An often untold story about rescue missions in the Mediterranean

Illustration explained: “No EU countries wants to assume responsibility for so many people dying at sea. The red line with the blood dropping represents the Border. Planes fly in circles, acknowledging the boat without acting to save anyone. The dinghy is fragile on the still water, in constant risk. And it is empty, representing the attitude of those nations with the power to help, and who decide of not doing so.” by Joana Maria Neves.

In the early afternoon of October 28, the Spanish vessel Open Armswas approaching the port of Palermo for a scheduled crew-rotation. It was just returning from a rescue mission in the Mediterranean, saving 44 people fleeing Libya on a wooden dinghy in distress.

A pause was going to be needed, everyone thought on board, when the call arrived of a distress case almost 200 nautical miles away. It had been launched by Moonbird, the two-seater plane of the German NGO Sea Watch. Overnight it had spotted a small rubber dinghy, carrying fifteen people including several children, roughly 40 miles from the Libyan coast in international waters.

In 2019, nearly 60 000 people have attempted to arrive to Europe via sea, with more than 1000 people dying in shipwrecks. Moonbird had already launched a distress call to the offshore oil platforms VOS Aphrodite, that at the time was sailing very close to the migrant boat. No answer was received: a common behavior of merchant vessels who see saving lives as a ‘waste of time’ or a chance to face later problems with the authorities.

With all other NGO ships already full and unable to intervene, Open Arms had to quickly decide what to do. The crew got together to discuss the need to undertake such a long voyage to search for a tiny, difficult-to-track target sailing into a storm. Anabel Montes, the Open Arms’ head of mission, eventually won over the skepticism of the captain and the vessel reversed its course. “If we don’t look for them” she said, “no-one else will”.

It was calculated that if the dinghy managed to keep its northern course through an incoming storm with an average speed of 5 knots, the Open Arms could intercept it at dawn right on the southern border of the search and rescue area (SAR) of Maltese responsibility.

The next morning the whole crew was up with the sunrise, binoculars in hand, eyes fixed on the horizon. Moonbird flew earlier than usual to resume the search. Two, three, then four hours went by without nothing in sight.

Only late in the morning, a Moonbird pilot’s voice finally cracked through the radio: “Open Arms! Open Arms! This is Moonbird. We spotted the white rubber boat. Its position is 34 degrees, 57 minutes North, 12 degrees, 32 minutes East, do you copy?”.

The first officer plotted the coordinates into the map. A dot appeared, only 30 miles away from the Italian island of Lampedusa. No one could believe it. The Open Arms had sailed past its target overnight and was way further south from the dinghy. How in hell had that dinghy crossed the storm and made it so far?

Within half an hour, the Open Arms speedboats were in the water, catching up with the dinghy at full speed. The Moonbird greeted the rescuers with a low flight over their heads, then went up into the sky to lead the way. A second aircraft soon reached the scene, an EU military border control plane, then a third one, belonging to Malta’s air forces. But these didn’t assist with the search – they instead flew in circles over the zodiacs. Meanwhile, the Maltese rescue coordination center had made contact with the Open Arms, ordering it not to engage with the dinghy, because, from what they were seeing from their plane, they did not consider it a case of distress.

This order never reached the speedboats, now too far from the Open Arms. When they finally reached the dinghy, they were just 18 miles away from Lampedusa. Without any instruction from the mother ship, the pilots followed the usual protocol: they asked the dinghy to stop the engine and then distributed lifejackets to the fifteen passengers: two women, two newborn babies, five kids, and six grown up men, who immediately started showing some impatience.

Unlit cigarettes in their mouths, they seemed more interested in asking for lighters – theirs had gotten wet – than lifejackets. Communication happened through gestures, as the crew didn’t speak Arabic. They signaled towards Lampedusa, already in sight, and tried twice to turn the engine on, with the Open Arms volunteers insisting they stay put.

Was this a genuine distress case? The number of children on board, the unseaworthiness of the hull, the fact that they had sailed for more than two days passing through a storm, said yes. Yet the unusual confidence exhibited by the adult male passengers generated in the crew the awkward feeling of hampering their freedom of movement, rather than helping them. The recovery of radio communications with the Open Arms didn’t help the pilots to solve the conundrum: “Do not take anyone on board – the captain ordered – unless there is an immediate risk of sinking”.

