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[Eyes of the photographer] “I knew that could have been the end. If that iron hull had capsized, many people would have been dragged down, without a chance to get out.”



In August 2023, Ocean Viking rescued multiple boats in distress that had departed from Tunisia. Most of these boats were made of iron. Stefano, photographer onboard Ocean Viking this summer, witnessed one of them on the edge of sinking. He explains how the lives of women, children and men were trapped between life and death under his own eyes.  

Ten centimeters of freeboard. 

When I spotted that iron boat from a distance, the people onboard looked like they were sitting on the water. Even with a flat sea, the boat was taking water with almost every tiny wave.  

We spotted them in the middle of the Tunisian corridor, miles away from the shore in the international waters, and I had no idea how they managed to get there, in the middle of the sea, on that rusty, rolling piece of metal. I saw them moving, standing up, raising hands and being finally relieved to see us approaching, but the boat could not keep her stability with all this movement. I was sure they would capsize in a few seconds.  

When our fast rescue boat started to distribute lifejackets, we were the only ones knowing that they were not safe yet. The boat was still rolling side to side taking water on each roll, pushing people closer to the waterline every time. At some point a woman stood up and fell on the starboard side of the boat.  

I knew that could have been the end. If that iron hull had capsized, many people would have been dragged down, without a chance to get out. The boat leant deeply on the starboard side, a fraction of a second felt like an hour long. I don’t know how they did not capsize; the hull rolled several times before finally stopping. We could eventually start to evacuate people. 

Seeing people at sea on these barely floating objects literally opened my eyes to the terrible conditions they had to face before getting there. Nobody would have risked their life on that “things” at sea if they were not threatened with death on land.  

I knew about the human traffic across the Sahara, the racism that Black people have to face in North Africa and the tortures they often suffer. I only witnessed in person a small part of their journey and it’s hard to stand there, in the face of this tragedy. We are just spectators sitting on our own privileges and even if we do our best to help and show solidarity with the people fleeing horrors, we are not the main character of the story. The whole experience, from the very reason each of them had to leave their home to the last discrimination they will face in Europe is something that is probably impossible to understand. Surviving to the full experience might be a burden they will carry forever.  

Credit: Stefano Belacchi / SOS MEDITERRANEE