Pietro Bartolo, the doctor of Lampedusa
Dr. Pietro Bartolo was in charge of the health clinic and polyclinic on the island of Lampedusa (IT) for a long time. He is known in Italy and Europe for having given his life for one cause: the phenomenon of migration, to which he now dedicates himself as a member of the European Parliament.
To introduce Dr. Pietro Bartolo, first of all it is perhaps important to say something about the island he comes from, Lampedusa. It is the largest of the Pelagie Islands archipelago, situated between Sicily, Malta and Tunisia, to which it is closest.
Due to its location, this island has been historically colonized by many peoples: Romans, Egyptians, Phoenicians, Berbers… an island that has always been a meeting point between cultures.
These days, apart from its famous beauty, it is perhaps even more famous for being one of the main destinations for African migrants crossing the Mediterranean.
It is a point of arrival for thousands and thousands of people, landing every day, sometimes lifeless, after living traumatic experiences of abuse, violence, shipwrecks, fraud, and many other and perhaps even worse evils.
As a young man, Pietro Bartolo was a fisherman and he himself suffered a shipwreck, so he knows how traumatic and horrible it is to live such an experience. Later in life he decided to study medicine, became a gynaecologist and worked for his people in Lampedusa. And not only for them…
He still recalls it as if it were yesterday: “. I remember the arrival of the first boat, in 1991, there were only three people on it, and since that moment I started taking care of them as well as the inhabitants of the island. They needed help and I tried to give it to them, as a doctor, of course, and as a man too. I did what had to be done, I did my job”.
Since that first landing almost 30 years ago, Bartolo has tirelessly assisted all those who reached the well-known Molo Favaloro. Some say he holds two records as a doctor: the first record for attending about 350,000 people, one by one, and the other, more distressing, for performing the highest number of autopsies in the world.
The first one is impressive not only for the number, but also for the method. Pietro Bartolo did not limit himself to assisting and curing, but he listened and cared, as he himself explains: “when they arrive at the pier on Lampedusa, I ask my collaborators to have a humane approach before a medical one. The first approach should be humane, not medical. To be treated humanely, that is what they need, because up to that moment they have never been considered as humans, they have been treated as objects to take advantage of, to abuse, to do all sorts of things to. When they arrive on Lampedusa it is very important to get the message across that they are finally in a country where no one will hurt them anymore.”
The second one it a very tough record, as he says: this is a record of which I’m not proud, quite the opposite, I’m ashamed of it – and we should all be ashamed, especially those who look away, even today – and it is the ‘record’ for being the doctor who has perhaps done the highest number of inspections on dead bodies in the world. And it hurts, it really hurts me, I have seen so many dead children, so many dead people, so many dead pregnant women. I have seen suffering that I wish no one ever saw”.
It can’t be easy to see what his eyes have seen, and it is exactly his eyes that transmit some of that pain, of that shame, of that anguish: “And I did it because it was right, together with my colleagues and the volunteers who came to help at the pier, the Molo Favaloro, which was the pier where all these people arrived, I say people, not migrants. You know, a lot has been said about these people. They don’t know what to call them anymore. But they are people, just people.”.
By vocation he is a gynaecologist, but he has had to witness countless deaths. And he did so with the utmost respect, with the utmost care, with loving attention to each of those bodies he had to inspect, even if he felt fear:
“When you open those body bags, I hate those bags, when you unzip them, you don’t know what you’re going to find. There might be a child, a woman, a man. I was afraid of opening those bags sometimes, you know? I’m not going to lie, even if I am a doctor, I am afraid, I am afraid… But you then have to do the examination, all the steps that are needed to identify a person, to give dignity to those people, because they are not numbers, you know. They are people. It’s true, we don’t know who they are, and we give them numbers, we give each person a number: 1, 2, 3, 100, 200, 300. There was one single time where I had to assign 368 numbers. (Editor’s note: Here, he remembers the exact number of deaths occurred in the notorious shipwreck of October 3, 2013, during which of 500 people only 155 survived, including 41 children). Together with the number we also record these details, which can give dignity to those people, because they are people.”.
This care for the person in their dignity, even in their anonymity and death, is very important for him, also in order to be of help to the relatives who, in some cases, come looking for their son, mother, brother or father. “I was there, I was a witness, I saw and I met those extraordinary people, who have unbelievable strength, unbelievable strength. Think of the children who travel alone, they embark on never-ending journeys, they face every obstacle, with only one aim in mind: to get there, to get there. So it’s only right, it’s only right to do what we did.”, Pietro says this with a strength and passion that is difficult to describe.
In his tireless service, which lasted almost 30 years, he persevered not only in his constant care in his profession as a doctor, but also in his free time, through lectures, books, meetings with students in schools, interviews, etc.. He did all this with a fervent intention of making the migration phenomenon known and of contributing to change.
Then, in 2019 he decided to enter politics. “There have been many times in which I doubted what I was doing, even before. Sometimes I wondered how it could be possible that no one did anything to change things. That those who had it in their power to act did not act. And sometimes I said to myself “Enough, I don’t want anything to do with this anymore”. Then I changed my mind, of course. I thought to myself “you’ll see, maybe in a month, things will change”, but they didn’t. And I felt guilty for that. So, I tried to take a step further, to do more, because I felt that perhaps I wasn’t doing everything I could. Hence my decision to become involved in politics.”.
In 2019, Dr. Pietro Bartolo became a member of the European Parliament, and currently, he is the Vice-Chair of the Committee on Civil Liberties, Justice and Home Affairs (LIBE), Vice-Chair of the Delegation to the ACP-EU Joint Parliamentary Assembly, member of the Committee on Fisheries (PECH) and substitute member of the Delegation for relations with Iraq (D-IQ).
“To tell you the truth, it was hard for me, you know? – comments Bartolo, when he is asked about this change in his life – It was a hard choice to make, because I prefer working as a doctor… And I miss my island and my family, of course. But my choice has been determined by my sense of responsibility, as a doctor who has lived such a tough and tragic experience. So, I took this path because I believe in politics… I believe in true politics, which is an act of service, it’s Politics with a capital P.
He further explains: “I think that politics is something noble, very noble. It isn’t what people complain about, that is not politics, that is something else. I believe that the aim of politics is to give answers, because it is politicians who have to decide if doors should be closed or opened, if these people should be accepted or rejected”.
Bartolo’s goal is to be able to contribute through his political commitment, to generate deep, structural, sustainable and lasting changes. This is the purpose of his life: “We certainly can live together, grow together, together we can, but we have to do it sensibly, we cannot treat these people like slaves as we are seeing today. Illegal, invisible. That hurts them, but it hurts us too.
So of course, I think, and I often say, that we have to do it, that Europe and Italy need to become more solidarity-based. It’s the principle on which Europe itself is based, but in my opinion, it isn’t a matter of solidarity or of being ‘good’, it is a matter of opportunity, and it is a matter of human rights too, a matter of human rights.”.
It is worth it to listen to the whole interview with Pietro Bartolo, so we invite you to check it out and, like us, learn from this person who, in all humility and courage, has dedicated and is still devoting his life to caring for people, because we are all part of one human family.
When I talk about values or guiding words, I always say that ‘respect’ is the word I love most, more than love or fraternity… it’s the word ‘respect’, because respect includes everything else: respect for nature, respect for what is different, respect for friends, for enemies, for opponents. Respect for the disabled, respect for everything, respect is the most beautiful word there is. If we bear this in mind, we will certainly find the best way forward for humanity, one that we can all be proud of. That is what we need to do.
*Home picture: Paul Katzenberger / CC BY-SA (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)