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INTERNATIONAL WATERS NEAR LIBYA — Voices of more than 400 men, women and children — refugees fleeing chaotic Middle Eastern and African countries — pierce the night air as rescue boats descend on a wooden boat.
More than 4,600 people have been killed crossing the Mediterranean Sea to Europe since January. 2016 marks the deadliest year on record. USA TODAY
Smugglers had stuffed people in every inch of space aboard this 40-foot vessel before shoving it off the coast of Libya and into the choppy sea.
The screaming starts.
“Where’s my wife?!”
It’s 2 a.m.
This is already the busiest day in weeks for vessels patrolling the rough turquoise waters of the Mediterranean Sea. Crew members pull people from rubber rafts and wooden boats, running the risk the vessels would sink and take down everyone onboard.
By sunset on Nov. 22, rescuers will load more than 1,400 people from rickety boats off the coast of Libya into ships bound for Europe. Winter is coming, but the rescues show no sign of slowing. These refugees hail from Syria, Libya, and Iraq — war-torn countries that regularly make international headlines. They also come from Niger, Senegal and Sierra Leone.
“What people sometimes get wrong is the judgment about motivation why people are fleeing,” said Susanne Salm-Hain, founder of LifeBoat, a non-profit rescue organization based in Malta. The group aboard the Minden returned Thanksgiving Day from its last mission of the year — a few hundred miles south of the tiny island nation and not far from Benghazi, Libya.
Reporter Jason Pohl embedded with the crew of the Minden, a rescue boat used to save refugees on the Mediterranean Sea off the coast of Libya. This is GoPro footage from a rescue mission filmed in November 2016. USA TODAY
“Their idea is not to go to Europe,” she said of the refugees, who spent their life savings in hopes of reaching a safer country. “Their idea is just to go anywhere where they can live.”
This reporter was embedded on the mission to give USA TODAY Network readers a first-hand account of what this humanitarian crisis looks like.
Rescue groups scramble at times to coordinate in the area. Aid organizations increasingly depend on local residents who profit by “harvesting” engines from smugglers’ empty vessels after refugees are rescued. Radar and binoculars are the primary tools for the rescuers to spot refugees in an area of open sea roughly the size of Colorado.
Since January, more than 4,600 people have been killed crossing the Mediterranean to Europe, making 2016 the deadliest year on record, according to the United Nations refugee agency. The death toll could be higher because of bodies never found or deaths never reported.
Some days result in no rescues. Other days are relentless.
It’s 6 a.m.
Crews have evacuated 430 people from an overcrowded wooden boat and loaded them onto long-haul ships bound for Italy. Rescuers aboard the Minden finally try to get some sleep.
Thirty minutes pass.
“Get up!” Tom Pickles orders from the wheelhouse to the galley. The former Green Beret was blown up and shot up during a deployment in Iraq. Now a firefighter in Fort Collins, Colo., Pickles is the lead paramedic during this mission.
“Boat’s on us!” he shouts.
A small wooden vessel stuffed with 21 refugees, mainly from countries across western Africa, floats toward the Minden.
This group is trying to reach the European mainland, like many others who learn about smuggling operations and pay thousands of dollars to cross the Mediterranean. It’s unclear how many refugees think they’ll make the journey on a rickety raft and how many instead believe a rescue crew will find them somewhere in international waters.
These people hope to be rescued.
Minden Capt. Christian Brensing, a sun-scarred German rarely seen without a cigarette, has worked on rescue vessels across the world for 20 years.
“It’s totally different to do rescue operations here on the Mediterranean, because we’re talking about boats that are not equipped or in shape to go out in the conditions — to stand the weather out there,” he said. “We’re talking about boats that are totally overloaded.”
One by one, crew members pull the refugees up a collapsible rescue ladder and guide them to the bow, where they are evaluated for medical needs and given golden heat blankets.
The small vessel floats away after a crew member douses it with petroleum and tosses a flare onboard, creating a puff of black smoke in the cloudless morning sky. Rescuers destroy the wooden boats and slash rubber rafts after evacuating the people so smugglers can’t reuse the vessels.
Sali Baldel, 19, from Senegal, is among those rescued that morning, saying he fled violence across the region. Fighting was everywhere, he said, as the Minden bobs in the early morning light. Italy represents opportunity and a chance at stability.
“Today was my day,” he said.
It’s 7 a.m.
The radio on the captain’s bridge announces four more nearby vessels that appear as white blips on the horizon. The response starts calmly. Then an urgent voice says, “The rubber raft is sinking.”
The Minden’s rigid-hulled inflatable boat races ahead, joined by a small vessel from the Migrant Offshore Aid Station, among the prominent organizations in the area. A helicopter from a Spanish warship booms overhead, and the Minden shifts into overdrive.
In the distance, objects are bobbing in the short waves.
Then the ear-piercing cries for help.
The front chambers of a rubber boat burst, sending people into the water. The boat takes on water, causing passengers to scramble for their lives. Many have never seen open water before, and few, if any, know how to swim.
