'Tell them what happened': Rescue on the high seas

[Nora Adin Fares/Al Jazeera]
[Nora Adin Fares/Al Jazeera]
[Nora Adin Fares/Al Jazeera]

Mediterranean Sea - An overcrowded wooden boat carrying 126 refugees and migrants drifts in the central Mediterranean. In the cramped space below deck, men huddle in rows next to each other, the ceiling so low that it is impossible to sit upright.

As the furious sea pounds the boat, below decks fills constantly with water. The salt mixes with leaking engine fuel into a dangerous chemical reaction that not only burns the skin but risks suffocating whoever inhales the toxins.

Above, couples are sitting together, wrapping head scarves and towels around their children to protect them from the splashing waves, exposed to the strong wind and treacherous sea.

As the last rays of the sun disappear beyond the horizon on their second day without food or water, one of the people on board manages to make a last desperate call before losing contact with the telephone towers.

"We're going to die, help us," is all he has time to tell a woman on the other end before the call cuts off.

All they can do now is sit in the night as the waves crash, hoping there is enough fuel to last until sunrise - and that somebody is coming to help.

On the other end, here is what was happening:

18:42 to 20:00

dark sea and a ship's lights
[Nora Adin Fares/Al Jazeera]
[Nora Adin Fares/Al Jazeera]

A wooden boat has been spotted drifting in the central Mediterranean by Frontex’s surveillance aircraft Osprey 1.

European border control issues a Mayday call for all nearby ships to assist, estimating that the boat is carrying 40 people.

Humanity 1, a search-and-rescue vessel operated by German NGO, SOS Humanity, is in international waters southwest of Malta.

Its planned voyage is towards the sea off the Libyan coast to rescue refugees and migrants caught in the dangerous crossing to Europe.

It is about seven hours away but, after a second Mayday, Humanity 1’s Captain Leo decides to alter course towards the distressed boat.

21:19 to 22:31

Man leaning towards glowing screen in dark room
[Nora Adin Fares/Al Jazeera]
[Nora Adin Fares/Al Jazeera]

The crew on board the vessel did not expect action so soon, tired as they were after a week of training before setting sail for the North African coast.

Johannes, human rights observer in SOS Humanity, lies in his bunk under blue covers when he feels the boat pick up speed, straining against the waves.

He rolls over, tangled in sheets, wondering: “We’re suddenly going at full speed."

Lukas Kaldenhoff, Humanity 1 press officer, walks around the decks, knocking on doors and waking the crew up for an emergency meeting.

One by one, the crew members gather in the dining area, most of them still in pyjamas, rubbing the sleep out of their eyes.

Kaldenhoff announces that the vessel is now going at full speed towards a boat in distress in the central Mediterranean Sea.

“We don’t know the situation, but we will be there in six hours.

"Get some sleep, tomorrow might be a long day”, he says firmly before sending everybody back to bed.

03:09 to 04:37

crew gearing up
[Nora Adin Fares/Al Jazeera]
[Nora Adin Fares/Al Jazeera]

The vessel receives an email update from the Alarm Phone hotline for people in distress at sea.

The statement is short and clear – the boat has capsized and all its passengers are now in the water, desperate.

The crew wakes up to another meeting.

Search and rescue coordinator, Viviana di Bartolo, hair braided securely on both sides, stands in the middle of the room in her wind- and water-proof outerwear, yellow helmet under her arm.

She looks around seriously, lips pressed together, before warning the crew of mostly fresh volunteers about a potential mass casualty once they arrive at the scene.

“We don’t know if the boat has capsized completely or if there are any remains that they are clinging on to.

“Gear up and be prepared for everything,” she says.

05:34 to 06:00

RIBs being launched into the dark sea
[Nora Adin Fares/Al Jazeera]
[Nora Adin Fares/Al Jazeera]

The crew are getting ready to launch two orange rescue RIBs (rigid inflatable boats) for the rescue.

While waiting on deck, the vessel's cultural mediator, Zeina Nasser, who is also responsible for Arabic communication with the survivors, leans out against the blue railing.

Her black, curly hair flutters in the wind as she tries to catch a glimpse of the boat in the pitch-black sea.

“I really hope they aren’t dead,” she says fervently.

The RIBs, Tango and Bravo, are launched into the water. The rescue crew hold tight to its black ropes as they crash through the heavy wind amid 2-metre (7-feet) high waves.

They are running out of time, having already lost vital hours during the night sailing to the wooden boat’s location.

Navigating without daylight is nigh on impossible and both Tango and Bravo follow the searchlight from the mothership, lighting up the direction to the wooden boat a few minutes away.

