The Drowning Season: Most of the exhausted refugees are rescued, others are dying in the sea among the volunteers

For two weeks, Jacob Ehrbahn and Kjeld Hybel, photographer and journalist at the Danish daily Politiken, were on board a German rescue ship with volunteers from the NGO Sea-Watch. In several cases they were in the motor boats that pick up desperate, exhausted refugees that were risking their lives to get to Europe. Some of them drowned. Some were petrified ghosts. A couple of women were pregnant. Most of them will eventually be sent back to Africa. The rest will probably have miserable lives in Europe.

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.

Dutch Nico is the leader of Mission 6. Behind him is the captain of the ship, the South Korean Kim.

Dutch Nico is the leader of Mission 6. Behind him is the captain of the ship, the South Korean Kim.

’Sea-Watch 2’ is a mature British lady at age 50.

’Sea-Watch 2’ is a mature British lady at age 50.

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.

Refugees are sailing from the coast of Libya in open wooden boats that have room for up to 1.000 people. Often they cram together in rubber boats like this which has 134 people on board. When 'Sea-Watch 2' found the boat, it had already been at sea for three days.

Refugees are sailing from the coast of Libya in open wooden boats that have room for up to 1.000 people. Often they cram together in rubber boats like this which has 134 people on board. When 'Sea-Watch 2' found the boat, it had already been at sea for three days.

The first people being rescued are normally women, children and the weak. This is Jakob from Hamburg making sure a baby gets on the ship.

The first people being rescued are normally women, children and the weak. This is Jakob from Hamburg making sure a baby gets on the ship.

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.

This woman was saved at the last minute, immediately after the bottom of the inflatable boat, she was in, fell out.

This woman was saved at the last minute, immediately after the bottom of the inflatable boat, she was in, fell out.

This woman was in the same inflatable boat. She was almost lifeless when the Tornado-team rescued her. The translator Gennaro is taking care of her.

This woman was in the same inflatable boat. She was almost lifeless when the Tornado-team rescued her. The translator Gennaro is taking care of her.

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.

After the refugees have put on life jackets they are tranported to one of the NGO's ships or to a ship from the Italian coastguard. This is Sabine and Florin on the way to 'Sea Wartch 2'.

After the refugees have put on life jackets they are tranported to one of the NGO's ships or to a ship from the Italian coastguard. This is Sabine and Florin on the way to 'Sea Wartch 2'.

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.

An inflatable boat with refugees punctures while Chris and his people are trying to pull it away from Libyan waters. A lot of people are falling into the sea, several without a life jacket on. The group in the front is trying to keep calm and stay together to protect the woman in the middle, who is not wearing a life jacket. A pregnant woman is drowning, and the dead body is drfiting around in the water between those who are still fighting for their lives.

An inflatable boat with refugees punctures while Chris and his people are trying to pull it away from Libyan waters. A lot of people are falling into the sea, several without a life jacket on. The group in the front is trying to keep calm and stay together to protect the woman in the middle, who is not wearing a life jacket. A pregnant woman is drowning, and the dead body is drfiting around in the water between those who are still fighting for their lives.

When a inflatable boat puncutres and people are falling into the sea, Chris, who are wearing the white helmet, is trying to help so many people on to the boat that it is nearly sinking. He is shouting at the other boat from 'Sea-Watch 2' for them to come and get some of the refugees to make his boat lighter.

When a inflatable boat puncutres and people are falling into the sea, Chris, who are wearing the white helmet, is trying to help so many people on to the boat that it is nearly sinking. He is shouting at the other boat from 'Sea-Watch 2' for them to come and get some of the refugees to make his boat lighter.

Behind the wheel on the ‘Delta’ is the experienced Greenpeace captain Sabine. Her crew is the German doctor Robert, and Florin, the electrician. The last man on board is Politiken’s photographer.

Several NGO ships have arrived to the area now. ‘Phoenix’ from the organization Moas, ‘Juventa’ from Jugend Rettet and the Spanish ship ‘Golfo Azurro’. But ‘Sea-Watch 2’ was the first to arrive, so we are leading the operation.

