Tobias, the hero – experiences of a rescuer

Markt Schwaben, Germany. Rescue assistant Tobias Vorburg from Markt Schwaben, Germany, spent two weeks on the Mediterranean Sea in order to rescue refugees. This is how he fared and what he went through.

Certain dramatic scenes are well known from German news and print media. Those film and photo shots of very overcrowded rubber or wooden boats with refugees from Africa, somewhere in the Mediterranean Sea, between the African continent and the continent which the refugees consider something of a promised land, Europe. Tobias Vorburg often has seen these images on screen and in newspapers. And he decided not to passively accept that this year again thousands would lose their lives during their flight.

On 21 June, Vorburg stepped onto a plane to Malta. And on 24 July, he set off southwards, until he almost reached the 12-mile-zone off the Libyan coast. Somewhere between the capital Tripolis and the city of Sabrata. It is from this coastal strip that people smugglers send off the usually not sea-worthy and very overcrowded refugee boats towards the North. It is said that this year even more boats are leaving than in 2015.

Vorburg had applied to work as a volunteer on the “Sea-Eye”. A trained rescue assistant, he wanted to contribute through his medical skills to the organisation’s efforts to save as many refugees as possible from certain death. He did not have to wait long. He got to see plenty of refugee boats during the days of his voluntary service. The preceding crew had had to deal with winds blowing from the North. That meant that boats leaving Libya had a hard time moving against the wind and often did not manage to leave the 12-mile-zone. “A lot of boats had accumulated”, says the young father of a 3-year-old daughter. And indeed: already during the first day, the Sea-Eye got into contact with nine boats, with about 700 to 750 Africans from Togo, Senegal, Nigeria, Gambia and Ethiopia. “All ages, from babies to adults,” Vorburg explains.

The 26-year-old tells of encounters at sea which seemed almost surreal to him. In the Sea-Eye’s dinghy the rescuers approached boats that sometimes were already damaged, in order to provide life vests and water. And to inform on when and where a larger rescue ship would approach. The Sea-Eye is a refurbished fishing cutter and not suitable for taking refugees on board; it is only able to secure the boats and provide first aid in emergencies. The ships that took the refugees on board were mainly Italian navy ships, Vorburg explains. Most boat refugees are affected by dehydration, hypothermia or overheating. Often there are burns and acid burns due to contact with petrol, urine and sea water. The photo shots taken from the Sea-Eye seemed to him like scenes from a war, he says. The navy destroys the empty boats immediately by burning them. Fishing cutters are watching from the distance. Probably occupied by the people smugglers on whom Europe has declared war.

Vorburg does not even wish to accuse the people smugglers too harshly. He says that they offer the refugees the only way to reach the desired land, Europe.

Many refugees already look back on unimaginable horrors during their crossing of the Sahara, which has long since turned into a mass grave. Or prison and torture in Libya. He summarizes: “Those who arrive here have gone through an incredible odyssey, which no one here can imagine.” And when they are here, the odyssey is not over. Mass accommodations and endless bureaucracy have to be faced.

Vorburg, who is active in the ‘Markt Schwaben Active Circle for Refugees’ and is a district councillor of the Green Party, clearly states after his experiences in the Mediterranean Sea, “I want to do everything to give these people the feeling that they have arrived.”

Vorburg himself was bid a nice welcome last weekend at Munich airport. To his great surprise, ‘his’ group of asylum seekers had come from Markt Schwaben to celebrate Tobias, their hero. And to call him a hero is hardly exaggerated. During the two weeks he spent between Malta and Libya, Tobia Vorburg participated in the rescue of about 1,050 people.