Re­porter be­comes res­cuer

Fort Collins re­porter shares his ex­pe­ri­ence on the Mediter­ranean

The Denver Post - - DENVER & THE WEST - By Ja­son Pohl

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

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