Now, the Delta crew hear Chris shouting over the radio.

»There are people in the water! People are drowning.«

Sabine promptly reacts. She turns the ‘Delta’ around and goes full speed ahead. The boat races across the water at 30 knots. Being on a small boat at this speed is a bit like riding a furious bull.

Within minutes, they have reached ‘Tornado’ and the sinking rubber boat. They are met with a disturbing sight.

Chris and his crew have managed to rescue some people and placed them on their extra rubber raft that they keep in tow and use to carry life jackets on. The rubber raft is now fastened to the side of the ‘Tornado’.

But, in total defiance of his instincts, Chris has also pulled people aboard the ‘Tornado’. Around 22 of them. Way too many.

»I wanted to get the children out of the water. And those without a life jacket«, he says when talk about it a couple of days later.

»There were more and more of them in the water. It was crazy. They were all over the place. I was so happy that the screw at the ‘Tornado’ was protected by wire mesh. Otherwise …«.

There is no need to fulfil that sentence.

This extremely seaworthy rescue boat, which is supposed to be unsinkable, is in serious trouble. The large engine is half submerged in water, but still running. Not for long, though. Suddenly, the engine stops. And so does the pump that had been working so hard to empty the ‘Tornado’ of water.

»That’s when I thought that we were really f…ed«, Chris says. »I took both radios and yelled: ‘The boat is overcrowded'«.

»We’re sinking’«.

Max Dives into the Water

Chris takes his helmet off and gives it to a man, telling him:

»If you want to live, fight for it!«.

They are scooping water out of the boat with shoes and what else they can find. Gennaro, the interpreter, also lets his helmet serve as a ladle. So does Robert. He throws his helmet from the ‘Delta’ to a man on the ‘Tornado’. Several refugees jump from ‘Tornado’ to ‘Delta’.

It is about this time that Max, the medic, sees a pregnant woman in the water. She is not wearing a life jacket. Max shouts to Chris that he has to get into the water to rescue her. Chris is busy and does not hear him. But he sees Max take a dive into the sea.

Max kicks his boots off in the water, grasps the woman and takes her to the ‘Tornado’. Then he swims to the ‘Delta’, which is now busy pulling people out of the water.

A couple of fishermen also begin to pull drowning people into their dinghies.

On the ship, the German doctor Robert is making sure that there is nothing seriously wrong with a dehydrated and seasick refugee.

On the ship, the German doctor Robert is making sure that there is nothing seriously wrong with a dehydrated and seasick refugee.

After three days at sea, 'Sea Watch 2' rescues 134 people. The refugees ran out of water on the second day at sea, and three people died when they fell over board.

After three days at sea, 'Sea Watch 2' rescues 134 people. The refugees ran out of water on the second day at sea, and three people died when they fell over board.

The photographer on board the ‘Delta’ — the camera hanging from his neck — is working with Florin to pull people up. They grab people by an arm or a leg. Throw them into the bottom of the boat. Several of them have lost their pants in the water. Between rescues, as the boat is moving to get to the next victim, the photographer manages to take a picture or two.

Chris orders the people around him to take off their life jackets and throw them to those who are drowning.

Then, finally, he manages to start the engine again. This means that the pump is also back on.

Slowly, very slowly, he steers the ‘Tornado’ towards ‘Sea-Watch 2’. He transfers his passengers, empties the boat of water and goes back to the punctured rubber boat, which is still drifting about with some of the horrified refugees.

On his way there, Chris sees another pregnant woman in the sea. She is floating in the water, face down.

He recovers the dead body. She has froth at the mouth and here eyes are wide open. Chris covers her face and begins to ferry the remaining survivors back to ‘Sea-Watch 2’.

When everybody is safe, someone from the ship hands him a black body bag and a stretcher. The leader of this Sea Watch mission, Nico from Amsterdam, jumps down into the ‘Tornado’ to help Chris and Gennaro get the dead woman into the body bag and place her on the stretcher.

