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As the day ends they have been saved from certain death
Every week hundreds of people drown in the Mediterranean, the world's deadliest sea.
DN's Katia Wagner and Anders Hansson joined the search- and rescue boat Aquarius for an eight day operation. 731 people were saved from a sure death, thirty of them children. The youngest child was three-month-old baby Success.
Just after nine o’clock in the morning, three-month-old baby Success is lifted out of the sinking rubber boat. He has been sitting in his mother Betsy’s arms since they left the beach in Libya at four o’clock in the morning. The boat is taking in water and soon it will fold at the middle. Max Avis, deputy search-and-rescue leader for the team at the rescue boat Aquarius, has just arrived. They don’t have many minutes to gain control over the situation. Many people are panicking and at any moment they might start to jump in the water.
”Hello everyone. My name is Max. We are here to help you.”
Smiling, he stands up in the speedboat, and stretches his arms out in a welcoming gesture. He tells everyone to sit down. And that they have to help each other with the rescue vests.
When Betsy and some of the other women have been seated and are on their way to Aquarius they start singing. With their hands aimed at the sky they praise the Lord for letting them and their children survive. A few nautical miles away another overcrowded rubber boat goes under. Eighty-two people disappear in the Mediterranean this Friday morning.
Nicola Stalla is sleeping in his cabin when the alarm goes off. A rubber boat twenty minutes away is in distress. Morning is breaking; he is on the rescue boat Aquarius, patrolling twenty nautical miles from Libya’s coastline. As always the Italian Marine Rescue Coordination Center directs the operations on the Mediterranean. And as always, Nico, who is search-and-rescue leader, takes the call. It’s his second period of work aboard. The first one lasted for two and a half months, and now he has been out here as long. He is 38 years old and a capable seaman. For a long time Nico was deck manager on a ship transporting fresh fruit from the Caribbean to Europe. After fifteen years he went ashore to teach navigation. But he longed to get back to sea.
Now he is hurrying up on the bridge to captain Wojciech to get the position of the rubber boat. He starts the wake-up chain. Fifteen minutes later the crew is on their feet, together with the search-and-rescue team and medical staff from the humanitarian organisations SOS Méditerranée and Doctors without borders. There are thirty-three people on board. Everyone knows what to do. Life vests are prepared. The speedboats – small fast motor boats with rubber railings – are prepared to be put in the water. The clinic is assembled, a women’s ward is opened.
They prepare for registration, and put their own safety equipment on: helmets and life vests for everyone, overalls and work gloves for the people who go in the speed boats, and highly protective sun screen.
Till Rummenhohl from SOS Méditerranée watches the horizon using binoculars. He sees the boat in distress. It’s a blue rubber boat.
”I hate the blue ones,” he says. ”They’re the worst.”
Behind it another boat is spotted. And another one. And another one. He calls the search-and-rescue leader.
When Nico calls a meeting on deck a few minutes later eight overcrowded boats have been spotted. More than a thousand people in need. He gathers the team in a tight circle around him.
”This will be a long day,” he says.
First of all they need to distribute the life vests, the single most crucial item for a successful search-and-rescue operation. The people who end up in the water without life vests risk drowning, the people wearing life vests manage by themselves for a while, and it takes time to get all the people in need to Aquarius.
Simultaneously the team needs to calm a situation that is usually worked up. The first question the people in the boats ask is usually if they will be sent back to Libya. Nico leads the work from the ship and needs a status report. How many children and women? Is anyone in the water? Is their any medical emergency?
Except dehydration, chemical burns are the most common. The boats are taken out to sea using outboard motors, in the rear there are plastic canisters filled with petrol, which often spills. Together with the salty water the petrol starts a chemical reaction leading to painful burns. The women are the most vulnerable, they are often placed in the middle of the boats, where the liquid gathers, and they get chemical burns in their genitals. As soon as they get to Aquarius they have to shower. The petrol fumes also make them dizzy, and some people can barely make it to the speedboats because they are so affected.
The moment when the evacuation starts is crucial. If one person jumps in the water others usually follow. That can lead to chaos. Many almost lurch themselves off the rubber boat, their legs hanging over the railing, some people have slid into the water, and are helped up again. Impatient hands stretch towards the speedboats.
