Log entry

What remains is emptiness

Daily Log
Sat. 27.08.2016

The crew on SOS MEDITERRANEE’s ship AQUARIUS after the rescue


This is a personal story. It is about a non-understandable situation on the Mediterranean Sea, work, stress and emotions. All this is what our small rescue crew on the SOS MEDITERRANEE rescue ship AQUARIUS went through – some more, some less, everybody in his and her own way. This is about me.

You could say it is absurd. It is absurd that people are forced to flee their home countries and the only choice they have and chose to take is most probably a fatal one. They pay money to criminals to get a seat on a rubber boat that is not at all safe for crossing the Mediterranean Sea from Africa. It is obvious that entering the boat could mean death at sea – but people are desperate and accept this. Some have told us that it is better to die at sea than to stay at home.

For our team of voluntary rescuers on the AQUARIUS it is our duty to rescue them. Last week we were able to save 685 lives – a lot of women with their small babies, children and teenagers. It is difficult to describe what is going on the inside during a rescue operation somewhere on the wide Mediterranean Sea, in front of the Libyan coast. It is shocking to see how 134 humans are squeezed on a plain rubber boat.

It is even more scary to see more than 400 women, children and men on a completely overcrowded wooden boat. Some under deck without light and only little air to breath. A nutshell in the sea, unable to navigate, a broken engine, a boat full of humans in fear of immediate death.

Our rescue teams evacuated the wooden boat for over 4 hours, a team from Proactivia Open Arms with their rescue sailing ship ASTRAL supported us. The AQUARIUS was filling with humans from so many different African countries. They enter our rescue vessel and there is a smile on their face. They come on board, barefoot and with nothing else than their life – and are now safe.

During such a rescue operation everybody is under extreme stress but functioning. The procedures were practices many, many times and successfully performed more than 25 times since the end of February 2016. We have saved 5654 lives since then with our own rescue operations, or in cooperation with other civil rescue vessels in the area. It is not the figures and numbers that are important – it is the fact that we and our friends from other organizations keep on doing it.

Finally, the AQUARIUS was filled to the brim with 551 humans. Every centimeter on deck was used to sit, to relax, to lay down and to sleep there on deck. All these men, women and children stayed with us for 2 days and 2 nights. They get a chance to take a shower, they have separate sanitation facilities for men and women, they are served breakfast, lunch and dinner and our partner Doctors without Borders (MSF) offers medical aid and support.

48 hours we were a big family of 551 rescued and 30 crew members on board. We heard unbelievable stories of violence and pain, brutal mistreatment in Libya and their home countries and much more I even don’t want to write here. We were together for almost two complete days. There are immense emotions – overwhelming emotions during rescue and transfer to the land.

And then there is emptiness

It is like Sisyphus – this guy who was condemned to roll a rock up a hill and when the rock falls he has to start again – his whole life. This is the absurdity. The same that we face every day when we are at sea to rescue those in distress. It is not our life-saving rescue work that is absurd, don’t misunderstand me, but the whole situation for those humans who try to cross the sea without any chance. Maybe this can be the philosophical comparison.

Then the emptiness comes. The emptiness on the ship when all these people have to leave the AQUARIUS for an unknown future. When I looked into their eyes, I could see the new fear, asking: What will happen to me? After disembarking for several hours, the AQUARIUS is now empty. It is strange; a few hours ago full. Now empty. Pure emptiness.

So we are back to philosophy. After absurdity, there was our rescue work that costs all our energy but fills us with energy at the same time. There are so many emotional moments, overwhelming emotional moments during stress and hard work. Maybe pleasure is the wrong word but it is a pleasure for all of us to save all these lives. But after pleasure there is emptiness.

What remains is emptiness on the AQUARIUS – and emptiness in my heart.

This feeling will last until we are back on our way to the rescue area, like Sisyphus, giving all we can to minimize this suffering at sea and rescue those in distress, who risk everything in the hopes for a better life.

Text by: René Schulthoff
Photo: Anna Psaroudakis