Rescuing refugees in the Mediterranean: Ammertal man lives through dramatic events
Two weeks in the Mediterranean: Johann Hautmann from Wurmansau, Germany, has returned from his rescue mission. His experiences are forever engraved in his memory.
“When you have looked at their faces only once…,” Johann Hautmann says. Only when you have seen the utterly exhausted people in their small boats will you really understand what is going on in the Mediterranean. Hautmann knows. He doesn’t only know about refugee dramas from TV reports. The 64-year-old was on the spot off the Libyan coast. On board the Sea-Eye, an old cutter, which has only one aim: to save human lives. Even if that isn’t always possible.
One image that the Ammertal man keeps on seeing in front of his mental eye is the dead body found by the Sea-Eye. “A woman,” he sadly says. “She looked terrible.” She had probably been floating in the waves since Easter. Back then the lives of thousands of refugees had been at risk. So many that at some point the Sea-Eye, too, became overcrowded and had difficulties manoeuvering. And this although the former fishing cutter of the rescue organisation with the same name normally does not take people on board, but only helps them by providing life vests and, in an emergency, medical aid.
There is not enough space on the Sea-Eye to do more. There are only two cabins for the eight-member-crew. Therefore Johann Hautmann had to sleep together with four others in the common room, which measures only a few square metres. But in any case sleep was almost impossible during the first days. The swell was so strong that the boat was moving up and down up to 30 degrees. “When lying down, you would only roll back and forth.” Plus the permanent humming of the generator and the shift duty, which takes place in three to four-hour instalments. “But at some point you are so tired that you do sleep after all.” And finally the sea calmed down.
But the weather was still not very good. “At first visibility was very poor.” Even with the best binoculars it became difficult to make out refugee boats in the water. The Maritime Rescue Coordination Centre (MRCC) in Rome tells the Sea-Eye where to head and provides coordinates. Like in the case of a rubber boat at risk of sinking. “We searched until deep into the night,” Hautmann recalls. But without success. Where was the rubber boat, did the people somehow survive? Hautmann doesn’t know. “When I think about it,” he says, “my blood runs cold.”
Nor will he forget another incident, when the Sea-Eye was called to two small wooden boats. Around 120 people, crowded closely together, hoping for help. “Many of them were seasick,” Hautmann says. You could see their poor condition. The Sea-Eye crew included a doctor and a medic. They stepped into the dinghy, headed towards the refugees and provided help for them until a bigger ship took them on board. In this case the Aquarius of the organisation “Doctors without Borders.”
The Sea-Eye was supposed to patrol the target area off Libya for two weeks. But engine trouble shortened this period. “The ship really is a museum,” the Ammertal man explains. After the 30-hour return trip it had to be repaired in the home port in Malta. That was also why the crew had to decline when the MRCC called them again towards the end of their mission. “The conditions were about as awful as over Easter,” Hautmann says. No one on board liked their inability to help. “The mood was very gloomy.”
When the Ammertal man thinks back to his time on the old cutter, the many shifts and the rescue actions, one thing is clear for him. “I will do it again.” It is out of the question for him to only watch the terrible images on TV at home. He has to help. “It isn’t acceptable that people are drowning right in front of our eyes.”