Fleur The Derff is 26 years old; originally from Finistère, she is a lieutenant on trans-Channel ferries. Fleur joined SOS MEDITERRANEE after having read testimony of one of the rescuers from the previous missions. Motivated by the desire to learn more about crisis management and work of SOS MEDITERRANEE as well as the organisation on board, and also to put herself to a test and to meet migrants and refugees by going to the very source of this tragedy, Fleur embarked the Aquarius in early January. Below are some of her impressions after the first rescue missions in the Mediterranean.
“What is a rescue?”
It is a point on the horizon, a scratch on the radar, it is a message that tells you to get ready, the tension that settles in your stomach, in your arms growing heavy and in your legs becoming suddenly acute. The clothes you put on make you even number and more official also since you are now red, black, yellow, visible and similar to others.
You arrive on the deck and exchange a few tense smiles with the others. It is improper to show too much adrenaline, but it nevertheless has its grip on you, assuring you this very second that you are alive and that you count. With the colleagues you prepare the equipment, RHIBs, life vests, the deck, welcome kits with blankets, tracksuits, survival ration and a bottle of water. And at this moment you start noticing it: a round thing, grey or blue or black… The colour matters, as those who have done this before distinguish by the colour and the quality of the tires. The blue ones are the worst and this one is blue. This means that its bottom part is fragile, perhaps has already given way, crushing in the meantime some people. This suggests there are dead people, but you have never seen dead before. You know that death exists but until then it has always been far away among the distant relatives or hidden behind your television screen. You start wondering what it feels like to come face to face with a dead man, a real one. You become morbid, but it is all in your head, so it does not matter, it is not important. Everyone becomes morbid, so why not you?
You get into the RHIB and float away from the ship to approach the others. There are so many, hundreds of lives across a few precarious square meters. They stretch out their hands, then ears when Max, the emergency coordinator, speaks. He is saying that everything is fine and everyone will be OK, but that everybody must remain calm. From behind him you watch them as they are watching him. They want to do well; the other will save them, he just said, so make the others behave as he asks! Some stand up, shout at others to be silent, adding to the chaos. Then Max tells Ralph, the driver, to start moving the RHIB, and then everything becomes calm again, as they realize that we could leave, leaving them there behind, so it is better to be quiet again. Distribution of life vests begins. This is your job: open the bags and pass life vests to Max who gives them out one by one without throwing, as otherwise they would start jumping on top of the vests disrupting the relative calm.
All is going well. They listen, take the life vests and pass them on to others. Max starts talking again, explaining what would happen next. He talks to talk, very polite. He could be in a comfortable lounge, for all you know, but he is on a RHIB in front of a group of humans, ready to turn back to the prime animalistic behaviour. They must be kept in this state of unlikely patience.
Then the transfer starts. Max and Tanguy, dragging out eighteen hoop nets. It is your job to put them on the RHIB. When it is done you return to the Aquarius. In the scene you leave behind nothing has changed: they are always as tight against each other as they were before.
Then it starts again, you approach and reassure them again. For you everything goes well. You feel nothing in your heart, nothing in your mind. You are proud of your solidity and your consistency. At this moment you might as well be elsewhere, in a lounge perhaps, to show off, you would be the same, until your eyesight falls on one of them. It could be anything you find yourself looking at – a beard of a few days perhaps. These white hairs on a tanned face and suddenly this is no longer an anonymous lost person among others, it is your father on vacation. He let this beard grow when he no longer needs to appear professional. This skin and its tan represent all the beauty of Brittany in August.
It is at this moment that you start feeling weak and begin to fall. To hold yourself you start gritting your teeth – you cannot fail, not now, not because of this. You know that it is impossible, perfectly impossible, it cannot be him! And you must go back, you hear BACK! Then a breath, one more breath and Brittany starts fading away, and the terrifying idea that it could have been one of your closest ones, in this boat makes you hate the sea.
You concentrate again; this terrifying moment has lasted only a few seconds. Transfers are done one after another and the tire is empty now. You look at the brackish water, shoes floating, empty water bottles, you do not know what to think. The RHIB returns to Aquarius, the rescue is completed. They are all safe and sound, meaning that everything went well. When the image returns, you start talking not to say anything. This will be the only thing you will remember: white hairs on the tanned skin and the abyss inside of you when one of your closest one takes their place.”
Original Text: Fleur Le Derff
Translation French – English: Maria Oleynik