“I don`t think I would be able to point to ‘a best’ or ‘a worst’ experience that I have had here on the Aquarius. Every single one of them is so strong and unique that they become impossible to label. Rescuing really changes your life forever, and to be honest, there is no place where I would rather be.”
While working in Switzerland, Basile decided to use his holidays to join a friend from the lifeboat team of the Atlantic College – who is now Deputy Search and Rescue coordinator of SOS MEDITERRANE – volunteering for an NGO called Refugee Rescue on the island of Lesbos, Greece. “I was aware of the situation of refugees risking their lives to get to Europe, and I had seen plenty of photos, but it was nothing compared to witnessing it with my own eyes. Seeing the terrible conditions of the rubber boats with which people cross the Mediterranean Sea and seeing the true despair in their eyes, suddenly made everything real.”
Originally from Geneva, Switzerland, Basile – 29 years old – is one of the rescuers of the SAR team of SOS MEDITERRANEE. His first contact with rescue activities dates back to his teenage years spent in Wales at the United World College of the Atlantic, where he was chosen to work with the Royal National Lifeboat Institution. It was only years later, after a degree in Social Sciences and the start of a career in Environmental Sciences, that he decided to put everything else on pause and use his nautical skills to save the lives of thousands of people in the Mediterranean Sea.
The tremble in Basile’s voice when he talks about the first migrant boat he ever saw leaves no doubt of the intensity of emotions that experience evokes, and it becomes easy to understand why life-changing is the adjective he uses to describe it. Right after his first rescue he was sure that he wouldn`t be able to go back home and sit behind a desk, knowing that he had the skills and possibility to give a hand at sea.
In June 2017 Basile joined the SOS team as rescuer, and the Aquarius is now his second home. “I am incredibly lucky to have been entrusted with such responsibility. On the Aquarius, not only do we get to save the lives of people fleeing from terror, but we get to do it together with a group of extraordinary people who really become your family.”
It might sound like this is something that has been said and written (by myself nonetheless) over and over again, to the point of becoming a cliché. But calling familiar the bonds that are generated on board of this ship is not nearly enough. “We share experiences that are so intense that they really bring you closer together. Here you deal with life and death, and this puts everything else into perspective. All of us can be nothing but truthful during our time on board, and this is certainly the thing that I love the most. We all come from different backgrounds and we cover different roles in this family. Our real strength lays in our differences.”
Basile`s role in the SAR team is RHIB leader. Together with the Deputy Search and Rescue coordinator, he is the one who makes decisions during active rescues, and he is responsible for the boat he leads and the team members on board.
“During rescues there is no space for distractions. You need to stay focused on your job: saving lives. Each life counts, and my goal is to save as many of them as possible.” As soon as the SAR coordinator announces the operation, Basile focuses on the rescue and gives it his all.
“There was only one time that I remember being particularly affected during an operation, and it was when we rescued a woman who had just given birth on the boat”. That day the Aquarius conducted multiple search and rescue operations, and RHIB 2 – the one he leads – was the one to approach the rubber boat with the newborn baby. “It was incredible. I was struck by her strength as she climbed the ladder to the Aquarius carrying her baby that was still attached to her. There is nothing more powerful to me than the idea of parents forced to make the decision of risking their children’s lives, and their own, at sea because it is their only option of survival. Even if they do survive, it is a decision that will mark them for the rest of their lives.”
While during active operations there is no space for emotions, the time that precedes our arrival to a port of safety for Basile is dedicated to being out on the main deck and bringing joy to the rescued children on board. Once the rescue is over and everyone is safe on board, Basile goes back to being his outgoing, funny self who pranks his closest teammates and makes all the rescued children giggle, whether that is by making balloons with rubber gloves or improvising a routine with plastic spoons and a stethoscope.
When, on a final note, I asked Basile what his plans for the future were, his answer came loud and clear: “for as long as there will be people risking their lives at sea, I will be here ready to rescue them.”
Interview and text: Isabella Trombetta
Photo: Anthony Jean