The burst raft is submerged when rescuers arrive. They throw life jackets and rescue lines. Those on the maneuverable rescue boats zip around the life jackets and pull people to safety.
One panicked man wrapped a life jacket around his neck. Some people wear two or three vests, none of them correctly, making drowning a possibility. Once onboard, young men and women stare blankly into the distance, while crew members check them over and guide them to the bow.
Many are shivering.
Some call out for Jesus.
One African woman repeatedly thanks her rescuers.
There are deaths this day, but only a few — and none once the crew of the Minden arrives. Rescue agencies appear in time to save dozens.
Smugglers promise a safe voyage, sometimes even telling people the lights visible from shore are lights from the European mainland. In reality, they are offshore oil facilities nowhere near Italy’s coast.
And there are overcrowded vessels.
Rubber rafts are especially risky. These boats — about 50 feet long with thin walls and plywood floorboards — slink along with the swells, often with more than 100 people dangling their legs over the sides or stuffed in the middle, along with their urine, feces and vomit.
Among the 33 people pulled onto the Minden during 10 chaotic minutes is 19-year-old Musah Ulmar, who saw a woman fall into the water when the front chamber burst earlier in the morning.
“She died,” he said almost casually, numbed to tragedy and wrapped in a heat blanket.
Ulmar is from Niger but moved to Libya about a year ago to be with his girlfriend, he said. The couple was kidnapped, and she was raped and killed by their captors, he said. Ulmar was sentenced to prison for her death, though he denies any involvement. He escaped three months ago, learned about a smuggling operation by word of mouth and boarded the raft about 9 p.m. the previous night.
“This way is mostly for people like us,” he said before being whisked to another rescue vessel and loaded on a long-haul ship bound for Italy.
It’s 11 a.m.
Many rescuers have been working since midnight, but the day is young.
While crew members aboard the Minden help transport the refugees to the larger vessel, a small wooden boat carrying three men motors to the ship. Known as “engine fishers,” the men regularly patrol waters off the Libyan coast and take the outboard motors of vessels that had carried refugees.
Engine fishers are sometimes the front lines in alerting rescue groups to refugee-loaded vessels. Some want to harvest the motors to make a profit back on land. But many enjoy working with aid workers.
They alert rescuers of boats that radar might not detect, then lurk nearby until the evacuation is over. Then they move in and detach the engine.
“They come to make sure that we find them,” Brensing said. “They seem to be interested in safe transfers to other vessels. They seem to be interested in getting everybody safe out of the coastal waters.
“Maybe they are connected to the smugglers. Maybe they earn their money with smuggling. We don’t know, but they are helping. I won’t judge that.”
Engine fishers alert the Minden to another rubber boat. This next rescue is calmer — the rubber boat with about 150 people isn’t sinking.
The crew ensures that everyone has life jackets and is helped onto larger boats bound for Europe. The crew also maintains calm in the hours waiting for the long-haul ships to arrive. Loading people onto mid-sized boats and then re-loading them onto larger ships can be dangerous — with more opportunities for people to fall into the sea. Instead, crews on mid-size boats outfit the people with life jackets and wait.
The Italian coast guard ship inches across the horizon. Moments later, the refugees step through the side door at water level, entering the larger vessel bound for the mainland.
It’s 2 p.m.
Radio chatter has quieted down, and the intensity of 12 hours of missions settles into a few moments of rest.
More than 1,400 refugees are bound for Italy. And the Minden’s crew is exhausted after aiding in hundreds of rescues, feeling a sense of accomplishment.
But frustration will soon surface.
It’s 4 p.m.
The handheld satellite phone on the bridge rings. The Rome-based Maritime Rescue Coordination Center is calling to say a wooden boat with more than 40 people is inching toward the safe zone 12 miles from shore, a boundary marked with a skull and crossbones on the Minden’s computer screen.
The Minden races at 15 knots toward the area to intercept the boat. A thick black haze belches from the smokestack and the engine churns harder than at any time in the past two weeks.
That wooden boat stands little chance if it’s not located before dark.
It’s 6 p.m.
There’s no wooden boat in sight; no blip on radar screens. Brensing’s next conversation with the Rome group grows heated when he learns the coordinates given to the Minden were never the location of an actual sighting. Instead, the latitude and longitude were an approximate spot based on calculations made hundreds of miles away that failed to include real-time, on-the-water conditions.
He hangs up and throws the phone onto the ledge above the computer screen.
“It could be anywhere,” a cursing Brensing said repeatedly about the boat.
He wonders if he could have pinpointed the vessel if he had better information earlier. Now, all he can do is guide the ship in a grid pattern and coordinate with the Spanish warship during a night-long search effort.
North, west, north, east, north, west …
It’s 2 a.m.
Spotlights shine through the fog as the crew awaits orders.
The radio crackles to life. The Spanish warship needs help on its portion of the grid search that has now dragged on for eight hours and is supposed to last at least until sunrise.
The crews know the chance of locating the 40-some people on the wooden boat dwindle with each hour at sea. The rescuers wrestle with a similar plight as the refugees: What alternative is there?