The boundaries of human resilience on the high seas

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Experiences of borderline situations by rescued and rescuers.


On May 18, 2018 thirteen volunteers leave the harbour of Valetta aboard the Seefuchs toward the Search-and-Rescue Zone north of the Libyan cost in the mediterranean sea.

The Boat is 60 years old, an old fishing boat from the GDR transformed to a rescue vessel, ready to engage in live saving missions for the sixth time this year.

 The crew of the Seefuchs is a cross-section society. Captain Prof. Sampo Widmann is an architect. Among his helpers are a business consultant, an insurance broker, a computer scientist, a civil engineer, 2 paramedics, 2 doctors, a pastry chef and two political science students. They all agree on one essential point: Letting people drown to deter others from fleeing is not acceptable.

Seven out of 13 crew members are taking part in a rescue mission for the first time. They want to help and have prepared well with various crew trainings.

 On Whitsunday, the Seefuchs reaches the search-and-rescue (SAR) area in the southern Mediterranean. In coordination with the other non-governmental organisations Seefuchs patrols together with Sea-Watch 3east of Tripoli, north of the Libyan territorial waters. TheAquariusof SOS Mediterranéepatrols west of Tripoli. The SAR zone is rarely as well covered as these days.

With strategic search pattern the three NGOs want to prevent that any boat in distress slips through. Boats filled with refugee seekers are usually overcrowded and not stable enough to sustain waves and weather in the international waters.

The civilian rescue ships patrol about 30 nautical miles off the coast of Libya. They only intervene when they discover boats themselves or get assignments from the Italian Rescue Coordination Centre, MRCC Rome.

The sea is restless in the first days. There are onshore winds, which pushes boats back to the beaches. The crew of the Seefuchs has time to adapt to seasickness and begins with exercises on the lifeboats. The disembarkation and recovery of the two Seefuchs lifeboats is a much bigger challenge in the open sea than in the calm waters of the port of Valetta. But the crew wants to be prepared for worse case scenarios such as finding a capsized or sinking boat. At this time, the practicing aides do not yet know that these skills will be demanded a lot in the following days.

Seefuchs and Sea-Watch 3 even perform joint exercises with their lifeboats east of Tripoli. Crew members of the Seefuchs describe their enthusiasm for the good cooperation with the crew members of Sea-Watch. “They give us confidence in a situation completely new to us,” says Hamburg-based consultant Jörn Bruhn.

On the evening of May 22 the captain asks for absolute concentration and vigilance from his crew, as the sea calms down and the wind turns. The watch is divided into three shifts, with each three crew members. 4 hours a day during the day, 3 hours at night. Machinist, cook, captain and  communicator remain off duty but constant on call. Particularly demanding is the so-called dog watch. It lasts from 2am to 5am. At the watch people get to know each other, the exchange personal, sometimes emotional, sometimes political thought. Each crew member has experience with critics around them. Critics of the sea-rescue and the work they came here to do. 

We talk about how important it is to be ready and prepared for help even when no help is needed. After all, lifeguards on the seaside don’t pull people out of the water every day, and yet it is absolutely important and necessary for them to be there, says Jörn. But with the telephone ringing in the morning of May 24 the hypothetical thought becomes real experience. The Libyan Coast Guard contacts the Seefuchs bridge. The communication is completely incomprehensible and ends abruptly. The captain is sceptical. He calls the MRCC Rome to consult about the conversation and the Italian officer indeed confirms an emergency. Not far from the Seefuchs, people should be in distress. The captain takes course to the named coordinates and reaches out to Sea-Watch 3, heard equal details and together they begin to search.

Sea-Watch 3 releases their RIBs (lifeboats) Tango and Delta. They are significantly faster than the big ships and increase the chance to discover the objective faster. Shortly after the lifeboats of the Sea-Watch 3 discover a boat with 157 people. ‘There is nothing more absurd to witness than a crowded dinghy that transports people into the sea without any consideration or planning upon an arrival. A bizarre symbol for the deep despise of other people’s lives for earning quick money with their plight’ I’m telling my skipper while we get closer.

When we reach the lifeboats Tango and Delta have already begun with the distribution of lifejackets, so we join in. On the radar a fast approaching ship is spotted, concern is spreading.

