Mediterranean tragedy, the last call before the silence: “Help, we are 600 and the engine room is full of water”

CATALANO, Meridionews

The first person
to receive the SOS from the fishing vessel that later overturned was the
activist Nawal Soufi. “But shortly later the phone stopped ringing”. Doctors
Without Borders tell about the rescue operations: “Desperate people trying to
hold onto anything to save themselves”. And accuse: “We have been called at 9,
but then diverted to another operation, there is a severe lack of resources”.

“Help us, we are
600 people on a fishing vessel and the engine room is full of water, call the
rescue service”. When Nawal Soufi, a Moroccan activist living in Catania and
engaged for years in welcoming migrants arriving in Sicily, receives this call
it is 9.30 of yesterday morning. At the other end of the satellite phone is a
young man. One of the hundreds of persons who are travelling on the iron
fishing vessel that a few hours later would overturn off the Libyan coast,
leaving for ever in that cursed stretch of sea a still imprecise number of
human lives. At the moment 25 dead bodies have been retrieved and 373 person
rescued. 200 migrants are still missing and this morning the searching operations

When the ship of
Doctors Without Borders (Msf) Dignity I arrived on the place of the tragedy,
the volunteers found a scene that they defined “horrible”: “Desperate persons
holding onto life vests, boats or anything they could find for trying to save
their lives, in the midst of persons drowning or already dead” tells the
coordinator Joan Matìas. The Ngo documented the operations with precise images.
Among the survivors are also many children. One of them, just a few years old
and saved together with his parents, is on board of the ship of Doctors Without
Borders on the lap of his mother who kisses his small hands with tears in her
eyes. She holds him tight, holding on together to life. The specter of death is
now distant.

An Irish military
ship, which received the alert from the operation centre of the Coastguard in
Rome, was the first to intercept the vessel in yesterday’s late morning about
15 miles north off Libya. The movement of a large number of migrants would have
caused the overturn of the fishing vessel when they saw the ship that
intervened to rescue them. The first SOS, though, was sent out around 9.30 am. It
was received by Nawal Soufi, as it often happened, who earned the nickname
Angel of the refugees because of her dedication. But even more importantly, she
became the focal point for thousands of desperate people. Through the word of mouth and the use of
social media they know to find help in her, already for the first rescue
service. Receiving the alert, the activist immediately called 1530, the
emergency number of the Italian Coastguard, and gave the same number to the
young man via text message. “I promised him to be there for him until the
arrival of the rescuer – writes Nawal – but shortly after that the cell phone
did not ring any more and the young man stopped to repeatedly calling me as do
most vessels in danger”.

Doctors Without
Borders precise in a note that they received a call from the Maritime Rescue
Co-ordination Centre in Rome yesterday at 9, but they then have been diverted
to rescue another boat. “This last operation, which rescued 94 persons,
terminated around 12.30 – explains the Ngo – the Dignity I has then received
another call which urged to return to rescue the first vessel. When arriving,
an Irish ship that had reached the location before had already started the
rescue operations because the vessel had overturned”. Also other ships on which
Doctors Without Borders operate, namely the Bourbon Argos and the My Phoenix
that are privately managed through the project Moas, came to the location.

The doctors of
Msf gave assistance to ten persons – five were in critical conditions and have
been evacuated by helicopter. “The fact that we have been called first to give
assistance to this vessel and right after that for another rescue operation
demonstrates the severe shortfall of available resources for rescue operations
in the Mediterranean Sea” notices the coordinator Matìas. “Today at sea we
closely experienced a new, big suffering – adds Loris De Filippi, president of
Msf – It is imperative that rescue operations get closer as much as possible to
the departure zones: Only two days ago five persons died of dehydration after
13 hours on a ship; and today this tragedy just 15 miles away from the Libyan
shores. The only solution to end mourning and suffering at sea is to open legal
and save ways in order to allow these persons – who are forced to flee from
wars and poverty – to find safety without risking their lives”. An appeal
launched also by Nawal Soufi: “Humanitarian corridors, humanitarian corridors,
humanitarian corridors”.

another vessel with 381 migrants on board – including 55 women and 26 children
from Syria, Bangladesh and the Sub-Sahara – has been rescued a short distance
from the shipwreck. The ship sent the alert 30 miles away from Libya, about 15
miles north from where yesterday the shipping vessel overturned. To set course
to rescue the migrants was the ship of the Italian Coast Guard “Fiorillo”,
which yesterday was committed to rescue survivals of the last tragedy. Until
yesterday 1.941people already lost their lives trying to cross the
Mediterranean Sea.

Translation by
Chiara Guccione