Bertrand Thiebault, 42, is from the South of France. He is completing his second mission on board the Aquarius. A passionate sailor since childhood, four years ago he decided to give up his career in events communication and tourism and return to the open seas. With SOS MEDITERRANEE, he has found a way to combine his passion for the sea with his desire to help those in need. He shares his extraordinary experience in a very moving account.
“Friday 3 February.
Two rescue operations completed today.
One at dawn, the other at dusk.
Lots of children on their own, women with babies.
Three hours went by this evening, spent staring at the dark through binoculars glued to my eyes.
Those aren’t just dark circles under my eyes any more, they are a second set of eyelids covering hollow sockets.
On the lookout for a wooden boat since the end of the afternoon.
Difficult to see anything at all.
No moonlight, humidity clouding the view.
There is more chance that we’ll spot it right under us at the last minute than see it on the horizon.
That’s the captain’s biggest fear.
Men, and perhaps also women and children, are lost out there, somewhere in the darkness of the sea.
Buffeted by the waves on a piece of wood.
I imagine they’re scared.
Whether they live or die.
To whom or what do they cling at this moment in time, in search of comfort?
A light out there on the water, a sound, hope, a hypothetical god?
Two hours of sleep.
And then a wake-up call for a rescue operation on the horizon at 3 a.m.
Followed by three other rubber boats.
Rescued between dawn and noon.
Then finally the wooden boat that we had been looking for the previous day.
About 30 people aboard this piece of wood only 5 to 6 metres long.
A baby, children, women and a few men including an elderly grandfather.
We find out later that there were several Palestinian families who had never seen their country.
Exiled to Syria from a young age, then fled to a refugee camp in Lebanon during the war.
Survival between two fronts.
Escape the bombs, flee the fear of dying each night and make sure that our children can play outside like all the other children in the free world.
Those are the reasons these fathers give for leaving.
They will explain all of this later.
For now, it’s time to be rescued.
The piece of wood pitches and threatens to capsize as soon as one of the occupants stands up to board our vessel.
Everyone is tense.
A mother sitting beside me, stares right into my eyes, crying as she asks me to get her baby.
A baby? Which baby?
We didn’t see it! We can’t see it!
Where is it?
Everyone is anxious for a few moments until the baby is discovered tucked under the arms of its father.
The scared children weep.
A man cries for joy when he sees us, prays and can’t stop thanking us.
We take the first ones we pick up, women, children and the baby, onto the Aquarius.
I feel my emotions rising within me for the first time in 36 hours.
I can’t hold them back.
A few hours later, almost 800 people are finally on board, safe and sound.
On their way to another world, one they have imagined, hoped for, dreamed of.
We do too.
In the eyes
Of the soul
At the mother heart
For brothers and sisters
With the man alone
Text: Bertrand Thiebault
Photos: Federica Mameli
Translation: Johanna MCCALMONT