”Don’t worry, we will take everyone with us. But we need to help each other. You have to stay in the boat. Sit down, be calm. Keep your legs inside,” Max shouts.
There is room for twenty people at a time; they start with the children and women. One by one they are placed along the sides of the boat. They are dehydrated. Some of them are crying. A man folds his arms around his body, rocking back and forth, mumbling: ”Thank you, thank you, thank you.”
Betsy and little Success are taken to the women’s ward. The boy will be three months today. He is soaking wet. Shaking and crying. The baby has several layers of clothes on, and a full diaper. Betsy slowly undresses him. Three jumpsuits. Two pairs of socks. She takes out a small plastic package from the inner sock.
”My SIM-card,” she says.
The midwife Elisabeth Ramlow examines Success. Everything seems to be fine. With new dry clothes he is put on his mother’s breast. Betsy is lying on a blanket on the floor. Success sucks loudly and falls asleep almost immediately. So does Betsy.
The second time the speedboat comes back, two children, a boy and a girl roughly four or five years old, are lifted on deck. It quickly becomes clear that their parents are not with them. People take them in their arms, the children cling on. They are carried to the women’s ward, a rectangular hall with a small room in one end. They are also wearing several layers of clothes. Everything is soaking. The boy smells of urine.
Everyone gets a bag with a water bottle, energy biscuits and a set of underwear, socks and a tracksuit. A small towel and a blanket. The children are undressed, dried and get identical blue tracksuits. The sleeves are too long on both of them and have to be folded up. Neither the boy nor the girl say anything. After a drink of water the boy collapses. Elizabeth looks at him and concludes that he is exhausted, but he doesn’t have a temperature, and is not obviously ill. He cowers on the floor. Just like the baby he falls asleep. The girl lies down next to him. She pats his cheek with her small hand. She looks up towards the roof and doesn’t answer when spoken to, neither in English nor French. But she is safe now and the team has to take care of other people. Not until later will they try to find the parents. On the rubber boat it’s possible to fit 140 people, on the smaller wooden boats there’s room for 250 and on the big ones 900, on three floors. One of the big boats capsized in April 2015, in the worst disaster so far on the Mediterranean, where more than 800 people drowned.
So far this year 60,000 people have travelled by boat to Italy. From the coast of Libya it takes between four and nine hours before the unseaworthy boats reach international water. That’s where the search-and-rescue operations take place. If the boats get there. Everyone knows it’s a matter of time before they fill up with water or break. The smugglers coldly count on the rescue organisations and Italian coast guards to be in the area and pick people up. At least that’s what they say when they sell the sought after seats to Europe.
But it’s not true. Everyone knows that too. The central Mediterranean route, as the route between Libya and Italy is called, is the world’s most dangerous route for refugees. According to the UN agency, International organisation of migration (IOM), 7500 refugees lost their lives last year. More than 4500 of them died on this route. This year 1600 people have been registered as deceased. But no one knows for sure how many disappear into the sea, as no one knows how many get on the boats. At one point last summer close to 100 dead bodies floated ashore in Libya, without any shipwreck being reported.
New overcrowded boats are spotted all the time. Eight become twelve, twelve become sixteen. Before the end of the day more than twenty unseaworthy boats have appeared, both wooden and rubber boats. For twelve hours the two speedboats work as shuttles. At one point the chef sends a load of pizza for the search-and-rescue team. They get new water bottles. But there is no time for a break, not even to go to the toilet. In the end 731 people have boarded Aquarius. Save the Children’s ship Vos Hestia has joined during the day and they have taken in 550 people, the Italian coast guards are there with their ship Gregoretti CP 920, taking in over a thousand people.
When the day ends close to 2500 people have been rescued from death in the sea.
”I know the biscuits you’ve been given have a strange taste. But they are good for you, you need the energy.”
The midwife Elisabeth stands in the middle of the women’s ward trying to make her voice heard. It’s not all that easy. In around 40 square metres 87 women and 30 children under twelve are gathered.
