Stéphane was the Aquarius for 9 weeks. Mathilde, our communication officer wrote this small portait about him and describes him as a navigator by profession, rescuer at sea by passion.
„As a rescuer at sea you’ve got to have a big heart,“ which Stéphane Broch has plenty of, even though it is a little hidden underneath a tough outer shell, a sailor’s beard and dark glasses. The young Breton has been aboard the AQUARIUS for a month and a half now and has saved hundreds of people from drowning in the Mediterranean Sea. His mission is coming to an end and he’s looking forward to going back home, to Finistère, for a while and then to going back to sea to work, “I want to be able to look at the sea, without thinking about this human tragedy and the fates of the refugees,” he says one evening.
Long and unusual missions are part of the 33-year old’s everyday work. 2013 he volunteered to work as a mechanic for the Dumont D’Urville, a French station in the Antarctic for 14 months. Before he joined the AQUARIUS, he was with the merchant navy in New Caledonia. Even then he was committed to helping others, “I have never worked for an NGO before, but due to my work with people with disabilities, I had experience in the social field. On top of that I accompanied criminal minors aboard the ships of Pater Jaouen, to help them re-integrate into society”, he tells in his modest manner.
Certainly he had heard of the so-called refugee crisis over the past few years, but only after reading a book about the Irish wave of emigration to Quebec during the “Great Famine,” he took more interest in the current trends and became aware of the dimension of the tragedy on Europe’s doorstep, “I realized that migrants that want to get to another continent, always have to take pass across an ocean. Conditions of travel and admissibility have changed since back then, but reality is still as difficult and sad as ever. We can’t let that be!” He discovered the newly founded organization SOS MEDITERRANEE and applied for our search and rescue team, “At that point I had had enough of my work with the merchant navy. In this industry you tend to forget about human aspects, you’re completely isolated from the rest of the world. People are secondary in this field. Also, I needed a change of scenery”, he explains.
And so, just a couple of months later, he started aboard of the AQUARIUS. He first begins working on deck, then on the rescue boat number 2, the speedboat that is first to approach boats in distress: “I recall my first rescue mission at sea. Us seamen are trained in safety at sea. And then, seeing people being sent off on these rubber boats onto the open sea, violating each and every kind of safety regulation, hundreds of them, crowded together and without life vests, you start asking yourself how that can be and who could do something like that. Sending people off to a certain death! That’s more than just criminal! Rubber boats like that will never it! It’s inhumane to send people off like that,” he says appalled. During the rescue missions he is focused and serious, no emotions allowed. One has to be fast, especially if a presumed routine operation escalates. That is what happened on 4 November2016, when 80 suffered burns from a gas leak, panicked and jumped into the ocean. A nightmare for the rescue team. In situations like these there is no room for feelings. Every minute, every second counts: dozens of life vests had to be thrown into the water as fast as possible, everything that could float was thrown in the water. People had to be pulled out of the water and be taken to the AQUARIUS right away. Some had swallowed a lot of water; others inhaled too much fuel. They were unconscious or suffered from hypothermia. Feelings tend to kick in when you least expect them to. Stéphane had one of his most emotional moments during a transfer of rescued people from the Dignity I, one of Médecins Sans Frontières rescue ships: “It was night time, the weather was bad, the ship hummed, everybody was exhausted, it was a dreary moment”, he remembers. “And then I found myself with a baby in my arms. I just had to take care of it. Well, actually, of her. It was girl, Naomi, not more than 10 days old. Both of us were isolated from the rest for a moment. I sang her to sleep. A very special moment. I had a baby in my arms surrounded by the horrors and tragedies of the Mediterranean.” Leaving the AQUARIUS going ashore, Stéphane always carries a child in his arms. “For me, that’s the most intense moment: when the people that we rescued step on European soil for the first time. We know that they haven’t reached their final destination yet, they’ve got a long way ahead of them, and we send them off with a heavy heart.” Often times it’s hard to keep it together: after a few nights with no sleep or traumatizing events, such as a tragic rescue mission when the team recovered five dead bodies on the floor of a boat. The next morning they then had to recover four people that had drowned at sea. With teary eyes and a tedious controlled face some tend to retreat for a moment to avoid a break down in front of the others. Stéphane keeps on going. He checks the weather forecast and prepares for upcoming rescue missions. The absence of a lot of governments and the daily tragedies of the people trying to cross the Mediterranean in order to get to Europe, the lack of action all make him angry, “The situation is terrible. Being there on-site you experience it up close. It’s a shame for humanity”, he says: “We have the financial, political and medial means to ensure that this turns around. That people, leaving their homes don’t have to risk this dangerous passage. There has always been migration, it doesn’t have to be this way.”
In the harbour of Catania his mission ends. Before he leaves the ship he has to get his passport from the captain, “After rescuing 722 Eritreans from a gigantic wooden boat, I realized that I could go anywhere I want to with my French passport, unlike these people. They can’t go anywhere. And then I asked myself why we are allowed to go everywhere, but it is not the same for them. It’s selfish and unfair.” New times are ahead for Stéphane. He doesn’t know when, but he’s sure that he’ll come back on board sooner or later. His colleagues will remember his daily weather forecast, his candour, his announcements: “A good window for rescue” with a heavy French accent, and of course his advice: you have to show heart, when you can’t change the world.
Text: Mathilde Auvillain
Translation: Franziska Schneider
Fotos: Susanne Friedel