Three questions to Viviana – member of SOS MEDITERRANEE´s search and rescue team

Viviana is one of the female sea rescuers of SOS MEDITERRANEE. She has a special place within the team. On the Aquarius, only women were allowed to enter the “shelter,” an area reserved for female rescuees. In this haven, she listened to the women´s stories, tender songs and witnessed both their laughter, and their tears. From Marseille, where she is completing a training while waiting for a new ship, she is sharing some of those special moments.

1. What is the situation for women fleeing across the Mediterranean?

“Of all the people we rescue from distress at sea in the Mediterranean, women belong to a group with special protection needs because they might be exposed to specific dangers. When we find them on the rubber dinghies, the women and children are placed in the center of the boat, or sometimes in the holds of wooden boats, with the children. On board, they are particularly exposed to injury because of the nails that stick out from the floor or the chemical burns resulting from the mixture of salt water and fuel. They can also drown, as a result of inhaling noxious gases that make them faint. Many are pregnant without even knowing. In addition, most of the women are traveling alone, including teenagers. The young 14-17-year-old Eritrean girls in particular, who are fleeing the dictatorship and the violence in their country, are mostly left on their own. Many women are also travelling alone with young children, sometimes newborns. Many of them have been raped. Some of them are still only girls.

I remember a very young girl from Nigeria. She was very smart. She came to talk to me by herself. She told me how many times she tried to flee Libya. She told me that, in the beginning, she had been sold to a family in Libya to do housework. Of course, she didn’t get paid. She said: “Every night, big big problem.” The master of the house in fact came and systematically raped her every night. She managed to escape, but again found herself in a detention center.
However, in those detention centers, the guards rape many young girls. Some of them sell these young girls to other men who take advantage of them. I often heard those stories. The women and girls are also tortured. I saw big scars on their skin, made with a burning stick. Big marks, on the back, on the thighs, everywhere on the body. In such cases, they need surgery, because the wounds are very deep. They suffer enormously from those wounds.
Another problem is that there are no real sanitary installations in the Libyan detention centers: this causes many health issues, but also problems with intimate hygiene. Just imagine women giving birth in prison, unassisted, without even being able to wash, or drink clean water, eat … Many women suffer from scabies – and also many men and especially young babies.”

2. How has SOS MEDITERRANEE contributed to the protection of the rescued women?
“First, we have to get them out of the water. The women and young children are among the first to be evacuated by the rescue teams on board the rescue boats in order to be brought to safety on board the ship, right after unconscious people, the sick and the severely wounded.
Once on board, we begin to address the first needs: urgent medical care, food, water … The women and the children are taken to the safe haven – the so-called “shelter,” which is reserved just for them. Of course, as a maritime rescue organization, our most important duty is to bring them to a safe place as soon as possible after the rescue, as stipulated by law.

On the ship, the women sometimes need to talk once they have rested. But they will only talk to someone whom they fully trust. After all they have been through, it is very difficult for a woman to fully trust a man when confiding in him. Therefore, it is necessary to have a woman who can listen to them. It is very painful for them to speak about these things! They are really traumatised.

The “shelter” was a large room inside the Aquarius, the most secure part of the ship to receive the rescuees. Only women and children under 12 years of age were allowed in. They were inside, in the warmth, finally finding a refuge where they could truly feel safe, protected, after months, or even years, of insecurity.

Generally, the women sleep a lot when they first arrive. They are exhausted from the night spent at sea, sometimes by drifting for several days, and by all that they have been through in Libya. They have only received very little food in the detention centers, they are weak. We give them blankets. Sometimes, some women sleep so much that the teams on board play with the little ones so that the mothers can rest.
The mood in the “shelter” is relaxed and calm. It is somewhat magical… These women do not know each other, but they help each other, even with the newborns, they are like a big united family. Sometimes, the women in the “shelter” sing, and their voices are like the voices of angels. This creates a magical connection among them. I do not know how they manage to sing the same song together, it is unbelievable, they come from different countries, they do not speak the same language, but those songs are so sweet, so soft!

Last spring, we carried out a rescue. There were about 400 people in a wooden boat. I was in charge of the lifeboat “Easy 3” [2], responsible for the communication with the people on board. At one point, we had 10 women come into our lifeboat, all Eritreans. However, we had to wait at sea while the other two lifeboats evacuated survivors to the Aquarius. One of them talked to me. She was speaking in the name of all the others, because she was the only one to speak English. This is what she told me: “all the women here want to thank you! You are our sister. Thanks!” Then they started to sing. It was an incredible moment, in the middle of the sea, after they had just been facing the chance of dying, this is the first thing they did: they sang! It was their way to say thank you. The singing of the Eritrean women was really very sweet, very calming. It was wonderful and surreal at the same time.”

3. At a time when SOS MEDITERRANEE is in search of a new rescue ship, what criteria would you focus on in order to fulfil specific needs, such as the ones of women?
“It is very important that there is a space to install a clinic, of course. People are arriving injured, sick, the women have special needs, some are pregnant, they are asking for a pregnancy test… Some have lost some skin, burnt because they were immersed in the mixture of fuel and salt water, which is very corrosive.
The “shelter” on the Aquarius was a really essential place. The new ship must also have a dedicated, indoors zone for the women and children. Of course we would prefer to shelter everyone in an enclosed space, where everyone is protected from the cold and the wind, but often there is not enough space and the men must remain on deck, protected only by tarps. I am also dreaming of an area reserved for children, a kind of kindergarden where they can play. For children, playing is a way to return to normality.”

[1] The testimonies collected aboard the Aquarius above all showcase the men’s desire to protect the women by seating them as far away as possible from the water and therefore the immediate risk of drowning.
[2] Easy One, Two , and Three are the names given to the three rescue boats

Photo credits: Anthony Jean / SOS MEDITERRANEE
Translation from French into English: Katharina Eldada & Amel Bennaceur