I’m in Marina di Carrara these summer days and I take the opportunity to try and meet the crew of the Open Arms, which is stopped in port by the decision of our government. Overcoming some difficulties and after an initial interview with a nurse, and staff member, I met the captain of the ship. Here is his story.

Can it be told?

My name is Ricardo Sandoval, I’m Argentinian, I’ve been living in Spain for several years. I have been one of the Open Arms captains since 2017. We are currently stuck here in Marina di Carrara due to the recent law decree n. 20 of 2023, which we know well by now.

How did an Argentinian end up here?

I’m from Mar del Plata, a seaside city south of Buenos Aires; out of curiosity I moved to Spain like many other Argentinians and stayed there.

Does Argentina know what is happening here in the Mediterranean?

I do everything possible to get [them] the news; I know some journalists in Mar del Plata, but in reality I fear that even here in Europe we don’t know enough about what is happening in your sea. I truly believe that the main objective of politicians is that everything that happens be not seen, or not noticed so much.

Could you be captain of any other vessel?

Yes, certainly. In the end, one chooses.

Compared to the command on other boats, is what you do now more complicated, more interesting?

It is certainly more interesting and rewarding. In a commercial vessel, there are certain types of pressure, here there are others. I don’t think it’s more difficult or complicated than other situations; even here, when you know the dynamics, there’s a normal routine. Admittedly, this is a 1974 boat, [it shows] its age, it requires frequent maintenance.

Can you try to describe your daily life?

Before, there was a coordinating center that informed us: it called us and we went. Now this coordination no longer exists, but fortunately, there are NGOs that have airplanes and inform us. We move in the middle of the sea and cover a very large part of it.

Broadly speaking, there have been three periods: one in which, once people were recovered from the sea, they went to the nearest port; one in which (read [under] Minister Salvini) they [were] left to wait days and days in the middle of the sea; and now this phase in which they send you to northern ports to waste your time, money, and energy.

Yes that’s right, they take us out of the way for a while so that we can’t do our job and above all so that we can’t see what’s going on.

Can you describe to us what happened in this last mission?

With this new regulation, when you’re assigned a port you have to head quickly and directly to that port, you can’t divert to save other people, much less go back.

But do they see your location? Isn’t it possible to do anything “in secret”?

You can’t, both because they see us on the radar and because we send our position every 12 hours.

You are stopped “as a punishment” because you have saved a second group: have you had any doubts about doing it or not? Did you know what that would entail?

Yes, we knew. The question wasn’t whether to save them or not, but only whether there was someone else who could do it. We asked very insistently for other [rescuers], [and] when we realized that there was nobody, we went decisively, without any doubts.

What would you say in a few words to someone who tells you that you do business with the mafia, that you are a “sea taxi”, etc?

Let them go, indeed, let them get on our boat, let them come with us to see, let them see it firsthand.

How is your relationship with the Italian coast guards?

They too make rescues at sea, they work. Maybe there are some of them who do it reluctantly, others [who] don’t, but for the mere fact of [there] being people [drowning] in the sea, they must be saved and that’s it. Point.

How many are you?

There are twenty of us, nine [are part] of the crew, who have to stay at sea, and in addition, there are eleven volunteers between the rescuers and the medical team.

Are you close-knit? Are there tensions? tiredness?

We get along well. In the beginning, there is a lot of training, and then, as a group, we prepare before each single campaign. The head of mission has a lot of experience and takes care of this. The team works like a “machine”, day and night.

Then when you load 100, 150 people on board, everything changes….

Yes, but we are well prepared, everything has to work, starting with the meals. If ours are made in the galley, theirs are made on deck, the quantities are large.

What are the moods of the people you rescue? Satisfaction, joy, anger, despair…

There is everything, it depends. Sometimes we rescue people who have been at sea for a day, sometimes for 4 or 5: this makes a lot of difference. It is not easy to immediately screen how people are doing and assist the most serious ailments. Sometimes unconscious people are carried up, then there are wounds, illnesses, pains…

How many days, at the most, have you been on the boat with this load of humanity and suffering?

I remember once it happened for 21 days, but I wasn’t there and I wouldn’t have liked to be there. It was crazy. After sailing, they remained stationary off Lampedusa. People saw the nearby island and dived into the sea, they had to be careful day and night to prevent someone from drowning. It was very hard and it was during Salvini’s legislature. The captain was a friend of mine…

We know that one of the most difficult, dangerous moments is when they see you and approach you, their agitation or everyone moving to one side can capsize their boat. Can you describe what happens?

Yes, we’re now prepared, we’ve figured out how to do it. Meanwhile our two rapid boats are approaching, one on one side and one on the other so as to distribute their “stimulus”. They stop well before arriving and signal with a megaphone, in English or with gestures, that everyone must sit down, and not shout, and the boats do not approach [the distressed boat] until everyone is seated. We with the big ship stay further away, depending on how the sea is, but we can also stay less than 100 meters away.

Have you rescued people directly from the water?

Yes, it’s hard, you have to quickly understand who can resist a little longer and collect those who are on their last legs first.

Are there no moments of discouragement in which you feel like saying: “Enough! I cannot handle it anymore! This world sucks!”?