It is in fact the Libyan Coast Guard heading towards us. The worries are justified. Too often, people have been killed in rescues by the Libyan Coast Guard (LCG) because they rather die, drowning in the sea then being brought back into torture.

Sea-Watch 3 lifeboats gently push the rubber boat to starboard to their mothership. In a spectacular manoeuvre to create a safe space and prevent the Libyan coastguard from pulling life-threatening surprises, the Seefuchs moves starboard to the rubber boat. This blocks visual contact between refuge seekers and coast guard. The manoeuvre worked. The refugee boat is save between the two rescue ships, the Libyan Coast Guard cumbersome around the scene without access to the refugees.

Once all people are aboard the Sea-Watch 3 we let go of the rubber boat and it falls back.

The LCG launches their RIB and evaluate the situation. They take pictures of the evacuated rubber boat, the Seefuchs, they destroy the means of escape.

 To catch up shortly thereafter, to manoeuvre around both rescue ships, and then turn off. Obviously they wanted to put up a sign of strength. 

In the evening, both crews work together on the Sea-Watch 3 for the distribution of food among the people. Most of the refugees come from Sudan and South Sudan. Sudan is a country ruled by a man under arrest for serious human rights violations and crimes. Nevertheless, the Federal Government of Germany is negotiation and financially supporting Sudan to prevent people from fleeing.

‘It leaves me worried and frustrated that my country is talking to criminals and abandoning us on the basis of private donations. Human rights, it seems to me, apply only when of use’.

In good spirits we return to our Seefuchs. The next day (May, 25) starts with a call from MRCC Rome at 7:25 am. The Seefuchs is dispatched to a position that is unusually close to the 12 nautical miles zone. That area is claimed territorial waters of Libya. We suspect that the Libyans must be unusually busy that day and follow the instructions from Rome. However, we are on our own today. Sea-Watch 3 has itself received a mission. In which, we later learned, the LCG obstructed the rescue and ultimately several people are missing, and considerably died in that manoeuvre.  At 9:00 am we finally discover the crowded dinghy. One of the two hoses is already losing air. 79 men, 42 women, 9 of them pregnant and 7 children are in mortal danger. In consultation with the MRCC Rome we evacuate the boat completely. On board the RIB, the women burst into tears and pray. They suddenly realize that they are safe with us. When I hand my friend Jörn a baby on the Seefuchs, I tear up as well.

After destroying the evacuated boat, we make our way to the next mission assigned to us by the MRCC Rome. We wonder where to place more people if in danger, since we are already overloaded. On the bridge, we receive the radio message from a pilot controlling a plane from the Frontex mission. He sounds very worried and reports several boats in distress, far from our position. ‘What it must feel like to see people from that perspective? People in mortal danger, without being able to help’. I can tell from his voice that it does not leave him cold. The situation on the day is so dramatic that even warships have been ordered into rescue operations. ‘It’s like war,’ says Jörn. Those warships tell us to keep distance to their operation. At 4 nautical miles distance we observe with binoculars as their RIBs whiz back and forth between the impressive ship and the rubber boat.

Meanwhile, we provide our guests on board and get into conversation with them. I meet a young man from Nigeria and his wife. He is 26 and tells me that they have a 50/50 chance of surviving the Mediterranean. This risk was better than staying in Libya.

Later we are given a coordinate to meet a ship to take over our rescued refugees. Together with two warships, we are told to pass people to a large ship of the Italian Coast Guard (CP941).

The scene is unreal. A warship to port, a warship to starboard. Both adapt to our maximum speed of just under 8 knots and accompany us. Even as we take a short break, the warship stops at starboard to escort us further. This causes us very different feelings. Shortly before midnight, we hand over all guests safely and safely to CP941. The RIBs of the warship only need a short time to fetch 128 people. However, the Coast Guard is not particularly friendly with the refugees. That’s what they call people in distress: ‘Migrants’. An official gives a man a kick to motivate him to move faster. Shortly before midnight, the manoeuvre is completed and we start a cleaning of the ship. Our guests had already cleaned up after them. Threw their wet things, their blankets and water bottles in garbage bags, so we only had to gather those. 

However, our biggest challenge was waiting for us. On Sunday morning the watch discovers a strange black object on the horizon. Shortly later its confirmed, it is another boat. Rarely we can identify boats ourselves, the search area large, the horizon limited and the boats are very tiny.

