Every year, thousands of people fleeing violence, insecurity, and persecution at home attempt a treacherous journey across the Mediterranean Sea to reach Europe. Alva is working on the Aquarius - a search and rescue vessel run by SOS Méditerranée in partnership with Médecins Sans Frontières (Doctors Without Borders). Once people are safely on board, our team offers food, clothes and medical care. Alva tells us more...
We sit and wait. Prepared for the worst, hoping for the best.
Two weeks on board the Aquarius and a whole heap of horror and joy. In the short time I have been on board, since the 13th of May, so much has happened. We have performed three rescues, which means that our partners on the Aquarius, the SOS Méditerranée search and rescue teams, have safely brought 385 people on board from rubber dinghies that sit waiting in the never-ending blue sea in the hope that someone will rescue them. It seems they are pushed away from the Libyan shores with so little fuel that they have only two possible outcomes: be rescued or be shipwrecked.
We have also welcomed an additional 371 people onto our boat as part of a transfer, after another vessel – military or commercial – has managed to rescue people. We then take them on board to look after them and bring them back to land. In these cases people literally pass from boat to boat: from their inadequate dinghy that is hours away from being submerged by water, to a smaller rigid-hull inflatable boat (RIB) driven by those who rescue them, to climb up onto a large seaworthy vessel, to wait to be put back into a smaller RIB, to be brought over to climb up the red ladder onto our deck. All the time with waves swelling and falling. Traumatised people, injured people, women with fuel burns across their legs, heavily pregnant women, men with broken bones, babies and children. I make a point of not exaggerating when trying to write about what I see – this is simply the horrific truth about what people are made to endure. People step on deck and fall to the ground crying, or pass out with shock.
Amongst these 756 people, we had one critically-ill two-year-old. He was in no condition to be getting onto a rubber boat leaving Libya in the small hours of the morning, with no food or water. No mother would make that choice if there were an alternative. When he reached us, he was extremely unwell, and our doctor feared he wouldn’t survive. The only option was for him to be evacuated – lifted into a helicopter on a stretcher from our boat and taken to hospital. The ordeal that people have been through is unquantifiable.
And his mum followed closely behind him.
And as one little boy fought for his life, another decided it was his time to enter the world. In the most remarkable of circumstances, the Aquarius midwife delivered a healthy baby boy – named Alex, after the captain of the ship. His mother and father were dancing and singing to their new arrival with such joy. As our doctor said, “This boy had a one-in-a-billion shot and he took it”. And while happiness prevailed throughout the boat as the miraculous news spread, we couldn’t help but think about how different the outcome would have been if the timing had been different. If she had gone into labour a day earlier, his mum would have been sitting in a rubber boat with seawater and fuel leaking in. And if it had been two days earlier, while she was still in Libya, she would not have dared to go to a hospital. She told us, “There is always the threat of being kidnapped and killed in Libya. All day I needed to hide, hide, hide.”
These events were extraordinary. But everyone I speak with has an extraordinary story or reason to put themselves in the hands of the sea. This week, reports of three tragic shipwrecks estimated that 700 lives had been lost. But the inaccuracy of this number is deplorable and in my eyes, insulting to those that have lost their lives, as it perpetuates a misleading picture of just how many people have died. We will never know how many people were crammed into those boats when they were sent out to sink or be rescued. We will never know how many boats sank without anyone even noticing. We will never know how many people were shot at and killed on Libyan shores even before getting into one of those boats. People I have spoken to tell me that they entered the boat under gunfire from smugglers. We will never know how many died in Libyan prisons after being kidnapped, beaten and abused, day in, day out. Or even before that, while crossing the desert to Libya. We have absolutely no idea of just how many people have died crossing from one part of the world to the other.
Tonight the teams on the Aquarius wait. Located in the search and rescue zone, near the coast of Libya, proactively looking for boats and waiting for alerts that a boat has been identified in need of rescue. The sun is going down now and the sea is fairly calm. As the teams on board practice their safety drills, check everything is in place, prepare the clinic, test the spotlights for a night rescue and pack the rescue kits, we wait. Knowing that 30 miles away, others are waiting too – waiting to enter an unseaworthy boat, almost like boarding a plane with its wing half broken off. And knowing that boat offers two options: life or death.
From what those rescued share with us, some people enter that rubber boat at gunpoint, and some don’t know the risk they are taking. But always, it is because there is no alternative.