A letter to … the rope that pulled the refugees’ bodies out | Features

At 2pm on November 16, 2021, the Geo Barents, a search and rescue ship, responded to a misery name a couple of severely overcrowded picket vessel virtually 30 nautical miles (55.5km) from the coast of Libya.

Yearly, 1000’s of individuals attempt to cross from Libya to both Malta or Italy on boats which are unlikely to final the period of the journey. The United Nations’ refugee company estimates that in 2021, 32,400 individuals made this crossing with 1,553 individuals dying or going lacking on this route, though the actual quantity is probably going far larger.

On that day in November, Samuel Cartegena Sanchez, 34, from Elche, Spain, was on one in all two rescue boats launched by the Geo Barents, operated by Medical doctors With out Borders (Medecins Sans Frontieres, or MSF).

It was the staff’s second rescue of the day, and Samuel and his colleagues saved 99 individuals from international locations together with Guinea, Nigeria, Ivory Coast, Somalia, and Syria.

They labored for 3 hours, first to switch the survivors after which the our bodies of the ten individuals – a few of them the brothers and nephews of the survivors – who died. 

Pricey Rope,

I’m sorry I threw you away. You’ll at all times imply a lot to me however, actually, you needed to go. It wasn’t a good suggestion for me to have a reminder of that day. Irrespective of how a lot we tried to scrub you, you at all times had that scent – a really explicit scent – of saltwater and gas.

So, I made a decision to throw away the a part of you that I saved. Fulvia threw her little bit of you away too.

You keep in mind Fulvia, don’t you? She was the one who coordinated the rescue on the water, relaying messages to the bridge of our ship, the Geo Barents.

I keep in mind once we first met. I used to be impressed by your high quality. You have been solely two centimetres thick however your black, braided strands have been sturdy sufficient to tow the two-tonne rescue boats if we would have liked you to. I already had fairly just a few years of expertise working maritime jobs together with a 12 months and a half of search and rescue – nevertheless it was your first job.

Fulvia and I have been shut from the beginning of our mission, however our trio – you, me and her – started in November on that morning that I’ll always remember.

A photo of a man wearing a helmet and a life jacket on a boat in the sea during the day.
In April 2022, Samuel took half in a coaching train within the Central Mediterranean. Within the days that adopted, he accomplished 9 rescues the place he and his crew introduced 582 survivors to Italy [Lexie Harrison-Cripps/Al Jazeera]

Don’t have a look at the faces

You wouldn’t have seen it out of your storage locker within the bow (entrance) of the boat, however even earlier than the rescue, we might see from the bridge, some 10 metres above sea degree, about 100 individuals on a severely overcrowded boat, tilting at a precarious angle. It was apparent that this was going to be a tough rescue.

We have been solely about two dozen miles from the coast of Libya, however I discovered later that that they had been at sea for greater than 24 hours, and a few of them have been under deck for a lot of hours, which explains why they have been so agitated – excessive on a mix of concern, aid and intoxication from gas fumes. As we have been arriving on the scene, 5 individuals slipped into the water. I keep in mind pulling them out, distributing life jackets to these nonetheless on the picket boat after which transferring them, one after the other, to our rescue RHIBs (rigid-hulled inflatable boats). Then we began to ferry them to the security of the deck of the Geo Barents.

I used to be so focussed on the rescue that I can’t keep in mind in the event that they have been males or ladies, adults or kids.

I do keep in mind somebody shouting about our bodies or one thing like that. I checked out Fulvia. She stated she had heard one thing too, however we needed to concentrate on transferring the survivors off the picket boat.

It was more durable to influence the final three individuals to come back with us. One in all them was shouting hysterically, making an attempt to pull one thing from the decrease deck.

That’s when Fulvia began shouting too: “Don’t fear. Don’t fear. Include us. We’re going to take them.”

At one level, she even switched to Italian. I believe she knew that he wouldn’t perceive her, nevertheless it was extra in regards to the tone of her voice, understanding she might converse freely and supply extra consolation in her mom tongue.

He was completely distraught and clearly intoxicated by the overwhelming gas fumes, which even I might really feel the consequences of from our boat. I attempted to disregard the headache that was creeping into the center of my head – a wierd feeling of being outdoors of the scenario.

‘10 lifeless’

Rope, do you keep in mind when the final man lastly agreed to come back with us? Did you see the physician and one other crewman placed on their respiration equipment, the fumes too intense to work with out them, and go under deck on the picket boat? Do you keep in mind the sturdy wind and metre-high waves that whipped the aspect of our boat?

Perhaps you have been nonetheless in your locker once we heard over the radio: “10 lifeless”.

That was while you turned the protagonist within the story.

I keep in mind working with you, as you handed by way of my arms. Solely a part of you went under deck on the picket boat nevertheless it was sufficient so that you can deliver again that scent – that specific scent – of saltwater and gas.

You have been the one who pulled the our bodies up. We handed you to individuals under deck, who connected you to the physique luggage secured by the physician and the crewman. I couldn’t see a lot by way of the small hatch, nevertheless it should have been terrible. Whenever you have been secured to the baggage, they pushed as we pulled you up.

