‘I knew we wouldn’t be able to save them all’

Sea-Watch crew member BREN DAN gives a first-hand account of pulling desperate, drowning people out of the Mediterranean

I’VE BEEN away with Sea-Watch for the last few weeks. I want to share what happened to one of the boats we went to rescue. 

It was the fourth of the five boats we rescued. A sinking rubber boat. A plane had spotted over 50 people in the water. It was over 10 miles away.

Ten miles on the speedboat takes a while. I swear that it just doesn’t go any faster than I took it. 37 knots pretty much all the way. Scanning the horizon. Looking. All the while knowing that people were drowning. 

I know we won’t be able to save them all, and we don’t.

We see small dots on the horizon grow bigger. Boats first, then people. We see the Libyan coastguard has got there first. 

There are loads of people in the water screaming for rescue, splashing desperately, most unable to swim.

As we get there, some have little rubber inner tubes round them, still kicking hard to keep their heads above water. 

These are their final moments, their fucking panicked, manic, desperate final efforts to survive. They’ve been in the water for so long already. 

We reach the first two people struggling over the same tube and haul them in. 

[Pic: Michel Kekule]

Another to our side swims frantically towards our boat. We reach over and pulled him in too.

The first ones in the boat lay on the floor exhausted, still screaming. One guy on the boat gets his breath back a little. He shakes violently with hypothermia. Through trembling lips he keeps saying: “No Libya. No Libya.” 

He is so scared to be taken back there that he just keeps repeating it. 

The people on the boat are in a bad way. Hypothermic, with foam running from their mouths and noses. But there’s no time for first aid or rescue blankets. 

We haul people in, sit them down, reposition, and pull the next one, and the next one, and the next one.

Some of the rescued start to help pull in more people. 

[Pic: Michel Kekule]

I see a woman on the Libyan ship. She fights off a guard and jumps into the water and swims toward us. 

I find out later that she doesn’t know how to swim, but chose this over being returned to Libya.

We look under the deflated wreck of the boat. Nothing. 

We continue the search with the chattering of teeth all around us, the coughing, the sobbing, the praying. 

With incredibly traumatised people on our boat, we continue the search. 

[Pic: Michel Kekule]

Strangely, the Libyan coastguards begin transferring people to us. First from their little Rhibs, and then eventually from their ship. 

I’d never seen anything like it, but apparently it has happened before.

We scan around, but we can’t see anybody.

Then someone spots something. Some splashing and then a hand reaching out of the water. We speed over as fast as we can, but it’s too late. 

They sink under the water as we get there. They drown right in front of us. Froth and bubbles rise to the surface. Gone.

[Pic: Michel Kekule]

A boy tells me he lost his brother. 

We search the whole area again. But we can’t find anyone. 

I ask one guy how many people were on the boat that had left Libya. 55, he says. 

We only have 38. That’s 17 people missing. Most must have drowned before we got there, some right under our noses. 

At that moment, though, the 38 are our priority. Some are near death from severe hypothermia, having been in the water for so long. 

Some can’t even sit up. Some drift in and out of consciousness. Some shake violently, some not at all.

Some have clothes all on. Others must have kicked them off in their desperate struggle to survive. 

It’s completely fucked up. 

We put rescue blankets on them and head back to the ship.

[Pic: Michel Kekule]

Two of the women are heavily pregnant. One of the men slips in and out of consciousness. We’d rescued them from the sea, but that was just the start. Getting them up and onto our ship is difficult. 

Once we do, the deck team takes care of them.

The rescued are showered with fresh water. Some of them have terrible burns, caused by the mixture of salt water with the fuel from their boat. 

Then there are the hospital cases. The medical team works for days with hardly any sleep. God knows how they do it. I guess we all did it, though.

I can’t really weigh up exactly what happens to the rescued over the next days. There are ten medevacs. Some of them have developed signs of secondary drowning.

They are all extremely exhausted, but more than that, their bodies ache for days from the excursion, the mental trauma. Everything.

Eventually, we get them to Sicily. And everyone is disembarked. They’ll now be in quarantine, and they’ll claim asylum.

Later we learn that among the dead was a 16-year-old boy, and that some of the dead were relatives of the survivors. 

They all have names, loved ones. I just can’t describe how precious each of them is. 

Fuck Europe for allowing this to happen.

That night, after the fourth rescue, I chat to one of the survivors, a 17-year-old Liberian boy. He and his brother, Samuel, who was 19, had left home three years earlier. 

Samuel was one of those who drowned. I tell him I’m sorry. That we tried.

He asks me: “How do I tell my mother that my brother is dead?”

I’ll never forget this moment. It cuts so deep. What do you say? 

“I don’t know, my friend,” I say. “But when it’s time, you’ll find the words.” 

The poor kid. My heart breaks for him.

I want to live in a better world than this. Nobody deserves to drown at sea. 

What is wrong with us? Why do we allow this to happen? 

We need change. Tens of thousands of people have drowned in this sea in recent years.

This is no accident. It is a policy decision. Our governments have withdrawn all of their rescue ships. They’re allowing human beings to drown in our moat in order to create a deterrent. 

A deterrent of death by drowning.

As long as we accept our governments’ position on this, as long as we allow our media to dehumanise these people and rationalise this, as long as we let our friends speak of this as acceptable, then boys like Samuel will drown, over and over again.

I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it over and over again: We would not allow this to happen if the people drowning were white!


This article is an edited version of a Twitter thread by Bren Dan. The Civil Fleet republishes it here with his permission

All pictures, including the top image, by Michel Kekule / Sea-Watch

Published by Ben Cowles

Is a journalist and podcaster

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