22 December 2016
Whilst we were heading on full speed towards Libya, the weather became stormy again. Waves grew bigger and the swell stronger. At this moment we knew of about 3 rubber boats in distress in front of the Libyan coast. It would take around 8 hours to reach these boats with the AQUARIUS. Hopefully still on time, we thought.
“We got new information” said Yohann our coordinator on board in the early afternoon. “Two rubber boats have already been rescued by navy vessels in the area there. But we have to find the third rubber boat. We will arrive there in three hours.”
But already two hours later we spot the white rubber boat. In less than 10 minutes the whole Search and Rescue team is prepped and rescue boat number one is launched. For our smaller rescue bout number 2 the sea is too rough. We have to conduct the rescue operation with only one boat.
We have to use our big search lights to properly see the white rubber boat crowded with people, as it is has been completely dark since half past five in the afternoon. It also started to rain heavily. Suddenly the white rubber boat is extremely close to the AQUARIUS. We can see that there are over one hundred people on it; women, children and men.
As usual the team is handing life vests to the people on board. This takes a while but is an extremely important part of our rescues. After 20 minutes all people on board have a life vest and the first shuttle brings 18 women and 2 children to the AQUARIUS.
The women are completely exhausted. Some fall down on their knees and start to raise their hands up to the sky and pray. Other almost can’t stand on their own feet and fall into the welcoming arms of the rescue team members on board. All are shaking and unfortunately all are smelling of diesel.
Very often the canisters with petrol, mainly diesel, leak or fall and the fuel mixes with water inside the rubber boat. That is extremely dangerous for human skin. Everybody will take a warm shower with a lot of soap once the rescue is complete. While the women and children have a shelter inside the AQUARIUS, the rescued men get a shower outside on deck. They will also stay here overnight.
After less than 2 hours, all 112 are safely on board the AQUARIUS. Our partner MSF provides the medical treatment, but luckily there are no serious medical cases this time. Everybody is exhausted and cold. Some women tell us, that they had been on this small rubber boat for over a day.
Most of the rescued are from Senegal and Ivory Coast. Some from Mali, Nigeria, Gambia and Cameroon. In total we were able to save the lives of 25 females and 87 males from 8 different countries. 32 boys and girls are under the age of 18, the youngest are between 1 and 4. Again, we come across a lot of minors fleeing on their own, we count 24 unaccompanied minors.
Only 45 minutes after the successful completion of the rescue the AQUARIUS is asked to transfer 215 rescued people from the Spanish Navy Ship Navarra. The team has a few minutes’ time to eat. As the Spanish rescue boat is broken we have to use our own rescue boat again to do the transfer.
Finally, we have to stop to disembark people from the navy ship, as the swell and waves are too strong and too high. It is too dangerous and our SAR team has to return after 30 minutes.
It is 22:00 now and everybody is tired. We continue our search for more rubber boats during the night as a number of our guests have told us, that there were a total of 6 rubber boats that left one day ago. As the two navy vessels were able to rescue 3 other rubber boats and one wooden boat, another 2 rubber boats must be missing. Until this morning we were not able to find the missing boats but we continue searching in the Eastern rescue zone in front of Libya.
Text: René Schulthoff
Photo: Kevin McElvaney