Reportage. In two years, the Aquarius has saved more than 27,000 people. A city’s worth. But the rescue operation of June 10 has come to divide Europe. Only after more than a week have the 630 refugees and migrants been allowed to dock. Alessandro Porro recalls the rescue.

What I saw on board the Aquarius

Finally, the sea is quiet. There are no waves, and the wind cools the heat. Calm seems to be back on board the Aquarius, operated by SOS Mediterranee and MSF. On the deck of the ship there are families and children who chat with the crew, comb each other’s hair and sing songs. If all goes well tomorrow this bad adventure will be over and 630 shipwrecked people will be in a safe haven.

Their journey began the night of June 8, when they set off on rafts from Libya to Europe. The Aquarius had been at sea for 24 hours for its 40th search and rescue mission, having recently left from Catania, Italy. The Maritime Rescue Coordination Center in Rome (MRCC) gave the ship the coordinates of two possible targets east of Tripoli, in international waters, spotted by a military plane. After 10 hours of sailing, at sunset on June 10, the Aquarius spotted the inflatables and put two rescue boats into the sea. I was on one of them.

We immediately understood that the situation was complex. In total there were over 250 people, and one of the inflatables was visibly ruined. Midway through the rescue the sun went down leaving us in the dark. At least 50 people were in the water without life jackets. We located them thanks to their cries from the blackness.

From the ship they give us the coordinates of two unconscious people, spotted using thermal imaging cameras. Without this gear, they would have died. An Italian Navy helicopter intervened to support us, illuminating the scene from the sky. The procedure lasted five hours. Only after a few days would we find out there were two missing people.

We received the OK from Rome to sail north, pointing to Messina. Until Sunday afternoon this would have been a normal intervention—if it is indeed normal to lose two people and risk the lives of civilians and military in rescue operations. In any case, no one in Italy and Europe would have talked about it. In two years, the Aquarius has done many of these operations, saving more than 27,000 people. A city’s worth. We still do not know that this normality would become a political case. We did not know that after a week the shipwrecked people would still be at sea.

During the day we learned from the news media that Italy was refusing to let us dock at its ports. Italy asked Malta, which refused because the operation was entirely coordinated by Rome. From the MRCC we got an official communication only at 9:30 p.m., when we had already passed Malta by 27 miles. The order was for us to stop and wait for instructions, which arrived only 24 hours later. The first day of our stand-still passed in the perplexity of the rescuers and in the worry of the shipwrecked. Fortunately, many of the rescued were tired and simply slept all day.

There were conflicting news reports: we heard of Italian mayors offering us a landing place and foreign governments shrugging off their responsibilities. Eventually there was word that Spain was willing to accept us, a journey of four days. The weather forecast was bad, and we could not face the risk of such a long haul without landing some of our passengers. From MRCC in Rome we received all the necessary support: the next day 500 of our guests were to be transferred to two ships from the Coast Guard and the Italian Navy. Then the announcement became official; we would land in Valencia.

Our passengers welcomed the news with relief. Italy, Spain or Malta—it made no difference to them. They wanted Europe, they wanted to flee Libya, and they could think of nothing else. A boy, fearing rejection, tried to commit suicide. We rescuers know what they have experienced in Libya. The testimonies collected in recent years told us about the signs of the physical and psychological torture to which they have been subjected. Scarring, burns, sexual violence (including against males). Separation of families, blackmail, extortion. The reduction to slavery, the buying and selling of human beings. All this just an hour’s flight from Rome.

In the following days we sailed along the coast, passing next to Sicily, Sardinia, Corsica, and the Balearic Islands. Passengers were constantly asking us what their destination would be. All the places we could see along the way did not want us. Under humanitarian and shipping law, shipwrecked persons should be able to disembark at the nearest safe port. “Safe” in the sense of the absence of persecution and violence. “Near” in the sense of time spent navigating. A week’s sailing to Spain will never be the solution to these emergencies.

Such long transfers violate the rules of rescue at sea and must violate the common sense even of those Italians who feel invaded and who would like migrants to be distributed among other EU countries. What is happening at sea is as if an ambulance in Florence were to take its patients to Lisbon.

The NGOs, and not only the Mediterranean NGOs, were created in reaction to the closure of the 2011 Mare Nostrum program, which was an effective mechanism for search and rescue at sea. Volunteers, rescuers and donors who allowed us to continue our missions are trying to patch a rescue system that is insufficient.

The people on board were not aware of the attention that was surrounding them. They were running away from detention centers and couldn’t care less about European policy or changes of government. When you’re fleeing for your life, you go where you can go. They planned to arrive in France, England or Belgium, wherever there is a community willing to welcome them.

They spent their days on the Aquarius resting and vomiting overboard on the rough seas. Gradually, they became familiar with the crew. They accustomed to taking orders from their jailers, and it took time to gain their trust. Day after day they became part of the life on board, working with the rescue workers to clean up and distribute the food. They took the initiative and improvised hairdressers or babysitters.

A Nigerian shepherd held mass on the stern deck, colorful and full of songs. In his sermons, there were biblical quotations about liberation, imprisonment and hope. It kept the spirit alive and opened up visions of the future. Even an atheist like myself listened to it, because it spoke of men and justice.

During the trip, the medical staff of MSF had no rest. In a few days they saw almost 200 patients. The most common problems were burns from fuel, dehydration, torture, injuries and psychological emergencies. They sewed, disinfected and tried to offer comfort, which often only came in the evening, when a guitar or an accordion appeared on the bridge and with them the magical mechanism of storytelling and song.

As the Aquarius-Marina-Coast Guard convoy made its way to Spain, members of the crew wondered what the future would be for these passengers and for rescue at sea generally. We felt as if we were at a turning point. It could get better or worse.

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