“I can’t remember the faces, except for one or two that I kept an eye on, hoping to get to them before they drowned”
Edouard has been a SAR-Team Member aboard the Aquarius since 2016. Based in Brittany, he quit his job as a social worker to become a fisherman and spend a lot of time at sea. Although usually rather open and communicative, before writing these lines Edouard had never talked about this particular rescue, which is considered as one of the most traumatic for the team of SOS MEDITERRANEE. Even though he worried about not finding the right words, he has decided to give it a shot…
You see insane stuff and don’t talk about it.
You keep your mouth shut.
The first time you are confronted with a situation like this, you’re so confused that it all comes tumbling out automatically. You talk to get it off your chest, and to let the others know what you have gone through.
And people react, many positively, whereas others accuse us, attack us with words that hurt us.
We do our best, we carry a part of the misery of this world on our shoulders and for that we are attacked.
We give up, they don’t understand us.
And then, on one shitty day, we find ourselves in hell.
That moment is so extreme that you immediately realize: Not even the people who support us will be able to grasp how bad it was. That is, if you even decide to tell them…
But we remain silent.
What should we even say? How?
It won’t bring back the missing people.
It won’t comfort their relatives.
We don’t want to hear the praise of those who consider us heroes.
Because it shouldn’t happen, because the world shouldn’t need such heroes.
We were there, and although we had become rescuers for the best of reasons, we felt awful because we had been proud to be on the front lines, to be able to say: “I took action, I did something.“
You don’t have to be special to do that, no champion. In the face of this catastrophe, everyone with even the slightest bit of good will would have done the same.
We were there, privileged European idiots, who wanted to save lives, there where people die by the dozens.
We were there and thought: „Fuck“.
Our hearts stopped for a few seconds.
The screams of people in fear of death echoing in our ears.
A forest of hands sticking out of the water.
Heads appear above the surface, bobbing once, twice, until they disappear forever.
We throw out everything we have, life vests, inflatable banana boats, life rafts…
We run around in chaos, we shout at each other, in French – a sign that we have lost control over the situation.
We zigzag around the bodies, their shadows drifting under the surface.
I can’t remember details. I don’t remember how many there were.
I see how the sea swallows a teenager, her body dissolving in the waves, the sun glistens on the water; some drifting clothes here, a plastic bag there, an empty petrol can in the back.
A head disappears into the deep, a tangle of arms and legs. Shapes and colors blur together and all that’s left is a dark blue spot in the light water.
Thirty people dead. Thirty lives ended.
It’s an estimate, based on our ridiculously insufficient experience.
All this within a few minutes. A few minutes that destroyed all illusions I had until that moment.
I can’t throw up, I can’t cry, the experiences are stuck somewhere inside me.
They are all around us, a body behind every wave, slowly sinking into the deep.
If feels as if all my blood rushes into my head so that I can keep my eyes open.
I am wide awake, tense, and I feel incredibly powerless.
Instinctively I reach for my inflatable life vest. I want to jump into the water and save a man who is drowning nearby, I am a good swimmer.
But if I jump, the risk of dying with him is too high and I would put my team in danger.
„Ok, stay where you are”. I wait for my moment.
Baz shouts to Panda: “Over there, a baby“. He points his finger.
I saw it a while ago already, five minutes ago, since we started rushing back and forth, handing out life vests.
This is my nightmare.
I saw it and immediately thought: “It’s too late for the baby, just don’t look.“
But now we’re right in front of it.
“I’ll take it!“
Now I’ve said it and I lay face down on the floor of the boat, reach out with my arm, dip my hand into the water. Then my whole forearm, until I touch the soft jumper with my fingers.
I pull softly to get the baby to the surface, I give it a little nudge and turn it around on the back so that I can grab the jumper with my full hand.
I heave in out of the ocean, it’s heavy, soaked with water.
I’d have to turn onto my back to pull the baby on board, and to hold it above my face, but the thought of it scares me, so I quickly hand it over to Baz.
In this moment I pass the responsibility for this little body along to him, out of cowardice, as if I wasn’t able to pull it onto the boat myself.
I can only take a few breaths.
Baz needs to return to his position as head of operation. As soon as I get up he hands me back the child.
“Panda, back to the Aquarius as soon as possible!“ „Doudou CPR!“
Message received, my brain is working, I need to perform a cardiac massage.
Easy2 rears up as Panda goes full speed ahead.
The motor howls, Baz tries to shout even louder, he screams into the radio to alert the medical team.
Everything moves, today the sea is not smooth like on a sunny day in August. It’s January in the Mediterranean, and the weather is bad.
