Bringing home the rescue-zone

28 September 2015


Friends and journalists have asked how this MSF experience has affected me. I’ve often dodged the question by saying that it’s not about me. And truly, although a torrent of others’ pain has passed me by, I certainly haven’t been working in a war zone. For now, friends seem more dear, and the plight of many people strikes me as even more tragic, than before this mission. For the record and in fact, I’m fine. Let’s get back to those who aren’t.

After a ten-day spell of bad autumn weather with no boat departures from Libya, on Wednesday September 16th we picked up one rubber dinghy-full of people in surprisingly good condition in rough seas, and then received from a navy vessel another boatload of people in rough shape.

As their overcrowded inflatable dinghy had begun to slowly deflate, this second group had emptied several large gasoline containers to serve as flotation devices. Unfortunately in the process much fuel ended up inside their sinking raft, for a few hours. Prolonged contact with gasoline-soaked clothing irritates and in the worst case “degreases” skin, with effects ranging from simple irritation to first and even second-degree burns.

Four of the hundred and five people from this latter group arrived on stretchers, suffering from hypothermia and extensive burns. Sadly, there was also one person dead of unknown cause among them, whom we placed in a respectful private area. For the living, we provided a decontamination area with a freshwater hose behind a blanket-screen, and hundreds of items of clean dry clothing. Over twenty meters of six-inch-wide petroleum-jelly gauze went to dress the burns.

The Rome Marine Rescue Coordination Centre directed us to proceed north towards Lampedusa, to transfer all our people to a couple of huge Italian Coast Guard RHIBs (rigid-hull inflatable boats) that would meet us at sea. We made the rendezvous, then turned around, clearing and cleaning the decks and restoring order in the clinic en route back to the rescue-zone. We hoped to be there for an anticipated very busy Saturday, collect a full load of people, and then quickly get to Sicily ahead of a storm moving in from the west.

The Italian Coast Guard transferred people from the Phoenix, to Lampedusa.

The Italian Coast Guard transferred people from the Phoenix, to Lampedusa.


One burn patient remained unable to walk.

One burn patient remained unable to walk.

Sure enough, before noon on Saturday 19th we’d picked up 301 people from three inflatable rafts. I sutured a couple of fresh chest wounds, inflicted during a robbery attempt as the victims were leaving Libya. Among the group was one ridiculously-pale 18-year-old Somalia fellow, weak, emaciated, slow to answer, and with swollen lower legs. He looked more like a depiction from the Auschwitz museum I visited years ago, than anybody I’ve seen since. As an interpreter explained it, he’d been wasting away in a so-called “detention centre” in Libya without funds or family to send any, for six months.

Other Somalians passing through the place couldn’t stand leaving him there and had done the right thing by raising enough cash to bail him out, onto the rubber raft from which we rescued them. I checked his blood hemoglobin level; at 2.8 milligrams per deciliter, it was impressively below the normal reference range of 13.5 to 17.5. He very badly needed a blood transfusion, further diagnosis and treatment, regular meals, a safe place to live, a lifetime of healing, and people around like those who’d helped him.

Wave height in meters in the mediterranean sea, the day after we reached port in Sicily. (center)

Wave height in meters in the mediterranean sea, the day after we reached port in Sicily. (center)

As we laboured northwards past Malta in increasingly rough weather, the storm washed cars into the sea off a ferry jetty there. Overnight, breaking waves slammed into the weather side of the Phoenix and exploded over the rail, drenching our lower-deck passengers. Two of my colleagues were up distributing rain ponchos and settling fears. A wave swept one of our staff off his feet, and spilled a carelessly-stored jerry-can of gasoline. We kept it all together, moving people to safer areas and always being there to keep an eye on things. When anybody started looking just a bit too seasick, drenched, and cold, we would hustle him or her into the clinic for treatment and warming, and dry clothes.

The seas were more settled Sunday morning, in the lee of Sicily.

The seas were more settled Sunday morning, in the lee of Sicily.

By Sunday morning the Phoenix sneaked into the eastern lee of Sicily where the big swells, breaking waves, and widespread seasickness eased off. I put my arms around a couple of men standing at the rail taking in the early sun illuminating the solid land and a few clouds
above. It seemed everything was going to be fine. Then one of them unloaded an explicit description of gratuitous torture —isn’t any?— that he’d endured and witnessed, and told of a child born in captivity, in Libya.

We finally disembarked 301 very relieved people in Agusta, Sicily, as the sun set on Sunday, September 20th. It had been just six days, with over five hundred people assisted, since we’d headed down to the rescue-zone. In retrospect, I’m glad I didn’t know it was to be our last voyage.


While waiting out the storm in Agusta we learned that MOAS (Migrant Offshore Aid Station) had decided to stop its search and rescue mission in the central Mediterranean on board the Phoenix. The other two MSF ships, the Bourbon Argos and the Dignity 1, will carry on.

Our MSF/MOAS team helped 6,985 people this year on the Phoenix, undoubtedly preventing many deaths and providing respite and care to those rescued. MSF learned much about SAR (search and rescue) and medical-humanitarian care at sea. In April 2015 there was no significant rescue capability in the southern SAR zone just north of Libya, except for a few Italian Coast Guard vessels, merchant ships which increasingly avoided areas that might require them to respond, and then us on the Phoenix, starting in May. The tragic death toll (nearly 2,000 from January to April) prompted politicians to considerably increase the number of navy, border patrol, and coast guards ships present, and we continued working. Many more lives were saved.

Simon here. Do you copy?

Unless I’m redeployed with MSF somewhere, in the next few days, this will be my last blog post for this mission.

Please take care, and care for others, as you’re able.

Thanks for reading this.