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23 Sep 15 14 Oct 15

Mediterranean crisis: “They are people, not numbers"

Lindis Hurum who was recently Médecins Sans Frontières/Doctors Without Borders (MSF)’s emergency coordinator onboard the Bourbon Argos, shares her experience and the moving stories of some of those she met.

There are many reasons why the thousands of people we have rescued ended up in Libya, but they share the same reason for why they flee today: to save their lives.

This is the common denominator of everyone I met, no matter their country of origin.

Being on the MSF rescue boat the Bourbon Argos is a mind blowing experience – different from anything else I have experienced in nine year’s working in humanitarian crises. The proximity with the people we rescue is overwhelming and beautiful.

Changing the narrative

It is impossible to see the people as numbers - or even as migrants or refugees - after experiencing a rescue. They are whole hearted and three dimensional human beings. There is no ‘the others’ – there is only ‘us’. 

There were as many stories on the ship as there were people, and we discovered each individual’s story little by little as we moved towards Italy.

A journey of 48 hours, an ocean of time to get to know each other. I must tell those stories because I believe they are the key to changing the narrative of this crisis.

Four years crossing Africa

Rosalind's story

Rosalind wore a striped white and blue cotton dress, it looked a lot like one I used this summer. It has a marine touch, it fits a trip on the sea. But Rosalind’s dress is wet because of fuel, not sea water. Despite her smile she told me it burned her skin. I asked her where she is from, “Cote d’Ivoire,” she said.

Then she became shy, and said in a low voice, “I used to work with you. With MSF.” Rosalind is a nurse assistant, one of those national staff pillars of any MSF project. She told me she used to work in the Bangolo project until 2006. I have worked in Bangolo too.

We immediately started talking about the others working there, of the seven mountains we have both climbed, of dancing ‘Grippe aviaire’ and of our common MSF experience. 

Rosalind and her tall, handsome husband fled from Abidjan to Ghana in 2011 during the war. They don’t speak English, and didn't find work. They continued to Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). Her eyes changed as she said: “It was not good either. We had to leave. Then there was only me and my man.” I didn’t ask details. Her pain was visible.

They had spent some months in Libya and she made that little noise with her tongue often heard in West Africa as she shook her head and looked away, “It is horrible in Libya. You can’t imagine.” She was right, I really can’t imagine what it is like to have a life and job, and then spend four years crossing Africa, survive several wars and then be rescued by the Argos. 

To have nothing left but your husband and a striped dress, but to still smile and hug me, saying the burns on her thighs are "not too bad," even though they really are and our doctor says she will need to go straight to the hospital.

At least she is alive, she says.

Simon Burroughs, our emergency coordinator onboard the Bourbon Argos [who took over from Lindis], talks about how EU discussions are all about numbers. People often tend to forget that behind these numbers are real people with real needs.

No hospitals

Sako's story

He was my height, with a round face and crew cut hair with blonde spikes. He had a blue hoodie and looked like a sports man. He is a sports man, he told me. He came to Libya in 2011 to play football, he is really good he claimed – his dimples popping out as to exclamation marks to underline it. I had no doubt.

He is from Guinea, “the one with Conakry.” I told him I was just in Guinea, working with Ebola. He said he was happy to avoid Ebola, before I replied, he said what we both were thinking, “but maybe Libya is not so much better than Ebola…” 

He had been in Libya for five years, and he had seen it fall into lawless anarchy and violence. His uncle who brought him there, died. His best friend died last year after a child soldier, about the same age as him, hit him in the head with a steel bar. He didn’t die immediately; it took a long time before he gave up. There are no hospitals.

“Child soldier my age.” Suddenly it struck me how young he looked. “17,” he said with a big smile. My mind spun again. So he was 11 when he arrived in Libya? He is still a minor, even though he has seen and survived more than any man I know has in a lifetime.

I explained how in Europe you are still a child until you are 18 and that if he wanted I will make sure he gets off together with all the other minors we had on board.

He nodded. Looked down. Suddenly he looked like a child after all.

A Nigerian man and his baby rest on the deck of the Bourbon Argos.

Stripped of humanity

Diomandé's story

“You have a skin infection. Sometimes your skin itches? Yes, so these people will take care of that and give you treatment. But they need to burn your clothes to kill the infection.”

No one in the Italian port where we disembark speaks anything but Italian, so I stayed close to the scabies treatment area to at least give basic information to people about to be stripped, sprayed with a white product and have their clothes burned. 

It is the same every time: the minute they leave our boat and step on shore, they become a number and are treated as if they have no feelings, minds of their own. Stripped of dignity and humanity.

I asked Diomandé, a young Ivorian man with a small moustache - a moustache only men who just started growing moustaches could be proud of - if he had anything in his pockets?

I told him, as his clothes will be burned, he should take it out. He struggled to get something out of the small pocket within the bigger one in his jeans, the one I never understood the use of on my jeans.

I discovered his treasure as he unfolded it in front of me: a black and white picture, a bit faded but still in good shape.

“It got wet on the boat, but I dried it in the sun. It is my parents.”

The picture showed a tall man and a tall woman, dressed in their Sunday best, carefully holding a baby in their arms as they pose for the photographer in front of the draped curtains of his studio.

“Is it you?” I asked pointing to the baby. He nodded with a smile, saying it is the only thing he has in his pockets. It's all he has in life.

Moussa, 15-years-old from Ivory Coast, cries on the deck of the Bourbon Argos after being rescued.

Solidarity

Let me quote the former MSF international president James Orbinski, as I think it summarises what our search and rescue operations are about, and why we do not wear protective equipment, but meet those we rescue with a smile and a hand shake.

Why we think it matters to give each and every person at least 48 hours of humanity, of medical care and a safe sleep.

“Humanitarianism is about more than medical efficiency or technical competence. In our choice to be with those who suffer, compassion leads not simply to pity but to solidarity.

"Solidarity implies to demand a minimum respect for human life and to recognise the dignity and autonomy of others, and asserting the right of others to make choices about their own destiny.

"Humanitarianism is about the struggle to create the space to be fully human.”

Read more about our work in the Mediterranean