For Chris from the German city of Wuppertal, it goes without saying that you have to rescue as many refugees as possible from drowning in the Mediterranean as they attempt to reach Europe. He is one of the key persons on the German NGO vessel ‘Sea-Watch 2’.
The ship and its crew of volunteers try to carry out a rescue mission that every country in the region appears to shun. We spent two weeks on the ship, and during the last four days of our stint, all Hell broke loose, pushing the crew members to the limit.
One Saturday morning, I am sitting on Monkey Island, the highest point on the ship, scanning the horizon with heavy binoculars. There is lots of stuff up here – orange life jackets, poles with satellite antennas and other navigation equipment.
And, of course, the wooden bench that I am sitting on.
It looks like a piece of garden furniture, and for a moment I imagine that it is placed in front of a summer house on the Danish coast, and that I am sitting on it, enjoying the sea breeze and taking delight in the fact that I have nothing to do and that the world seems to be okay.
Then I look through the binoculars again, panning the horizon one more time. 360 degrees. Nothing to see. Except the Mediterranean Sea, of course.
It has been a week since the photographer and I departed Malta along with 15 other crew members aboard the small German NGO vessel ‘Sea Watch 2’ and headed towards the Libyan coast.
Keeping a distance of 24 nautical miles to the shores of Libya, we patrol the waters, looking for people from Africa, the Middle East or even Bangladesh, people who are trying to cross the sea and reach Europe on crowded wooden boats or – more often – on rubber boats, 30 feet long and in fragile condition, sometimes patched together with duct tape.
I am up here with Florin, a quiet and pensive electrician from Romania. Like three of the other crew members here, he usually works for Greenpeace on one of their ships.
The sea is calm. We have the sun behind us.
And then Florin says: "I think I see something out there, on the starboard side. Check it out". I take the binoculars. Yes, that thing might be a refugee boat.
It is not easy to spot those boats. They are packed with passengers and lie so deep in the water that they do not always show up on the radar. So, if we are not constantly watching the sea with our binoculars, we may pass a boat without noticing it.
So far, this mission has been relatively uneventful.
Well, of course, the first morning we came across a large, white rubber boat with 125 people on board.
We began to evacuate the exhausted, dehydrated and overheated passengers, and the rescue operation was actually coming along nicely. That is, until the bottom of the boat collapsed, and the men and women had to fight to not drown inside the boat.
Four of them fought in vain.
Then the wind dropped
After that, nothing happened for five days.
We were just patrolling the waters from east to west and back again in that part of the so-called search and rescue zone which lies to the west of Tripoli.
Back and forth, back and forth.
One night, a warship came very close to us. Our Dutch first officer, Rein, could see on the radar that the ship was waiting on the starboard side. Then, suddenly, it began to move in our direction.
The warship zigzagged its way toward ‘Sea-Watch 2’ as if to test who would swerve first. A regular chicken game! Then, at last, the ship brushed past us at distance of 300 meters. Which is outrageously close when you have an entire, empty ocean at your disposal.
»It was clearly an attempt to intimidate us«, Rein said the next morning. He had not been able to make out the nationality of the ship.
Such incidents are quite familiar to ‘Sea-Watch 2’ and the other NGO ships that roam the Mediterranean Sea to rescue people. The European Union has long since had enough of all these refugees and migrants who are risking their lives to reach the shores of Europe.
The mood in Europe is just not in favor of these people, to put it mildly. The EU supports the Libyan coastguard, which has recently begun to shoot at the refugees in its zealous efforts to keep them from leaving Africa.
So, it is only natural that NGOs like SeaWatch are unpopular for sailing out to rescue the people who would otherwise have been left to drown. The likelihood that one of these boats would actually make the journey – all the 300 kilometers across the sea – is close to zero.
But apart from the incident with the anonymous warship, it was five quiet days.
The sea was too rough for the Libyan traffickers to take their cheap and overcrowded rubber boats through the surf and out to sea. The boats are typically equipped with a small outboard engine that can only maintain a very modest speed of 3 knots.
