“It is insane. 170 people on a rubber boat yesterday was something we never experienced before. But 720 people on one small wooden boat is even worse”
It is 5 o’clock Monday morning. Darkness everywhere on the Mediterranean Sea, 25 miles North of Sabratah in Libya. My sleep ended when my subconscious became aware a loader sound of the AQUARIUS’s engine. Two minutes later the knocks on my cabin door confirmed what I was expecting: our next rescue.
20 minutes earlier the crew of our ship had spotted a small dot on the radar. The regular eye does not see anything at this time on the open water – there is only deep black and the sound of waves. The dot is most probably a boat; not a rubber boat but more likely a wooden boat. I takes less than ten minutes and the SOS MEDITERRANE Search and Rescue team is equipped, the rescue boats are ready to be launched.
The big powerful searchlights of the AQUARIUS cut their way through the morning darkness. Sunrise is hours away. Some miles away the two searchlights settle on a white object. As we get closer we can clearly discern that it is a wooden boat. Not white but painted in blue. Maybe 20 meters long, or let’s say small.
It is an extremely scary and dangerous situation. Rubber boats are fragile and almost always completely overloaded. But wooden boats are even worse. They are overcrowded and the biggest danger is that they can capsize if people on board move too much or start to panic.
Our small rescue boats reach the wooden boat at around 5.30. We find hundreds of people on the deck, nobody is wearing a life vest. It is difficult to figure out how many children, women and men are really on board – as most people under deck.
At the same time another boat is spotted, a rubber boat. Fortunately, our colleagues from Seewatch2 and the Astral of Proactiva Open Arms are not too far away and can take care of the rubber boat. The AQUARIUS is concentrating on this wooden boat.
After handing out several hundreds of life vests we begin rescuing 20 women and children. Nobody knows how many people are on board. And those on board the wooden boat cannot stop the engine, nobody has told them how to. It is a complicated and not easy rescue of this packed wooden boat, in the darkness of this Monday morning.
One of Astral’s small rescue boats supports us. Again and again the two RHIBs are shuttling people after people, women and children, followed by men and young boys. It takes hours and hours. At 9 o’clock we have rescued more than 500 people already and brought them to safety aboard the AQUARIUS – but the rescue is still ongoing.
“We have asked the people on board the wooden boat to count how many people are still on board. It seems there are still some on the lower decks” says Antoine, the driver of one of our rescue boats. “They say there are still 200 on board”. We cannot believe this figure, it means there are more than 700 people on board this simple wooden boat.
The weather works in our favour this morning. The waves are low and the wind light. It takes another two and a half hours to rescue everybody. Once again, it was a successful cooperation at sea with one of our colleagues also saving lives in the Mediterranean. Just the day before we had worked with the MOAS vessel TOPAZ RESPONDER to save 167 people off a totally overcrowded rubber boat.
This morning the teams of SOS MEDITERRANEE and Proactiva Open Arms are working hand in hand. In the end we rescued 720 humans in a six hour rescue operation. Nobody is injured but a lot are weak and tired. 191 women and 529 men were on board. 198 are under 18 years, 9 under 5 years. 10 women are pregnant.
“It is insane. 170 people on a rubber boat yesterday was something we never experienced before. But 720 people on one small wooden boat is even worse” says our coordinator Yohann. “It is the 30th rescue of SOS MEDITERRANEE and never before have we rescued so many people at once. We are somehow shocked but also relieved that everything went so well. This was not an easy rescue and we are glad that all are safe on board the AQUARIUS. Our partner Medécins Sans Frontier will take care of everyone now.”
The wooden boat left Libya during the night. “It was around midnight” one man from Eritrea tells me. “We left the coast somewhere near Sabratah. The people had to sit very close to each other and beneath the deck. You would not be able to sit there” he says to me. “We have paid 2200 Dollar, only to travel on that boat.”
Most of the rescued people are from Eritrea (683), Somalia (22) Ethiopia, Chad, Egypt, Palestine and Sudan. And again we listen to unbelievable terrible stories about their treatment in Libya.
The AQUARIUS is on its way to the North. Somewhere in Italy we will disembark our 720 children, women and men. Two nights and days they will stay on board the AQUARIUS and we will try to support everyone as best as we can.
Text: René Schulthoff
Photo Credits: Fabian Mondl/ SOS MEDITERRANEE