The captain triggers an alarm and the crew mobilizes – by now we are a well-rehearsed team. Quickly we reach the overloaded piece of rubber hose and clarify the situation with our lifeboats. It is again a completely overcrowded rubber boat. It seems to be shorter than the day before. Space is so limited that not all people can sit down. Sampo informs the MRCC Rome, but Italy refuses to coordinate and refers us to contact the flag state of the Seefuchs.

We calm down the people in the boat and distribute life jackets. The life jackets bring additional volume in the already overloaded boat. During the distribution, several people fall from the unstable port hose into the water. Fortunately, those people already had lifejackets. One man could not swim and cramped in the water. The crew of the RIB was able to rescue him from the water in time, but the situation increasingly lead to people panicking, which is an unpredictable challenge.

The situation is dramatic. The port hose apparently loses air increasingly and is held in shape only by the pressure of the people sitting on it. Water is already entering the boat, it smells of gasoline and fecal matter, people report injuries and skin burns from the mixture in which they are sitting or standing. Two women are pregnant. A little boy seeks eye contact with the helpers. People are begging for help. The skipper decides to begin the evacuation to the Seefuchs to defuse the dramatic situation. People demand salvation. They point to the water in the boat, to the feces, to the few bottles that are now filled with urine. 

We are in constant communicates with the MRCC Rome. When people start arriving aboard the Sefuchs, they are given drinking water, blankets and medical treatment. Many fall asleep right away from exhaustion.

The real challenge is just beginning. The Coast Guard duty officer of our flag state, the Netherlands, names Libya as the place to deliver the saved people. We are appalled and insecure. Then the MRCC Rome finally decides that the 26-meter-long Seefuchs, our 60-year-old trawler, has to bring the 128 people to Italy themselves. Despite all the protestations that the ship is not designed for the transport of so many people and this ride is a danger to the life and limb of the crew and guests, nothing changed the decision.

The crew distributes couscous with broth to satisfy people’s first hunger. At midnight comes the patrol boat (CP 286) of the Italian Coast Guard. It takes women, 2 children and the injured, a total of 24 people, back to Lampedusa .. In the “collection” of women and children by the CP 286 families were torn apart, the men remained distraught back.

At night, the crew on board can barely move. Everywhere people lie in gold-silver shimmering and rustling warmth blankets. Crew members cannot reach their own berth without stepping on a hand or a foot. The next day we get a destination assigned: Porto Empedocle in Sicily. So it becomes clear that we have to spend another night with our protégés. In the nights people froze and warmed each other. They understood our situation and show empathy with their voluntary helpers. It is a remarkable relationship between rescuers and rescuers. We talk to each other, listen to them, see them and they are finally perceived as human beings again.

Gradually, our fresh water supplies are running out. For refreshing up we only use seawater. Slowly our drinking water is running out. The hygienic conditions are fatal. All in all, less than half a square meter of habitat remains for every person on board. All 114 passengers have only one outboard toilet. Our guests are increasingly suffering from exhaustion and seasickness.

‘On the evening of 28.05.2018 we celebrate my 36th birthday with a pizza, the confectioner Henry Klarholz and heart surgeon dr. Victor Mendes prepared. Our guests receive couscous again. There is only one place where I would rather be now. With my wife and daughter waiting for me in Valetta. But the Seefuchs is the second favorite place for me this evening. The place where we crossed our frontiers, where we met the dignity and power of external degradation. The place where we listened to the song of our guests, who burst out in joy and tears when they saw the lights of Sicily.’

On the morning of 29.05.2018 we reach the port of Porto Empedocle. The Italians are well prepared. At 9:00 AM we arrest at the wharf. More than 60 people (police, Frontex, doctors, dockers, press) are on site to look after our guests. They receive a friendly welcome and are first medically examined, and receive shoes and drinking water. Our crew members are ashore and help every guest with their first step on European soil. We are allowed to leave immediately and are no longer in the wind. On the way back, the Mediterranean reminds us of what it would feel like to be on the move with good winds and a boat-friendly crew. ‘Once again, our perception is exacerbated and the previous risk is crystal clear. How scant we escaped dangers in which the 114 guests and 13 crew members were.’ For two days we were very lucky.

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