Ashore, agencies are crunching numbers, but here on the aft deck of the Sea-Watch 3 there are 45 people. They were trying to cross the Mediterranean Sea in a yellow inflatable boat, similar to a large dinghy, the kind used in summer to go from the beach to the buoy. No one had a life jacket, two or three had a backpack with some belongings in it, everyone was barefoot. In the dinghy, there were five black inflatable life preservers, six boxes of 12 small water bottles and seven large gasoline canisters. One had tipped over, and some of the flammable liquid had spilled inside, mixing with the water, covering the Kaimaplex sign printed in oblique lines on the plastic bottom.
Around 6:30 a.m., the crew of the humanitarian ship spotted the inflatable boat on radar. A few minutes later, the Alarm Phone switchboard launched the SOS signal. Those who were sleeping were woken up by those on watch on the bridge. The two teams of Rhibs, the rubber dinghies used for the rescue operations, got ready quickly. At 7 a.m., the boat appeared on the horizon. Forty minutes later, the prow of the first Rhib approached it from behind at engine height.
People moved their arms. They waved. A boy was moved to tears. They understood that we are not the Libyans. Claire Schmitt, the cultural mediator, explained that they would be rescued, asked them to stay calm and remain seated. Every now and then, someone turned their eyes to the second Rhib, which was observing the situation from farther back, ready to intervene in case of emergency. Some of these were worried looks, especially when metallic-sounding voices come out of the radios communicating with the ship. The masks covered up the smiles, but a hand gesture was enough to calm them down. All was well.
They were told how to put on the life jackets, and the distribution began. First the ones for the youngest, a baby and a girl with pigtails, then the thirteen minors and the five women, and finally the adults. The phosphorescent orange of the vests gradually took over the appearance of the yellow rubber dinghy. In the background, the sea was dark blue.
The rescuers moved towards the tip of the Rhib, and with their bodies made a small door through which they could let people in in an orderly manner. Hands passed the children on from one side to the other. A woman climbed over with difficulty, and her face made a grimace of pain: she was pregnant. A couple of men didn’t feel well and had difficulty standing. One was sitting on the bottom of the dinghy and exuded a strong smell of gasoline. The others helped him.
“God bless you,” shouted a girl as soon as the Rhib was on the side of Sea-Watch 3, at the yellow sign that says “Rescue zone.” Someone greeted the crew members looking out from the top deck, someone else lifted their eyes upwards and thanked the heavens. The transfer from the Rhib to the ship began. The people climbed up one by one through a gap in the railing of the lower deck: two rescuers held them up from below, and two others, secured with hooks, pulled them up from above onto the main deck. Now they were all safe.
Medical personnel say they left the previous night from the Libyan city of Zawiya together with another boat, but that boat capsized immediately. All of the migrants reportedly made it back to shore. “If you stay a month in Libya, you are no longer afraid of bouzar,” says Youssouf, a boy from Mali. Bouzar, or bouzaraller, means to cross the sea. The boy has tried four times. The first was on April 6 last year, on a boat with 104 people. Four died. The others were intercepted and brought back to Libya.
“I was afraid, I thought I wouldn’t try again, but then I got brave. Because Libya is a country where black people have no rights, they are worthless. And not just blacks, all other foreigners too. The Libyans are always armed and we are like fowl to be hunted. You end up in jail for nothing. Some people stay in jail for three months, some for six months, some die. In prison, they beat you every morning. Every morning. You call your relatives to ask them to send you money. If they don’t send it, you stay inside. For bouzar, you need money.”
They say they paid about 3,000 Libyan dinars for the crossing. This corresponds to a little more than €550. Putting such money aside is not easy. “In Libya you agree on a price, you do a job, and then the owner comes and chases you away without giving you anything. Because he is Libyan and you are not,” says a boy from the Ivory Coast. “And then there is the darour.” It means forced labor. “They kidnap you in the street, they threaten you with weapons, and you have to do it. If you try to run away, they shoot you.”
Where do you want to go? “I don’t know yet, but any country where there are human rights is fine. Even on this ship, if I can work,” he says, joking. Behind us, the little girl with pigtails is playing with two Sea-Watch girls. She never cried during the entire rescue operation. Not even when she was lifted into the air twice, not even when she was separated from her mother.
Meanwhile, the Fezzan patrol boat shows up, gifted in 2018 by the Lega-M5S government to the Libyans to fight against departures. It heads for a wooden boat on which six or seven are traveling. It intercepts them and forces them on board. “You are in Libyan waters, get out immediately,” the ship says over the radio to the Sea-Watch 3’s command bridge. But the ship is 30 nautical miles from the coast, outside the 12 miles of territorial waters and also the 24 miles of the contiguous zone. There is no lying to the screen linked up to the AIS satellite signal. “We are in the open sea,” says Nils Seiler, the captain, in reply.
The patrol boat sails away at full speed, only to pass by the ship again a couple of hours later. This time, twenty or thirty people could be seen on board. It must have caught another boat. It turns its bow towards Libya to bring the fugitives ashore.
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