They have unfolded their blankets and placed themselves on the floor. It's crowded, there’s no possibility of turning without hitting one another. The women need to drink water; some of them are menstruating and need underwear and sanitary pads. There are diapers and washcloths for the babies, donated children’s clothes and toys in boxes, jumpsuits and tiny sweaters with skateboards, princesses and airplanes. Soft animals, crayons and paper. Only women and children are allowed in.
”And the toilet is over there,” Elisabeth says and points to a corner of the room.
A portable toilet is standing by the wall. Next to it there are washcloths, toilet paper and a rubbish bin. And a potty for the youngest ones.
Several of the women stare.
”You want us to go… there?”
”I’m sorry but we can’t offer more integrity. We have to help each other to make it work.” Elisabeth has been on the boat for three months. This search-and-rescue operation will be her last one, then she will return to Massachusetts in the US, where she works at a children’s centre. She will turn seventy later this year but has no plans on slowing down her pace. During the last seven years she has been on occasional field missions for Doctors without borders. Elisabeth was on her way to South Sudan when she was asked to be a midwife on Aquarius instead. Almost everyone wants a chat with her. Pregnant women are examined; there are eighteen of them. The conversations take time, often it’s the first time the women meet a midwife. Elisabeth hardly has time to sleep during the days on board.
Elisabeth och Anthony from SOS Méditerranée.
Several people need medical care. Someone groans because of malaria. A few people have migraines and stomach problems. The people who need to see Elisabeth or the doctor get a red and white band around their wrist.
When everyone thinks the search-and-rescue operation has come to an end Nico suddenly gets an alarm. Two unconscious Bangladeshi men and two others in a terrible condition are on their way in a motorboat, from another rescue boat. Doctors without borders' clinic on Aquarius is best equipped, that’s why they’re coming here. Nurse Mark Leirer and doctor Conor welcome them. The guys are dizzy and dehydrated and have become sick from the seawater they have been drinking. Sufian and Amir are also injured. The medical team gives them water, warms them and takes them on to the ship to the clinic where there are beds to rest in.
They had been sitting in the back of the boat during the trip, Sufian says when he has recovered.
Mark and Conor from Doctors without borders take care of Sufian and Amir.
Suddenly a small white motorboat closed in on the railing. Four men were onboard, from the Libyan coast guards, they said.
”They shouted ’Bangla, bangla, give us money.’ But no one had any.”
Then the men demanded to get the motor and a canister of petrol instead. At the horizon the rescue boat could be seen, but it was far away. Everyone panicked. As they tried to stop the men from taking the motor, Amir was kicked hard in his chest, He fell and hit his head on the planks in the bottom of the rubber boat. He fainted. Sufian tried to stand between them, but he was also kicked, across his ribs. When an airplane started circling the boats the men in the white boat left.
Sufian never meant to go to Libya. He was going to Saudi Arabia to work, that’s where his visa was for. The flight was booked via Turkey, several Bangladeshis were on the same trip. But when they came to Istanbul they were met by a man with a different plan.
”He put us on a plane to Libya.”
In Tripoli, another man waited and took them to a house where they were locked inside a room. They didn’t get any food and hardly any water. Different men came inside and hit and kicked them.
”I called my parents, crying”, says Sufian.
The man demanded money from Sufian’s family in order to release him. By phone the parents were forced to hear their son scream in agony during a brutal assault staged so that they would understand the severity of the situation. Sufian says his father sold the family house to get him released, and sent them 6000 dollars.
He was released and managed to find a job at a shipyard as a welder. The working days were long and he was constantly hungry and thirsty. But he didn’t get paid.
”In the end I said ’I have earned my money and I need to help my family.’ Then the boss threatened to shoot me if I ever mentioned money again.”
After Muammar Khaddafi was ousted and killed in 2011 a civil war started in Libya. Since then there’s been chaos. Three governments and two parliaments claim the power. None of them control the country. Instead different militias which are ethnically, religiously or clan-led have taken over several areas, and IS has multiple strongholds. Criminal networks and traffickers operate without obstruction.
Information from Libya is limited. International aid organisations have left the country and journalists find it difficult to get in to the country to report. In reports the UN talks about trafficking, kidnappings and slavery. People are held in custody, women and children are raped and assaulted. Young women are injected with contraceptives by traffickers so that they do not fall pregnant from the assaults.
