As a child (and still today) I loved Christmas. The atmosphere, the scents, spending time with family, the presents. But what I remember most are the hours before exchanging presents (which in Germany is on the evening of the 24th). While my parents prepared the room for Christmas (decorating the tree, setting up food, presents, etc) my brother and I had to wait outside. Only when my father rang the Christmas bell we were allowed into the room. We always knew what to expect, but nonetheless the last few hours before getting our presents were always very tense, full of anticipation and anxious expectation.
This Christmas the tension was a different one. After around a month on board, I have been part of 9 of SOS MEDITERRANEE’s rescue operations. We have saved more than 1.000 people from distress at sea, off the coast of Libya. What’s particularly nerve-racking though are not the operations. Of course, they are exhausting and require, besides full physical commitment, also maximum concentration. In the long run though, the hours before the rescue are at least equally exhausting. Anxious expectation of what is to come. Smells of previous rescues enter my nostrils. A mix of petrol, sweat, vomit, urine and other excrements. The feel of icy cold hands and bodies that we pull and push onto our Aquarius. And not least the desperate faces, a last glimmer of hope in their eyes.
The hours of waiting, which in the worst case can stretch into days, are cruel. All the memories of previous operations come to mind. The faces of the dead and the rescued. I seem to sense the smells again, feel the hands on my skin. What will expect us in our next operation? What will the weather be like, will the waves be as high as last time? How long will the refugees have been at sea before we reach them? Will we find them on time? Hundreds of questions and thousands of thoughts haunt my mind in these hours, and there is nothing I can do. Check my equipment for the tenth time, discuss our last operation with my colleagues for the fifth time; possible improvements? Wait. Wait and hope that we will, once again, be on the scene before it’s too late. Because we are their last hope.
Last night during mess we watched a BBC documentary on human trafficking and smugglers in Libya. Journalist Ross Kemp fights his way through a country torn apart by civil war, in which countless militias fight for power. Caught in between are thousands of refugees, traded as modern slaves, without any regard for their human rights. They work for months, many even for years, in completely inhumane conditions. Men are mistreated and beaten, women raped and forced into prostitution. Many already die on their journey across the Sahara, others face an endless ordeal in Libya before, and only with lots of luck, they are finally allowed to board the entirely unseaworthy rubber boats.
It is highly impressive that they still have this glimmer of hope and will to survive. But even if I can’t change the situation in Libya at the moment, at least here at sea I can save the lives of those that were so lucky to make it to the beaches of Libya, to at last attempt this perilous journey across the Mediterranean Sea.
And yet on the Aquarius we have no alternative but to wait. Wait, and think about this gruesome reality, that is so foreign to many at home. Until it’s time for the next operation.
Text: Andreas Pohl
Übersetzung: Ulrike Werner