About the honourable attempt to render an unjust world more bearable
By Gorden Isler
The floor under my feet moves slightly from one side to the other. There is almost no wind. The midday sun burns down without mercy. The 60-year-old fishing cutter Sea-Eye, which was refurbished as a rescue boat, carries us safely across the waters off the Libyan coast.
By now only 14 nautical miles separate us from the country that more than 2,000 people fled on 16 rubber boats today. More than 500 of them are waiting to be rescued from four rubber boats, in acute danger to their lives, at port and starboard of the Sea-Eye. I am holding a small boy from Nigeria on my arm. He is about three years old, only one year older than my daughter, who safely waits for my return with her mother in Germany.
The boy is holding on to me tightly. He, his sister and his parents have finally reached safety on the 23 x 6 metre boat. He smiles at me and looks enthusiastically over my shoulder at our dinghy Charlotti 2, with which we recovered him about two hours ago from a black rubber boat. He clings to me tightly and I notice that his firm embrace is good for me. I imagine that I can feel his heartbeat. Maybe it is my own.
We hold on to each other for almost ten minutes. I cry briefly, but quickly compose myself. I realise that now he has his whole life before him again, after the world that we share and many of its people had done a lot that got him into such a dangerous situation. This is the same world, which, on the other side of the blue border, grants a life in peace and safety to me, my wife and my daughter.
His father later tells us that he was a foreign worker in Libya. He made his money by repairing air conditioners. But in the end the situation in Libya became unbearable for him and his family. No safety or humanity remained. Their lives were constantly in danger, he says. Therefore he decided to risk the escape across the wide, blue border, the Mediterranean.
I know that in the South lurks an equally dangerous, yellow, sandy border. People in Libya are caught between two large obstacles. The journalist Patrick Kingsley writes in his book “The New Odyssey” that the safest way home is across the Mediterranean to Europe and then by deportation back to one’s home country. There is no migration structure leading backwards.
We continue. Erik und Anna already sit in the rigid-hulled inflatable boat (RHIB), which is tied to our port side. We take bottled water to the remaining 500 people on four rubber boats. Erik first heads towards the white rubber boat. It is one of two “problem boats,” which are obviously losing air. The people on it have been on the water for more than 12 hours. Many are seasick and vomit. They are afraid of dying; they are hungry and thirsty. They try to establish eye contact with us, imploring us to help.
In the meantime we learn that an Italian navy warship has been sent to the operational area. Again and again the people on the boat let us calm them down. In their eyes I see sheer despair and the wish to finally be able to leave this boat. Again and again I tell myself that 23 x 6 metres do not suffice to take 500 people on board. I am afraid that there might be an incident and an uncontrollable situation.
I am afraid of maybe having to helplessly watch people dying if they slip off the sides of the rubber boat. Our RHIB only fits eight to nine people. But one tube holds 20 to 30 people. In the morning suddenly 15 to 20 people do slip off the side of the white rubber boat while we are circling it. They manage to hold on to the tube. Within two or three minutes, the other passengers help to pull them all back into the boat.
These people would have lost their lives without the life vests which we gave them. In November 2016 I was a crew member on the Minden and I had to learn that such a situation can have a very different ending. Today all guardian angels of this world seem to be on our side.
During the late afternoon our boat fills up with more and more medical emergencies. The deck resembles a hospital. The more hours pass, the worse the condition of everyone on the rubber boats gets. Our instruction is to only evacuate medical emergencies and children and their parents immediately. During the late afternoon, another woman on the blue “problem boat” collapses. She is pregnant and apparently suffering from asthma and, we later learn, also from epilepsy. Her husband shows us the asthma spray and implores us to take his wife with us. None of us has ever been looked at like that by another human being.
Here, at Europe’s outer borders, we all meet our emotional and physical limits. We receive permission to take her and her husband to the Sea-Eye. With her last remaining bit of force she heaves herself into the front of our dinghy. She is completely drenched, seizes up and whimpers. Anna looks after her, calming her, while Erik rushes the RHIB towards the Sea-Eye. I try to calm down the husband. He understands only a few words and his eyes never leave his wife. It takes a huge effort to get her on board our ship and into the improvised medical station, where she then suffers an epileptic seizure. Following that, Viktor and Peter fight for her life and that of her unborn child.
An hour before sundown we float with the RHIB among four rubber boats. The sea is getting more troubled. By now we have one-metre waves and the wind starts blowing.
From far away, the Sea-Eye seems like the only island of hope in a boundless blue area. Sebastian and Anne try with various manoeuvers to keep the Sea-Eye at a certain distance to the rubber boats. If our boat approached them too closely, we would run the danger of people jumping off the rubber boats into the water in order to reach our boat. We search the horizon for the promised reinforcement from Italy. We are told that it is only 20 minutes away. By now we have been in action for about nine hours. We float close to the blue problem boat, keeping the port tube in view.
Finally the much hoped-for ship appears on the horizon. We promised its arrival to the people for hours in order to calm them down and convince them to cooperate. Our tension eases. We tell first, tentative jokes. I speculate about the contents of an Italian fridge. Erik lights a relaxation cigarette. Sundown announces itself. We are drenched and feel cold.
Two of the Italian RHIBs check out the four rubber boats and start recovering the people. I leave our RHIB, feeling frozen, and back on the Sea-Eye I can barely stand. Probably also a head thing. Anna and Erik stay on our RHIB and move the families over to the Italian ship. By now it is dark. My shoes are warming up in the engine room and I run across the deck in dry socks. The scene is unreal. One can only see the Italian ship. It looks as if two ambulances are zooming across the sea. They briefly stop in the dark and then return to the mother ship.
Anna and Erik return from their third shuttle trip. We pull up the RHIB and take a rendezvous course towards an Italian coast guard ship in order to transfer our severely injured patients. A ship with the name CP287 takes them to Lampedusa, where they will be treated in hospital.
We take a course which moves us out of the 24-mile-zone as quickly as possible, in order to spend the night there. My night shift immediately follows onto the rescue operation. Utterly exhausted I think about my experiences. About the absurd scenes, overcrowded rubber boats, whose makers never seriously considered enabling people to cross from Libya to Italy on them. About the people who make a lot of money by creating and keeping up a world with such an unbelievable number of reasons to leave one’s own home country and family. And about the people who make a lot of money by squeezing their last money from the refugees.
I think about the people who accuse civilian rescue workers of cooperating with traffickers and who have developed an inhumane resistance to any facts.
Finally I think about the small boy in his towelling sweater. I am happy that he is alive. He will make the world more colourful and diverse, no matter where he will live. By now he surely is in Italy already, while I am writing this during our trip back to Malta.
We were able to rescue more than 500 people in 14 hours, and yet I don’t return home entirely happily. Our friends in Regensburg told us that on this Thursday people have died in the Mediterranean. That happens every day. Today and tomorrow. In 2017, too, many children whose parents take them onto the rubber boats in despair, will be among the dead.
It is the way we live that causes the way these people die. We all have to do more. We must question the way we live and rapidly change something. The fact that it won’t be easy must not deter us. The fear of having to share or lose something should not prevent us from fighting for a world, in which our children will no longer have to see people die at our borders.
Gorden Isler took part in Sea-Eye’s Mission 6. He is the chairman of the organisation Hamburger mit Herz e.V.