January 23, 2021
Between January 21st at 8:30 am and January 22nd at 10 pm, the Ocean Viking carried out three rescue operations. On four boats in distress. By day. At sunrise. And at sunset. And at night. Welcoming 374 survivors. Men. And women. And children. Babies. And two pregnant women. Madness.
I don’t know when it all started. What a day. How many days. How many nights. Nights that turn into days. Meals, usually marking time on board the ship, that were missed. How many people. How many women. How many children. Babies. I can’t remember. Things are overflowing. Like emotions. The joy. Sadness. Distress. Stories. The images. Hundreds of them. Thousands of images. Moments. Seconds. Essential. Historical for everyone. These passages from hell to hope. Hundreds of them. From one boat to another. Eyes staring at me. Staring at me. Happy. Empty. Arms calling out. Hands reaching out. Bodies suspended. They can’t wait any longer. Throwing themselves into the sea towards us. Collapsing on the rescue boat. On the deck of the Ocean Viking. In front of me. Clinging to my arm. Falling against me. Soaked bodies. Bones. Muscles. Smells of fuel oil. Of sweat. Of fear. Of joy. Undressed. Mountains of clothes. Everywhere. Mountains of orange life jackets. Saved. Children screaming. Running. Playing. I can’t remember. Each of these moments is engraved. Each of these moments is unique. Historical. Each of these lives has been turned upside down. Without drowning. Three rescues in forty-eight hours. Four boats. 370 people are announced. The figures say nothing. A single story is a victory. This is a tidal wave. What lives? What stories? What journeys? Words keep coming back. Libya. Libya. Libya. Libya is over. The torture. Prison. Rape. Hell. Hell. Hell. Thank you. Thank you. We prayed a lot. Our friends are dead. They’re gone. We don’t know. Several attempts. Once. Twice. Three times. Pay again. Torture. Family. Months. Years of hope.
My fingers tried to hold back all this flow. To hold my pencil to write it down. To press the shutter of my Leica. To draw the moment. To stop the story in progress in front of me. To capture freedom. To stop the emotion.
My hands were catching. Holding. Comforting. Helped. All of them as a whole. The rest was meaningless.
8:00 in the morning. Yesterday. A boat in distress at daybreak. Lots of children. A baby is rising. A one-month-old girl. A man reaching for the sky. Towards us. She passes over the water. Between two boats. Between two worlds. Towards Tanguy and Mimi. Towards Hassan who holds her in one hand. Towards the sky. Towards me. I am alone at the bottom of the boat with Rocco, the pilot. His hands are taken by the manoeuvre. To keep this bridge between two banks. At a good distance. My hands will be her pram. My arms her cradle. This little body. This face surrounded by a life jacket too big for her. Drawing an orange halo around her. Other children cross the RHIB platform. One after the other. I only have one hand to hold the baby. Another to catch the new survivors. To place them. Sitting them down. My eyes and my voice to reassure them. Trying to calm their cries. Their tears. Their distress. Their fear. The flow of children doesn’t seem to stop anymore. We must find a place for them. In the centre of the boat. Sitting. Away from the edges. Order the older children to hold the younger ones. I can’t count them anymore. The numbers don’t make sense. I want to hold them all in my arms. But this is not where the emergency lies. I look at the baby snuggled up against me. She’s the only calm one on the boat. She comforts me. Tears well up inside me. The water flows through my eyes. I have to hold on. To hold her. My sadness is nothing. Their distress is infinite. For once I can’t hide behind a camera or a pencil. There are no more filters. The light dazzles me and burns my eyes. Every second is an hour. Once all the children are on board, the life jackets must be distributed to the adults on board the boat in distress. A tragedy can happen at any time. Everyone must be made safe. The men. The women. Mothers. Who stayed on the other side. Our boat moves away a little to calm the survivors. Not all of them will be able to go up at once. We only have twenty “seats” on board. There are several dozens of people. Disembarkation will take place as we go along. We will have to be patient. The baby cries as we move away.
It is crying for its mother. Another one is vomiting next to me overboard. My hand is holding him back from going overboard along with his guts. The pain comes out as best it can. The little girl screams louder. The boat is moving. My hand, my arm are holding her harder. Hunger. The other children cling to my fingers. Comfort. The tip of my finger dries the baby’s tears. Caresses her face. Finds her mouth open from hunger. Daddy’s reflex. She sucks on my finger. Soothing. Eyes opening. Tears flowing. We reassure each other. My hands have never been so useful. A piece of skin. Touching mine. At the end of a body. A story. Two stories. A bridge. A link. Deeply human.
On board, the bodies pile up under the covers. Countless. I draw them. One by one. Imagining every story lived within them. We spot a dot on the horizon. A boat in distress is in front of us. On the verge of sinking. All will be safe and sound four hours later. I am on the rescue boat. With Tanguy, Mimi, Hassan and Rocco. Plunged into the dark night. The Ocean Viking still lights up the sea emptied of the shipwrecked, now safe onboard. We had not come across a bird until then. Suddenly hundreds of seagulls flew away and circled around the ship. White gleams in the half-light. In a ballet of rare beauty. My fingers can’t count them. I’ve never seen anything so beautiful.
Caartoonist Hippolyte, on board the Ocean Viking
Drawing by Hippolyte