You eased them free, regardless that they have been caught of their resting locations. You pulled up the inflexible our bodies, working their limbs by way of the small, metre-wide, opening, yanking them free once they bought caught so we might carry them to our rescue RHIBs.

The physician stated that that they had been lifeless for a number of hours however I at all times surprise what would have occurred if we had arrived sooner. Might now we have saved them?

I keep in mind how professionally the staff labored collectively. Though at one level I virtually misplaced my focus after I caught a glimpse of one of many our bodies. Then somebody shouted, “Don’t have a look at their faces”. My focus returned. I attempted not to consider who they have been. However they have been individuals. Younger individuals – aged 16 to twenty-eight. A few of them have been actually lovely.

And so it went on, 10 instances you pulled somebody free and onto our RHIB and the entire time, the Libyan Coast Guard have been there, just some metres away, simply watching us. They didn’t do something, however nonetheless, it was intimidating to have them there.

As soon as the our bodies have been on the Geo Barents, we carried them up the steps to the deck on the prime of the ship that we name the “muster station”. We used different ropes to drag them up in one of many exhausting, orange cradle-stretchers, however these ropes didn’t turn into part of my life. Not such as you did.

We cleaned the our bodies utilizing cleaning soap and water, making an attempt to free them of that scent and the harmful gas that was consuming by way of the physique luggage.

Did you hear us apologising each time we heard somebody’s head knock towards the exhausting metallic deck? All of us did it, instinctively and repeatedly, forgetting that they couldn’t really feel something.

A thud. “Sorry”.

One other thud. “Sorry”.

We laid the our bodies to relaxation within the ship’s morgue, in recent, double-lined physique luggage, ready to switch them to the Italian authorities for repatriation. The opposite survivors instructed us that the lifeless have been Muslim, so within the smallest of gestures, we held a minute of silence and one in all our cultural mediators, additionally Muslim, stated an Islamic prayer.

A photo of a boat with a search and rescue team with an empty lifeboat tied to the boat in dark waters.
On Might 11, out on worldwide waters within the Libyan search and rescue area, Samuel (proper) leads his crew again to the Geo Barents after two consecutive evening rescues the place they saved 110 individuals from distressed vessels [Lexie Harrison-Cripps/Al Jazeera]

Our obsession with cleansing you

Engaged on a search and rescue staff at sea, there may be at all times a really actual hazard of individuals drowning or dying earlier than we are able to save them, however luckily for me, I had by no means needed to work a rescue the place individuals had died. Till that day. The fact of that rescue – of not with the ability to save everybody – will at all times be a major occasion in my life.

And so life went on. We barely had time to suppose earlier than we had disembarked the survivors, transferred the lifeless to the Italian Coast Guard and have been returning to the Libyan search and rescue area. We looked for extra casualty vessels and we carried out extra rescues. However you continue to had that scent – that specific scent – of saltwater and gas.

We scrubbed you daily for half-hour, Fulvia and I. We pulled you into a good zigzag between two railings, forming a cradle that might be cleaned. We used cleaning soap and water after which typically we even added chlorine.

We talked whereas we labored, about mundane issues, however by no means about you. Irrespective of how exhausting we scrubbed, you by no means confirmed any indicators of misery, you simply allow us to proceed.

And so that you turned a type of every day remedy for me and Fulvia. Our obsession with you and your scent got here to symbolize one thing between us that we would have liked to get rid of but in addition that we wished to protect. I believe Fulvia and I turned even nearer from this shared expertise.

When our mission got here to an finish within the first days of January, I wasn’t prepared to go away you, in order that’s why I reduce off a bit of little bit of you for Fulvia and one other bit for me. I didn’t need your edges to fray so I neatened them utilizing thinner twine, in some kind of try to take care of our trio.

I’m undecided what occurred to the remainder of you. I do know the brand new staff chief discovered about your function within the restoration of the our bodies and our subsequent cleansing ritual and determined it greatest that you just be destroyed. I by no means noticed them throw you away, however now I see a brand new, white rope in your home.

I usually flashback to that day, to that scent – that specific scent – of saltwater and gas, like the opposite day throughout stretcher coaching after I volunteered to be the affected person. As I lay within the stretcher being pulled up the steps, I believed in regards to the our bodies we pulled up the identical stairs in the identical stretcher utilizing the identical ropes. However I pressured myself to consider one thing else. One thing much less unhappy.

That’s why I threw you away. You jogged my memory of unhappiness.

The day we threw you away, Fulvia had despatched me a message saying, “Samu, it nonetheless smells”. She had saved her little bit of you outdoors, clipped on her balcony railing again house in Rome, but she might nonetheless scent you.

You’ll at all times be vital to me since you are linked to my reminiscence of That Day, however I needed to get rid of you. I tossed my little bit of you within the bin. No ceremony. Nothing. I simply wanted to allow you to go. It was the suitable factor to do, nevertheless it positively feels good to speak about you once more.



As instructed to Lexie Harrison-Cripps.

Edited and condensed for readability and size.

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