So, in case you haven’t guessed, I’m no longer on the Aquarius. My nine weeks came to an end almost exactly a month ago. I’m back in Montreal, which is strange to say the least. From seeing life and death up close I’ve returned to a world where people whine and moan about the bar being too empty or too crowded, the service being too slow or the guys behind the counter putting the wrong vegetables on your taco. I was surrounded by teammates and now I spend a lot of time alone in my home office (although I’m undoubtedly lucky to have work). There was nothing to do but talk to people and look at the stars and now there’s a different party or festival on every night. Every time I walk past a Portakabin the world kind of tilts with the smell and I’m right back on the ship. Every time someone puts a paper admission bracelet on my wrist, I feel a weird jolt; I can’t help but think of the bracelets we put on people’s wrists for census, the mothers grinning as they fixed them around their toddlers’ arms. I wouldn’t say these are trauma reactions, because being on the ship in itself was not a traumatic event…just a sign from my brain that the ship will never really leave me. And yes, the image of the dead Nigerian girls from our last, tragic rescue (Link in French) will never completely leave me, although helping care for the 209 survivors, hearing their honour song on the last night, was the best consolation I could have hoped for.
Operations aboard the Aquarius have been on pause since yesterday. A colleague ship, MSF’s Bourbon Argos, was shot at by an unidentified Libyan boat. Was their goal to steal (unlikely because nothing was taken), to cause general mayhem, to warn the Argos off “their” turf or to stop the migrant rescue operations? Various Libyan armed groups make money by holding sub-Saharans for ransom in squalid holding cells, and 120 people that we assist, that’s 120 people they can no longer extort from. The sheer cynicism of pointing guns at strangers to increase your chances of continuing to make a few hundred euros off the backs of desperate, stateless men and women who have next to nothing to give and who in many cases have already fled war, just defies comprehension. But that’s the world we operate in.
It’s painful to think of the boats that may be spending long nights at sea while we’re not there. But before an individual operation, of course there’s the need to think about other operations. If we continue operations but someone gets hurt, we lose a ship (either to getting shot at or to a shipping company pulling out) or we get detained, then we may be able to complete one operation but we won’t be much good for helping out anyone else. Do we save 120 people and risk everything, or do we wait to go out, cross our fingers for those 120 people and save 12000 in the future? Thinking long term is necessary, and it pains me to think of people who have slipped through so many of life’s cracks, slipping through the cracks again. But the only option is to not think about the ones who didn’t make it (Link in German)– just focus on the ones who do. Think starfish.
We will continue.