On the ship, I help first officer Rein carry the stretcher with the dead woman to the very end of the rear deck. We have to step over the exhausted refugees that are now lying all over the ship, most of them wrapped in shiny golden space blankets.

Welcome, ‘Charlie Papa’

A few hours later, someone hands a very lively baby over to me from one of the boats. A girl, who is just a few weeks old. She looks at me with carefree eyes. This is almost more than I can handle, but a few seconds later, her mother comes stumbling aboard. Shaking from exhaustion, she takes her child.

What else is there to say about this Saturday?

Nothing much, except that everything seems to be muddling together in my head. And not just in my head. Most of the crew members feel the same way. One rubber boat after the other appears. We have lost count of the number and order. Some of them are evacuated by other NGOs. 212 people have come aboard ‘Sea-Watch 2’, says Nico, the mission leader, who has been counting.

I feel like the number must be even higher.

One of them is the pregnant woman that Max dived into the sea to rescue. She has swallowed a lot of sea water mixed with the particularly acidic gasoline that these rubber boats are running on. Neither Robert, nor our other doctor, Steffi, has any experience with this kind of thing, so they call the other NGO ships in the area for advice.

They ask for extra supplies of oxygen, too. The woman is in desperate need of oxygen.

A doctor from ‘Juventa’ arrives shortly after with oxygen and experience. ‘Golfo Azurro’ also sends oxygen. And the woman and her unborn baby make it.

Soon after, a very large ship — ‘Charlie Papa’ — from the Italian coastguard arrives. Almost all rescues in these waters are coordinated by the coastguard command center in Rome, the MRCC, but these days the Italian ships rarely assist in the actual operations.

Usually, they are just keeping an eye on things.

Today is an exception. ‘Charlie Papa’ takes all the rescued refugees aboard.

When the last guest has left our ship, we pick up the crumpled space blankets, the empty water bottles, and the piles of drenched clothes.

It goes on and on

The next morning, it begins all over again. I board the ‘Delta’ with Florin behind the wheel and Thomas, the second engineer, as his experienced assistant. We are heading for a position where there is supposed to be a wooden boat with about 80 people on board.

It turns out to be what you might call a VIP version of a refugee boat. The passengers have fairly ample space and none of them require emergency medical attention. We decide that it is not a matter of great urgency to have them evacuated.

And now the rubber boats begin to appear. We leave the wooden boat behind for now.

The first one is crammed full of people. Usually, the women are worse off because, for safety reasons, they are placed in the middle of the rubber boat, sitting on the floor.

Today, there are lots of engine fishers at sea. When we have emptied a boat, they nick the outboard engine.

In one case, they snatch the engine while the refugees are still on the boat. And then these fishers shout to us that they have seen another rubber boat a couple of nautical miles away.

What are we to do now? Should we ignore them in order to not be accused of collaborating with traffickers?

NGOs have already been accused of this for a long time. European politicians, especially from the right wing, claim that the traffickers onshore in Libya call the NGO vessels when they send one of their miserable, overloaded vessels out to sea.

And more nonsense of that kind.

But now these fishers are here and point us in the direction of the next boat. What the hell do we do?

We speed up and follow the fishers to the rubber boat. The alternative would be to let the people aboard drown. That is how it is.

It turns out to be a busy Sunday. Once more, our ship is filled with refugees. Late in the day, ‘Charlie Papa’ also takes this group aboard, so that they can be brought to an Italian port.

But once we have finished cleaning the ship and a couple of crew members express their relief in a few dance steps on the deck, we hear the voice of the captain sounding from the loudspeaker:

»We have a new target«.

Chris speaks Italian

A couple of times during the weekend, Nico tells Chris to take a break. That is definitely not Chris’ cup of tea.

But he does as he is told and then tiptoes among the refugees who are lying or sitting on the deck of ‘Sea-Watch 2’. He squats down to offer a couple of comforting words to a woman with a boy called Simon who appears to be around six months old. Chris helps other refugees fill their water bottles from one of the hoses that we have mounted for that very purpose. He helps several women clean their wounds and burns.

Shortly after, he is back at the ‘Tornado’.

