Saturday, 13.05.2017, 08h10. The skipper wakes the crew. Short situation meeting on deck: the MRCC signals the presence of rubber boats and sends coordinates. We still have some time for a quick wash and a small breakfast. We put on our life vests, helmets and whatever else is necessary.
I spend some time in the mess and try to prepare myself for what is coming. What will I face? Will everything work as planned and trained with the crew? How many people are waiting for our help? Am I ready? Physically, mentally? How much suffering, joy, hope, life and death will confront me?
Knowing full well that we will have to master the situation by ourselves because no NGOs or official ships are on scene, we start at 09h30 into a long, busy, exciting day in the Mediterranean. That sea, which many of us have only known from beach holidays.
The first boat we head towards is a blue rubber boat, and it doesn’t seem to be very stable. Some water has already entered; the right chamber has lost a lot of air. About 120 people or more are waiting on it. Fear, joy, despair, hope and expectation can be seen in peoples’ faces and gestures. Seraja tries to give hope to the people with a friendly greeting, waves and smiles. “Hello. We are here to help you. We are from Germany. We are bringing you life vests…”
Starting at the back of the rubber boat, we hand out the life vests. People hand them on fairly quickly towards the front and everything works well. Now the further transfer of life vests from the Sea-Eye to the rubber boats starts. Once, twice, three times….back and forth, back and forth. Load life vests, move towards the rubber boats, hand out vests…..Calm down people when we have to leave their boat again in order to get new vests.
The wind and the waves are increasing. On this day we have 1-2 metre waves, at a wind force of 3-5 and constantly changing throughout the day. It gets increasingly difficult to move back and forth on the Charlotti. We sit in our dinghy, dripping wet from the intensive shower of the spray. But never mind: we do move back and forth in spite of the wetness and the wind, back and forth, back and forth….Together with the life vests we are taking hope and trust to the refugees.
After we have supplied the blue rubber boat with life vests, we move to the next one, the first of three white boats that are floating close by. These boats, too, are hopelessly overcrowded with more than 100 people each. The same procedure each time: circle around them, check the situation, ask about injuries, women, children, pregnancies, hand out life vests…
And in every boat the same fearful but also hopeful expressions. Young men, women, small children and babies, older men, families waiting to be rescued from their life threatening situation. Some people are clearly seasick, some are vomiting, seemingly weak, but mostly stable.
It is hard for us to imagine that these people have started their perilous journey without life vests. Obviously they have no idea of the distances in the Mediterranean. After one hour on board the Sea-Eye, a refugee later asks us whether we will soon be in Italy. Once again we realise: the refugees don’t know that the journey to Italy is not possible in a rubber boat. The 200 nautical miles from Libya to Italy/Malta at the speed of a rubber boat would require at least 80 to 100 hours of travelling. There is never enough petrol for this distance on board. And even with sufficient petrol none of these rubber boats would ever reach Italy. Before that they would lose their air or capsize in another way. No rubber boat from Libya has ever reached Italy or Malta. None of the refugees seems to know that.
Back to the operation: everything is moving according to plan. We hand out the life vests, the people in the rubber boats cooperate well, are not hectic, and communication is working.
We have no inkling yet of the difficulties awaiting us.
Finally: at 11h30 everyone in the four rubber boats has received a life vest. We take a deep breath. At least they are now protected from immediate death by drowning. In a life vest anyone can stay afloat for a few minutes. Our first task is done. Now they will have to be evacuated and taken to shore in a safe country. The MRCC in Rome tells us where. It is their responsibility.
For us this is the moment to take a short break, eat a bite, drink some water and discuss further action.
No evacuation ship is to be seen far and wide. The MRCC in Rome informs us that in about five hours Italian coast guard ships will arrive. Five hours are damn long on these rubber boats and especially on the unstable blue boat.
It is time to relieve the boats. Therefore we decide to move the women and children to the Sea-Eye. Of course we start with the first boat, the blue rubber boat. People cooperate well. Some women hand us their children first. And thus our first guests on board the Sea-Eye are three girls who are about six months and 1.5 and 5 years old. The skipper later says that tears came to his eyes when we transferred these small human beings to the Sea-Eye. On the next trip we take the women, who are all utterly exhausted. The women and children sit wet and trembling in our boat, relieved and tired. All manage the not so easy transfer – especially in these weather conditions – to the Sea-Eye.
Once we have taken the women and children to the Sea-Eye, my emotions overwhelm me. I start crying from relief and joy, but also from sadness and anger about the conditions which have caused these peoples’ terrible situation. Hunger, wars, climate change, a criminal economic system….and the weakest have to bear the consequences – or try to fight for a safe place for survival elsewhere.
