Search and Rescue: The melody of hope is silenced

"The cold little bodies show burns everywhere, because the mixture of salt water and gasoline in the dinghy burns human flesh. They are inscribed with the horror they have been through."

MSF teams work on three search and rescue vessels in the Mediterranean Sea. Since April this year they have saved more than 18,000 people. But in 2016 alone, 4,200 refugees have drowned in the desperate attempt to cross the Mediterranean. Antonia is a nurse working on one of the rescue boats. In this haunting blog post she describes a particularly tough few days at sea...

The mass grave in the Mediterranean is getting bigger and bigger. And still we look away.

"I'm so sorry, I just wanted to give you a better life ..."

Jacob is speaking to his deceased, eight-month-old son, Habu, on board our rescue ship Dignity 1. Theirs is just one of many human tragedies taking place here in the Mediterranean.

Jacob has lost three of his children, his wife, brother, sister-in-law, and niece on the life-threatening escape route across the Mediterranean. We could only get his son Habu and his six-year-old niece out of the water; Jacob could at least say goodbye to them with dignity. The other family members disappeared, swallowed by the sea.

The cold little bodies show burns everywhere, because the mixture of salt water and gasoline in the dinghy burns human flesh. They are inscribed with the horror they have been through.

A passenger on board the Dignity 1

Photo: Sara Creta / MSF.

Frans lost his wife Juth. She was brought aboard the Dignity 1 with hardly any signs of life. The resuscitation measures were unsuccessful. It was too late.

Juth is also heavily burned all over. Frans said goodbye to her and fell into a delirium. He talks without a break and tells Juth how good she was for him. He also apologises to her. He feels responsible for her death: "Juth," he says, "I will never find a woman like you..."

Two other patients are evacuated by helicopter, unconscious after almost drowning. We do not even know their names.

One day after this extremely difficult rescue mission, already on the way to Italy, the tragedy continues. Mohammed can't take any more. His body is weakened by a chronic disease; it has already gone through too much and gives up. He suffers a heart attack in our hospital.

We are fighting for Mohammed's life. Working alongside us are the medical team from the Italian Coast Guard, who have been informed about the evacuation. But it is too late for him and we have to let him go. His wife Constance mourns him. At least we can give her a photo of her Mohammed, which will hopefully help her in the processing. It is incredibly touching how tenderly she looks at the photo, holding it close throughout the whole crossing.

A woman holds a photo and looks at it tenderly

Photo: Courtney Bercan / MSF.

The next day, we have to take away the hopes of some of the other people who are on board with us. They have been hoping that their missing family members or friends are safe on another rescue vessel. But they are gone, dead on the seabed.

We have a Syrian family on board. Fortunately they have not lost anyone. But how is it that they have to flee on a path that is life-threatening? You come from a country where a brutal war prevails, we all know it, and you have to risk your lives again to be safe? Where is the right to security?

But Jacob, Habu, Frans, Juth, Mohammed, and Constance also fled from misery. They do not risk their lives because they just want to have things a little better. The people we rescue are fleeing from situations where they don't know how they and their families are going to survive. They are fleeing forced marriage, rape, forced recruitment, torture, discrimination and the violation of their human rights.

In 2016, this tragedy is nothing new - and there is still no political solution in sight. We owe our fellow humans a safe and legal escape route. They have not chosen their situation. If we were in their place, we would do the same.

To write, as I am doing, seems to me at the moment inconsequential. I am only a spectator of the tragedy, but our passengers are right in the middle. I can only guess how they feel.

Our arrival in Sicily this time is without the melody of hope. Our passengers are still too shaken to sing and clap. I hope that in my next blog I can report again how nice it sounds, as the melody echoes over the sea.

This post is dedicated to Habu, Juth, Mohammed and the thousands of other people who have lost their lives in the Mediterranean.

In 2016 a total of 327,800 people crossed the Mediterranean Sea while fleeing to Europe. 4,200 lost their lives. Search and rescue operations can save lives. Faced with this new tragedy, MSF once again calls for safe and legal escape routes. This is the only way to stop the deaths in the Mediterranean Sea.