Search and rescue: “I’m here to make sure people do not drown at sea”

British nurse Sylvia Kennedy is working onboard the Aquarius, a search and rescue ship responding to the humanitarian crisis in the Mediterranean Sea. In her first blog, she describes how she identifies the most vulnerable people rescued...

Living on a ship is strange. I’ve been on board for two months now on the Aquarius, the search and rescue ship Médecins Sans Frontières / Doctors Without Borders (MSF) runs jointly with SOS Méditerranée. Although I love it, it's certainly not natural.

For a start you’re in the middle of the sea, it’s vast but the space you have is limited. During downtime when there are no rescues, drills or trainings I wander mostly between my cabin, the deck, and the mess.

The engine room in the bowels of the ship is off limits but with permission it’s usually fine to visit the bridge. This is possibly the most dynamic place to be, where experienced sailors study the radar, maps and charts and keep an eye out to sea. 

"I think of what some people have told me; that they would rather die than go back to Libya"

When we are in the search and rescue zone there is always a member of the search and rescue team on watch, looking out for a boat in distress, the Libyan coastguard or anything else that might be of interest.

Escaping Lybia

The first night I spent on the Aquarius, the weather was rough. I went out on deck and the stars were leaving trails. Later, in my top bunk the side-to-side roll of the ship sent me to sleep but when it started to pitch, I woke up again.

MSF nurse Sylvia Kennedy onboard a RHIB in the Mediterranean. Photo: Anthony Jean

MSF nurse Sylvia Kennedy onboard a rescue boat in the Mediterranean. Photo: Anthony Jean

I like the way the ship moves now, it reminds me what I’m here for. I’m here to make sure people do not drown at sea. 

As there are unwritten codes of conduct for the desert, for the mountain, for the bush so there is also for the sea. Sea laws have been written down, and every mariner knows they have a duty to rescue a vessel in distress. 

"I’m here to make sure people do not drown at sea."

During my first month at sea, we came across a half-deflated rubber boat adrift in the middle of the Mediterranean. What happened to the people in it? Where did they go? If they were taken back to Libya, were they glad to survive?

I think about this and I think of what some people have told me; that they would rather die than go back to Libya.

The vulnerable

This is my third assignment for MSF and it has presented challenges that I was certainly not expecting. I am the medical vulnerable focal point, which means that, together with the humanitarian affairs officer, I flag people who are classed as vulnerable under Italian law.

This can include elderly and disabled people but in this context, unfortunately, it mostly means those who have suffered rape, torture, kidnapping and trafficking. This is not an exhaustive list and so far all the accounts I have heard have these happenings in Libya.

People on a sinking boat wait for rescue by the Aquarius. Photo: Laurin Schmid

People on a sinking boat wait for rescue by the Aquarius. Photo: Laurin Schmid

How do I identify vulnerable people?  Sometimes just by having an informal chat on the deck, but usually they come into the clinic with some physical sign of the trauma they have had to endure. I ask them briefly what has happened and then refer them to the humanitarian affairs officer, or the cultural mediator for a testimony.

It is difficult enough for me to listen to the bare bones of their experiences, so I can only imagine what it is like for the others to hear detailed accounts of violence day after day, for hours on end.

Having to live it is, of course, another level.  I do think if we had the time to speak to every person we have taken on board the Aquarius, they would all be flagged as vulnerable, having endured the brutal journey through Libya and then the hazardous sea.

Treated as people

After rescues, when people are on board I live between the clinic and the deck. It really is non-stop and so far I have only seen the boat at half-capacity.

One group of rescued people we had on board came from a shipwreck and they were visibly traumatized – expressions blank and unresponsive. Was this from witnessing others drowning during the shipwreck or was this as a result of their experiences in Libya?

I don’t know, but what I can say is that I if we simply listen to their stories and treat them as people, slowly they begin to come out of this trance.

I have seen this and it works. I’m not saying it works for everyone, but by the time we reached Italy a few days later the atmosphere on the Aquarius was joyful. And this is why we are here.