Yes, of course, but we make each other strong, the unity between us is important. However, there is a psychological team (online) that supports us throughout the mission as soon as we ask for help. And then we also talk about it at the end, because it can happen that in the middle of the action, with the adrenaline and everything that happens, one is strong and resists, but then one collapses. Images, eyes, glances, cries, and sensations remain inside you… Surely we don’t have infinite energy and in the long run this work is exhausting; I remember a previous captain who told me: “This job has a deadline, you risk ending badly, you have to stop before”. I’m almost getting to that point (laughs).

How is the moment of “return” to the land?

In general [it is] good, about 80% of the time we find good treatment. At that moment many of those who get off clap their hands, some from the ground even applaud, others less … (smiles).

What happens in Spain instead?

In Spain, there are two possible routes: that of the Canaries, where the journey is very dangerous because it is the ocean. Let’s say that there is no need for NGOs there, there is a company commissioned by the Spanish state that has 4 large boats dedicated to this. The other route is that of the Strait of Gibraltar: there is a great coming and going of small and large boats that deal with the rescues. In this case, the route is really short and very loaded small boats arrive from Morocco.

Now you will have to stay here for 20 days and pay 10,000 euros. Do you think that you will really stay 20 days and pay that amount or is there a way to shorten the time?

Those days will be there, there’s no escaping it, but the fine works like the one for motorists; if you pay immediately they’ll reduce it and I think we’ve already paid!

Otherwise, would you have been ready to leave again?

Yes, we would have been here for 2 or 3 days and then we would have left, but we are at a standstill, we had to cancel all orders, especially food supplies.

How did you experience the news of the arrest?

Actually, after the investigation, the interrogations of me and the other officer, followed by a day of silence, we expected it. The volunteers left, otherwise, there would have been a change [of volunteers].

If you could speak to the head of the Italian government, what would you say to her?

What I’ve already said: whether she comes with us, whether she gets on this boat or one of the others, maybe some things would change. On the other hand, I myself don’t think this is the solution, I believe that people shouldn’t be forced to leave their country or run away from their home, they should be helped to feel better where they were born. Maybe if we stopped exploiting this part of the world they would live better.

Have you in Argentina, with the tremendous economic crises you have experienced, not gone through phases of heavy emigration?

Yes, of course, but we were less visible. It is done safely. One leaves on a plane with a tourist visa and then stays there, without having risked one’s life. Those who leave by boat [are those who] cannot get a plane ticket. And yes, even with these battered boats [the trips] don’t come for free, on the contrary!

Here in Italy we barely remember how many millions of Italians went to Argentina, Brazil, Peru, Venezuela as well as to the USA, of course.

I believe we have to work so that people can move safely, there must be safe ways to travel. We also have to work on distribution: certainly Italy cannot take care, on its own, of the many migrants who arrive. If they were distributed better, these people would be much less noticeable.

By seeing the people on the boat, can you figure out where they started from?

No, [the boats] can have come from nearby areas, for example Libya or Tunisia, and transport people traveling from different parts of Africa. It must be said that before, [the boats] were only rubber or wooden boats, now [people] also arrive on metal boats which are even more insecure, a disaster. These boats, once emptied, were first sunk, now it is no longer possible: they remain at sea, adrift. What we do, as an NGO, is spray mark them, so that people know that [the migrants] from that boat were rescued, or else they might [think that] all have drowned. But these boats that remain in the middle of the sea can be a problem for navigation in the Mediterranean.

When they get on board, can you guess if any of them are the smugglers?

No, even if I really believe that they put one of the migrants to drive the boat and none of those who profit from these traffickings get on board: it’s much easier. [The smugglers] don’t give a damn. They give [ the migrants] a rudimentary boat, some fuel reserve, general indications and goodbye. [The migrants] are so inexperienced that when refueling they spill a lot of [fuel] on the bottom of the boat and that’s where the many skin burns come from.

Do you meet fishermen? Could there be more eyes on the sea?

Yes, it happened, fishermen can make reports. However, it must be said that merchant ships, the big ones, obey a company and its pressures. Sometimes (it depends on the captain) they pretend nothing has happened, or they put themselves under the orders of the competent authority. Of course, if they leave without doing anything and someone sees them they can be reported.

Thank you

Thanks YOU; coffee?

At the end he shows me all around the boat, the kitchen, the cold rooms, the water and food reserves, the cabins where the crew sleeps: [it’s a whole] world… I imagine that deck full of people lying down, the children jumping [up and down]… .

I invite them in the afternoon, load four of them into the car, because at least three must always stay on board, and we go for a tour of the marble quarries. We also go to Colonnata, where they taste the lard: they are happy [to get] a little cool after so much heat. A tour of the quarries and then Carrara, some fresh air for them too… On a couple of occasions, I introduce them, at the bar or in a shop and I say enthusiastically: “They are the Spaniards from Open Arms!” Someone gives us a discount, but a man, for example, begins to tell me that he doesn’t believe in it, that NGOs do business… so much so that [the Open Arms people] themselves tell me to let it go, not to introduce them: “Never mind that someone comes up with bad ideas, after all we are standing there, they can always spite us.” I hadn’t thought of that, naive me…..