Reporter becomes rescuer
Fort Collins reporter shares his experience on the Mediterranean
fort collins» Life jackets floated all around us, and our eight-person crew aboard rescue boat Minden was all hands on deck.
Three rescuers pulled people aboard the inflatable rescue raft, and the rest of us worked amid cries for help, assisting dozens of refugees up the collapsible ladder and onto our deck.
Our captain tasked me with helping refugees over the railing, guiding them to the bow and evaluating them for life-threatening medical needs. It was time to transition from journalist to rescuer, shifting the camera to my side and recalling my EMT training from a few years prior.
This year is the deadliest on record for people crossing the rough waters of the Mediterranean Sea. More than 4,600 people have died in 2016, surpassing 3,771 reported from 2015, according to the United Nations’ refugee agency. The crossing between Libya and Italy, where one person is killed for every 47 who arrive, is among the most dangerous, the agency reported.
Rescuers from a host of backgrounds staff long-haul ships and smaller rescue vessels, like Minden, that patrol this part of the world in hopes of alleviating the soaring body count.
All of the 30-plus people we rescued from the capsized rubber boat that morning could walk. Drenched and shivering, there were no obvious signs of serious physical trauma. Nearly everyone was in a state of silent shock as I attempted to reassure them with calming small talk.
They’d nearly drowned. Now it appeared they would make it to Europe.
And then she maneuvered over the railing.
I guessed she was in her early 20s. She was an African woman with short hair and a striped shirt who appeared more frantic than others, trembling and gasping for air. I grabbed her by the hand to ensure she didn’t slip as an increasingly crowded and excessively shaky Minden bobbed at sea, roughly 20 miles from the coast of Libya.
We stopped walking. I looked her in the eyes and told her to take a deep breath. She met my gaze. “Thank you, sir,” she blurted out, breaking the silence.
My two weeks embedded with LifeBoat and Global Disaster Immediate Response Team, non-governmental organizations rescuing refugees off the coast of Libya, were unforgettable for a lot of reasons. I did a story in October about a couple of Colorado firefighters who returned from a similar trip — rescuing people while trying to stay out of the politics of it all. We stayed in contact, and an opportunity emerged to deploy on the November trip. This was a unique assignment spurred by source-building and a bit of luck.
I’d never been to this part of the world. And I’d never been on a boat for more than a couple of hours. It took 20-foot waves tossing our 80-foot rescue boat around like a child’s toy to make me seasick, twice. I still can’t shake the nauseating, putrid stench of that tiny bathroom stall — shared by eight people for two weeks — that I wound up in Thanksgiving morning.
As the days passed and we lost track of time, I wondered how I would write on my experiences at the end of the trip.
Some stood out more than others.
There were the 92 people crammed aboard the first rubber boat, six days after flying to and departing on Minden from Malta. Nobody had a thing on that raft, their legs dangling over the side. There were no family albums. There were no heirlooms. Some had cellphones and some took selfies, but there were no memories of a life left behind. Only hope of a life in the future, marred by uncertainty.
Some people had more resources than others, so they enjoyed smaller, less-cramped vessels. But still each fled with almost no possessions. And regardless of boat size or quality, their engines inevitably broke down.
One refugee was 13 months old. Her inflatable life jacket looked as if it was made for a toy.
I was typing my notes one day atop the ship’s bridge when I spotted something yellow float by our starboard side. It was a lifejacket, yet there were no boats nearby. Then we saw the arms. There was no rescue. This was a recovery operation. We’ll never know how the two African men in their 20s came to have their arms locked through one vest, though we know from the status of their body decomposition they likely died within the past 24 hours after either falling from or being thrown from a boat in the area.
They died with nothing. And like thousands of others here this year, they might never be identified.
Back to the woman in her 20s with the striped shirt. “Thank you, sir.” She had nothing but her life and a lot of uncertainty. She was grateful.
Complex smuggling operations in Libya are unlikely to entirely cease this winter, even as the Mediterranean Sea becomes increasingly dangerous. The humanitarian crisis continues to unfold, yet talk about refugees gets boiled down to sound bites and fearmongering.
Two weeks isn’t long enough to proclaim expertise on anything, let alone complicated geopolitical migration patterns halfway around the world. And I don’t pretend to know how to fix things.
But I know I won’t soon forget these experiences. Neither will my fellow crewmembers, judging by the continued conversations throughout the long trip home.
We can learn a lot from that African woman in the striped shirt, among the thousands of others like her.
There are lessons of being optimistic about a future guided by horrors of the past. There’s something to be said about having no possessions and still having hope.
I like to consider the stories behind it all, remembering that for every one about crises like these there is more to be considered than just the number of people lost — there are stories about the thousands of people saved. “Thank you, sir.” I never got her name, but I’ll never forget her.
Above: A man who once lived in Baghdad, before moving to Libya, holds his 13month-old daughter as they traverse the choppy waters of the Mediterranean Sea en route to Italy on Nov. 17. Below: People wait to grab a rope to be rescued from their wooden boat off the coast of Libya on Nov. 22. Jason Pohl, Coloradoan