Stop these thoughts. Go on. Function. The day is still young. We are not done yet…
We continue transferring people from the rubber boats to the Sea-Eye. Some people on the boats lose their patience. Some jump off their boats and try to swim towards the Charlotti.Now it is getting really dangerous. One or two we can take on board of course. But there is a risk that many will do the same and that we won’t be able to look after all of them.
We send some back to their boats and move the Charlotti away from the boats. When we are further away, fewer dare to jump into the sea. But still the numbers are growing. And of course we cannot leave them alone in the water. We move back to the Sea-Eye and get the first life raft. Unfortunately, a coordinated boarding of the raft is no longer possible. The people in the water can no longer take anything in due to their panic and helplessness. They climb onto the raft as they see fit and the raft topples. Then five or six people are on the wrong side of the raft, but at least they are safe. The same situation with the second life raft. Coordinated boarding only works on the third raft because we put Seraja on the raft and he coordinates the boarding now. The best thing in this situation is that the rubber boat gets relieved, which reduces the risk of capsizing. It finally works out. The blue boat gets relieved by three life rafts.
But again and again people jump off the boats. Of course it is contra-productive, and of course we rescue them from the water.
One time we are accompanied by dolphins – but we can barely pay attention to them because we are concentrating so hard on our work. One of the white rubber boats still has a functioning outboard engine. The man at the engine tries to approach the Sea-Eye. The Sea-Eye tries to keep the same distance from the rubber boat in order to prevent a potential panic. Dangerous situation.
We continue to pull people from the water and take them to the Sea-Eye. They thank us with many words and gestures and want to hug and kiss us. Do they know how much danger they exposed themselves to when they jumped from the relatively safe boats into the water? Throughout the day we pull about 20-30 people from the water. Due to the wind and the waves, they move quickly in the water, drifting southwards.
The last ones are now at quite a distance to ourselves. We are heading towards them to pull them into the Charlotti. It is getting difficult once they all swim towards our dinghy in a group. We have to move away from the group and we explain to them that we can only take them on one after the other. We start, but there are too many and we cannot take them all at once.
We head towards the Sea-Eye with ten refugees and promise the others that we will be back. On our way to the Sea-Eye we inform the Italian coast guard – they arrived in the meantime – about the people who are still in the water. The coast guard immediately move towards the spot and we see from the Sea-Eye that they are rescuing people. In the meantime about 200-300 litres of water have sloshed into the Charlotti during the rescue actions and we have a hard time moving.
Our skipper sights another person. Did the coast guard overlook him? We return to the dinghy and look for this person in the water. A swimmer is getting ready on the coast guard ship. He jumps into the sea and swims towards the man who is floating close by. When we arrive there with the Charlotti, we take them on board. The man is no longer conscious. We take the swimmer back to the coast guard, but they do not want to take the unconscious man. So we quickly return to the Sea-Eye. We notice signs of life and hand him over to our doctor.
After 45 minutes of resuscitation efforts, our doctor declares the young man dead.
But the last rescued man, who is spotted from the bridge by the skipper, survives. While we return onto the Sea-Eye with the Charlotti, Chris reports another person in the water a few hundred metres ahead at starbord. As the Charlotti has just been tied down, he approaches the man with the Sea-Eye. When the Charlotti can cast off again, we rescue the man from 2-metre waves. He makes it.
The mission day is nearing its end. At about 00h15 all migrants from the rubber boats and the Sea-Eye have been taken to the Italian coast guard ships. At the end the situation turned challenging once more. During the night, when the Italian coast guard transfer the people at a swell of 1-2 metres, it sometime takes several minutes of manoeuvering to hand over everyone safely. There is a high risk that someone falls into the water between the rolling Sea-Eye and the coast guard ship and gets crushed by the ships. When we hand the six-month-old baby to the young coast guard officer, he briefly shrinks back, holding his head and calling out, “Oh, bambini.” He pulls himself together and the transfer takes place in such a slow and safe manner as I have never seen before. Maybe he has a baby at home? It seems that he is very much aware of his great responsibility. We are impressed to see that even an experienced coast guard officer shows so much emotion.
When they all have left, we notice how tired we are. All those hours of going back and forth on the Charlotti, constantly fighting the wind and the waves, no time to briefly relax, only once a complete change of clothes because we were dripping wet…physically it was a huge challenge. Plus the mental and emotional strain, the fear for human lives, the long wait for help by the coast guard, our own questions whether we had done it all correctly, mourning a man whom we hadn’t known but who had suddenly come very close to us in our world. Later we find out the facts of the day:
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