by Jean-Paul Mari
The call from Rome’s maritime coordination centre reached us very early this morning, around 6 am. Two dinghies in distress somewhere off the Libyan coast. Right away we head towards the location indicated. Half an hour later, here they are, in a grey dinghy being tossed around by rather high waves and the boat is slowly starting to fill with water. The rescue operation is ready to begin. Everything is in place; the manoeuvres have been rehearsed dozens of times.
First: send a speedboat to find out mote about the situation on the dinghy, count the number of migrants, comfort them and hand out life jackets.
Then only, start the transfer. First the women, ten in all, some exhausted, freezing, weakened by seasickness. The speedboat comes up to the ladder, they climb up one by one. Immediately, they are welcomed by the MDM doctors, leading them to the board clinic straightaway.
Their life jackets are taken off them, so are their soaked clothes. They are being comforted, given a blanket, dry clothes, something to drink. They stay calm, assessing the situation around them; clearly they yet have to realise that their ordeal is over. Some of them keep uttering “Thank you, thank you”. Others remain silent, paralysed by the cold.
They speak English or French, come from Gambia, Senegal, Mali. The youngest is not yet fifteen. They left a Libyan beach at midnight, on this dinghy unfit for the high seas. “What’s the point of building such flimsy vessels?” wonders a sailor while examining the dinghy, made of poor quality plastic that is already beginning to tear at the bottom. Inside, a few petrol cans and nailed planks make up the flooring…With the heads of long nails sticking out, making it impossible for anyone to sit.
That wreck of a boat would not have lasted long at sea. After only six hours it is already damaged and its passengers severely weakened. But the smugglers could not care less about the refugees’ safety; they’re here to ship their packages across the sea and collect their money. We got here in time.
Quickly, in only two trips, about fifty survivors join us on board. The last transfer is tricky: it has to be done alongside the dinghy, as a crewmember of the Aquarius supervises the process. A man grimaces with pain due to his injured foot; he has to be carried to the emergency ward.
At 8.20 am, the operation is completed. The first rescue operation carried out by the Aquarius is a success. We did what we came here to do. On deck, it’s time for medical care and comforting. On the bridge, the captain continues to watch the sea, waiting for instructions. A second dinghy is in distress close by, lost somewhere in the vast sea.