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‘I Watched People’s Faces Turn from Fear to Peace as They Drowned’

In this firsthand account of a day aboard the rescue ship Aquarius in the central Mediterranean, some lives are saved but others lost. Survivors testify to the diverse motives of migrants and the intense suffering on land in Libya.

Written by Barbie Latza Nadeau Published on Read time Approx. 4 minutes
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The M.V. Aquarius sent a speedboat from the rescue ship to the rubber dinghies to hand out life jackets. Maud Veith, SOS Mediterranee

Aboard the M.V. Aquarius, the first rescue call on November 1 came as the sun rose over the Mediterranean. A flotilla of migrant boats had been spotted in distress off the coast of Libya, and the Maritime Rescue Coordination Center (MRCC) in Rome notified the Aquarius as the nearest rescue ship.

The crew on the vessel, operated by French charity SOS Mediterranee, already had 248 rescued people aboard. They had been transferred during the night from an Italian coast guard vessel, a symptom of the increasingly fraught logistics of matching rescued people with a shrinking number of NGO boats.

Hunkered down among the rescued on the former fishery protection vessel were seven men from Nepal who got caught up in the unrest in Libya and had no other way to get home, and a brain cancer patient from Algeria who had been denied a visa for surgery in France and decided to make the dangerous journey to save her life.

Increased patrols by the Libyan coast guard and reported deals between Italy and forces on the Libyan coast saw a sharp reduction in sea crossings in July and August. But kind weather and fighting in one of the main port cities that led to the release of tens of thousands of migrants from detention centers have seen the desperate journeys resume.

Some of the women transferred from the Italian vessel carried with them the consequences of recent efforts to trap migrants in northern Libya. Once settled into the female shelter, where a midwife from the medical charity Medecins Sans Frontieres tended to pregnant women, and those who were raped in detention centers or along the migrant trail through the Sahara told their stories.

Among them was a Nigerian woman, Rosemary, who said she was 25 but looked much younger. She recalled how, along with other women, she had been raped “several times” after a boat she was on had been turned back by the Libyan coast guard in August. “They kept us behind a wall and would send in men to rape us,” she said. “I thank God I made it out alive.”

A Sudanese woman named Anna, who, like many asylum seekers, didn’t want her full name published for fear of retaliation by authorities in Libya, was so dehydrated from diarrhea she collapsed on the Aquarius and had to be given intravenous fluids. “I would have died soon if I hadn’t been pushed on to a boat,” she told me as she lay on the floor. “When Africans die in the detention centers, the guards take them out in garbage bags like trash.”

A Libyan woman named Amal traveling with her husband and three young children grew impatient and wanted to go straight to Italy, seemingly unconcerned that there were other boats to rescue. She complained about sleeping next to the African women in the shelter. “They will give me scabies,” she said, referring to a parasitic skin disease common in those who have spent time in Libyan detention centers. The Aquarius staff, accustomed to this kind of racism among the rescued, ignored her pleas.

Aboard the M.V. Aquarius rescue ship operated by French charity SOS Mediterranee. (Maud Veith, SOS Mediterranee)

Many of the overnight arrivals watched as a speedboat from the rescue ship approached the first of the rubber dinghies to hand out life jackets before bringing them to safety. Some of those already aboard the Aquarius searched the faces of those on the flimsy inflatable, looking for people they knew.

While those of the first boat were being shuttled by rescuers to the main Aquarius vessel, a second gray rubber dinghy appeared nearby. The rescue crew quickly moved to the second boat, which was clearly made from a lower grade rubber than the first. Several young children and small babies were rescued first.

As soon as the most vulnerable had been removed from the dinghy, the boat twisted and crumpled, plunging around 50 people who had not yet been given life jackets into the water. Those who had already been rescued watched in horror as the cries of their friends echoed across the sea. Those in the water flapped their arms and grabbed on to what was left of the sinking dinghy, which made it even more unstable. Even though the rescue team trains for this scenario, it was clear that people were about to die.

The people who had gotten life jackets in time were pulled on to the Aquarius’ rig. Those who did not disappeared under the waves. One survivor, a Sudanese boy named Mohammed, said: “I watched people’s faces change from fear to peace as they drowned. There was nothing anyone could do without risking their own lives. There were too many people, and the waves just ate them up.”

No bodies were recovered, and it is not possible to say with certainty how many people died.

One drowning man was pulled on to the rescue boat in full cardiac arrest. The medic on board started to perform CPR, persevering until the seemingly dead man came back to life. With the rescuers’ cheers still ringing , an Italian navy helicopter appeared overhead to evacuate him to a hospital in Italy.

A lightning storm broke in the distance, and another rubber boat appeared on the horizon. One hundred more people were brought to safety. With 588 souls aboard, the Aquarius finally set sail back to Italy.

The full import of the rescue mission was brought home to us three days later when the bodies of 26 young Nigerian women were found floating beside another sunken dinghy. A day after that, five more people, including a toddler, drowned during a rescue. The cycle of rescue, life, death and relief that has blighted the Mediterranean continues.

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