No two voyages are the same, but the first rescue mission of the Open Arms after the pandemic – of the 76 it accumulates in total – is not remotely similar to any other. The Catalan NGO ship sailed from the coast of Castellón at the end of August with the negative PCR of the entire crew under its arm. After rescuing 277 people from the sea a week ago, yesterday she received instructions to approach Palermo (Italy) and thus protect herself from the storm, with the already almost common uncertainty of whether or not she will be able to access a safe port.
The Open Arms’ 76th rescue mission is actually a premiere: it is the first in times of a pandemic. A negative PCR test for each of the 19 crew members was an essential requirement before setting sail – on August 27 – from the port of Burriana (Castellón). Then there were three days of navigation to the so-called search and rescue area, and seven more of waiting: ten days in which autumn was noted. Could anyone dare to face those waves on a boat?
When the ship was about to leave and return home, the first alert was triggered: a boat with 83 people on board has left Zawiya (50 km west of Tripoli) and they are traveling in a 12-meter blue wooden boat that is pushed a single outboard motor. Rescued – on September 8 – and already on the ship, they will eat, sleep and wait on the aft deck, where they will have to make room for almost 200 more migrants who will arrive two days later.
The rescued know the maneuver: from the patera to the RIB (Rigid Inflatable Boat) and from there to the ship, where they remove the vest but not the mask that the rescuers gave them. And then chlorine in the feet and hydroalcoholic gel in the hands. “Name? Nationality? ”, Ask the two Italian health workers on board while taking their temperature. They wear personal protective equipment, like the rest of the crew who venture on deck. Taking them off safely before going to the clean area of the ship (kitchen, cabins and deck) is a complex process whose steps are reminiscent of a laminated sheet glued to the entrance door. In a space as congested as it is small, maintaining the firewall against coronavirus requires discipline, method and patience. Probably some luck too.
Every second on deck you fight exhaustion, overcrowding, heat, smell and lack of sleep. It is not easy to keep an eye on the human puzzle on the stage; not for those men in white who double guards to manage the situation. Not a day goes by until the first friction occurs between the passage: Frank, from Ghana, has had her cell phone stolen and she thinks it is the Egyptians; Ahmad, one of them, has lost his blanket and his sleeping space. “Isn’t anyone going to listen to me?” He laments alongside Sasudone, a 50-year-old Nigerian who doesn’t seem very willing to put up with the Somali kids and almost raises her hand to one. Meanwhile, the Ghanaians go about their business, singing and drumming on the pipes. “You can hear it all over the boat because it’s made of iron,” says Kike, one of the crew.
Heading to Palermo
It is a week between bowls of couscous with legumes that the migrants eat with their fingers sprinkled in chlorine until they reach the coast near Agrigento (Sicily). For the moment, both Malta and Italy have denied a safe port for disembarkation – despite the fact that the law requires them to offer the closest and immediately – but Rome agrees to protect the ship from bad weather and, incidentally, allows the evacuation of two pregnant Somalis. As soon as they spot the Coast Guard boat, an Egyptian jumps into the water from the stern, and then another, like this up to ten. In the end the agents end up evacuating the two Somalis, just two hours before Rome asks the Open Arms to head to Palermo, the Sicilian capital.
“My goal is to rescue and disembark in a safe port; that both the passage and the crew give negative in the medical tests once on land and, incidentally, avoid that the ship is requisitioned to be able to return to the rescue area as soon as possible ”, said Albert Mayordomo, the 38-year-old from Barcelona who leads the mission. Much work remains. But with a bit of luck maybe the worst is over.