Millions of weapons are circulating, and people are bought and sold openly. When Sufian had been at the shipyard for six months his employer gave him to an armed man who took him to Gharyan, a city in northwestern Libya. There he was locked up again, this time in a storage facility with ten other Bangladeshis. That’s where he met Amir. The two 17 year-olds come from the Madhupur district in Bangladesh, and speak the same language. They became a team. They helped and protected each other. It became like a pact.
”If one of us goes somewhere the other comes too”, Sufian explains.
They slept on the floor. Got one loaf of bread every day, but no water. In the end they had to drink water from the toilet.
”We weren’t allowed to wash either. The only time we felt water was when they tortured us using electricity.”
Sufian was stabbed several times, he has six scars on his forearm. A man used to hit them with a shoe, over the ribcage. One person came in and performed several mock executions: He aimed at the head, but shot over the shoulder. Every time the men came they demanded that the families in Bangladesh send more money.
”But how could they do that? They had already sold their house, they couldn’t find any more money.”
Sufian says one of the Bangladeshis was so brutally assaulted he bled from his head. One day he had enough and ran straight through the door when one of the armed men opened it to enter.
”They shot him in front of our eyes. After that no one even thought about escaping.”
They were tortured for eighteen days. Then saviour came. A guard was so drunk he had forgotten his gun. He screamed and shouted as usual. ”Bangla, bangla give me money.” It was two o’clock in the morning, the door was ajar.
”We ran as fast as we could manage.”
They walked through the desert for a long time, Sufian says. They hadn’t had enough food or drink for weeks. They were injured from all the violence. In the end they collapsed at the roadside. A man passing by with a pickup truck took them home with him.
”He was a good man. He let us live in his goat shed.”
Sufian and Amir sit closely on Aquarius when they talk about what they have gone through. The world needs to know what is going on in Libya, they say.
”Don’t go there,” Sufian says. ”Don’t go there. Don’t go there.”
They were treated pretty well by the man with the goat shed. He gave them food and bought them each a cell phone and clothes. They helped him in his fruit orchard and with the animals. But he couldn’t give them a salary and after two months they had to move on, to get money for their families.
”We want to go home, but it’s impossible. It costs almost 2000 dollars each. How are we supposed to earn that kind of money in Libya?”
In the end the only alternative was to make their way to Europe. The man they lived with paid the smugglers.
They were scared all the time on the water. Sufian and Amir know that many people drown. But leaving was the best choice, Sufian says.
”I’d rather die on the sea than stay in Libya.”
He talks quickly, with a shrill and mechanical voice. Amir doesn’t say much, he adds a few details with a cracked voice. His lips are white and clenched. He clasps his chest and grimaces as he coughs. They don’t know what life will be like when they get to Italy. None of them imagined a life in Europe, they just wanted to escape Libya. Sufian is worried about how he will be able to help his parents. He can’t work hard anymore, he says. His back is ruined from the assaults.
”I don’t know what to do.”
Ibrahim and Samba, two 16 year-old boys from Gambia who are hanging out in Aquaria’s area for unaccompanied minors, say they paid for the boat trip to Europe four times. The first three times they didn’t get far.
”Someone was standing on the beach, shooting holes in the rubber boats.”
They had to go back and return to the man that held them captive, to work to get money for a new trip.
Samba came to Libya when he was fifteen years old, to work. He didn’t have any idea about the situation in the country. Ibrahim was fourteen; he has been there for almost three years. They were forced to work all the time. They were held captive in different locations and sold several times.
”The world might think that slavery doesn’t exist. It does.”
Reem Bouarrouj hears this type of testimony on every search-and-rescue operation. In Tunisia she is a doctor at an emergency ward, on Aquarius she is a ”cultural mediator”, employed by Doctors without borders. Her job is to explain what will happen during the trip to Italy and after they get there, in different languages, one of them Arabic. Reem is on one of the speedboats and she interprets in meetings with doctors and in conversations.
Everyone says the same thing; they escaped from Libya to survive. And they were held in large migrant camps or houses, they were abused by criminal gangs, assaulted and tortured.
