My three-week rotation aboard the Aquarius has come to an end. On our last day in the Search and Rescue (SAR)-zone, Tuesday the 15th, we were instructed by the MRCC Rome to transfer 112 people who had been rescued earlier that day by another NGO vessel and to bring them to safety in Italy. The rendezvous of our two vessels was arranged for 8 pm. The transfer went smoothly and was completed within an hour and a half. It had been a long day for everyone and people settled in for the night. Except for one man who was too afraid to close his eyes, too afraid to drift into sleep, as in the past this had meant violence and abuse.
The next day everyone mixed and mingled on board, paper was distributed for those interested in drawing, a group of young men made a checkers board out of cardboard and sat in the shade for hours, playing their game. A group of people assembled around a small set of drums we have on board and soon after everyone was dancing in a circle.
Most of my day was spent on deck, meeting people, distributing food, making sure everyone was feeling ok. I learnt about French literature, Bangladeshi traditional dance, Sudanese tribes, football strategies, life in refugee camps and life in Libya.
Even though I have spent a lot of time reading about Libya and analysing the testimonies we collect on board, it is never easy to hear these accounts first hand. To look at the pictures of weapons and death drawn by children. To be shown physical signs of torture, to see the tears of a mother when she tells you about her journey. To look at the photos of a teenager, from just a year ago, before her village was overrun by militia.
The transferees on board came from everywhere, yet they were united in one thing: their accounts of Libya. No matter where people came from, no matter how much time they had spent in Libya, a very clear picture emerged: a picture of uncontrollable violence. A picture of random abductions, detention, ransoms to be paid. A picture of instability and fear.
As we approached Italy, everyone was leaning on the sides of the boat, staring onto the great unknown. As we got to Italy and moored in the harbour to disembark, our team lined up to bid farewell. One last handshake, one last ‘goodbye and good luck.’ I hugged one of the mothers during her tearful goodbye. Tears of gratitude? Maybe. Tears of fear? Certainly. It is never easy to say goodbye, but it was especially hard to send people into the unknown all the while knowing that their journey is long from over, worrying whether they will be given protection, whether they will be able to stay in Europe, whether they will be reunited with their families.
Just 36 hours after waving goodbye to the last of the 112 rescued people, it was time for me to bid goodbye as well. I have been fortunate to spend three weeks in the company of great people; hard-working, dedicated and kind people. As I have said, it is never easy to say goodbye, but whilst I am sad to have parted ways, my departure was not marked by uncertainty or fear. I did not set off into the great unknown. Instead, I am returning home. My home is a safe place. If the past three weeks have taught me anything, it is that this feeling is not something one can take for granted. It is something that many people may not have experienced for months, years or ever. It is the reason that people leave all they have ever known behind, it is the reason people are willing to cross deserts and oceans. It is the reason that people are too afraid to sleep.
The Aquarius is a place of safety, even if just for a little while. The fact that the man who first could not and would not fall asleep eventually drifted off into sleep, is a testimony to that.
Lea is part of the communications team of SOS MEDITERRANEE. She joined the organization in the very beginning, when there was no rescue vessel. Lea stayed on board the Aquarius for three weeks in August and shared her impressions in a diary.