Two weeks at sea, 180 rescued people on the move, and a dramatic rescue operation that the so-called Libyan Coast Guard almost prevented. Our press officer Petra reports on her experiences with rescued people as a crew member on board the Humanity 1 in October/November 2022 in this article published on Focus Online on Friday, 6 January 2023:
We rescued over one hundred unaccompanied minors from three boats in distress on the Mediterranean Sea and brought them on board our rescue ship Humanity 1. They made up the majority of the 180 rescued people we cared for on deck. On board, the mostly young, rescued people first seemed to me like a large group, strange and shy. Then, they quickly got to be individuals who grew close to our hearts. Everyone was different, everyone had their own story, their personal fears, hopes, and dreams. I could not have imagined that so much interpersonal bonding could take place in a fortnight on a ship on which 180 people were provided with basic necessities by a crew of 29.
Deeply distressing testimonies from Libya
After almost three years with the search and rescue organisation SOS Humanity, I boarded our rescue ship as a crew member for the first time at the beginning of October in Palermo, Sicily. Now, I was able to personally experience everything I had written many texts and given interviews about as a press and public relations officer. For the first two weeks, we lay in the harbour and trained, both practically and theoretically, the procedure of rescues from distress at sea and how to treat the people we rescue. Oftentimes, they have experienced unimaginable horrors on their odyssey, which ends in Libya – in particular in the Libyan prisons and internment camps where they were put as refugees. From there, they fled across the deadly Mediterranean route towards Europe.
Most of the young people who were on board with us were rescued in a dramatic rescue operation on the afternoon of 24 October from a completely overcrowded rubber boat that was already losing air. Eighteen-year-old Buba* from Gambia was also on this boat. He was so agitated the first night on board the Humanity 1 that he could not sleep. On deck, on a narrow bench by the railing, he began to talk. It was fragments of depressing experiences from Libya, recounting exploitation, violence, and deeply inhumane conditions in the internment camps. Brief glimpses of the horrors he had experienced for years. Arbitrary arrest, months in the camp, daily experience of violence. The family who had to send money to get him released. “Even to my enemy, I would not advise going to Libya,” he told me.
Feeling like human beings again
Buba had attempted the risky flight across the Mediterranean three times. Twice, the Libyan Coast Guard had intercepted him and the other refugees, taking them back to the inhumane camps. The third time, we came. The fact that this so-called Libyan Coast Guard showed up just as we were about to start the rescue had panicked him and many others on the rubber boat. Their appearance made the rescue much more difficult, and some fell into the water – but fortunately not until they were wearing the life jackets we had distributed. “I just lost it,” Buba said apologetically. “I’m so glad you saved us, I could stay on this ship forever,” he elaborated further.
In the days and nights that followed, we heard many further hard-to-bear stories – and they all resembled each other. Many young people had already left their home country in their childhood, often only 14 years old or, like Buba, at the age of 15, in order to find work. But from “the hell of Libya”, as everyone says, there was no other way out for them other than the most dangerous maritime refugee route in the world. In 2022, at least 1,373 people died there.
In long conversations, our volunteer psychologist Luca was able to take some of the strain off the most heavily burdened. The doctor Silvia, who is also a volunteer, treated illnesses and cared for injuries, in some of them she found traces of torture. We were happy that these young people from a total of eleven different nations trusted us during the two weeks we had to wait together for a port of safety. It was important and beautiful that they could laugh and cry with us. We don’t know how they were all doing after they disembarked in Italy. But we do know that they felt like human beings again.
*Name changed for the protection of the individual
Under “Refugee stories”, Buba shares his story in more detail.