The Aquarius is in the dry dock. After more than a year of continuous operations some repairs and checks are necessary.
Two weeks have passed since we first arrived in Salerno, Italy after having travelled for two and a half days with over 1004 guests. After the rescued had all left the ship, we had to carry countless garbage bags off board, scrub the ship and took care of what, for days, we had had no time for: washed our laundry, slept and had a debrief on the rescue and the days we spent with the refugees.
And I wonder what will be. We have just completed an operation during which the Libyan Coast Guard acted in an unprofessional and dangerous fashion. We have had to rescue more people than ever before. Where the most help was needed, the least was available. We have observed that the ships of the European Union are participating less and less frequently in any rescue operations and that civic organizations like us are saving more and more people in increasingly longer and longer lasting operations. People, who, at least since the Malta Summit earlier this year, the European Union wants to officially prevent from leaving Libya to come to Europe. We are exclusively financed through donations from civil society, while at the same time the European Union is supporting the expansion of the Libyan Coast Guard with millions. The Coast Guard is supposed to intercept the refugees and bring them back to the reception centers in Libya. The EU finances a Coast Guard, that disguised itself during our last operation, opened fire and dragged a wooden boat back into Libyan waters. People are not supposed to get to Europe and the European Union is paying this Coast Guard to be its bouncer. It pays a state that does not exist, it finances a Coast Guard that is partly run by militia. The EU relies on the “Government of National Accord,” but this government is not recognized, has never been elected. Instead, the country is governed by militia groups and the terrorist organization Islamic State.
The people that were dragged back to Libya in the wooden boat did not drown, but they are likely to return to exactly the same camps from which they once fled. Officially, they are brought into special camps run by the UN-backed unity government, as planned by the Malta Agreement for all of Libya. In these camps, people do not even have the space to lie down, there are no sanitary facilities, people are crowded together in their own faeces, like animals. Women are raped, the prisoners forced to work in inhumane conditions, because without money they have no way of escaping the camps.
Those who are brought back there will try again, because you cannot stay in Libya. Again and again we hear that people would rather die at sea than to stay there. They will try again to flee across the Mediterranean in sea-unworthy boats. I spoke to some that were rescued, who had tried three, four, maybe five times, until they finally managed to escape from one of the camps. We have to try and imagine these places, because we have heard so much about them. I try to imagine it, but I simply cannot. So often we say that something is unimaginable. In this case it is the truth. And in between the imaginable Europe and the unimaginable Libya lies the Mediterranean. The fact that it all comes down to luck, that we are born on one side of the world, which does not make us less or more deserving, seems to be a very distant thought for many. And worse conditions for people in these camps in Libya, give the militia more leverage with the EU. It’s cynical.
Iam from Gambia fled four times from a Libyan camp before he made it onto a dinghy. He is 17 and is on his own. At 17, I was getting my driver’s license, cutting holes in my jeans and thought about the next party. At 17, Iam is alone aboard the Aquarius. I noticed him on the day of the rescue, whilst standing on the stairs by the upper deck, making sure that not too many people ran to the toilets uncontrollably. Iam helped me, by explaining to the others, where urinals could be found on the upper deck, and that one should climb down the stairs facing backwards, instead of forwards. With a smile, arms folded and the towel, which is part of the rescue kit, tied around his head. Among the 1004 rescued, he is one of the ones who has stayed on my mind. I was happy when I met him the next day at the food distribution. He asked me if I had already eaten. The question moved me and I found it strange. But why? Perhaps because this place, the Aquarius, is a place where we are the ones who take care of others, not the other way around. But Iam was right. For if he had the all that we have at his disposal, he would, of course, be able to take care of himself. But he only had what he was wearing, plus the few things that are in the rescue kits we distribute. Yet people like Iam are anything but helpless creatures. They need our help in these moments, but they are people with ability to make decisions and in no way any less wise than we are. We Europeans.
I asked him if he would tell me a little about himself later that evening once we were finished, and he agreed. I asked him to find me on deck, which he did. Later that day, he stood in front of me in his blue tracksuit with his towel around his head. Not a single quiet corner could be found on the ship, so we just sat next to a group that was playimg cards. He told me that his father was dead. His mother and his three younger siblings live in Gambia. A friend had told him that he could make money in Libya, which is why he made his way there. There he met a man whose house he was to paint, and the salary was to be paid as soon as he had finished. The house has been finished, the reward for it has never been seen. So he paid his way with other jobs, he spent four months in Libya, three of them in one of the camps. To this one you are randomly taken as a black man in Libya. This, one can not imagined. The extent of arbitrary rule in Libya. Just because. Iam asks me a lot. At some point, it feels that he would rather listen to my story than tell his. So I tell him. About Berlin, about the Aquarius, about my family and friends. At some point it gets late and our guests begin to wrap themselves in their blankets. Iam has to find a sleeping place for the night.
Just like everything else, he did so with a smile on his face. Where he got this strength, I do not know. The next day he will disembark with the others.
When I shake hands with him, I felt uncertainty in his eyes. Who could be more uncertain than those who enter Europe with nothing? Than those who have lived through hell in Libya!? And we argue what to do, where to put people like Iam?
Instead, why are we not asking ourselves why there is not more outrage at what is happening in front of the European borders, in Libya, contributed to and financed by the European Union?
We’re talking about Europe. What the European Union is doing here is not my Europe. The Europe I and SOS MEDITERRANEE believe in, is a Europe that puts its humanitarian values into practice. A Europe that lends a helping hand to people like Iam. Whatever the challenges for our society may be.
Text: Verena Papke
Verena is part of the communications team of SOS MEDITERRANEE Germany. She joined the organization in the very beginning, when there was no rescue vessel. Verena stayed on board the Aquarius for three weeks in May and shared her impressions in a diary.