At the invitation of SOS MEDITERRANEE author Marie Rajablat is currently reporting about daily life aboard the AQUARIUS, which has saved more than 8,000 refugees in the Mediterranean since last February. Now winter is coming: the AQUARIUS is the only non-governmental rescue ship that will be in operation the entire winter.
“That evening we were due to sail back to Catania to rotate the team members, carry out necessary repairs, refuel the ship and load provisions. No one was really happy to return “empty”, after so many people had been saved the previous days. For the other non-governmental rescue ships the end of the season is approaching, and they, too, do not want to return “empty”, even less so on their last trip of the year. Most of the human rights organisations have to pause their operations for three to four months during winter. It’s not that fewer people would dare the crossing in this harsher weather, but because they lack the funds to continue or also the ships sometimes are not prepared for winter weather. SOS MEDITERRANEE is the only NGO that will patrol this region of the Mediterranean during the upcoming months.
We were just cleaning the life jackets from our last rescue a little half-heartedly, when we received the message: around six hours from our current location the Italian coast guard had just saved 650 persons – the equivalent of around five to six rubber boats – who we were to take on board. The bodies of seven women had been recovered from one of the boats. As it became clear that we would only reach the coast guard’s ship late in the evening, we agreed that the officers of the coast guard would provide the rescued people with food; so they would be able to go straight to sleep once aboard the AQUARIUS. A few hours later and with a calm sea, we transferred the rescued people. Two rubber boats shuttled between the ships carrying around 15 people each time.
Transferring the rescued people between ships is a delicate affair, not only in bad weather. The rescued often have gone through a horrible night on a rubber boat, followed by a day and sometimes another night on board of a merchant-, war- or rescue ship. There, they lie tightly squeezed on the hard floor, often in icy wind and biting cold. They only get freeze dried food, which, especially for young men, isn’t nearly enough. Additionally, the transfers often happen at very short notice, when the people are just starting to relax or go to sleep. Exhausted and traumatised from their journey, they again have to board a boat that resembles the one which almost led them to their death. And in those cases where they have already been able to warm up and dry their clothes, they are again drenched by the waves during the transfer. Panic and exhaustion are also important factors that have to be taken into account during these transfers.
On this night, the starry sky was beautiful – a stark contrast to our situation. As usual Ebenezer, a member of the rescue team on the AQUARIUS, was steering the rubber boat. I sat closely behind him and watched as the people, one after the other, boarded the boat. The first ten sat down starboard, the next ten portside. Ebenezer asked, where they were from. They all came from Ghana, just like himself. He was clearly shaken by these news, which our passengers also noticed. From my position I could see their facial expressions. They looked at him surprised and puzzled. It was as if Ebenezer’s pain, his compassion and his shock turned them into human beings again – something that in the last few weeks and especially in the last days they probably did not feel very often. In Libya their human dignity and right to physical integrity were trampled on. At open sea they lost their last bit of courage. To somehow come out of all this alive, they built walls around themselves and blocked out all feelings.
It took around three hours until everyone was aboard the AQUARIUS, and then another few hours until everyone had found a space on one of the different decks. With 650 people on board everything was more complicated than usual: weight had to be distributed evenly, access to toilets and showers needed to be regulated, provisions distributed, and all this in very cramped conditions. We assigned a guard for each of the decks, someone who took care of people’s needs, calmed them down and ensured order.
It took a long time for everyone to find their spot, make themselves relatively comfortable and fall asleep. The hours at sea, the cold and fear for their lives had taken their toll. The people lay tightly squeezed wrapped in blankets, so close that even the smallest movement created a domino effect throughout the rows. Some were coughing, others had stomach aches and again others were seasick.
In the meantime, the wind had freshened and it got colder and colder. When we started distributing rescue blankets, everyone woke up again. Some people were upset about this. The blankets and some friendly words helped to calm them down enough to fall asleep again. Some of them stayed quiet and did not stir. Who knows what they had had to go through. Finally around midnight everyone was sleeping more or less peacefully.
After a not so restful night, the first people woke up the next morning and shared their stories: Two cousins from Togo, Nasir and Ahmad, spoke about their bad experiences in Libya and showed us scars on their legs and chest. Then they told about the boat crossing “We cast off Monday morning at dawn and quickly lost all orientation. Around eight o’clock we spotted the coast guard’s ship and waved T-shirts to draw attention to us. In our boat were seven women who died. Three other people were in very bad condition, but thank god they were saved. The coast guard was saving people like us from the sea all day long. Tonight, our saviours can go to sleep happy. They have saved many lives.”
Next Osej from Ghana tells me why he had to leave his country: “ I never wanted to leave home. I had my own farm. I was born there, like my father before me. We weren’t particularly rich, but I could feed my family. Every year after the harvest I burned down my field. But this year, the wind blew the fire onto the field of a neighbour. He sued me, and I was sentenced to a fine of 600 Dollars. Because I wasn’t able to pay, I decided to look for work in Libya. Many men from our area go there to work. That way, I wanted to pay for my debts and the education of my children, so that they will have a better life later. But then things turned out differently. In Libya I was taken captive and locked in a basement. They demanded I pay 1,500 Dollars ransom. I didn’t have that much money. And I didn’t know anyone I could have asked for it. Finally I managed to escape from the basement with some others. I had no other choice but to risk the boat crossing. I scraped together 500 Euros, because I couldn’t go back. I never thought I would ever be so far away from my family.”
David had been listening to his fellows in misery. He spoke perfect Oxford-English, and it turned out that he really was an English language teacher. He was wearing his blanket wrapped around his shoulders so elegantly, as if he was wearing a tweed suit. He was Nigerian and confirmed the reports of Nasir, Ahmad and Osej about the cruelty of the Libyan “rebels”. The escape and the abuse that he had been suffering in Sabrata had been so hard on him, that he wasn’t able to stand anymore. He had come to Libya six months ago to teach English at a private school. He was abducted and imprisoned and beaten for several weeks. He was able to escape thanks to just a short moment of distraction between the guards.
As I listen carefully to their gruesome accounts, pregnant women walk past us. Another woman carried Donna on her arm, a little girl, just four weeks old. The day passed, while some recounted and others listened. Then the evening came and another night. In the morning, all these people stepped onto European soil for the first time.”
The portrayal is based on the subjective experiences of the author.
Text: Marie Rajablat
Translation: Ulrike Werner
Photos: Susanne Friedel