At one time, while he shuttles between our ship and the ‘Charlie Papa’ with refugees, the Italian captain shouts down to him that he is sick and tired of NGOs like Sea Watch that are not able to keep close track of the number of refugees they take on board a ship.

»Thank you, admiral«, Chris shouts back at him in a sarcastic voice. And adds to himself: »Bloody idiot!«.

The next day the Italian shouts again from the bridge:

»I have been doing this rescue work for seven years. I damn well know what I am doing!«.

»Right, we have been doing it for 12 days«, Chris replies. »And we are already better at it than you people!«.

Shortly after having rescued a pregnant woman from drowning, the Sea-Watch-team discovers another pregnant woman in the water. For her, it is already to late.

Shortly after having rescued a pregnant woman from drowning, the Sea-Watch-team discovers another pregnant woman in the water. For her, it is already to late.

Nevertheless, he respects the Italian ship for actually returning to the area Sunday evening when we got the extra target.

It was yet another sinking rubber boat.

»I didn’t think that a..hole of a captain would come back, but they arrived at 40 knots. By the way, I could already imagine the dead people’s faces in the water«.

First they burned the children

One of the crew members at ‘Sea-Watch 2’ is a German in his forties with long hair in a ponytail. His name is Alex Graffmanns.

Normally, he is the one who runs the small NGO from its main offices in Berlin. Now, for the first time he has come along on a mission to learn for himself what it is like to rescue people in the Mediterranean Sea.

Even though he is actually the guy who runs the whole enterprise, he tactfully leaves it to Nico and Kim to make decisions. Like the rest of us, he works hard with the refugees and everything else that needs to be done on a ship.

Axel asks me not to publish the surnames of crew members because they have previously experienced unpleasant attacks from people who would rather have left the refugees to drown.

One day, towards the end of our two week mission, he and I sit on the bridge deck and talk about the whole thing

»It is hard to say what this trip has meant to me. I am still deeply moved by the images that have been burned onto my eyelids. All that suffering. I can’t help thinking that we, the crew, get a psychological de-briefing when we get home. But these people, the refugees, they get no support at all …«, says Axel.

»It is like a science fiction movie. We live in completely different zones. They live in the shit zone. They hav got no prospects, no chance. Their only option is to sail out on a rubber boat«.

He sees no signs whatsoever that the situation is changing. No political will to take action where it would really matter, that is, change matters in the the countries people are fleeing.

It strikes him how little we know of those countries.

»One guy from South Sudan said to me: Well, they burned the children in my village. Then they killed the women to make sure no more babies were born … It dawned on me that I knew nothing about South Sudan. But how can we help people when we know nothing about them?«.

The Last Rubber Boat

In many ways, the stories of these refugees are alike. At least those I get to hear on the ship while handing out water and blankets and showing people where the toilets are.

They are only fragments of life stories, told in broken English. They are typically about horrendous abuse, civil war, murdered family members, bombed-out villages.

The kind of things you flee from.

Then you arrive in Libya and join the one million refugees who are already waiting for a rubber boat. There, you are put in jail, placed in camps, tortured, sold as a slave, and, if you are a woman, raped over and over and over. For some people, this goes on for three, four, five years.

Small wonder that some of the refugees throw their Libyan money into the sea as soon as they get on board the ‘Sea-Watch 2’. Goodbye, Libya!

And then, of course, it is about that dream, the dream that things could be different. The dream that Europe is a place where you can have a life.

The most exhausted of the refugees are allowed to wait on deck outside the clinic for a doctor to attend them.

The most exhausted of the refugees are allowed to wait on deck outside the clinic for a doctor to attend them.

It is that kind of stories that I am told by Isaac from Ghana. We are talking on Monday after the weekend when the refugees kept coming.

Early Monday morning the Maritime Rescue Co-ordination Center in Rome calls us to ask if we can go out to look for a big rubber boat adrift a few nautical miles from the Libyan coast.

We will give it a try, says mission leader Nico, who is getting a bit worn out like the rest of us.

A few hours later, we approach the position that we have been guided to, and ‘Delta’ puts out a lifeboat.

