People chatter, engines purr, and finally a large horn sounds. A BBC reporter “embedded” on a refugee rescue ship, funded by an American millionaire, joins the cry: “There’s a boat!” The adrenaline flows as he reports that a 15-20 meter (50-65 ft.) skiff is coming into view. He and other rescuers lower and board a large life raft because the rescue ship cannot get near enough to this small boat.
Eventually they pull up to the side of the smugglers’ boat. The captain shouts through a megaphone, “How many of you are there?” The answer is 576 men, women, and children refugees, most from Eritrea, are stranded in the boat hoping to make it to safety in Italy. The rescuers plead with them to stay calm as they throw life preservers into the boat. Most of these people can’t swim; if the boat capsizes many will be lost.
As they begin pulling people onto the raft, the reporter shouts desperately that he sees another boat heading toward them and another and another. Soon five boats, each holding 500+ refugees, are in the immediate area. The mood lightens as freighters from European countries who have pledged to aid refugees come into sight.
As the rescue takes place, the reporter talks to Mohammad, a distraught father who is a software engineer. He and 16 members of his family have paid $45,000 to smugglers to get them out of Eritrea, across dusty deserts, and into Libya where they stayed until a boat could be found to cross the Mediterranean Sea. The land journey took months. They have to stay with the smugglers no matter how badly they are mistreated because the smugglers have all their money.
When the boats finally arrive, Mohammed and his wife and children are split up and put on different boats (over his strong objections). So now he and two children are separated from the rest of his family. Once the people begin loading on the boat, the smugglers disappear and the people are on their own. He says he and all the other Eritreans left home because all men, women and children are conscripted into the army there.
The next morning, the reporter notes that the group of 320 refugees on this rescue ship is euphoric. They are singing a Christian hymn of thanks and clapping enthusiastically. Later that morning the refugees taken to shore to be processed in a refugee center in Italy. They are supposed to be fingerprinted, but most of these people do not want to stay in Italy and the Italians don’t want them to stay anyway, so most of them refuse the fingerprinting. The euphoria of the rescue is fading. Mohammed has still not found his family. He had wanted to leave Italy for Norway to get a job, but he keeps repeating, “I don’t know what to do! I don’t know what to do!”
Eventually, Mohammed did reunite with his wife and children. They made their way by train from Italy to Norway. Mohammed is learning Norwegian and looking for a job.
As I listened to this story on BBC at 5:00 AM this morning, I was pulled right into the rescue. The reporter was part of the rescue and that made it so authentic! Mohammed’s story took me totally out of my middle-class American mind-set, with all its pretend issues, and into the real world. When the rhythmic African hymn of thanks began, tears were rolling down my face.
*boat image by counterjihadreport.com; map by worldatlas.com