Chapter IV: The rescue


It’s 6:40 am on a warm July morning. An alarm goes off on board Dignity I. The Maritime Rescue Coordination Centre in Rome has alerted the captain of Dignity I about a distress signal sent from a boat that left Libya a few hours ago. Dignity I immediately sets off at full speed in the direction of the coordinates provided. Lifejacket, boots, helmet. Launch, deck, stern. The team gather their equipment and take up their positions.

On the bridge of the ship, three team members (second engineer officer, captain and humanitarian coordinator) prepare for a rescue. | Anna Surinyach

From the bridge, they spot the boat. At first they think it's an inflatable dinghy, but then they see it’s a small wooden boat painted blue with red and yellow stripes. A rescue launch is lowered from the deck to go and meet it. “It’s a strange boat, you can’t see much. “When they’re made of wood, they’re usually larger.” says Jordi González, the second engineer officer. “They’re off, they’re off! They don’t trust us.” The boat is heading away from Dignity I. While they’re still close to the Libyan coast, the passengers don’t know if the vessels they meet will be rescue ships, army ships, fishing boats or Libyan patrols intent on sending them back to Africa.

 One hundred people on board a wooden boat wait to be rescued. | Anna Surinyach

MSF’s rescue launch is faster and it soon catches up. The wooden boat stops. Making contact with the people on board is essential because, if there’s panic, the boat could capsize and sink. Projecting his voice, Jean-Philippe, MSF’s project coordinator, says that they are not government or military officials but a humanitarian organisation, and that they are there to help. He tells the passengers not to move and to stay calm. The first lifejackets are passed over to the boat’s occupants.

“Fifty more lifejackets,” comes a request from the launch.

“Fifty? Fifty more?” comes the response from Dignity I.

The first to be rescued is a 10-month-old baby girl from Syria, who Jean-Philippe holds in his arms. Then several women climb in and the launch sets off towards Dignity I.

Young children are always first to be rescued from boats in distress. Lamar is a 10-month-old baby girl from Syria. | Anna Surinyach

The passengers are totally calm – something which doesn’t always happen – while the rescue is carried out. The launch makes several trips to bring lifejackets to everyone, before taking them to Dignity I.

It’s not until they step onto the deck of Dignity I that people know they are safe. An African man kisses the deck, thanks the crew and brings his hands to his face in prayer. There are Syrians, Pakistanis, Nigerians and Bangladeshis. They start to make themselves comfortable on the boat, they embrace each other. “We’ve done it,” they say to each other, “we’re not going to die at sea”. Lamar, the baby from Syria, has stopped crying and has begun to laugh.

The blue-painted boat has been left behind. Debris, clothes, plastic bottles drift away. An orange rubber ring with children’s cartoons on it floats on the surface of the sea.

As the rescue operation ends, the crew on Dignity I spot two more boats. No one knows yet what type of boat they are or how many people are on board. Two rescue launches are sent to meet them.

For the moment, 100 people are alive.