Search and rescue: "This voyage was far from over for them, a new chapter just beginning"

Mark has recently joined the team on the MV Aquarius, a search and rescue ship operated jointly by MSF / Doctors without Borders  and SOS MEDITERRANEE. Here he blogs about the team's work in the Mediterranean.

Mark Farrell-Javits

The first rescues were quite impactful.  A couple more since have been too, but I suppose, like most things, you get used it.  

I'm on watch now, taking 300 people to Messina to disembark. It’s been a cold, rocky trip through a bit of rough weather. Most were seasick and vomiting all over the place; cold, huddled in the blankets we give them and some in plastic bivvy bags.  


Guests huddle in blankets on deck

The MV Aquarius faces high seas. Photo: Kevin McElvaney.

At least we have calm seas now cruising up the coast of Sicily.  There were a few bad cases yesterday, hypothermia most likely. We had to medevac one of the rescued by helicopter to Malta. Our medical team saved his life but he needed more intensive care quickly. Near death, he was pulled up on a stretcher off the bow of the ship to the copter hovering above.  He's okay we heard. 
Cold is definitely an issue for these guys. The women and children – no children yet – stay inside, really sick men too, but there is limited indoor space.  We have outdoor space heaters on order, with some other cold weather protections that will help. 

I look around our guests, searching for smiles, signs of relief, but there are few

We arrived at Messina to a circus of tents from various organisations. The Carabinieri were there of course, along with the Italian Red Cross, Coast Guard, UNHCR, Ministry of Health, reporters, cameras, other groups.  
It was strange, after the singularity, even intimacy of the trip with the refugees, to come upon this scene.  It resonated that this voyage was far from over for them, a new chapter just beginning.  
I look around our guests, searching for smiles, signs of relief, but there are few. They know their struggle continues, arriving to another foreign land with just the blue jumpsuits we give them, nothing else.  
Fifty or so of the 300 guests on board are processed and then everyone breaks for lunch. There was comedy there.  But the Italians were gracious and acting with humanity. I was impressed how they treated a situation which they clearly – at least the authorities – didn't like.  
Guests on deck

Guests on deck of the MV Aquarius. Photo: Kevin McElvaney.

It became apparent that not all the guests would be disembarked that day, and many would spend another night aboard. I thought the authorities were obstructing for some political reason, but we later learned they didn't have space to house all the refugees overnight. They are overwhelmed. The police delivered bagged lunch and dinner for everyone, or almost everyone, left on board. 
There were two dead bodies on one of the rafts; trampled, most likely.  We picked 195 people off of it – this blue plastic thing that looked like a bouncing game at a child’s birthday party.  
All the veteran MSF crew members said 195 was the most people they've seen crowded onto a raft that size. We recovered the bodies and a respectful service was held for them on the dock with a priest and an imam.  

I feel sincerely honoured to be part of it and doing this work

One of the people who had died had family members travelling with him. They disembarked first to meet with psychologists Doctors without Borders had called in. Everyone on the ship turned towards the ceremony, silent, looking to shore just a metre off the port side. 
Some of the dead people’s friends on the upper deck were weeping. The ceremony was very solemn and moving.  
A few boats were lost while we were out rescuing others.  As of January 17, 270 people are believed to have perished at sea this year - rafts known of but not found in time.  
We're back at sea now. We departed yesterday after two nights in Messina, resupplied, having walked off the ship freely to a bit of sightseeing and a nice dinner. 
The weather is forecast to be really bad in the coming days, with maybe a half- to one-day window of calm seas. So we're headed 36 hours to the rescue zone to catch that good weather window, and hopefully some drifting refugees. You don't hope for it though, since at least if the weather is bad they won't push off and risk an all too likely end. 
The last few paragraphs have been a bit dark. That alone does not characterise this work. To the contrary it's amazing to be so close to life, to survival, hope and resilience: this incredibly dramatic voyage so many are taking.  It's very powerful and moving to say the least. 
I feel sincerely honoured to be part of it and doing this work.  And to be working with such a great organisation and team – committed, hardworking, kind, exceedingly capable people.  And we have a good, sturdy vessel that I am becoming increasingly enamoured with.