On day six, however, the wind had dropped. And in the morning, a wooden boat carrying about 140 people came into view.
Before long, three more wooden boats appeared. And we spotted a rubber boat. So, there was a lot of work to do, but we were not the only NGO ship in the area. Medecins Sans Frontieres was there with its large and well-equipped vessel ‘Vos Prudence’, the Spanish ‘Golfo Azurro’ from Open Arms was there, and so was the small German NGO Sea Eye with its ship, the ‘Seefuchs’.
NGOs galore, in other words. Vessels full of volunteers who spend their vacations working as rescuers.
And there was no sign of panic among the more than 700 refugees who were waiting on the various boats. Some of them even began to sing. They came from Morocco, Egypt, The Gambia, Ivory Coast, Senegal, Tunisia and Bangladesh and probably other countries that I did not catch.
As the refugees were being transferred to the ‘Vos Prudence’, a small patrol vessel from the Libyan coastguard shuffled about to collect the engines from the abandoned boats which they then set on fire. Black pillars of smoke rose into the blue sky.
By now we had learned what a rescue operation was all about. Or so we thought.
I am sitting on the wooden bench, chatting with Florin about yesterday’s operation, when we spot the refugee boat out on the horizon. We have a ‘target’, as they call it.
»Prepare to launch the ’Tornado’«, a voice on the loudspeaker announces.
»Hello, I’m Chris«
The ‘Tornado’ is one of two fast boats on the ‘Sea-Watch 2’. The other one is the ‘Delta’. Without the two small boats, we might as well forget about rescuing anybody out here Without ‘Delta’ and ‘Tornado’, ‘Sea-Watch 2’ would be like a lifeguard with no arms and legs.
The crane on the quarterdeck swings the ‘Tornado’ into the sea while eight men are holding on to the four ropes that are supposed to prevent the boat from banging uncontrollably against the side of the ship. Then Chris, the German-Italian guy, climbs aboard. He is almost always the man behind the wheel on the ‘Tornado’.
Chris is 44 and lives in Wuppertal. He used to be a mechanic, but today he supports himself by importing tools from Japan. He lives alone with his dog, Ivy, which is cared for by his mother – an elderly lady who suffers from multiple sclerosis – when he is away. It all sounds perfectly ordinary.
But there is also another side to Chris.
He collects discarded food from supermarkets in Wuppertal and distributes it to the homeless and other hungry people. Once a year, he drives a truck full of supplies to a village in Belarus where the children are still suffering the consequences of the explosion at the Chernobyl nuclear plant which exposed their parents to a radioactive cloud 31 years ago.
It is obvious that Chris has a lot of energy. He does scuba diving, sailing, and mountain climbing. And when you have a life that is so good as Chris thinks that his own life is, you are obliged to give something back.
»I like to help people. And I do not like to see people drown. That’s it«, he says.
He certainly does not brag about it. As a matter of fact, I have to squeeze these things out of him.
Some time ago, one of his friends gave him a belt with a Superman buckle, and even though most ‘Sea Watch’ crew members are very competent in their respective fields, Chris is the only one who can get away with sporting a Superman belt buckle.
Now, he is racing across the waves on the ‘Tornado’. With him are Gennaro, the young Arabic speaking Italian, and Max, the German medic and firefighter from Hamburg, who is just as young.
It does not take them long to get to the refugees on a blue wooden boat. There are not too many of them, about 40, and none of them require acute medical care. A mature man, who is no larger than a small boy, is sitting at the front of the boat in his black track suit as if he were the lucky mascot that would get the passengers safely to their destination. He reminds Chris of a figurehead.
Max and Gennaro throw life jackets to everybody on the boat. That is always the first thing you do. And then you pull the first 10 to 12 people aboard the ‘Tornado’.
»Hello, I’m Chris. Welcome on board«, says the man from Wuppertal and ferries the first group to the ‘Sea Watch 2’.
