Chapter II: Heading for Libya


“I remember a man we rescued who had no legs. I was a sailor, I told him to jump into the rescue launch and I couldn't understand why he wasn't doing it. In the end I helped him, and it was then that I realised he had no legs. Then, in the rescue launch, he taught us something. He was smiling from ear to ear and he helped in any way he could. Damn it, a man aged 60, with no legs, in a dinghy, and later we’re complaining at home on the sofa.”

Gaby Gómez, a young sailor, is one of Dignity I’s veterans. Originally from Santander in Spain, he used to work as a lifeguard. He joined Dignity I on its first voyage and has worked on it ever since. This mission has changed him. Sat on the upper deck with an eye on the sea, he thinks back over the most recent rescues and the faces of the people he helped save from the sea. During the hours that Dignity I is heading towards Libya, all the team are preoccupied with rescues, both past and future.

Rescuers check an empty dinghy near the coast of Libya after rescuing its passengers and transferring them to Dignity I. | Anna Surinyach

The past: the time when they had to squeeze 1,000 people onto a ship with a capacity of under 500; the time when they went to help a boat in distress and were unable to save everyone; the time when unknown men on a Libyan speedboat shot at a boat and killed one of its occupants; the time when a Somali child died on board Dignity I; and all of the times when they arrived at a port with everyone – altogether thousands and thousands of people – safe and sound.

Prior to the rescue, everyone needs to put on a lifejacket. | Anna Surinyach

The future: what kind of boat will they find? If it’s an inflatable dinghy, will it have 100 people crammed onto it? If it’s a wooden boat with a hold, will it have 500 people inside, piled one on top of the other? People with burns caused by leaking engine oil, people suffocating from the fumes. “A death trap,” says petty officer Alfonso, who is responsible for piloting the rescue launch once a boat in distress has been located. Alfonso whirls around the deck, immersed in maintenance tasks. He is in charge of the rescue launch, the medical team and the clinic; the captain and the officers are in charge of navigation. Everyone is in their position, but their minds are somewhere else: focused on the ‘rescue zone’ ahead.

“What's impressive about a rescue is the team’s ability to forget everything else,” says José Antonio, the second engineer officer, who comes from Cádiz in Spain. People forget who is an engineer or a sailor. The team switches to a state of emergency. Everyone changes completely: everyone turns into rescuers. We all work as one.”

Tension mounts as the ship approaches the rescue zone. Team coordination is important. | Anna Surinyach

Before arriving at the rescue zone, a team meeting is held to go over the tasks for all of the crew members and MSF staff. Each person has a role to play: going out in the launches to rescue people, waiting on board, counting the people rescued and taking their details, providing medical treatment. As the sun sets, some of the team set off in launches for a trial run, but their minds are on the Libyan coast, where hundreds of people from Nigeria, Gambia, Eritrea, Yemen, Bangladesh or Syria are preparing to embark on one of the most dangerous journeys of their lives.

For the whole crew, carrying out a rescue is an emotional experience. “It’s moving to see their faces.” “You have to remain level-headed, but it’s difficult.” “You see them arrive, piled up on the boat, and you ask yourself how they can possibly have got this far.” “I can’t imagine what the journey was like.”

But for one of the MSF workers in particular, there’s another emotion.