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Mittelmeer Flüchtlingsrettung Einsatzgruppenversorger Frankfurt am Main
Image: DW/D. Pelz

14 hours of mortal danger in the Mediterranean

Daniel Pelz / gro
May 1, 2016

Naval vessels participating in the European Union's Operation Sophia saved 599 people on the Mediterranean Sea. DW's Daniel Pelz was there during the rescue operation to report on the action.


Crew members were still eating breakfast in the mess room and the Bundeswehr's naval support vessel Frankfurt am Main was leisurely cruising on the often-treacherous Mediterranean when the call came shortly after 9:30 Thursday morning. Then the ship turned and started picking up speed. The officers were summoned to the bridge.

"An abrupt change of course and a briefing," a soldier said, "that means something happened."

A little later, a voice came over the PA system: "Here is the first officer with the coordinates." Five boats had been spotted carrying refugees. In addition to Germany's Frankfurt and Karlsruhe ships, the Spanish frigate Numancia and the Italian navy's Aviere were ordered to travel to the area. The boats are part of the EU's Operation Sophia, which enforces Europe's maritime border, one of the bloc's several safeguards against refugees.

Around noon, the Frankfurt reached its destination and the preparations began. Control stations were occupied, boarding teams prepared the lifeboats, and the paramedics gathered together. "Remember to have enough fluids and sunscreen," the first officer warned in his announcement.

A quick operation

The first boat was a white rubber dinghy. Its outer walls were just above the surface of the water, and it would not likely have stayed afloat much longer. Through binoculars, hundreds of heads were visible aboard. The lifeboats from the Frankfurt and the Numancia sped forward.

Hundreds of hands extended toward the soldiers. Calls for help could be heard from the Frankfurt. The passengers were afraid; they wanted off their flimsy vessel as quickly as possible. "Remain seated!" a soldier shouted into his megaphone. "Remain seated!" The troops fear this moment the most: If too many passengers stand up at once, their boat could capsize.

And the wind can pick up at any moment. "We only had a short time window to save the people in the boat before the sea became choppy again," Frankfurt Commander Andreas Schmekel said later, "and we could have had problems."

The soldiers dragged women, men and children from the boat and took them to the Frankfurt and Numancia on small inflatable boats. Later, the Frankfurt took the people who had been brought aboard the Numancia and the Aviere.

'Really sweat away'

The "distressed people" - the Bundeswehr's word for the refugees it takes aboard - were waiting on one of the lower decks. They were huddled closely together and appeared scared and extremely exhausted. They were mainly Africans. The soldiers wore white protective suits, gloves and masks. A mother was keeping a little girl in a white onesie warm in her arms. A man who looked about 20 clung to the man next to him. By the end of the mission, 354 people had been taken on board the Frankfurt and 245 onto the Karlsruhe.

On the foredeck, the Bundeswehr teams were checking their new passengers' health, taking their temperatures and registering them. "We smile," a rescue assistant named Kristin said. "The people taken on board smile, and sometimes you put your hand on someone's shoulder. We do not have more time, but I think they know what we want to say."

The Frankfurt would take the refugees to the Italian island of Sicily. Over breakfast on the foredeck the day after the Bundeswehr plucked him and his fellow passengers out of the water, Abdelkader Diayne said he could not wait to arrive in Europe. A lanky man from Senegal, Diayne said he and his fellow passengers had spent 14 hours on their hardly seaworthy vessel. "You know, we do not risk such a journey without reason," he said. "We want to work - really sweat away."

Diayne's smile disappeared when he spoke about the smugglers who had organized his trip. "They did not tell us the truth," he said. "They told us: 'When you're in international waters, you will be picked up. And, if not, you can continue traveling to Italy. You have enough fuel.'"

The Bundeswehr permitted a five-minute interview with Diayne and would not allow a chat with anyone else.

Three hours later, Italy was in sight. The people who had risked their lives to make the journey crowded together to take in the view from the foredeck. The first thing they saw in Europe was Mount Etna, its peak disappearing into the clouds. After the boat moored, the passengers slowly disembarked via the gangway. Almost cautiously, they felt their way down the steps. They seemed to know that their journey was far from over.

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