How much the Aquarius has changed. Exactly a year and a half ago I saw her for the first time. In the icy January drizzle in Sassnitz on Ruegen. A robust ship, yet inhospitable.
Back then the space, which today is the so-called “shelter” – a retreat and safe space for the rescued women and children – was a bare room. Blue linoleum, grey server cabinets and meter-long tables, indicators of the Aquarius’s past life as a research vessel. The fact that this place could fill up with life, that people would tell their stories here, children could be playing around in safety, was unimaginable to me.
Today, one-and-a-half years later, I am sitting in the shelter on my knees playing with two small children. Around me women from Ethiopia, Mali, the Ivory Coast and Morocco are sleeping. The walls are covered with children’s drawings. They show the Aquarius, the sea, sinking
boats, children playing. They are souvenirs of the almost 300 children who have sat and played on the blue linoleum floor of the Aquarius. Alongside the colourful children’s pictures are small white papers. In English, French and Arabic, they explain that women who have been victims of sexual violence during their flight can turn to our teams. They also provide the IOM’s emergency number for victims of human trafficking.
The people on board have shaped the Aquarius. Over the past year and a half, we have welcomed over 21,000 people on board. On the white steel above deck and everywhere else where there is space, people have slept and recovered.
They have filled the Aquarius, this functional place, with life. Sometimes with grief, like on the day when we recovered 21 young women and a man dead from a rubber dinghy. Or when our MSF medical team tried to revive a young woman on deck in vain. And her friend, with whom she had travelled, began to scream with pain. The mourning hung over the Aquarius like a veil. Most of the time, however, it is infectious hope. Hope for what is to come.
At first glance, for most, the Aquarius is still a traditional ship: bare, functional, uncomfortable. On closer inspection, however, you can discover the stories of the people who have been working here for a year-and-a-half. As well as the stories of the people we have been welcoming on board. It is possible to imagine, to a small extent, what it means to cross the Mediterranean. The pictures in the shelter and the infant life vests on deck reveal that parents attempt the dangerous crossing with their children, sometimes babies.
The information signs in the shelter reveal that women are often victims of sexual violence during their flight. The emergency kit and the defibrillator in the clinic reveal that we are in a crisis situation. That people die in the Mediterranean. That some of them fight for survival here on board. That some have made it. And that others have lost the fight.
At dawn and after a long day of distributing food, watching the shelter, the bridge, serving tea, and being on night watch, I finally go to sleep in my cabin. Beneath my window I can hear the murmurs of those who have been saved, who are now trying to find sleep on deck. At this moment I feel safest here, on the Aquarius.
Text: Jana Ciernioch
Jana works in the office of SOS MEDITERRANEE Germany e.V. In June, she has spent three weeks aboard the Aquarius and reported about her impressions.