© Andrew McConnell/Panos Pictures
On Thursday morning, the rescue centre in Rome finally calls us to one of the inflatable boats we have always expected in the days before: a flimsy white rubber boat with an air chamber on the outside, the floor poorly strengthened by four wooden planks, with the screws sticking out. On it are 125 people from all over West Africa, from the Democratic Republic of Congo to Senegal. 19 women are among them, two of them are pregnant, some unaccompanied minors and six children.
The youngest of the rescued people is little Aubrey from Cameroon, who is on the boat with her mother and her brother and who on that very day has her first birthday. A somewhat older woman, also from Cameroon, broke into tears in the arms of our doctor immediately after boarding the ship. She says she saw her husband shot in Libya.
Women would be sold at a much higher price as they were often forced into prostitution
The rescue operation and the first hours of the people on board pass off in a routine.
After everyone has slept, a kind of everyday life begins on board: people sleep at night on thin blankets on the wooden floor, during the day they meet in small groups. As well as the regular meals, once or twice a day we distribute a pack of sesame bars, juice and raisins. The medical team holds consultations in the clinic.
In the evening we try to give a bit of distraction - on the second day we show the film Lion King on deck. This was set up for the five older children, but almost all the adults also gather in front of the sheet, which is stretched out to act as the screen.
A staff member meets with rescued people on board. Photo: Stefan Dold / MSF
This "daily routine" goes on for two and a half days: no other ships are currently patrolling the area, so we wait in the search and rescue zone at the request of the MRCC. We don’t have any more rescues during this time, but we learn from the internet that the Libyan coastguard, backed by the EU, has found several boats and returned hundreds of people to Libya - to detention centres, which, according to a recently published internal protocol by EU diplomats, are simply degrading.
It’s also Libyan detention centres that I constantly hear about in the stories of the rescued people on board.
On the one hand, these stories are very individual, on the other hand, they are the same.
The differences in people's stories are mainly their reasons for leaving home and their original destinations. For example, I meet Paul from Cameroon (name changed), who lived in Europe for several years - in Lugansk in Eastern Ukraine, where he trained as a physiotherapist.
When Paul's adoptive father died, he returned to Cameroon and then – without a job – went to Algeria with his wife, where he worked in clandestine employment on construction sites for three years. After being deceived several times about his salary, he went to Libya. A friend there told him that there was work. But the journey became a nightmare: after a few days Paul and his wife were kidnapped and imprisoned in an unofficial prison in a courtyard of a large building. They were told they must pay 1,000 euros per person for their release. His family somehow sent 1,500 euros, for the rest Paul had to work on a construction site for two and a half months. After that the guards put the two on a boat in the Mediterranean - there is no other way out of that prison.
In Libya, all the stories resemble each other. And they are so full of brutality and contempt that I often hesitate to ask people about them. For some, where I feel that they have gone through a lot, I do not even start. Instead I point out that they can find support in the clinic or with our psychologist. With others, I break off. In any case, I explain beforehand why we as MSF want to document some of their experiences, and again and again I also feel that some want the world to know what they have been through.
For example, Pape (name changed), a shy 18-year-old man from Senegal, immediately offered to talk to me.
On the six-day trip through the Sahara, Pape saw how two women and two men lost their hold on the cargo area and fell from the vehicle, assured of their death. The pick-ups never stop on the way through the desert.
Arriving in the southern city of Sabha, the driver took the survivors directly into a prison with hundreds of black Africans, so overcrowded that the prisoners had to sleep in shifts. One of the rescued people reported that the new arrivals were sold to the owners of the detention centres. These then sell them again or blackmail their family. Women would be sold at a much higher price as they were often forced into prostitution. Pape reported that they had been beaten every day with cables and poles on the back and the soles of the feet, and he showed me the scars on his skin. People who got sick did not receive any medical aid. One of Pape's friends was so weak that they had to feed him and help him. One day the guards took him off and he disappeared. Everyone is sure that they just left him somewhere in the desert.
Photo: Stefan Dold / MSF
There is not much that our team can do for these people in the face of this horror. Whoever confides to the doctors is examined and receives a certificate that confirms his testimony and the physical traces of torture and ill-treatment. Very vulnerable persons, especially women who have been victims of sexual violence, are being sent to authorities and relief organisations in Italy, which are providing special support programs for them. But it is to be assumed that we do not recognise most cases in the short time on the boat.
In the end, the woman whose husband has been shot dead in Libya rises and asks for a moment of remembrance to the people who cannot be there tonight
Our project coordinator on the ship has said several times during this trip that he believes that the extent of violence in Libya will only enter the history books in a few years, but now nobody wants to see it. I think he's right. Although the human catastrophes are well documented in the detention centres, they are often ignored in the political debate about refugees. Otherwise Europe would have to ask itself quite differently how it deals with the survivors. And whether it is really justifiable to bring people from the sea back to Libya, as the Bavarian Minister of the Interior has just proposed.
On Saturday evening, we say good-bye to the people we have got to know a little over the past two-and-a-half days. We later transfer them to two boats of the Italian coast guard, which take them to Lampedusa. Before that, they asked us to come to the deck with the whole team. They had written a speech to thank us, the crew of the ship, and MSF. Several of them speak spontaneously, one improvises even a song. It's an emotional farewell.
In the end, the woman whose husband has been shot dead in Libya rises and asks for a moment of remembrance to the people who cannot be there tonight. For a few seconds, we pause together - 125 West Africans rescued from distress at sea and 20 staff members of MSF - and are silent.