“Finished with Engines”- the chief engineer (CE) informed me as I was the duty engineer that day. We had anchored outside Libya at 0400 in the morning. I completed the routine tasks and went back to my cabin at 0430. The phone in my cabin rang at 0600 hours again. This time it was the Captain. He said: “Need engines ready in 30 minutes. Have received a distress call to pick up migrants.”
I went down to the engine room to prepare the engine. Around 0900 hours, our ship spotted a rubber boat carrying several dozens of people.
While being en route to the distress location, the Chief Officer had assigned different duties to all the crew members in order to avoid confusion and indecisiveness during the rescue operation. My duty was to keep a count on the number of people boarding our vessel.
We, the crewmembers were initially a bit scared, (anyone would be when about hundred unknown people board your vessel) as we thought that these people might be a threat to our safety. However, our Chief Officer sensed our anxiety and did a commendable job of easing out our fears by explaining us the gravity of the situation and reminding us of our duty as seafarers to help anyone distressed at sea. In no time, we started assisting the refugees in climbing from the gangway.
The migrants looked starved and dehydrated and they indeed were very hungry and thirsty. We immediately started serving them water and food and kept them occupied. The majority of the people were from Somalia and none of them understood English. Therefore, we started communicating with them using sign languages and it was then that we came to know that they were on the boat for last 24 hours waiting for some help.
In the evening, the captain received instructions from the Italian coastguards to proceed towards Italy. We opened up some empty containers for them to have rest at night.
Next morning, we received another distress call, and this time it was from a boat that was sinking and needed immediate help and rescue. Everyone geared up, as we already knew our roles and duties from the experience of the previous day.
As we were approaching this boat, there was a lot of chaos in it as all of them wanted to get on the ship first and save their own lives. The boat was in a poor condition and was already half filled with water by the time we reached there. They were a mixed crowd of men, women, small children, pregnant woman and sick old people. They were crying and wailing. What was more disturbing was the sight of two dead bodies floating around (the deceased must have been a family member or friend of someone still onboard that dingy boat – their trauma is just unimaginable).
We took help of a person who knew Arabic to explain them on the loudspeaker that they don’t need to panic anymore and all of them would be safely rescued and sheltered. After all of them were rescued, we saw tears in the eyes of many people as they were still trying they were still trying to sink in the fact that their lives had been saved. It was nothing less than a miracle for them as they had lost all hopes of survival.
I took charge of feeding this new group of migrants along with my fellow ABs and cadets. The Chief Officer and second officer were thoroughly indulged in giving medical first aid. Among all the refugees, there was a woman who had given birth to a child just 2 days ago. She was bleeding profusely and her condition seemed critical. Luckily, we had a Female Second Officer, who communicated with the new mother and left no stone unturned to ease her pain. The third officer was running forward and aft making sure nobody was thirsty. The steward made sure that all the small babies got some milk to satiate their hunger.
Some people in this lot were from Nigeria and Sudan and could speak English. They told us about how inhumanly they were treated, how they were made slaves even in the 21st century and how they had lost their families and friends in meaningless and futile bloodshed. This was a very shocking experience for all of us, as we had never expected or imagined that the situations could be so bad.
In order to divert their mind and change their mood, we started talking to them about Bollywood, Hollywood and told them that their life would be much better now and they need not be afraid of anything.
Next day, we bid adieu to them at Italy where the Red Cross Society was there to pick them up. While disembarking the ship, we could see that all of them had happiness and hope in their eyes for the new life that was about to get unfold. They thanked us for the hospitability and blessed us again for saving their lives.
After they left, we were still trying to grasp what had actually happened in last 24 hours. The experience was shocking as well as traumatic. We realised the strength of teamwork and the ability of the team to handle any unprecedented situation by following orders and discipline. We realised that nothing is impossible for a seafarer.
I secretly thanked God for giving me a peaceful country to live in.
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