Luckily, there is no sign of the boat having capsized. False alarm.

06:20 to 06:33

boat in distress against barely light sky
[Nora Adin Fares/Al Jazeera]
[Nora Adin Fares/Al Jazeera]

By now, the boat has been tossed about in the water for 32 hours, and the wooden planks that hold the bottom together cracked against the sea.

The poorly made structure has begun to lean to one side as the waves become increasingly relentless.

A man in his late 30s stands up in the violently rocking boat. His grey clothes are stained with salt water and the fuel leaking from the engine and he is desperately trying to calm his screaming companions down, telling them to stay calm.

Zeina Nasser calls out to them from RIB Bravo: “We’re going to help you, but you have to let us do it safely,” as the Bravo crew starts handing out lifejackets.

The enveloping darkness makes it difficult to assess how long the rescue will take.

While Bravo hands out lifejackets, RIB Tango is on standby a few metres away, circling the scene and awaiting further instructions over the radio.

RIB coordinator Jonas Muller looks exasperatedly at the waterproof watch around his wrist. Time frustrating, a disappointment.

”It’s still at least 30 minutes until sunrise”, he alerts the crew, sighing at the dark sky.

06:45 to 06:59

RIB Bravo approaches the boat in distress
[Nora Adin Fares/Al Jazeera]
[Nora Adin Fares/Al Jazeera]

The RIBs are taking turns evacuating people, but are struggling to get close as the boat bobs violently back and forth in the waves.

One by one, survivors are carried onto the RIBs and told to hold tight.

Several of them are suffering from severe hypothermia, their lips turning purple while some who are still on the wooden boat are gripped with terror at the idea of being left behind – that the help might disappear.

“Help us, don’t forget us!” somebody shouts in English from the wooden boat as Tango putters away to shuttle 10 survivors to the mothership.

The first streaks of daylight appear along the horizon.

As the dark blue sky is slowly being pushed away, shifting to a shade of violet, the wooden boat is taking on more and more water and tilting on its side.

Every minute is crucial to ensure that no one ends up in the freezing sea if it sinks.

The top deck is still full of survivors, clinging to their life jackets and shouting to the rescue crew that there are even more people below deck.

07:26 to 08:08

Last man left on the boat
[Nora Adin Fares/Al Jazeera]
[Nora Adin Fares/Al Jazeera]

Thirteen-year-old Ahmed* from Syria, is all alone, making the dangerous crossing without an adult to accompany him.

He laughs with relief, a giddy sound, as he is evacuated from the wooden boat.

Two crooked front teeth appear between his dry lips as he throws his head back, his pale face contrasting the screaming orange from the life jacket.

When he is told to sit down in the RIB Tango before it starts moving, he laughs harder.

"I'll do whatever you want, whatever you say," he replies jokingly, “if you take me to the big ship over there”, he points towards Humanity 1.

He gets his wish, and the crew carry on with another two hours of shuttling people back and forth.

Then they are down to the last survivor, an elderly Syrian man who is sitting off on his own, firmly holding on to a blue and white plastic animal carrier.

His glasses are misty with sea salt, fingers pale from the cold but he resolutely points at the box on his lap.

His cat has to get off the boat safely first.

”His name is Louz!” he calls out in Arabic as he hands the ginger cat over to the RIB Tango crew very carefully.

08:19 to 08:37

A loaded RIB making its way back to Humanity 1
[Nora Adin Fares/Al Jazeera]
[Nora Adin Fares/Al Jazeera]

Some of the survivors are big men, but they have been severely weakened by the brutal journey.

They had a hard time standing on their own enough to get off the wooden boat and the crew knows that raising them to the mothership will be difficult.

One of them, a young man in his 20s, can barely focus his eyes when he is instructed to hold on before the RIB starts moving.

He breathes shallowly and slowly, his glasses askew over his bearded face. Just as the engine starts, he turns and vomits a yellowish goo, mixed with blood.

Under the rising sun, the blue wooden boat straightens out but is still being tossed back and forth in the waves without direction.

Evidence of the night before is all over its deck: a chaos of clothes and belongings strewn everywhere. Empty water bottles, piles of cigarette butts, one lonely pink child’s shoe, a pair of black slippers - each item a trace of someone who sat in terror and looked into the night for hope.

Di Bartolo climbs on board with a can of red spray paint in her hand, her body still full of adrenaline from the fear of ending up in a disaster.

"H1, 18/1/2024” she sprays on the deck, making sure other Frontex drones and aeroplanes can see that the boat has been intercepted by Humanity 1.

