Fieldset
Saving lives at sea: Part Two

It's September 2018 and nurse Catherine is on board the search and rescue ship Aquarius, jointly operated by MSF and SOS Méditerranée. In this diary extract, she describes a rescue that almost ended in disaster for dozens of people fleeing violence in Libya.

Catherine Flanigan hugs a survivor as they prepare to disembark the Aquarius

Continued from Part One...

On board the search and rescue ship Aquarius, MSF nurse Catherine is part of a team saving people from a sinking wooden boat in the Central Mediterranean. Everything is going according to plan, however, the Libyan Coastguard is now approaching.

“They want to come past and have a look, just looking okay? They’re not going to take any of you, you don’t need to talk to them, you’re safe. They just want to look to make sure everything is okay.”

I find this highly unlikely. I exchange looks with the rescuer next to me but can’t talk. The tension has dialled up to 10.

Some of the women start crying in fear. Incongruously, some of the toddlers have fallen asleep where they sit on the edge of the tipping boat and we have to make sure they don’t fall off the sides.

MSF244680.jpg

On 23 September 2018, the Aquarius responded to a wooden boat in distress with 47 people on board
On 23 September 2018, the Aquarius responded to a wooden boat in distress with 47 people on board

We retreat a few metres from the wooden boat. If the remaining people on the wooden boat panic, they might jump and try to swim to us, maybe drowning in the process.

If we keep a safe distance, they might be less tempted. It’s a tiny futile action to try and keep desperate people a tiny bit safer. They are afraid.

They think that if they go back to Libya they will face prison, abuse, rape, torture or worse. I’ve heard the stories from others who’ve escaped from Libya. I’m afraid for them.

"Like a warship out of Mordor"

We wait. The tension rises. The women cry. The sky lightens and the sun breaks the horizon. Somehow, it’s still beautiful.

I can see Aquarius in the distance, she looks safe and solid. I didn’t realise how far we’d come from her, she’s a good few kilometres away. Also bright orange, glowing ostentatiously, like the sunrise.

I wonder how it’s possible to love an inanimate object as much as I love that boat. We wait.

I can see Aquarius in the distance... glowing ostentatiously, like the sunrise. I wonder how it’s possible to love an inanimate object as much as I love that boat

Suddenly it appears. It towers above us in the water, an ominous grey colour.

One of my teammates later says it appeared “like a warship out of Mordor”. I think of sharks.

It is a Libyan Coastguard patrol boat.

The negotiation

It towers above us in the water. Standing on its deck are multiple coastguard members, staring at us with their arms crossed. They come close. They don’t talk directly to us – their bridge is talking to our bridge.

The boat circles us, taking in the faces of the rescued people one by one. Something buzzes over my head and I realise it’s a drone.

The women look at their feet, holding in the tears. I’m silently begging them not to panic. How much of their trust did we manage to gain in the past few minutes?

The children are silent.

Then the Libyan coastguard patrol boat circles. Withdraws. Bridge to bridge, the negotiations are happening, over our heads.

We hold our breaths for an eternity. The sun moves up over the horizon.

The deputy search and rescue coordinator suddenly turns to us: “Okay, we have the green light! Back to Aquarius!”

MSF253191.jpg

The SOS MEDITERRANEE RHIB returns to the Aquarius with the first group of people rescued from a wooden boat in distress
The SOS MEDITERRANEE RHIB returns to the Aquarius with the first group of people rescued from a wooden boat in distress

The whole world exhales. Everything starts to move again. We grab hold of the kids and get the mums to grab the other ones as Easy 1 turns and speeds back to Aquarius and to safety.

We get back to the boat landing, see the familiar faces of the rest of the team as they take the people up onto the deck.

“Welcome on board!”

The boat to life

Disembarkation is a blur, one by one from the rescue boat: “Child coming! Woman coming!” and then, somehow, pass up the dog. The deck team must be bewildered but handle it like pros.

Back to the wooden boat to rescue the rest of the people, much calmer and easier now. The sun is up, we can see everyone’s faces. The sea is now an early morning blue, no longer threatening.

MSF253188.jpg

The MSF Cultural Mediator and Logistician welcome rescued people on board the Aquarius
The MSF Cultural Mediator and Logistician welcome rescued people on board the Aquarius

The relief is evident on the people’s faces as we pull back up next to the wooden boat. All of these individuals are coming with us.

As one man climbs onto the rescue boat, he turns to me.

“Let me tell you something,” he gestures at the Libyan Coastguard boat in the distance, “that was the boat to death. This one, this is the boat to life.”

We get everyone on board Aquarius. Like other rescues, they all crash and fall asleep after an hour, on the hard metal deck.

The next few days are a blur of activity. People are seen in the clinic, sometimes the first medical attention they’ve had in months.

MSF244893.jpg

MSF midwife Nina Egger performs an ultrasound on a pregnant survivor while MSF Humanitarian Affairs Officer Seraina Eldada translates in Arabic.
MSF midwife Nina Egger performs an ultrasound on a pregnant survivor while MSF Humanitarian Affairs Officer Seraina Eldada translates in Arabic.

People eat, wash their clothes, sleep, cry, hug their children. As trust builds, they start to tell us of their time in Libya. Different stories, all enough to make someone risk their life.

Caught in the crossfire

The days pass. Eight, nine, 10. Every European country is denying us a port of safety.

We drift in the Mediterranean. We keep searching. We find an empty raft, a deflated rubber boat, no bodies.

People start to get stressed, tired, seasick. They’ve all been through a lot, long before that night stepping onto that beach. We know we’re safe now but everyone’s worried about the future.

MSF245304.jpg

The Aquarius and its 58 survivors spent days at sea waiting to be offered a port of safety
The Aquarius and its 58 survivors spent days at sea waiting to be offered a port of safety

Sleeping outside on an open deck with dozens of other people, it’s not easy.

Meanwhile, the nightly news calls us “people smugglers”, Twitter commentators label us “criminal scum”.

Politicians argue about us. Our flag is threatened, again. The future of the mission is threatened.

The small things

And still. In the evenings, Aloys brings out his accordion, singing songs without words so everyone can join in.

The kids dance, then the adults. We watch for dolphins. We hear about their plans, their hopes. We play invented boardgames.

MSF244997.jpg

Aloys plays the accordion while the Aquarius waits in international waters off Malta for transfer instructions
Aloys plays the accordion while the Aquarius waits in international waters off Malta for transfer instructions

One day, somehow, someone decides it’s time to give the dog Bella a bath and half the boat joins in for the dog wash.

The kids run and scream and play, fall over, run some more. A little girl sits next to me on the bench. She’s from a minority religious group. Her family fled persecution.

She draws on my face and sings. I’m not sure where any of us will end up. But right now it doesn’t matter. This one, this is the boat to life.

MSF245325.jpg

On 30 September 2018, the strong winds and choppy water finally abated and allowed for the safe and secure transfer of all 58 people – and a dog – to Maltese authorities
On 30 September 2018, the strong winds and choppy water finally abated and allowed for the safe and secure transfer of all 58 people – and a dog – to Maltese authorities

--

Read more: From our teams at sea

"This story has affected me to my core": Life on board the Ocean Viking

"He just kept running, despite the shrapnel wound bleeding"