I try to find a stable position among the empty safety bags, holding the tiny being.
It’s dead, I’m sure. The face is almost white, despite the black skin.
The eyes are terribly glassy, and every time I compress the breast there is foam pouring out of its mouth.
Now nothing matters anymore and I compress with all my power.
I want to press everything out that keeps its lungs from breathing, with some luck there is some oxygen left in the blood, for the brain.
Come on, breathe!
Baz has to dock to the Aquarius by himself, I can’t stop.
I massage a bit too fast and try to remember one of the songs they teach us in training, to keep the rhythm.
So I’m singing „Staying alive“, while tears run down my face, I look at the baby and sing for it. Listen to me, little one!
It’s madness, what is happening here right now?
For a moment I see myself from the outside which makes the situation even more dramatic.
Strangely, I remember movies about the Vietnam War, where soldiers lose it in the middle of the battlefield.
But this is not a movie, I have to keep my eyes open, I mustn’t cry, I can’t think about anything else.
And under no circumstances can I lose it.
We reach the Aquarius and in the corner of my eye I see the hull. The speedboat slows down … Soon there will be a bump …
But Panda is in top form and the boat nestles against the Aquarius smoothly.
Baz says: Whenever you’re ready, Doudou!“
“Okay, I get into position, let’s do it right!“
I kneel down, legs stretched apart and check for firm footing before I get up.
I start the countdown while I continue with the heart massage, exactly like in training.
Baz’s hands are exactly where they need to be.
I pass the baby to him and he passes it to the next, equally perfectly placed hands.
Within a few seconds, the baby is on the bridge of the Aquarius and in the hands of a Doctor Without Borders’ team member, who brings the baby to the shelter for treatment.
What happens next, we only find out later.
We only find out after pulling two other babies in the same condition out of the water and into Easy2, and after having 90 persons sit aboard Easy1 and Easy3. More than half of them were rescued directly out of the water under extreme difficulty. Three of them die after the rescue, they could not be resuscitated.
How many fingers, clinging on to a rope, did we have to loosen; how many faces, scared to death, did we encounter; how often did we say “Trust me, give everything you have, on the count of three we go“, how many people were we only able to catch in their last moments, by grabbing a piece of their clothing to pull them out …
Multiple times I hear Baz murmur: “What the fucking hell.“
We were emotionally destroyed. After the operation, it took forever to collect all our equipment that was floating around everywhere.
We didn’t talk to each other, avoided each others’ eyes.
From time to time one of us would let out a silent sob and a tear would escape our open eyes.
Back on board we asked about the babies.
At first we couldn’t believe it: they had all survived.
We cried, we hugged, but we still didn’t talk to one another.
I can’t remember what we did next, whether there was a debrief, if we cleaned the rescue boats …
I can only remember going below deck, showering, eating something small and then lying down and sleeping.
I couldn’t talk about it, couldn’t write it down.
I sent a message to my father and a friend, wrote something in the lines of “it was hard, but everything is ok”.
The message was confusing.
Since then I never spoke of that day again.
A part of me made the excuse that there was nothing to say.
As if you would change the truth by telling it.
The migrants’ long journey of suffering cannot be put into words. But still we have to try.
We have to talk about it, so that people understand what’s happening here.
People have to know that this is probably the worst maritme crisis in history.
People have to know that the migrants are willing to put their lives at risk, because they are escaping hell, and that we provide help to reduce the number of deaths as much as possible.
Both sides fight for life, no material interest, no questions about costs, no questions if the investment was worth it.
This is our highest value: Life.
Life brings suffering, life brings happiness.
There is no exchange rate for life on Wall Street.
You don’t need a specific look, specific culture, ID, social status, no specific character traits.
You find life in every face, filled with happiness or fear of death.
And it has always been that way: Life is also the will to revolt against fate, to make the best out of a bad situation, even if we can’t do much because the tragedy is just too big.
What could be more meaningful than this protest against death, what could be more beautiful than the tireless fight against suffering?
This has been said and written many times before.
My words reflect the thoughts of the people I work and live with.
On the ragged edge, in the darkness, where everything is hanging by a thread, there is only one certainty:
It happened on January 27, 2018.
40 sea miles north-northwest of Zouara.
Position: 33°20’N, 11°57’E.
Translated from German by: Anna Kallage.
Photo Credits: Laurin Schmid / SOS MEDITERRANEE.
 CPR = Cardio-pulmonary resuscitation
 Easy 1, Easy 2, and Easy 3 are the names of the Aquarius’ smaller speedboats used during rescue operations.
 The shelter is a room on the Aquarius, normally for women and kids, that is used for medical emergencies during critical rescues.