Professional photographer, Nissim Gasteli embarked on Ocean Viking for his first mission on 16 January 2023. He joined SOS MEDITERRANEE’s team to document the tragic and too often unseen reality of the central Mediterranean. In this poignant account, Nissim recounts the race against time that the Ocean Viking engaged in on 25 January, after rescuing 95 people from an overcrowded, unseaworthy boat in distress. After the rescue operation, survivors reported that several people had fallen overboard before our teams arrived. Unfortunately, no survivor could be found. On that day, at least four more people perished in the central Mediterranean. Life met death in the central Mediterranean.
As soon as I get back on board the Ocean Viking, I must unload the photos and videos I took during the rescue operation and send them as quickly as possible to the communications team on shore. The Search and Rescue (SAR) team is resetting the lifeboats with whom they evacuated 95 people from an overcrowded and unseaworthy rubber boat in distress. On the rear platform, the survivors are resting. The protection team is taking care of them. It is 2pm when I go up to the bridge. As well as being the place where all decisions are made, it offers a view of operations on board and around the ship. This is good timing as I need to keep an eye on the Libyan patrol boat “Ubari”, which is still visible in the distance in case it undertakes dangerous manoeuvres around us again. In a moment of distraction, a thought came to me: “Ubari? it’s strange to name a boat after an oasis in the middle of the desert”. I am brought out of my thoughts by some worrying news… Some of the survivors report that several of their fellow travellers fell into the water before we arrived in the area. The number of people missing in the water and the timing of the events vary according to the versions, but one thing is certain: several people are missing, and the rescue is not over.
For almost an hour, we had been heading north-west, slowly moving away from the rescue area. Rapidly, it was decided to turn back and start searching. Time was short, as night was not far off. I start sending some photos to the team onshore and I start getting ready. In the locker room, as I put on my still soaked gear, I notice a heavy atmosphere of silence. In training, we went through every type of rescue scenario imaginable, but not this one. Once ready, I walk down the stairs to the main deck. A colleague, Ash, grabs me by the arm. “Are you okay with the idea of seeing dead bodies?” he asks me in a grave, but measured, tone. I’m not sure, but it’s important to bear witness to this reality in the Mediterranean Sea, that’s one of my tasks as a photographer on board. I try to be as convincing as possible, and I simply answer ‘yes’. I can see in his eyes that he is a little uncertain but there is no time to discuss it further, we must join the rest of the team for the briefing. “The survivors report having thrown some equipment, inner tubes,” we are told, “maybe the missing people are still floating. But no one is fooled, and the worst-case scenario is on everyone’s mind. “If a body is found, it will be recovered.”
As I board Eazy1, one of our lifeboats, I notice something different about the landscape. The huge bags of floats and life jackets that usually occupy the centre of the zodiac have disappeared. They have been replaced by a body bag and a stretcher. Until nightfall, in the hope of finding them, we will cover a large area of sea defined according to the approximate time of the fall into the water, the estimated position of the missing persons and the sea current, which is very strong on this day. The Ocean Viking will proceed in a straight line. Anyone on board who is not in charge of the survivors’ care and protection must scan the sea with binoculars in hand. As for our fast rescue boats, they will form a sort of regular zig-zag on either side in order to cover the area as best as possible: five nautical miles to the east, one to the south, five nautical miles to the west, one to the south, five nautical miles to the east, one to the south and so on…
We’re gradually moving away from the mother ship, and immediately starting our search pattern. Ralph is driving. Ash and I are monitoring portside, Salva and Mimi starboard side. In the distance there’s nothing but the vastness of the sea, which just contrasts with the sky. The waves are not very big but enough to make it difficult to see more than a hundred metres away. Sheets of foam appear from their tops. Occasionally, a wave larger than another disrupts the rhythm of the waves. No one speaks. I try to stay focused on the sea, I scan the distance in the hope of spotting something, someone. Somewhere, four people are there, maybe they are still alive. From time to time, I look at the others and wonder what they are thinking at such times, all of them experienced.
Suddenly Ash spots something. Ralph switches off the engine and all we hear is the silence of the sea. A paradoxical moment of calm and tension. Everyone is now looking in the same direction, who knows what we’ll find. For a moment, we try to spot what has called out to him but we see nothing but water, water and water. After a few minutes, we leave. “Bridge, Eazy1 resumes her course, heading 090, over”. From then on, we enter a kind of mechanical ballet. Every ten minutes, the bridge reminds us of our course. “Eazy1, Eazy1, Bridge, proceed on course 180 for one nautical mile. We turn to continue on our course. Only the Ocean Viking in the distance and the compass allow us to find our way in this vast area.
In the middle of the water, I lost all sense of time. I think back to the whole day, to the alert launched by the civil assistance line Alarm Phone, to the position relayed by SeaBird [editor’s note: civilian observation aircraft operated by the German NGO Sea-Watch], to the team of the Ocean Viking that carried out the rescue. All these people who took turns to rescue these 95 people. Everything went so fast. The sun is already starting to sink into the water. The blue of the sky has given way to shades of purple and pink, but soon they will all be washed away by the darkness. A landscape as beautiful as it is tragic. As the night draws in, the chances of finding the missing get smaller. It becomes increasingly difficult to keep my eyes on the horizon and the contrasts between the waves gradually disappear. I think to myself that a person could pass in front of my eyes and I might not even see them. The more the light fades, the greater the emotion, the closer the fatality. In a last hope, Eazy1 does not complete her search pattern by returning to the Ocean Viking as planned. The lifeboat continues in a straight line in the distance. Like a desire not to end it and still believe.
Finally the crackle of the radio breaks the surrounding noise. “Search over”, announces the bridge, “Eazy1 and Eazy3 proceed to the mother ship”. This sentence sounds like the sentence of a death that has probably already been decided. Today, 25 January, at least four more people have died in the central Mediterranean, adding to the 41 already counted by the Missing Migrants project* since the beginning of 2023.
May they rest in peace.
Somewhere in the world, families have lost a loved one. A daughter, a son, a sister, a brother, a cousin, a friend… Maybe they will never know.
I think of them.
* At the time of publication of this article, February 7, 2023, at least 65 people are known to have died or gone missing in the central Mediterranean since the beginning of the year.
Credits: Nissim Gasteli / SOS MEDITERRANEE