© Andrew McConnell/Panos Pictures
This morning at five o'clock the time had come: our first rescue operation.
The crew let Prudence's inflatable boat down into the water with two crew and a cultural mediator. Despite the early hour, the whole team has assembled in rescue vests and helmets on deck. A small wooden boat had just been spotted, slightly lit.
Soon the first radio messages of our dinghy crew reach us: more than twenty people, including children and women, one of them pregnant, but apparently all in good condition. First, life jackets are distributed.
After three days of searching, now we needed to go into action for the first time.
There's a strict plan - everyone has his or her task on deck at this important moment to bring people safely on board: two men help people with climbing the rope ladder, the head of the medical team checks all arrivals for emergency medical issues, the doctor and the midwife are already prepared for the pregnant woman and the children. One person responsible for security asks people about dangerous items, the logistics experts distribute backpacks with food and clothes, the cultural mediators explain the next steps in Arabic and English, the deck manager responds immediately to all requirements. My job is to count the arrivals: 17 men, five children, three women - Syrians, Palestinians, Yemenis and Nigerians.
After the first relief of the rescue, conversations begin.
All of us are impressed by Samira (name changed), the pregnant Palaestinian, who is alone with five children. She fled from her refugee camp in Lebanon because radical Islamic groups repeatedly wanted to recruit her eighteen-year-old son, who suffers from epilepsy. She has now arrived on the Prudence via Syria, Sudan and Libya, and is hoping to travel on to her oldest son in Hamburg. When I ask her about her escape, she first tells the story of the terrible journey through the Sahara to Libya. There had been dozens of them on an overcrowded pick-up truck. When suddenly armed men appeared and shot in the air, the driver gave full throttle and the car slammed into the potholes. Two Eritrean women fell from the loading area and died, one of them because a fresh scar of an operation opened. The woman had a seven-month-old baby who was adopted in the desert by another Eritrean family.
I notice that Samira, unlike the others, does not first tell about her own bad experiences on the flight, but talks about the fate of these women. Meanwhile, her little daughter distributes the biscuits from her welcome backpack to all the crew members who are walking by.
And then I hear the story of Karim (name changed), who came to each team member on arrival on deck, and who shows me the whole absurdity of the current refugee policy.
The Palestinian, who comes from the besieged and almost completely destroyed district of Yarmouk of the Syrian capital of Damascus, has lost all that he had built up over many years. Now he wants nothing more than to live with his wife and his 22-year-old son, who have made it to Aachen, Germany. But there is no legal way for him to go there. As a Syrian, he can not even flee to one of the neighbouring countries - the only country in the region where Syrians can go without a visa is Sudan. So he flew there and put himself in the hands of smugglers to begin the life-threatening route through the Sahara and the Mediterranean. The only one that remained for him.
The example of Karim shows me that people escaping danger will also take a path which is even more perilous, in order to be safe with their relatives. How many have died on the way to their relatives who could not get them to them? Karim is grateful for his survival, and he shows that to everyone on board.
But then we have to say goodbye again: on the instructions of the Maritime Rescue Coordination Centre in Rome, our guests are transferred to a boat already heading to Italy: the Phoenix which is run by the organisation MOAS.
As the dinghy drops, Samira's daughter waves to us all again.