A week earlier Reem talked for a long time to two 17 year-old Sudanese boys. They had been sold several times. Held captive and tortured as Ibrahim and Samba, Sufian and Amir. Tortured with electricity. Forced to work. They only got a slice of bread and a cup of water a day. They worked in construction and agriculture, painted houses and picked fruit.
The boys had been in Libya for more than a year when they managed to escape. 32 Sudanese nationals escaped together. One of them was shot while running. The bullet went straight through one side of his thigh, and out through the other side. The doctor Conor and his medical team on Aquarius took care of the bullet wound.
”What shocked me the most was what they told me about a market where they worked,” Reem says.
The teenagers had been there with their employer. Two Libyan men stood next to them selling weapons. A buyer said he didn’t think the weapon was functional. ”You can try it out” the dealer was quoted saying. Then he gave him the gun and pointed at an African boy next to them. The buyer lifted the weapon and fired, the boy was shot in the head. ”You see, give me the money,” the dealer said.
”Some of the things you can’t grasp. But the world needs these testimonies. We need to listen,” Reem says.
On Friday afternoon Nico sends a picture of the girl and boy with no parents to the other search-and-rescue ships in the area. Does anyone know anything? The answer is received after half an hour. The mums are safe, they were taken to another ship during the turmoil. When Nico by radio gets word that the mothers are on their way to Aquarius to be reunited with their children, cheering erupts on deck. The children have had a long day, it’s been ten hours since they got on board. Both of them have slept and cried. The boy has been searching and calling out for his mom. They stay in someone’s arms by the railing when they see their mothers stumbling on to the ship, taking the children in their arms. Everyone around them stops in their tracks. At midnight Nico stands on the bridge, lighting a hand rolled cigarette. He loves the sea, he says. Especially when it’s rough, it’s as something chemical happens to him. Now he looks out over the hundreds of people sleeping, covered with blankets. It was in the northern Italian city of Ventimiglia, close to the French border, that Nico first met people who were stuck in Italy because of the closed borders. He heard about the trip over the sea, especially from a couple of Sudanese boys he got to know. They told him about the rubber boats, the fear, and what had happened to them in Libya.
At the same time Nico was learning French. On French radio he heard about Aquarius and the search-and-rescue work on the Mediterranean.
”I felt that this is what I should be doing. Not transporting containers.”
Nico contacted SOS Méditerranéeand volunteered to be captain. They didn’t need him. The two humanitarian organisations charter Aquarius fully staffed, and only handle the rescuing and medical work. Nico didn’t give up, he believed his years at sea would be helpful. He signed up to be part of the search-and-rescue team.
A little boy and girl were separated from their mothers. After several hours of searching on other boats, the mothers could finally be reunited with their children.
After the first operation he was asked to become deputy search-and-rescue leader responsible for the work on the speedboats. Next time he got on board he was asked to take the roll of search-and-rescue leader.
He boarded with trepidation. Everyone who goes on their first mission feels nervous, Nico says. Everyone needs to know exactly what to do to avoid chaos in the often extremely pressured situations. They practise a lot. The two days it takes from Sicily, which is Aquarius base, to the area close to Libya, are spent practicing and evaluating. They watch recorded material from previous operations, and they discuss. From which direction should they close in on a rubber boat which is taking in water? How should they act if people jump in? When desperate people climb on each other because their rubber boat has folded? How do you handle dead bodies, chemical burns, injuries from torture, despair?
The feeling of community after a successful operation is strong, he says. They know they have managed to save lives with their mutual efforts, that they hour after hour have received hundreds of exhausted people. To see them balance between life and death and then calm down on the ship is a powerful feeling.
”I can’t describe it in words.”
You can see the change, Nico says. Scared and tense faces soften. Smiles develop. On the last day of the trip back it’s not unusual to see people singing and dancing together. They are celebrating life, celebrating the team. Hands are held. Many people want to hug them and thank them. Not only have they been saved from the sea. They have managed to get out of Libya alive.
Salim lifts a spoon out of a pot and lets hot porridge pour into paper cups. A spoonful of sugar on top, then he puts them on a tray.
He is standing in the atrium of the women’s ward this Saturday morning, helping out with the children’s breakfast. Salim himself has his children and his wife Zahra with him.
