Migrants Rescued at Sea Between Death and Hope

The MV Aquarius run by SOS Méditerranée and Médecins Sans Frontières rescued hundreds of people off the Libyan coast this week. But it’s one of the few ships still doing this.

Chris McGrath/Getty

ONBOARD THE AQUARIUS RESCUE VESSEL—The Nigerian woman who had been raped repeatedly in a Libyan detention center could not stop vomiting. She had been plucked out of a sinking rubber raft about 30 nautical miles off the coast of Libya and she was suffering from morning sickness. Her friends traveling with her told me that she had been raped over and over and over again by many different men during her two-month detention. She just closed her eyes and sobbed and brushed her hand across her belly as if she could somehow make the unwanted pregnancy go away.

She sat next to a woman from Algeria with white bandages around her head from brain surgery who could not stop crying. She had tried to get a visa to go to France for more crucial surgery but was denied so she decided to go there anyway by sea via Libya. Her grown daughter, who had accompanied her to help take care of her, had broken her leg during the journey and the doctors who attended her removed a piece of bone which left her leg crooked.

A few minutes into the rescue that brought these women to relative safety, someone handed me a perfect baby no more than a month old swaddled in pink blankets. She somehow still smelled like a baby even after all she had been through, including more than 12 hours at sea.

Woman after woman got off the smaller rescue boat that shuttled survivors from the sinking dinghies to the Aquarius, but none of them were the baby’s mother. The baby cried because she was hungry and her tiny hands were cold. Finally, the mother came onboard, holding her other young children by the hand.  She washed the sand and seawater off her breasts and sat down to feed the infant.

The women were lucky to be alive. When the rescuers approached their dinghy on their rigid-hulled inflatable boats, called RHIBs, to remove the women and children, the dinghy seemed to disintegrate in front of them, they said. Suddenly there were more than 50 people in the water.

Their screams echoed across the otherwise calm sea.

Their screams echoed across the otherwise calm sea. Their bobbing heads were visible from the Aquarius and those who had already been rescued watched in horror. Most of those in the water were able to get to one of the bright orange life jackets that the rescuers threw into the sea. Some did not and sank to their deaths.

One of those in the water was a man who had nearly drowned before he was pulled onto the RHIB and then brought onto the Aquarius on a soft red stretcher. The rescuers had started CPR on the smaller boat, and when he got on the larger rescue ship, the medics carried on until the man finally coughed and spat and came back from the dead as if he was resurrected.

Some time later, an Italian naval helicopter appeared overhead, blowing spray out of the sea like a man-made storm as it hovered, then soaring away as it medevaced him to a hospital in Italy. As the helicopter left, everyone licked the salt water off their lips.

Then the sky began to darken as a thunderhead approached, kicking up whitecaps between the larger rescue ship and the remaining rubber boat on the horizon with more people to rescue. Lightning lit up the sky and thunder boomed as the rescue team brought another hundred people on board.

The rescues were preceded by a transfer to the Aquarius of 248 people picked up by an Italian navy ship the night before. Before that, a rescue by the Aquarius was intercepted by the Libyan Coast Guard, which took the people from two rubber dinghies back to Libya, which felt like a failure to the rescue crew whose life mission is to bring to Italy anyone who dares venture into the open sea.

The European Union’s Sophia program, which has a mandate to destroy smugglers’ ships, had assets nearby, including an Italian naval ship from the same fleet as the one that transferred the 248 people. A helicopter similar to the one used to medevac the drowning man to safety flew overhead as the Libyans loaded the people on board to take them back to Libya.

No one on the Aquarius ever found out just how many pregnant women, babies, and sick people were on those boats, or how many people may have died or fallen overboard, or what will happen to them back in Libya.

The Libyan and Egyptian women and their families did not want to sleep in the same shelter room with the sub-Saharan African women.
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When the Aquarius rescues were complete, 588 people, minus the medevaced man, were counted as physically safe, at least for the moment, but the hierarchy and racism that existed before their journeys began was soon back in place once the novelty of survival wore off.  

The Libyan and Egyptian women and their families did not want to sleep in the same shelter room with the sub-Saharan African women who they referred to as “slave” when they spoke about them in what English they had.

They held their noses when they walked in front of them, and they complained about their fear of getting scabies, a skin disease that was clearly and quite visibly rampant among those who had been kept in Libyan detention centers.

One of the crew members told me that his answer to the Libyan rescuees was to simply say that the Africans smelled the way they do because they were tortured and held captive in Libyan prisons for so long. That, he said, generally shut them up, at least temporarily.

During the long sail back to Italy, the rescue and medical crews carried out various medical checks among the most serious cases and started to try to unravel the many stories to determine just what is happening in Libya.

Departures by sea had fallen by almost 75 percent since August, after the Libyan Coast Guard started patrolling their waters. There is justifiable concern that human rights violations have increased at least that much when those trying to escape are forced back. Detention centers, both official and unofficial, are notorious for torture and rape. The rescued people on the Aquarius confirmed the worst of the theories. There were people with chemical burns, signs of physical torture, broken limbs, and rape among both sexes.

A group of Nigerian women who had been in an unofficial Libyan detention center that was close enough to the sea to hear the waves at night described how they escaped by pushing down a wall. When the barrier broke, they said Libyan guards shot guns over their heads as they ran to boats waiting on the shore. When asked what happened to them during their confinement, their eyes welled up with tears. They were all raped at least once, and beaten many times.

A 16-year-old boy from Sudan with a beautiful smile that masked his terrible journey had tried to cross the sea last summer but was turned back by the Libyan Coast Guard. He said he was “kidnapped” and taken to a “fake detention center” where he said he was tortured “any way you can imagine.”

He got out after his family paid more money and got back on a boat early Wednesday morning. He was on the dinghy that capsized and he held onto a rope of the sinking boat until he could reach an orange lifejacket. He didn’t know how to swim but he said he made himself survive. After all, he had already survived so much. He was determined the sea wouldn’t kill him.  “I didn’t realize how scared I was until I was saved,” he said. He said he was coming to Europe to work to support his family back home. “It’s my dream,” he said. “But it is also my responsibility.”

More than 1,200 people were rescued over a 48 hour period in several operations carried out by European Union vessels and the Aquarius and other NGOs working in the region. No one knows for sure how many people didn’t make it, or whose boats went down unnoticed. But for those who survived, and for those who witnessed it, life will surely never be quite the same again.