My Encounter With A Little Girl On The High Seas

A doctor aboard ALAN KURDI, Barbara H., reports on her rescue mission in November 2019. She now has a special Christmas story to tell of how she met a baby girl at high seas.

I suddenly came to take part in the November mission of the ALAN KURDI. On November 7th, Nicole Grimske, a board member of Sea-Eye, called me. She asked if I would be willing to participate in the next mission because a medical professional was still needed. After consulting my husband, I flew to Bari (Italy) a day later and found myself in Taranto in the afternoon, where ALAN KURDI was docked at the local port.

Unfortunately our departure was delayed because a heavy storm swept across Italy and caused damage to our ship in the port. On November 21st we finally left the port of Taranto and reached the search and rescue zone off Libya four days later. At that time, the ALAN KURDI was the only rescue ship on site.

In the late morning of November 28th we had our first SAR case, in which we were able to rescue 44 people from an unseaworthy inflatable boat. Among them were 21 women, a toddler only 15 months old, one four and one eight week old newborn baby. In the early evening of the same day we found another inflatable boat with another 40 people.

Barbara aboard ALAN KURDI
Barbara aboard ALAN KURDI

Encountering the eight-week-old girl, little Fatima, touched me very much. When I first got to hold her, I noticed how her skin was irritated by the salty sea water, her tiny, wrinkly legs and arms. She was significantly weaker than the four-week old baby. Her mother informed me that she had been refusing to eat for two days. In the evening, Malta declined to evacuate the girl despite her poor health condition.

So I spent a few hours with the girl the following night. She did not accept the baby milk that I offered her in drops. She didn’t cry and she didn’t sleep. Every now and then she whimpered softly and looked at me with her big, dark and clever eyes as if she had all the knowledge of the world in her. She fell asleep in the morning and I was able to hand her over to the Italian coast guard – she was calm but her skin all ashen. The second newborn, the toddler, the parents and another person who was in poor general condition were evacuated with her.

The following days were characterized by breakdowns and panic attacks by our guests. The spit bags were soon used up and the infusion drips became scarce, even though the on-board hospital was well stocked. Malta either did not respond to our requests for assistance or refused to evacuate. On November 30th, the MRCCs (Maritime Rescue Coordination Centers) in Rome, Malta and Bremen all only referred to each other with regard to responsibility for our distress at sea.

During the early morning hours of December 1st I saw our guests lying on deck, wrapped in blankets in this cold season. Then I got the impression that we are being hidden from Europe. I remembered the search for harborage described in the Bible. Advent songs also came to my mind: “A ship is coming fully loaded (…), it carries an expensive freight” or “Open the door, the gates open wide”. Where were the wide gates?

But when our predominantly young crew members bustled on board to prepare breakfast for our guests, when I heard Adrian address a female guest as “Sister”, when Philipp, the paramedic diagnosed “a broken heart” among one of the men whose body was visibly beaten and whose face indicated a broken soul, all inflicted by the hell that is Libya, or when our guests called me “mom” –  those were the moments I knew I was in the right place at the right time.

The entire crew gave people back their dignity during their days on board the ALAN KURDI. I hope that you will continue to experience dignity and that you will also receive bread in Europe. It took five days after being rescued for these people to be admitted to the port of Messina.

And as for little Fatima – her eyes are still haunting me. I’m happy that, unlike the little Alan after whom our lifeboat is named, we were able to save her life. This year I found the child in the crib early: on November 28th.