The sun is shining over the Mediterranean. It’s been a relatively calm night, most of the people have been sleeping. There was some turbulence during the evening, a few men were smoking despite it being prohibited, and they kept on doing so after several reprimands. At the entrance to the women’s ward there is also irritation, a couple of men want to go inside to their wives and kids, but they are not allowed in.
”Just do as they say and keep the calm here,” Salim reprimands a man who insists.
He is dressed in a dark blue shirt, a suit and creased trousers, which are now wrinkled. Just like the other men he has wrapped himself in a blanket and slept on deck.
”No one at home knows that we have left,” he says and pulls out a key ring from his jacket pocket. Six to seven keys on a stable ring. One goes to the house with a garden in Tripoli, two to his office, a couple to the storage facility. Salim runs an import business with a companion, and trades with several European countries.
”Our life was good until chaos broke loose.”
It’s close to impossible to keep businesses working, he says. There are no authorities to turn to, no contracts to trust. The bank system doesn’t work. Sometimes he can make transactions, other times not. He is never sure if the bank owner will be the same from one time to another.
”When clients pay us the bank sometimes says no money has been received. And we can’t say anything.”
But the worst part is the constant threat that the children will be kidnapped. Salim and Zahra don’t dare to let them go to school. It’s been like that for three years. The children can’t go out to play by themselves, despite the family living in a decent area where the neighbours know each other. One of the daughters is standing next to her father, his arm around her.
”It’s too dangerous for us to go to school,” she says.
In the house the parents have furnished a small classroom. They’ve bought tablets and use Internet based courses in English, maths and natural science.
Salim says that a militia group kidnapped the son of one of his friends two years ago. The father payed 400 000 dinar, almost 2.5 million SEK, to get his child back. One year later the group took the boy again and demanded more money. This time the friend paid a smaller amount to another militia group to rescue the boy.
”After that he fled with his family. Took them out on the sea. As I have done now.”
Kidnappings aren’t the only threat. Once a month men from a militia group come to demand money, Salim says. ”Taxes” they call it. Four to five thousand dinars are demanded each time, more than 25.000 SEK. The men arrive and walk around with weapons hanging from their shoulders, pointing at the most valuable things in the big storage room, claiming that everything will be burned.
Sometimes they get in contact to ”order” things.
”They can call and say ’I need five IPhone 7 and two laptops by tomorrow night at six'. What I do? I get what they demand, of course.”
Since the system in Libya has collapsed the people who are affected can not get help from the authorities. It’s the law of the jungle, says Salim.
”Do you know what a derby is? No, no, not football. The militia groups have a derby every Thursday night at eight. They shoot at each other. Everyone locks themselves in their homes. The next morning it’s like nothing ever happened.”
When the children have eaten their porridge Zahra takes them out on deck. She has the smallest one on her arm.
The night was difficult, she says. Zahra still has an incessant headache and feels weak at the knees. They left at four in the morning the previous day. Salim had bought life vests and the smugglers promised him the boat would be stable, and not too crowded. When they got to the beach lots of people were waiting. The boat was a rubber boat. ”We’re not going,” Salim told the smuggler. ”Yes you are,” the smuggler answered waving his weapon.
”I didn’t dare to do anything except jump in,” Salim says.
Zahra was shaking the whole time and almost threw up. The children cried.
Salim has been trying to get his family out of Libya in a safe and legal way. He says he has called and written to representatives of the UN and EU, he's been in contact with embassies in countries where his business has connections. He has sent documents showing that he has money and will not be a burden to anyone. He has promised to contribute to society and to start businesses.
”The answer has been: I need to find a solution in Tripoli.”
That’s not possible. The situation is so bad today that most countries have moved their embassies out of the country. In the end the only way was a boat trip across the Mediterranean. Salim had been preparing for a year. He followed the news reports, the rescue operations.
”People die on the sea every week. It’s on the news all the time. I don’t understand how the UN and EU can let it continue.”
Salim has been following the shipping traffic in the area and learned how humanitarian organisations and Italian coast guards patrol the coast. He has gotten insight in Doctors without border’s presence and watched YouTube: How you sit in the boats, what can happen. He has shown Zahra and the children the videos. He prepared them, but he didn't tell anyone else. His friends and colleagues would have tried to stop him if they knew, just as he has tried to stop others.