Jackals of the Sea
The guests are placed on the front part of the bridge floor where a suspended tarp provides some shade. We hand out bottles of water. A man is vomiting on the deck. He is not the only one who is seasick.
I take a look at the sea and see two fishing vessels – they are actually just dinghies with powerful outboard engines – circling the blue wooden boat. They are not ordinary fishermen.
»We call them engine fishers«, says Thomas, the second engineer. He is a mild-mannered and self-effacing sailor from Rostock who has completed a number of missions in the Mediterranean.
In the following days, we encounter several of these engine fishers. They are not necessarily traffickers themselves but they must be co-operating with the traffickers.
Their method is to follow a refugee boat and wait for an NGO ship to take its passengers aboard. Then, they remove the engine so that it can be used for another refugee transport.
They are circling the refugees like jackals. When possible, they also take the actual boat.
Once the NGO workers have emptied a boat, they mark it with spray paint so that other ships that might come across the vessel can see that its passengers have already been rescued and are not lying at the bottom of the sea.
They write the letters ‘SAR’ for ‘search and rescue’ and then a date. The side of this wooden boat is marked with the code ‘SAR516’, which means that it must have been emptied by an NGO ship in May, 2016. So this is at least the second time that this particular boat transported refugees out into the Mediterranean Sea.
I turn around and say hello to a tall man who introduces himself as Gabriel. He is 26 and from South Sudan. Almost all of our guests are young men from Nigeria, Sudan and Eritrea.
Gabriel set out on his journey north six months ago.
»You know, when you see all these people getting killed, you just want to get away. My younger brother was killed by soldiers«, he says.
His eyes turn hard as he tells me that he left his wife and their 18 months old boy behind in South Sudan with his parents and five remaining brothers.
When he came to Libya, he was detained by armed men who threw him in jail and ordered him to call his family and have them send money. Gabriel lied and told them that he had no family.
Then they let him out and forced him to work at construction sites. He worked for three months to earn his place on a boat to Europe. Now, he dreams of getting to England or maybe Australia.
»But I don’t know what the options …«.
I interrupt Gabriel mid-sentence, because I suddenly notice a lot of orange life jackets in the water a few hundred meters ahead of the ‘Sea-Watch 2’. Something is not right here.
The Punctured Rubber Boat
While I was talking to Gabriel, two large inflatable rubber boats full of refugees had appeared close to our ship.
One of them is just outside the Libyan 12 mile limit. That is a line that we cannot cross under any circumstances. The rubber boat is in serious trouble. The engine does not work, and the boat is drifting aimlessly with about 120 people on board.
Chris and his ‘Tornado’ crew are at the site and they call the bridge at ‘Sea-Watch 2’. Chris proposes to jump aboard the rubber boat and try to fix the engine. He is good at that sort of thing.
But Kim, our South Korean captain, says no. He tells Chris to attach a line to the rubber boat in order to pull it further away from Libya’s territorial waters and then continue the rescue operation there.
But it is not only the engine that is defective. When Chris has fastened the line and begun to pull, he discovers that the front of the rubber boat is broken.
The boat acts strangely and moves sideways.
As Chris revs up the ‘Tornado’, Max is keeping an eye on the rubber boat. Suddenly, he hears the sound that he least wants to hear: SSSSSS. The front part of the crowded rubber boat has burst. The air is gushing out.
»Cut the line, Max«, shouts Chris. He wants to make sure that the ‘Tornado’ stays maneuverable.
He sails closer to the rubber boat and begins to hand out life jackets to the passengers on the boat, which is now sinking. But people are standing and sitting so closely together that it is difficult for them to put on their jackets. Those standing closest to the edge are being pushed from behind by the many people who are beginning to panic.
After 5-10 minutes, the first passengers fall overboard.
Even a ‘Tornado’ can sink
I the meantime, our second fast boat, the ‘Delta’, has begun to hand out life jackets to the people on the other rubber boat some distance away from the punctured boat.