“Let’s start at the first point on the agenda. What do we do if we find dead bodies?” The first briefing on board the Seefuchs, a vessel operated by the German NGO Sea-Eye that has been engaged in search and rescue operations to save migrants in the Mediterranean for the past two years, opened like this.
This is the hardest question, the one that brings you back to reality. It reminds you that behind the 11 welcoming faces of the diverse crew, which is made up entirely of volunteers, this is the hardest endeavor faced on our seas today.
“We can’t bring dead bodies on board. We have to leave them there,” the Captain continues. It takes about 24 hours to sail from the Valletta port to the search and rescue area, 30 miles off the coast of Libya. We can’t carry the ones who have lost their lives at sea to Italy. The ship, a 22-meter-long former fishing vessel, is not equipped with cold storages.
“We will provide their position and hold a small ceremony for them. But we need to save the little space we have for the ones who are still alive.”
Among the clothes stretched between the mast and bow to make some shade, are huge bags full of lifejackets. Every nook of this boat is packed with tools. The free space is reduced to a bare minimum.
The dinghy is squeezed onto the wooden deck, next to the benches and table the crew uses for dinner. The captain’s room is also the infirmary, while the rest of the crew sleeps in a 12-bed dormitory below deck.
“Not a very nice boat,” the taxi driver laughed as he dropped me off at the port, looking at the red iron and wood vessel where rust had eaten away part of the side.
With so little space, everything must be efficient: anything taking up space must be useful and the very same rule applies to those onboard. This is why the doctor and surgeon are also the cook and lookout, respectively. The official photographer is also the radio operator, and the journalists who come on board are trained exactly like all the other volunteers. As the search and rescue manager explains, while teaching me how to start the dinghy and use the radio, “if something happens to me, everybody else needs to know how to rescue people and get back to the ship, including you.”
Hell has never been this close
Yet, it is difficult to feel in danger here. When the wind quiets down, the Mediterranean waters turn to silk, cradling the boat in such a soothing movement that it almost feels like floating on a lagoon.
“I feel like I’m back in my mother’s womb,” says Stefan Kehrt, a 38-year-old surgeon from Meiningen, a small city in the Franconia region of Eastern Germany.
It seems impossible that over 2,000 people have drowned here since the beginning of the year.
In summer nights like these, the sea seems to roll out a red carpet to whatever place you want to reach. The waters are hypnotic; they can convince you that if you trust them enough, you can go wherever you want - even Europe, and even if you are sailing on a battered wooden boat or a dinghy with no engine.
“We are still in heaven,” says Sampo Widman, the captain. He is 73 years old and works as an architect in Germany, but has been sailing boats for over 40 years. He looks around and watches the horizon. There are no other boats around us. “Libya is over there, only 30 miles away. We can’t even imagine what’s happening on that side of the Mediterranean. Hell has never been this close,” he says. “I’ve always been a firm believer in the European project but how can you let people die like this? These politics are inhumane. They betray all the values upon which Europe was founded.”
Europe, 30 miles off the Libyan coast
The flag with the 12 gold stars waves on top of the vessel: a reminder that although Brussels could not feel farther away, Europe is still present in this part of the Mediterranean. It is a different kind of Europe, represented by regular citizens and civil society organizations.
You can feel its presence on the radio, when it crackles messages from other NGOs. During our two weeks at sea, there are four other humanitarian ships operating in the search and rescue area. There is Save the Children’s Vos Hestia, the Aquarius from the French organization Sos Mediterranée, the Phoenix from the Italian-Maltese organization Migrant Offshore Aid Station (MOAS), and finally, the Golfo Azzurro and the Open Arms, operated by the Spanish NGO Proactive Open Arms. Their volunteers and aid workers come from all over Europe, with everybody speaking English in a different accent.
“Every time I see them coming up on the radar, I feel at home,” says Krissy Dschi, a 32-year-old social worker from Cologne who took two weeks off work to join the Sea-Eye mission.
Like her, most of the crew members belong to first generation of citizens who grew up after the lifting of internal border controls in 1995, and were allowed to study anywhere in the EU thanks to the Erasmus program. But aboard these vessels, there are also senior volunteers who went through the long, painful process of unification.
The stories of the volunteers could be interpreted as Ariadne’s thread to retrace the past 70 years of our history.
“My father went missing during the last days of war, when the Red Army entered Germany. We never heard from him again,” says the Captain. “We’ve come such a long way since then. We’ve created peace and unity, and a place where human rights are respected. We cannot go back to those dark days. We need to keep fighting for what we have achieved.”
Erhard Driesel is a 61-year-old photographer who grew up in East Germany. “I’m sorry my English isn’t great. I studied Russian at school. My house was only a few meters from one of the checkpoints,” he says. “The first time I went West I was startled by the colors. Where we lived, everything was grey. The rents were very cheap but the landlords couldn’t afford to have the buildings repainted.” He remembers when the Wall came down, and can hardly hold back tears talking about it. “It’s hard to explain. Nobody thought the Wall could be torn down without blood being shed. It was one of the best moments of my life. I had never thought I’d ever be able to travel, but some years ago I realized one of my dreams. I went to the US and walked the Appalachian Trail. Can you believe that? I even have an American tourist Visa on my passport!”
Olga Vynokurova is a 53-year-old doctor who was born in Donetsk, Ukraine. “I know Italy well,” she tells me while she’s cooking dinner for the entire crew. “My daughter used to go to Apulia every summer with an organization that helped the children from Chernobyl. She was born in 1988, two years after the explosion. I was worried about the radiation I’d breathed during that time, so anytime there was the opportunity, I sent her away to breath some decent air.”
She talks about her decision to take two weeks off of work and join the vessel crew as if it was the most natural thing in the world. “I’m here because I’m an immigrant myself. I was a single mother, and twenty years ago I moved to Germany with my daughter. I didn’t speak a word of German and my degree in medicine was not valid there, so besides working I also had to go back to school. It was really hard but I found so many people who were willing to help me. I couldn’t be anywhere else but here today.”
The quick shrug Olga gives me when I ask about her reasons for joining the crew is the same I find in other volunteers.
Stefan Kehrt doesn’t have children yet, but says he’s here for them anyway. “In a few years, the next generation will ask us where we were while all these people were drowning at sea. I want to be able to give them the right answer.”
Peter Martin is the youngest member of the crew at 23. A PhD candidate in ancient literature at the University of Cambridge, he is on his third search and rescue mission at sea: twice in the Mediterranean and once in the Aegean Sea. “Things are very different here. Most of the time, people don’t even have a satellite phone. The traffickers take any personal objects away from them, their clothes, their shoes,” he says. “The most difficult part of receiving a distress call is the uncertainty. You don’t know what to expect... The night before I left Lesbos, we received a call from a boat in distress. We went out with the dinghies and searched everywhere, all night long. The next day I went to the airport. At 11 o’clock that morning, they found a sunken boat. 25 of the 27 people were dead. None of us saw them the previous night. One of the stories was in the paper. Among them was a Turkish guy, a violinist. They found him floating on his violin case. He wanted to reach Belgium. We know his story but we don’t know the stories of so many others. Many bodies aren’t even identified… 25 people out of 27.” He pauses for a moment and then nods, as if he finally found the way to explain why he chose to spend his August on a fishing vessel in the middle of the Mediterranean. “Two people were saved though. One was a woman, who was eight months pregnant. She gave birth to her child a few weeks later.”
Photo credits: Ottavia Spaggiari