else seems to think so and that person is President Obama, who, in a meeting with Premier Renzi today, has said that the US will work more closely with Italy "to encourage cooperation on threats coming from Libya."
News of the incredible numbers of migrants rescued in the Mediterranean over the weekend and on Monday - latest reports are of 7,000 people - is going round the world as I write and yet again, it is the Italian Navy and Coast Guard who have saved these lives.
On Friday we learned that 978 migrants had been rescued in three different operations on that day in the Sicilian Channel and that a body had been found in one of the boats, which had got into trouble 30 miles off the Libyan coast. Then yesterday we read that up to 6,000 desperate people had risked the crossing and been rescued, still off Libya, between Friday and Monday and tonight comes the news that the figure is nearer 7,000 and that 400 migrants from one boat have died.
These poor souls were travelling on a boat carrying 550 when it capsized 80 miles north of Libya. The Italian Coast Guard rescued the others and nine bodies have been recovered so far. In other shocking news we have learned that the body of a migrant who was overcome by petrol fumes on another boat was thrown to sharks and that this was a decision agreed by the other passengers as the boat was being followed by dogfish sharks. The peopler trafficker of this boat has been arrested by Ragusan police and is being questioned not only about aiding illegal immigration but about the death.
There have been several reports that people traffickers fired shots into the air to warn off an Italian Coast Guard vessel which was escorting a tug boat carrying 250 rescued migrants in a separate operation. This would have been because the people traffickers were trying to get their empty boat back. Another theory is that the shots were fired from Libyan ships. However, the Italian Navy, which had ships in the area, has denied that there was any such incident.
Matteo Salvini, the leader of the Lega Nord, has accused Premier Matteo Renzi and Interior Minister Angelino Alfano of "operating a taxi service" by authorising the rescues, which he says only help the people traffickers. Mr Salvini has today been encouraging protesters to occupy schools, hotels and other buildings being used to receive and help migrants as he says they should be used to help Italians in difficulty. Mr Renzi would, I think, reply that a civilised country cannot leave people to die so near its shores.
One can understand people's concerns: yesterday the Lampedusa Migrant Reception Centre, a building with a maximum capacity of 250, was accommodating 1,400 migrants, an alarming situation for both the islanders and the migrants involved. Some of the migrants have now been transferred to mainland Italy but what will happen to them and others like them if the rest of Europe continues to ignore what is happening in the Mediterranean?
EU Commisssioner for Migration, Home Affairs and Citizenship Dimitris Avramopoulos is to visit Sicily next week with Angelino Alfano and he has said that a long-term and coherent strategy is needed to deal with this "new" migrant emergency.
I'll close with one ray of hope from these grim four days: a Somali woman in labour on one of the migrant boats was transferred by helicopter from Siracusa to the Maggiore Hospital here in Modica, where her baby boy was safely born. Both mother and son are said to be doing well.
Please note that the situation, along with estimates of the rescued and lost, is changing hourly.
Not exactly a host and not exactly golden, either, but I was pleased to see these at last opening on my balcony this morning. It would have been nice if they had managed it for St David's Day, but you can't have everything!
And when you see clumps of borage everywhere - it is late this year, which has been exceptionally cold - you know it's spring in Sicily!
Unusually, practically all the UK media are carrying the story of the 1,500 migrants saved in the Mediterranean by the Italian Navy and Coast Guard over the Easter weekend. Here such numbers are now so common that the story has made fewer headlines, though this Easter is being dubbed La Pasqua degli sbarchi [the Easter of the Landings].
The Italian authorities were first made aware that more migrant boats were in trouble when three of the latter sent rescue requests to Rome via satellite phone from off the coast of Libya. When Italian Coast Guard vessels reached these boats, they soon spotted two other migrant boats which needed help and an Italian naval ship already in the area was also directed to the scene. The migrants were rescued and have been taken to Lampedusa, Porto Empedocle and Augusta. Fortunately there have been no reported deaths.
In addition, over 150 migrants from Somalia, Nigeria and Eritrea reached the beach of Caulonia in Calabria after their boat ran aground a few metres from it. The authorities were alerted to this landing when police found a group of about 20 of the migrants walking along a main road. They then found the rest of the boat's passengers, including around 40 women and children, some of whom were very young. The migrants say their boat left Libya one week ago and that the adults had each paid €2,000 to make the crossing. All these migrants are said to be in good health.
Sadly, Il Fatto Quotidiano is reporting tonight that a group of parents in Focà di Caulonia have blocked the entrance to a school so that the building cannot be used for initial processing and healthcare of the migrants. The Mayor of the town has said that this is the action of "a few people who are afraid" and has expressed regret over the incident.
Some years ago, I interviewed Modican soprano Adriana Iozzia, whom I have had the pleasure of knowing since she was six years old, for Italy Magazine.
Since then, Adriana's star has been rising steadily and I'm happy to be able to tell you that this week, she has been appearing as Violetta in La Traviata at the Teatro Fedele Fenaroli in Lanciano, Chieti [Abruzzo]. The performance was a sell-out and I'm not surprised!
Congratulations to Adriana and I'm very proud to have been her first interviewer.
Lamb, artichokes and asparagus: those are the savoury foods most associated with Easter in Sicily. I've been wanting to cook artichokes plus a lamb dish for days, but with limited time, I decided to combine them. I added the sumac, one of my favourite spices, to give it some punch. It's not Sicilian but it should grow here. [I've read that it does but have never found any.] Here's what I did:
Spezzatino di Pasqua
6 tablesp olive oil
1 kg lamb pieces for stew: in Italy, ask for the spezzatino cut. The pieces will be very small, with quite a lot of bone on them, but this does add to the flavour.
6 small onions, chopped [I like cipolle borettane, from Emilia-Romagna.]
2 garlic cloves, chopped
300 gr frozen artichoke hearts, thawed
1 large yellow pepper, cut into not-too-thin strips
1 Sicilian or unwaxed lemon, quartered
4 - 6 potatoes, unpeeled and cubed
2 teasp sumac
coarse seasalt and black pepper
0.25 litre white wine
sprigs of rosemary and about 6 fresh sage leaves
Heat oil in a deep, wide pan or wok and add the onions and garlic. Cook until golden. Add the lamb and brown on all sides. Then add the artichoke hearts, lemon, yellow pepper, seasoning, sumac and herbs and continue to cook for about 10 mins., stirring well. Add the white wine and potatoes, stir well and bring to simmer. Simmer for about 1 hour with the lid on, stirring occasionally. Do not be tempted to add more liquid as the vegetables will produce their own.
Serve with a green salad to which you have added some mint.