As a child, Pietro Bartolo fished with his father in their trawler off their home island of Lampedusa, a small island 120 miles off the coast of Sicily and 70 miles from Tunisia. One night when he was sixteen years old, forty miles from the island, his dinghy sprung a leak. He called and called, hoping that someone on the trawler would hear him. No one did. Then, just as he felt he could no longer stay above water, his father saw him and Pietro was rescued.

Now, many years later, Bartolo is a doctor and rescues the men, women and children that teem to the shore following harrowing journeys from their homes in the Middle East and Africa. During the twenty-five years of crisis, Dr. Bartolo and his team have treated over 400,000 refugees who have arrived on Lampedusa. 

In Tears of Salt, Dr. Bartolo recounts stories of people who have journeyed weeks and months from their homes to board ships, barges, small motorboats. They are escaping famine, political exile and violence; often they are youngsters who have left their families to make their way to Europe. They hope to start a new life where the rest of the family can join them.

On October 3, 2013, after a night of helping two other boats, Dr. Bartolo received word of a shipwreck. Over the next weeks the island would take care of the survivors. An airplane hangar was used as a makeshift cemetery to hold the 368 coffins that waited to be taken to Sicily for burial. Citizens of Lampedusa opened their homes to the victims’ family members who came to identify their loved ones. The details of rescue and recovery of these and other refugees are graphic, but poignant.

One cannot imagine the emotional and spiritual courage of those caring for people from boat after boat, year after year. Dr. Bartolo’s story gives us just a glimpse. His story was also featured in the documentary Fire at Sea, nominated for the Academy Award in 2016. Dr. Bartolo says in an interview that he, the children and all Lampedusans exist in a state of anxiety from witnessing so much suffering, so many tragedies.

The refugee crisis is worldwide; this book documents only a small part of it. How horrifying is the fact that 400,000 people arriving at a tiny island is only a glimpse of the global issue?

Tears of Salt: A Doctor’s Story

By Pietro Bartolo and Lidia Tilotta, translated by Chenxin Jiang; W.W. Norton & Company (2018)

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