276 people rescued by the Ocean Viking in the Central Mediterranean have been safely disembarked in Italy on February 23. The 14-day quarantine of the vessel and her crew as a preventive measure taken by the Italian authorities that day was lifted on March 8. During these days of confinement, Laurence Bondard, SOS MEDITERRANEE’s communications officer on board, recalls conversations she has had with survivors onboard a few days earlier.
February 26th, 2020 aboard the Ocean Viking
“I can’t stop thinking about the survivors we had onboard only a few days ago. Their traumas, their terrible stories of torture, extortion, prison, sexual violence, escapes… Their smiles also. Their amazing resilience, strength, kindness and their empowering gratefulness.
While we were waiting for a Place of Safety where they would all be authorised to disembark, not a day would go by without people asking me for a way to charge their phone and call their loved ones. Some of them had not spoken to their parents in years. They didn’t know where they were or even if they were alive. And the other way around.
I can’t stop thinking about Yussif (name was changed), a 17-year-old boy whose eyes were wide open to life. He was sitting next to me on one of our fast rescue boats just after being evacuated from the rubber boat he dramatically overpaid to try and reach an unreachable destination in such dangerous conditions. He was “terrified” then, as I could see and as he would tell me later. I tried to look into his eyes several times, hoping he could be somehow reassured by my calm. I was ready to smile and show him that we were not going to hurt him. That being treated as a “slave” was not going to happen with us. But he “was too scared to look at [us]”, he explained two days later. He didn’t know who we were and “learned to distrust strangers.
I can’t stop thinking of the women and their babies. This woman that told me how in a Libyan detention centre, she witnessed several men digging a hole, putting a small baby in it and covering him with sand until most of his face disappeared before handling him back to his mother. She said they wanted to make sure her and all the women around would understand how cruel they were.
I can’t stop asking myself: will people drown without any witnesses during this time, with no rescue ships in the area? On February 9, a boat has been reported missing off Libya with 91 people onboard. In the past 24 hours, about 340 people were reported by the International Organisation for Migration (IOM) to have been intercepted by Libyan Coast Guard and forcibly returned to what all rescued people we speak to describe as “the Libyan hell”.
The Central Mediterranean is the deadliest sea migration route in the world. It has been completely emptied of the European Union Sophia mission naval assets. Boats full of human beings could capsize, break or disappear without witnesses every day, every minute, every second. This could happen anytime, even when we are operating at sea. Being on board during this quarantine, one has to find productive activities to work in order to avoid thinking too much, it is a challenge.”
Text: Laurence Bondard
Photo credits: Julia Schaefermeyer / SOS MEDITERRANEE