An inflatable, low-quality, overloaded rubber boat can deflate in mere minutes. A much shorter time is needed for a toddler to die in water. Some children were visibly sunburnt. Why has Malta not intervened hours earlier, preferring instead to just watch the scene from the sky? Why had it not green-lighted the rescue? Why was Italy not sending out its Coast Guard, when Sicily was in full view? Such were the conversations among the rescue crew, when a bang, followed by a loud and prolonged hiss was heard.

“What was that?” screamed the pilot, as the people on the dinghy scrabbled to plug a hole in the rubber tube, then he took the radio: “Open Arms! Open Arms! The boat is deflating quickly. We ask for authorization to take the passengers on board”. “Wait!” was the answer. “How does he mean wait?! It’s sinking!”. Thirty seconds passed, maybe one minute, but it felt much longer. “Ok, go ahead”, the captain finally spoke.

By the time the transfer was completed, the bow of the rubber boat was under water. On the bridge of the Open Arms the captain had said to a Maltese officer: “The dinghy is losing air sir, we are taking the passengers on board”. The officer just hung the phone on him. The Italian search and rescue area was just one mile away!

Malta habitually follows distress cases from afar without intervening, until they become Italy’s problem. When prying eyes are not around, The Times of Malta has revealed, they directly call upon the Libyans to bring boats back from their area of responsibility. But this time the Open Arms had stepped in the way. For this, the crew was fearful of a lengthy standoff like the ones suffered earlier this year by the Ocean Viking and the Alan Kurdi.

Two days after the rescue, Malta was still not allowing disembarkation. Italy, despite the proximity to Lampedusa, refused to offer a port, maintaining that they had no responsibility over those waters. A go-pro video of the moment the dinghy started to deflate was provided to the authorities to prove that was a legitimate distress case. The next morning, Malta finally sent its navy to transfer the guests from the Open Arms. It did so during a storm, 12.1 miles away from the coast, because rescue ships are banned from entering the twelve miles radium of its state waters.

The first day of standoff had gone by nicely, with the crew and the passengers celebrating together with a cake the first birthday of the youngest guest, a baby named Wasim. On the morning of the second day of standoff, though, the passengers had refused the breakfast offered by the crew.

They all belonged to the same, relatively wealthy Libyan family; they had self-organised their trip, buying the dinghy and the engine for $3,000 to flee their war-torn country, where life had become unlivable. The head of the family, a 40-year-old named Hatim, had spent half his life in the navy and was confident he could have made it to Italy without the help of the Open Arms. When the captain reconstructed the route of the dinghy on the map, he was amazed by the sailing skills of Hatim: “Look at this, he said pointing at the straight line connecting the town of Sabratha to Lampedusa, a perfect north!”.

Hatim also blamed the rescuers for the hole in his dinghy, pierced by a broken wooden board in the hull: “Until you came, he said, I was in full control”. He didn’t understand why they were still stuck at sea two days later, so he had imposed to the rest of the family not to touch any food.

Anabel Montes, head of mission, had already tried to explain to him the reasons behind the standoff, and the fact that they had no other choice, under international maritime conventions, but to stop and rescue a dinghy in those conditions.

Over the last two months, a lack of assistance from state forces had killed dozens in the immediate proximities of Lampedusa, the latest lethal accident having occurred on 23 November at less than one mile from the coast.

Now, the hunger strike forced Anabel to do something she was keeping as a last resort. She took her phone and showed him a picture: “This – she said – happened on 6 October, two weeks ago. We found you at 18 miles from Lampedusa. They were only 7 miles away”. The picture showed a mother, hugging her baby, on the seafloor, dead. Hatim covered his face with his hand. His brother in law, a bodybuilder, started to weep.

Then Hatim muttered something and made a hand gesture. The kids threw themselves on the biscuits.

Written by Lorenzo D’Agostino, Illustrated by Joana Maria Neves


This article is a Brush&Bow collaboration, and first appeared on OpenDemocracy on the 18th of February 2020.