Louz the cat in his carrier
Louz the cat [Nora Adin Fares/Al Jazeera]

Rescue completed, all 126 survivors on board and one cat called Louz (Arabic for almonds).

Kids playing while their moms see the ship doctor
[Nora Adin Fares/Al Jazeera]
[Nora Adin Fares/Al Jazeera]

Ahmed*, now in a dry navy-blue tracksuit, walks around asking the crew about the journey between Libya and Italy.

He stands with his arms crossed in front of the adults, trying to seem strong, brushing his black hair out of his face and narrowing his dark eyes as he speaks.

“How long does it take to go from Libya to Italy? The smuggler told us it would take three hours.

“I didn’t believe him, that damn liar.”

The mental health representative onboard, Francesca Albanese, plays with the children while their mothers are tended to by the doctors onboard.

Thirty-four minors have been rescued among the survivors, one of them is a 14-day-old baby girl travelling with her mother and 4 siblings.

Some of the exhausted survivors nap on the deck while others dry their clothes from the remains of seawater.

Some people sleep on deck wrapped in blankets while others hang their sodden clothes out to dry
Some survivors wrap themselves in blankets to rest while others hang their clothes out to dry [Nora Adin Fares/Al Jazeera]

15:08 to 17:22

Control room of the ship, looking out to sea
[Nora Adin Fares/Al Jazeera]
[Nora Adin Fares/Al Jazeera]

A 30-year-old Egyptian survivor named Muhammed shows up at the vessel’s clinic, leaning against the bright blue rails because he is struggling to walk.

He speaks in a low, weak voice and says he has some painful wounds on both his legs.

Lifting his trousers, he reveals several large scabs along his calves. Some have dried to crusts, while others appear to be bubbles in his flesh, filled with liquid and blood.

“They showed up three months ago and my legs are getting more and more swollen,” he tells the doctor.

The doctor on board calls Italian authorities to inform them about Muhammed’s condition.

The doctor believes that Muhammed is septic and that the infection in his legs has spread to his blood, causing him to feel weak and feverish.

If his health declines any further, he might need evacuation by helicopter.

The wounds on Muhammed's legs
Muhammed's legs were covered in pustules and fuel burns [Nora Adin Fares/Al Jazeera]

Muhammed is also suffering from fuel burns after sitting below deck on the wooden boat. His flesh has been marinated in the toxic liquid for so many hours that he is having problems sitting or lying down.

The Italian doctor on the other line does not understand what is being said. He asks Humanity 1 to repeat over and over again, before deciding that the best approach is to wait.

17:53 to 18:48

Overhead view of the dinner buffet line
[Nora Adin Fares/Al Jazeera]
[Nora Adin Fares/Al Jazeera]

In the designated smoking area, 33-year-old Jawad* from Damascus is clutching a dark grey blanket around his body.

His black hair is peppered with a few white strands along his temples, standing out starkly against his brown skin. His lips are still blue from hypothermia despite spending several hours under the heat lamps.

For more than a month, he has been shuttled between different smuggling shelters across Egypt, Tunisia and Libya, he tells Al Jazeera, gripping his cigarette tightly between his fingers.

“A few of the other survivors come from the same neighbourhood as me, we grew up together,” he says and nods at three young men smoking by the blue railings.

He looks out at the sea, wrinkling his nose at the memory of the night before.

The sound of the waves mixed with children's cries, the smell of gasoline leaking from the engine, and the cramped space of the lower deck.

“I’ve paid all my money to be here, but if I had known what this crossing meant, I would never have gotten onto that boat”.

Dinner is served on the main deck. Survivors stand in line to serve themselves couscous and bean stew.

One of the men in the line raises his voice, drowning out the murmurs of the other survivors. “They’re treating you like a human being. Dear God!” he shouts in Arabic, lifting his palms towards the sky.

'Tell them...'

Photo of the camera viewer with a man leaping onto the RIB from the battered blue boat
[Nora Adin Fares/Al Jazeera]
[Nora Adin Fares/Al Jazeera]

Laurin Schmid, photographer on board the vessel, asks for consent before filing images of the rescue mission.

In one photo, one of the Syrian survivors is trying to climb onto the RIB, his brown eyes wide open with fear and determination as he is getting ready to jump.

When asked if he consents to the picture being published, the 35-year-old man says: “Use it, tell them all what happened to us.”

Humanity 1 in a dark sea, its lights on
[Nora Adin Fares/Al Jazeera]
[Nora Adin Fares/Al Jazeera]
Source: Al Jazeera