Men, women and children step aboard the Aquarius after having been rescued by a group of well-trained Search and Rescue professionals.
As soon as they step on deck, many of them start to cry out of relief. They hug one another as well as the rescuers. They are grateful for being alive. Exhausted by the desperate journey that led them here, they often fall asleep.
Most of them arrive with no belongings and barefoot. Some wear slippers and a t-shirt, others have a backpack, very few carry a suitcase. That’s all they have, a small piece of the life they left behind.
The ship is a bridge between their past life and what is yet to come. It is a passage between death and life.
They come from many countries, speak different languages and dialects, have their roots in different cultures, but they all have one thing in common: they are fleeing violence, persecution, extreme poverty, slavery, conflict. First in their countries of origin and then in Libya, where they had hoped to find a better life. All of them have ended up there, no one has ever had the chance to go back, and all were rescued in the Mediterranean; their only way out from one of the world’s most dangerous places.
All of them say they had no choice. “Libya was hell. We would rather flee in the hope of surviving at sea“. With fear in their bones, they decided to embark on the journey across the sea.
Thousands of men, women and children are part of an unstoppable flow. It is impossible to know how many people sail on a dinghy or a wooden boat, just as it is impossible to know the number of deaths at sea. European policies aimed at strengthening border controls and rejecting migrants have not achieved any real results in preventing people from departing.
How many times have we been asked: “Why don’t they stay in their countries? Why don’t you just help them live there?” The answer is simple, but it still goes unheard.
A Syrian woman, saved in one of the recent rescues, carried her two children in her arms. She looked at me and asked: “Would you live in a place where they kidnap your children for ransom, where they snatch them out of your arms, where you are forced to work without being paid, where women are subject to sexual violence and no one reacts for fear of being killed, where girls are forced into prostitution, where they would shoot someone on the street just to take a pair of shoes, and where people disappear or are detained for an indefinite period, even without eating? Tell me, what would you do in my place?”
Your mind slows down and you realize that you are facing a level of suffering you can’t really comprehend, it’s too overwhelming. The only thing you can possibly do is listening to their stories. Every single word screams death, injustice, violence, pain, fear, suffering and tragedy. And you have to listen to them one by one.
Every testimony they share with us is both individual and collective.
The accounts of pain endured by people crossing the desert, the violence they experience as victims in Libyan detention centres and their life-threatening journeys across the Mediterranean should not be ignored. On the contrary, they should work as a warning against our own lack of humanity.
People we meet on the Aquarius are first-hand witnesses of these atrocities. Our duty is to ensure that they did not suffer in vain. This is why, along with carrying out search and rescue operations, SOS MEDITERRANEE collects the stories of people on board and raises awareness of their plights.
When we welcome people on board after a rescue, their dignity is restored. They are treated like human beings again, for the first time after a long time and they are comforted. The Aquarius is just a passage, a breath of fresh air, a helping hand. It is the beginning of a new life.
Photo credits: Narciso Contreras / SOS MEDITERRANEE