Quarantine, replenishing supplies, trainings. Press officer Petra on board the Humanity 1 explains how a rescue mission is prepared while still in port.
Friday, 14 October 2022, Italy, Port of Palermo, North Pier
Shortly before our departure, numerous pallets of food for the search and rescue operation are delivered to the pier. Huge quantities of rice and couscous, but also tea, sugar and spices, as well as fresh fruit and vegetables have to be stowed in the storage and cold rooms. It is mainly food for the people we hope to be able to rescue from distress at sea.
I have now been on board the Humanity 1 in the port of Palermo for more than a week. The quarantine has worked: All rapid tests, carried out by our volunteer medical doctor Silvia, are negative.
The positive tension in the crew is slowly rising because we will set sails soon. The training program has been particularly focused on rescue excercises and first aid on board for the last couple of days. As an employee of the Berlin office, I am happy to be part of the crew on the speedboat (RHIB) “Bravo”. For the training we go out to the open sea, together with “Tango”, the second RHIB. We take turns in practising the approach to the boat in distress and the first announcement to the people who have often spent days in an unseaworthy boat in open waters. The most important thing is that they remain calm. It is very important to achieve that within the first approach. If they think we are the Libyan coast guard forcibly returning them to Libya, panic can quickly set in. Transferring from one boat to the other requires a bit of courage even in with low waves. I worry about how we will get very weak people or heavily pregnant women from the boat in distress to the RHIB. But the others reassure me. “If necessary, two of us will pull them over,” says Dragos, our experienced SARCo, head of search and rescue operations, ” it always works out.” In other circumstances, driving the speedboats would be great fun, but the team is very serious and concentrated on their tasks.
Another focus of the training sessions just before departure is the “embarkation” procedure, the taking onboard and initial care of the survivors. They have to get from the speedboats via a boarding ladder onto the mother ship Humanity 1, where they are supported by crew members from below and pulled onboard from above. Their life jackets will be removed which will be immersed in a chlorine bath for disinfection. Now the rescued people sit down in rows on deck until our team registers them individually, asking for their age and origin. We do not register names, but hand out numbered wristbands, and if necessary, a coloured wristband indicating special features such as medical cases or unaccompanied minor. After that they go to the next station where they are given a rescue kit containing clothes, water, a toothbrush, emergency food as well as a blanket.
From our experience, most of the people rescued want to sleep first. On the rescue ship, the survivors often feel safe for the first time in weeks, months, sometimes years. My job will be to receive the women and children up to the age of 13 and accompany them to our “Women Shelter”. I am a little proud we can provide this space. We know from years of experience that most women have experienced sexualised violence during their flight. If they left from Libya, they have usually been abused in the detention camps. It is important that they can be accommodated in a safe room that no man is allowed to enter. There are wide wooden double bunk beds built into it with comfortable, washable mattresses. There is a sink and a shower. We can accommodate about 20 women and children there.
The other rescued people, including male youths from the age of 14, sleep on the deck on the floor. These areas are covered with solid tarpaulins so that it stays dry.
If we will soon have perhaps hundreds of survivors of distress at sea on board, not only the care team will be responsible for them, but all of us. We will have to be present on deck in turn. We’ll be on the lookout if there are any individuals who are not feeling well, or if there are people with traumas or anxieties that Luca, responsible for mental health, can help.
From the trainings and presentations by our Care Coordinator David I learned that we need to adjust our behaviour on Deck. “The most important thing is that we help the rescued to get their basic needs,” David emphasises. “They must finally be treated like human beings.”
I’ve learned that we don’t use mobile phones on deck and always wear an FFP2 mask. I have memorised the rules: be fair, behave predictably and stay consistent. Always treat people with respect, even if you don’t understand every behaviour. Don’t talk down to them standing up when they are sitting, but instead get down to eye level. Always remain calm in your communication and do not become loud or aggressive in tone. Always be rational even in conflict situations and be aware of your own possible prejudices.
I realise: When there are many people from different cultures in the confined place on board, all with a life-threatening situation behind them and uncertainty ahead, we on board have a huge responsibility to make sure that we all get along. We must build trust quickly so that we can all get through a perhaps long wait for a place of safety together on the ship peacefully.