‘You have to understand, nobody puts their son on a boat unless the water is safer than land.’
Kevin remembers his words perfectly. “Gentlemen, stay seated, keep calm. We are going to rescue everyone, one by one. Help us to help them, “said the head of the boat, Max Avis, Aquarius rescue sub-coordinator, with his usual kindness and firmness. It was a critical moment in the boat in which this 20-year-old Nigerian left Libya 25 hours earlier. Night closed more than 50 miles off Tripoli (Libya) in international waters, scene of a great pulse for European migration policy.
The keel of the boat was broken, the boat threatened to sink. “They gave us vests, we distributed them … but people started to move, everyone wanted one and the accident happened”. The boat gave way. Suddenly, there were 40 people in the water in the middle of the darkness. A hellish nightmare because there was also another boat in trouble and it was the only boat of an NGO in the area.
For the twenty-year-old it seemed “a movie” but this time he was the protagonist and that was the last minute of his life, he remembered already on Sunday morning aboard the ship chartered by SOS Mediterranée and Doctors Without Borders. “I never thought I would survive. God has everything in order, “he said.
One by one, they were taken freehand from the water. They had been saved. Max and his men are the keystone of the sophisticated gear that is activated in this boat of 77 meters in length every time they are warned that there are migrants adrift in the central Mediterranean.
The night from Saturday to Sunday was the intense one. In nine hours, 229 people were saved from drowning : the Nigerian pater Kevin and the other. When finished, tired, they knew that more came. They received on board the ship of 77 meters in length to 400 people rescued in the previous hours by the Italian Navy or merchant ships.
A day of zigzag navigation culminated following distress notices. Each rescue is not decided by the NGOs, but by the Maritime Coordination Center of Rome, which is giving them instructions. This Sunday afternoon the boat still did not know where to disembark the 629 (among which there are 123 unaccompanied minors and seven pregnant women).
“The Aquarius has rescued people on board following the instructions of the Maritime Coordination Center in Rome and is waiting for it to designate a safe harbor , ” the SOS Mediterranée search and rescue coordinator explained in his office next to the bridge. , the sailor Nicola Stalla.
In the morning, the Italian authorities gave him a choice between Messina and Trapani. He opted for the first one. The vessel has not been officially notified of the closure of Italian ports to the NGO ships announced by Matteo Salvini, the new Italian interior minister and leader of the xenophobic League. Stalla knows, because it was in copy in an email, that the Italians have asked Malta to give them a safe harbor. But on the ship they do not know that Malta also refuses to welcome them.
“The coordination center has asked us to stay here and wait for instructions, we are 35 nautical miles from Italy and 27 nautical miles from Malta,” said Aloys Villard, MSF coordinator at Aquarius, after 10 o’clock at night. “Once again political considerations are above the security of people,” he said.
One by one they went on board. Miral baby, born in Libya seven months ago, her parents, Moroccans; the Nigerian Rebecca (25), the Sierra Leonean Mok (23), the Algerian Nasser (34 years old), the Sudanese Adam (29) … up to 629 people who until minutes before were wet, in the dark, touching their fingers with death or dream of reaching Europe in a fragile inflatable boat. Surprising his stoicism, everyone’s, including the children and babies that passed from hand to hand. Only one cried.
“Welcome to the Aquarius, are you ok?” Asked the members of the NGO or the crew, who also mobilized in the rescues. They touch you. They do not wear gloves and masks like the Italian Coast Guard soldiers who made the transfer of their ships to the Aquarius. One of the members of the NGO broke with rage one of those false vests that more than save your life condemn you.
Nurse Aoife No Mhurchu was in charge of the triage: the women to the shelter, who smells gasoline a red and white ribbon to shower, who comes lame, faint, hypothermic or complaining of pain, to sit on the bench to which he can attend Each newcomer received water, a blanket, clean clothes, a hat and 2 thousand 400 calories in energy cookies. Difficult to describe the relief. They were safe and on their way to Europe.
This morning, one of the rescued with Kevin in the boat that sank said that “the rescue boats were very far from Libya”, he asked for reinforcements to “save our brothers and sisters because they treat us very badly there”. Nothing indicates that your wishes will be met, just the opposite. There are fewer and fewer NGO boats – with the absolute priority of saving lives – because hostility is increasing and the new Italian Government has made it clear that it wants them far away.
While they are resting and trying to recover their strength for a new stage in which they have all their hopes – often with more faith than information – the guests of the Aquarius do not seem aware that they are, with the more nearly 34,000 migrants arriving by sea. Europe in 2018 , at the center of a formidable political battle within a European Union deeply concerned about the rise of xenophobic parties since 2015 arrivals increased dramatically.
In addition to saving lives, the Aquarius offers medical care, empathy, and the essentials. It supposes a balm when one escapes from war, misery or despair and has been caught in the hell that is now Libya. “I would never put my daughter in a boat that could sink,” Salvini said a few days ago in an interview. As the Anglo-Somali poet Warsan Shire wrote, “You have to understand, nobody puts their son on a boat unless the water is safer than land.”
When they manage to disembark, the 629 will run in search of a telephone to call home and tell their families that they are in Europe. They survived the Mediterranean.