It is early Monday morning. The first watch started at 5 o’clock. The sea is calm and around 6.30 the sun is slowly rising. Only a few minutes later the calmness of the sunrise is changing into hectic activity on board the AQUARIUS.
Around 6:40 one of the team members on the bridge spots a grey dot on the horizon. It is a rubber boat, a big one and a lot of people are on it. Right now, we cannot tell how many are on the boat exactly, but the procedure is always the same. Alert.
Most of the team members of MSF and SOS MEDITERRANEE are still asleep, but it takes only a few minutes for everybody to get dressed and equipped for the upcoming rescue operation. And we have to be fast.
It takes about 20 minutes to reach the dot, 25 miles north off the coast of Libya. The rubber boat seems to be in good condition but it is completely overcrowded with women, children and men. After another 30 minutes, our speed boats reach the boat in distress. The first team are gaining a general overview; 25 women and 8 children are on board, nobody seems to be injured. The rescue operation starts. It is the first one for the new search and rescue team on board the AQUARIUS.
The women and children are taken in first. The children are young, between one and eleven years. They are put up in a shelter prepared by Médecins Sans Frontièrs designated for women and children.
The rescue operation takes 2 hours; 8 shuttles with 18 women and men on board each our rescue boats. At 9:30 all 142 people are safe aboard the AQUARIUS. They are from 10 different African countries; the majority from Ivory Coast, Mali and Guinea Conacry.
“You are welcoming us in peace, with kindness and warmth” says one of the young men, after he is given a package with food, water, blanket and clothes by our team. “Before we were only welcomed with brutality. I thank you so much.”
While the men find their place somewhere on the deck of the AQUARIUS, women and children are preparing their places in the shelter. It takes only half an hour and our 8 youngest guests on board have won the hearts of all team members. Almost everybody is playing with the children, joking, giving them a smile, handing over a teddy bear and getting a bright smile in return.
It is noon already and the AQUARIUS is still sailing in the Eastern part of the Mediterranean, in front of the Libyan coast when the Coordination Center in Rome contacts us. We are asked to head West, as a rescue operation is ongoing and they need the support of the AQUARIUS. It is not clear yet how we have to assist but several other private rescue vessels have also rescued several hundred people from distress at sea.
Our new SAR team members had their first rescue operation. Edouard from France is one of them. He was working as a fisherman before and has experience working with disabled children while running summer projects. He will be staying on board for six weeks.
“I am here because I want to help. I am really convinced by the idea of this organisation and the work we do here. It is simply good and I want to support this. Nobody deserves to get lost on the sea and nobody is there to help. We are here and we do an extremely important job.”
Text: René Schulthoff
PHOTO CREDITS: Marco Panzetti / SOS MEDITERRANEE