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Laura, rescuer of the ONG española Open ArmsShe has been sitting on the prow for long minutes, obsessed with a little white point on the endless horizon of the sea. He adjusts the focus of the binoculars, but cannot tell if it is a reflection of the winter sun, waves, a mirage, or lives in danger.
While the rest of the crew concentrates on deciphering refractions, Captain Savaas tries to decode signals and searches for clues to possible shipwrecks among stray radio waves. Savaas has been captaining the ship for four years and knows the area, the flows, the routes and dynamics as if it were his hometown; your intuition tells you that it is — indeed — a shipwreck.
The Astral – Rescue and surveillance sailboat – set sail on February 1 from the port of Badalona (Barcelona), in Spain, on its 81st mission with a crew of 9 people. Since 2015, both the Astral As the Open Arms – flagship – have traveled 100,000 miles (just over 160,934) and have rescued more than 61,000 people.
Xabi and Gaiskane prepare the speedboat to starboard of the Astral, they put a bag with 50 life jackets; Fatima and Laura put on their wetsuits, their fins, helmets and masks, while Òscar Camps, the founder of the NGO Open Arms, turns on the outboard motor and Saioa, the nurse, prepares medical supplies.
A few minutes later, that indecipherable dot turns into an unfortunate reality: 45 people crammed into a fragile rubber boat. The water reaches the knees of those who go on the sides; those who remain in the center have it up to the waist.
A young man from Guinea —A black corduroy American five sizes larger; Stole motorcycle camera – manages to explain that the engine has not worked for two days.
There is no precision regarding the starting point. Maybe it was one of the beaches on the outskirts of Sabratah (Libya). Regarding the schedule, there is no doubt: like so many other attempts, clandestine exoduses are born at night, at the same time that rights die. The darkness opens a tenuous gap for escape, but makes each step sinister in an escape route a thousand times deadly.
At dawn, on the beach, the traffickers indicated their direction with gestures: they pointed towards flames spit by oil plants some 20 miles (32.18 kilometers), still in Libyan territorial waters.
The luminous structures in the middle of the sea are false coordinates that the traffickers suggest as the outpost of Europe. But it is only the first stage, and there the most serious dangers begin: militias that charge a toll in exchange for not hijacking or puncturing the boat; night and threatening traffic of fishing vessels without radar; flights of Frontex, the European agency in charge of identifying vessels and giving the coordinates to Libyan coast guards for interception.
Where there is danger, there is salvation
Johann Christian Friedrich Hölderlin
According to Safa Msehli, spokesperson for the World Organization for Migration (IOM), in recent weeks about 2,000 people have been intercepted at sea by the coastal authorities, and returned to Libya. From the bridge of Astral Camps says, “That’s hot returns.” A fragrant violation of Human Rights, executed with the blessing and financing of Europe, which considers Tripoli one more port, a safe harbor. And Tripoli is, nevertheless, the capital of a country that has been dragging an internal war since the fall of the Muhamar Gaddafi regime.
The boat’s engine stalled as it passed through the oil plants. The tides and winds did the rest. They circumvented the Libyan Coast Guard and hoped that the same intangible forces would not return them, or condemn them. But they spent three days adrift and despair seized them. They were 44 men from Guinea, the Gambia and the Ivory Coast.
The shadow of death flooded the boat with the same insistence as water, until mid-afternoon on Friday an ambiguous point appeared in the distance: it could be the end or a rescue.
Laura stands in the bow and salutes. The crew raises their arms shouting “Boza”, “Boza”, The word that breaks down the walls in Ceuta, Melilla, and crosses this deadly marine border. “¡Sit down and calm down, please!” (Sit down, calm down please!), Asks Laura and asks about the number of people, state of health and if there are women and children. Then, together with Camps and Fátima, they supply life jackets, masks, water and food.
Savaas, desde el Astral, establishes contact with the Control Center to inform the coordinates of the wreck and facilitate the arrival of the Italian Coast Guard. The Astral – on a monitoring mission – is not authorized to raise people, except in cases of extreme necessity such as a sinking.
The sun goes down and, without certainty of the arrival of the Italian Coast Guard, thermal blankets are distributed. Custody of the precarious boat will remain as long as necessary.
Afua left Ivory Coast with the illusion of a migratory project that would allow him a dignified life, a future. His story is reduced to the enumeration of sub-Saharan cartography: from Abidjan to Togo, then Benin. It says Ghana, Nigeria, Niger, the crossing of the desert and Libya. He manages to name them while drinking water and taking a bite of an energy bar that he shares with Ali, the occasional passenger next door.
It is all that evokes the route; the rest is silence protected by the thermal blanket.
It is estimated that 20,000 people have drowned in the Mediterranean since 2014 after trying to get to a safe place to continue their lives. 20,000 lives were lost without Europe providing protection, rather the opposite.
“We do not want it to happen again,” they maintain from the non-profit organization. We work to be the eyes and the voice that denounce what is happening. Our main mission is to protect at sea those who try to reach Europe fleeing war conflicts, persecution or poverty; and also inform and train on land to ensure that people who migrate can make their decisions with total freedom and knowledge ”.
Night falls as the Italian Coast Guard rescue ship peeks through the waves. Its crew members, clad in Personal Protective Equipment, carry out the maneuver of transferring the people from the rubber boat to the ship before the jealous custody of Camps, Laura and Fátima. Once everyone is up, they sail towards Lampedusa while the crew of the Astral regroups, cleans vests, refills gas from the rescue boat and prepares to continue assisting migrants and refugees at risk in the Central Mediterranean.
From the bow of the Italian flag ship they salute the rescuers from Open Arms. Afua raises her arms gratefully. In the Akan language, her name means “born on Friday.”
Eddie is an Australian news reporter with over 9 years in the industry and has published on Forbes and tech crunch.