Life and death in the Mediterranean

Michael Kühnel-Rouchouze receives an infant from a rubber boat that carried a total of 170 people, men, women and children. Thorir Gudmundsson/IFRC

Michael Kühnel-Rouchouze receives an infant from a rubber boat that carried a total of 170 people, men, women and children. Thorir Gudmundsson/IFRC

For up to 170 people on a flimsy rubber dinghy, these are the distances that matter: Libya is 30 kilometres behind, Italy is 360 kilometres ahead and the bottom of the Mediterranean Sea is 150 metres down below. 

Mediterranean rescues are deadly serious. In the space of 18 hours from 6pm 15 November, the Responder search and rescue boat rescued 870 people from the clutches of the waves.

"Thank god we were rescued from the boat," says 21-year-old Light from Nigeria as he sheltered on the deck of the Responder, beaten by heavy rain and gusting wind. "Otherwise we would all be dead."

Sometimes, the difference between life and death is a chance encounter and a matter of minutes. In dark swirling water with heavy swells, a low-lying dinghy can easily escape radar detection. 

That evening, Icelandic Red Cross nurse Johanna Jonsdottir stepped into the dark and on to the Responder’s deck to make a phone call.  Over the crashing waves, a faint noise grabbed her attention.  On listening closely, she realized the sound was shouting. When she looked down from the boat, she could make out a dinghy full of people bobbing close to the Responder.

Within minutes rescuers from Migrant Offshore Aid Station

(MOAS) and Red Cross medics had begun to bring the traumatized passengers to safety. 

One of the survivors was Sophie from Senegal. She had spent 15 months in Libya. She'd waited near the beach in Libya for some time before the sea was calm enough for smugglers to push out the boats. "Thank god I'm alive," she says. 

It later emerged that 25 passengers from that dinghy had died – high waves had swept them overboard as the boat was leaving Libya.

Two hours later, the Responder picked up a group from a small wooden boat. The next morning, three more rescues took place, bringing the total above 550. Those rescues combined with others from a couple of days earlier meant that 870 people had been brought to safety in less than a week.

Once on deck, medics from the Italian Red Cross and the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC) check over the passengers. They bandage wounds, tend to pregnant women, treat ailments and make sure children are alright. 

The youngest passenger this week was one-month-old Desmond, rescued with his mother Susan from Nigeria.  

As Susan embraced her son, another woman, Fatmata, shook uncontrollably and asked repeatedly for her children. They had been put in another dinghy. After a few tense minutes, people from the second boat were brought to the Responder. Among them were Fatmata's children.  The reunion was emotional. 

Men, women and children huddled on the Responder’s deck as it headed towards Italy. Everyone had water, food and a foil blanket for the rough journey. Most stayed perfectly still. It was only when land appeared in the distance Italy that people started to jump up and sing. 

"I love Italy," was the phrase that echoed around the deck.

People were relieved with good reason. This year, more than 4,500 people have died trying to cross the Mediterranean. A few days later, the death toll rose by one more as a body was spotted floating in the waves and was recovered by the Responder team.

As the Responder docked in Pozzallo, Sicily, passengers stepped on to solid ground again at long last, greeted by the Italian Red Cross’s on-shore team. They are safe. What happens now is up to Italian authorities. 

For the Responder’s crew, it is back out to sea.