Nico calls Rome to get permission to take aboard the approximately 130 people. Permission is granted on condition that we stay out of Libyan waters. We can actually see chimneys and factories on the coast through the binoculars.

The rubber boat is drifting north, in our direction. Away from Libya. From a distance Sabine, who is driving the ‘Delta’, can see and hear that these refugees are out of their mind. They shout and wave their arms.

The ‘Delta’ hands them some gasoline so they can cover the last distance to ‘Sea Watch 2’ where they are allowed to attach the rubber boat to the side of the ship. Nico jumps aboard and tries to calm down the passengers.

Then we begin to take them aboard.

Welcome to Europe

We have seen quite a few things during the last three days, but we have not seen anyone as exhausted as the people that are now dragging themselves aboard our ship. They look like ghosts.

Several of them collapse as soon as they set foot on the deck, their faces petrified.

Many of the men are wearing only their underpants.

I take a look over the side of the ship at the empty rubber boat where the rest of their clothes are scattered around on the floorboard, all drenched. In the middle of the boat stands Nico, the experienced rescue worker who is a professional climber.

I have never seen him this shaken.

We help people to accommodate on the quarterdeck in front and on the bridge deck. The shadiest places are assigned to the eight women. One of them is pregnant and feeling really bad. Her husband is Isaac.

First, he asks me if he can take a shower to try to cool down his burns. He pulls down his underpants a bit to show me the wounds.

Isaac tells me that they have spent three days at sea and that they ran out of water the second day. The traffickers that sent them off from Libya assured them that they would reach Italy within only three or four hours. It would be like crossing a wide river.

They just kept sailing and lost their way. After three days, they were still close to the Libyan coast.

The day before, six people had fallen overboard. Three of them drowned, one of the women tells me, while she is crying. She was close to one of the persons who died.

Soldiers in protective suits

The ‘Sea Watch 2’ is now alone on the sea. There are no other NGO vessels in sight. No Italian coastguard. We have no idea what do to with our new guests. We give them something to drink, of course. We give them something to eat. We hand out space blankets. And as night falls, we also fetch them some warm blankets.

Then the Italian coastguard announces that it will send out two smaller, but very fast vessels from the island of Lampedusa. They will be able to join us in approximately six hours. This is good news.

Chris is mainly sailing the fastest of the motor boats, the Tornado. When the ship is full, he is also good at giving new hope to the shipwrecked guests.

Chris is mainly sailing the fastest of the motor boats, the Tornado. When the ship is full, he is also good at giving new hope to the shipwrecked guests.

After 10 hours the last group of refugees are picked up by two boats from the Italian coast guard that are transporting them to Lampedusa.

After 10 hours the last group of refugees are picked up by two boats from the Italian coast guard that are transporting them to Lampedusa.

It is one a.m. on Tuesday when the first Italian boat approaches our ship. These are high tech boats, and the soldiers on board are wearing white protective suits, rubber boots and rubber gloves.

Some of them are even wearing masks covering their nose and mouth. They look like they have been sent to fight some deadly contagious disease. They look like extraterrestrials.

The refugees, who have calmed down a bit after 10 hours on board ‘Sea Watch 2’, look terrified as they are pulled aboard the two Italian vessels. The soldiers yell at them. Kick them.

Standing on the quarterdeck with first officer I watch the brutal handover.

»Assholes«, Rein mumbles.

»What is going to happen to these people?«, I ask.

»They will be taken to Lampedusa and placed in camps. Sooner or later, most of them will be sent back to the country they come from. The rest will jsbr miserable lives in Europe«, he says.

With all of the refugees go, we clear up the ship. Later, most of the crew meets up on the bridge deck. It must be around two a.m. At first everybody is silent.

Then Florin speaks.

»So that’s it?«, he asks.

Nico nods. That’s it.

According to his small notebook, we have helped rescue 14 boats in the last two weeks. At least 1,400 persons. Unfortunately, five of them died. And now we are heading back to Malta.

Translated by: Tonny Pedersen, Lorens Juul Madsen and Jakob Haff

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