Waves 2.5 metres high, winds of 50 kilometres (30 miles) an hour and a sinking dinghy: rescuers described Thursday a race into Libyan waters to save 113 migrants, with 15 others lost to the raging sea.
The white rubber dinghy had set off Wednesday from Sabrata, taking advantage of a break in the bad weather to make a bid for Italy’s shores, but the 130 or so people aboard soon ran into trouble when the wind whipped up.
“It became hellish”, said AFP photographer Aris Messinis, who is aboard the Astral, a vessel chartered by Spanish humanitarian NGO, Proactiva Open Arms, which patrols the area looking for boats in distress.
As night began to fall the desperate migrants sent a distress call to the Italian coast guard, which sent the Astral their way, along with the Phoenix, run by the Maltese NGO MOAS, and the Iuventa, run by the German NGO Jugend Rettet.
The Phoenix’s drone managed to pin-point the dinghy eight nautical miles off the Libyan coast, some four miles inside Libyan waters and therefore in an area off-limits to foreign rescue vessels.
— Shot at or boarded —
Several NGO boats have been shot at or boarded by armed men for having sailed too close to Libyan waters this year.
In September the Libyan coast guard arrested two Germans from the NGO Sea-Eye, accusing them of having crossed into its territory.
Often rescue boats have had to wait for overcrowded dinghies to get into international waters before they intervene. But on Wednesday night, it was clear this one was not going to make it.
“We said to the Libyan coast guard that we were entering no matter what because the boat was sinking, and they finally accepted,” Messinis said.
A MAOS spokesman confirmed the rescue operation took place in Libyan waters, explaining that it was a rare occurrence: it had happened at least once before, several weeks ago, and once again with the Libyan coast guard’s permission.
– ‘He was crying’ –
By the light of their floodlights the rescuers managed to pull to safety 113 people including 89 men, 11 women, 11 teenagers and two younger children.
But survivors told MOAS that there had been some 130 people on board originally. The list of the missing includes a 16-year old girl, five adolescents and a little boy who had been soon to turn three.
“I was on the rubber boat with my son, he was crying and holding on to me. The sea was rough and the boat was taking on water. At one point some people started to panic,” his Nigerian mother told rescuers.
“The next thing I knew I was pushed into the water and I lost my son in the chaos as I was trying to grab a life jacket. In a few days he would have been three years old,” she was quoted as saying in a MOAS statement.
Despite the stormy weather, the ships spent an hour searching the waters in the darkness, but found neither survivors nor bodies.
Many of those rescued were suffering from fuel burns, including a woman in a state of shock with 36 percent of her body covered in first degree burns. She could not be evacuated immediately due to the bad weather.
Mixed with salt water, the fuel has devastating effects on the skin, particularly for women who, unlike men, often do not want to remove their contaminated clothing for modesty or religious reasons.
Some 145,000 migrants have been picked up and brought to Italy since the start of 2016. According to the UN, at least 3,626 people have died during the perilous crossings or are lost at sea.