”I thought that I couldn’t put my family through this, it’s too dangerous. But in the end it was too dangerous to keep them in Libya.”
As Sunday dawns Aquarius manoeuvres through the straight of Messina, with Sicily to the left and Italy’s mainland on the right.
The last part of the trip is lined with green mountains, narrow streets and fishing villages. The morning sun is warm, there is more wind now. In the prow the people who have woken up hold on to their brown chequered fleece blankets and bags.
When Aquarius anchors in Reggio Calabria on the Italian mainland big tents have been put up on the dock. Electric cables lie on the ground, and there are tables for registration. Behind the tables there are rows of portable loos and further away, food tents.
The Red Cross is there, as is Save the Children and UNHCR. The European border and coast guard agency, Frontex, is there, local police force and the carabineers, Italy’s paramilitary police force, are present. And the Migration authorities.
Before anyone can leave Aquarius officials from the ministry of health board the ship to get an understanding of the status. The staff is dressed in protective overalls, gloves and face masks. After a while the police authorities arrive. The procedure takes two hours.
During that time a welcoming committee from a nearby church tries to keep the spirits up. Turned to the boat they cheer and applaud. They shout ”welcome” and wave. Their choir leader starts to sing Kumbayah.
“Someone’s laughing, my Lord, kum ba ya; Someone’s crying, my Lord, kum ba ya; Someone’s praying, my Lord, kum ba ya.”
A few public officials stand next to them, without flinching. A local police officer puffs on an electrical cigarette.
Nico gets ready leave the boat. He knows what awaits him. On the quay a line of journalists with cameras are waiting. It’s the same procedure in every harbour, sometimes he spends hours answering questions. The journalists are not interested in the search-and-rescue operations. Since a while back the interviews have only been about the accusations against the humanitarian organisations on the Mediterranean. The accusations are based on the fact that more and more aid organisations are doing rescue work. The European border and coast guard agency, Frontex, says they are helping the smugglers’ operations, as the smugglers don’t have to transport the people as far.
Critics have been saying that more and more people go to sea because they know they will be saved.
The organisations have also been accused of working on Libyan water, which is against the rules, and of sailing to Italian harbours instead of the nearest ones. Earlier this year the District Attorney of Catania, Carmelo Zuccaro, said that some aid organisations even cooperate with the smugglers, and get money from them. To begin with he referred to phone calls to prove this, but he later had to retract this information, as there was no proof of these phone calls. Now he calls his accusations hypotheses instead. But he keeps casting suspicions. ”The amount of money some of the humanitarian organisations have is enough to raise suspicions,” Reuters quotes him as saying.
As a search-and-rescue leader Nico is the spokesman. It’s hard work, he says, always having to defend oneself against statements he says are part of a political game concerning migration policy.
”It takes a lot of our energy.”
He sighs heavily when he walks the gangway. The questions are always the same. Nico goes through them.
”No, we have never been in contact with smugglers, and we never will be. No we don’t operate in Libyan water, we operate in international water. Yes, I can prove that as everything we do is registered and reported to the maritime rescue center. No, we don’t decide what operations need to be done, the maritime rescue center instructs us. No, we can’t go to the nearest port as international maritime laws stipulate that people in distress should be transported to a safe place, which Libya isn’t. No, people don’t go to sea because we are there. Our presence is the answer to this situation. And what is the alternative?”
The gangway is crowded. The mood is excited, yet subdued. They have arrived. In Europe. Except for Elisabeth, who has lost her voice and is sleeping, the whole team is on deck. Again hands are shaken. Hugs and ”good lucks” are exchanged.
Salim and Zahra have gathered the children, and are waiting to get off the boat. From now on things can only get better, Salim says. He can’t stop hugging his children.
”Today is our shared birthday. The best day of them all.”
The boys try to get away from his loving embrace. They are laughing. He is crying.
Salim and his wife's names have been changed. For security reasons we will not state what kind of business his company does.
This is a shortened version of an article from DN 17/6 2017.
Photographer: Anders Hansson Translation: Evelyn Jones
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