The New Odyssey

Throughout 2015 Patrick Kingsley, the Guardian's migration correspondent, travelled to 17 countries, meeting refugees making journeys across deserts, seas and mountains to reach the holy grail of Europe.

Patrick Kingsley © the Guardian

Patrick Kingsley © the Guardian

During that time, Patrick spent a week on Médecins Sans Frontières/Doctors Without Borders (MSF)'s search and rescue ship, the Bourbon Argos.

The following is an extract from his book - The New Odyssey - describing his time and the people he met on board.

MSF Cultural Mediator Amani on board the Bourbon Argos following a rescue in the Mediterranean. © Francesco Zizola

When the team draw up alongside the two boats this morning, it’s an emotional moment for them all. But, for Amani, the experience is particularly personal. He was once one of those in need of rescue.

Thirteen years ago, Amani escaped Eritrea, after being arrested for his political activism. Then he survived an epic trek through the Sahara to Libya, where he was then held against his will by smugglers. Finally, after two failed attempts, he crossed the Mediterranean to Italy. It was in a flimsy fishing boat very similar to the ones he now helps to rescue.

‘I came the same way,’ Amani tells me, in a quiet moment. ‘I know all the risks they face in the Sahara and the Mediterranean, the problems they face from the Libyan smugglers.’ Doing this job summons up ‘flashes of bad memories’ of similar experiences. He remembers emerging from the desert crossing, covered in sand. He remembers waiting to board the boat from Libya, and being forced to watch smugglers rape some of the women who hoped to travel with him.

‘I saw the same bad things, and I even have some family members who’ve drowned in this way,’ says Amani. ‘So helping these people is really a pleasure.’

He’s been in their boat, almost literally. But their plight still has the capacity to stun him because in someways it is worse than what he endured. ‘I was so shocked,’ Amani says, of the first time he approached a refugee boat as a rescuer. ‘When I saw the women and children packed like chickens, everywhere full, I was really shocked. Now they are putting almost double the number of people on board than when I did it.’

But, overall, Amani reckons the people following in his wake are marginally safer – because his boat had to go further than theirs. ‘They are lucky because the rescue missions now come so close,’ he says. ‘We had no rescue. If big ships saw us they thought we were fishermen, and nobody cared about us.’

"I have some family members who’ve
drowned in this way" - Amani

Over a decade later, Amani has been able to move on. He won asylum in the UK, and then worked as a translator in the NHS, and as a care worker with the elderly and with autistic children. He’s now married, with three kids of his own – and for that reason his latest voyage in the Mediterranean has packed a different kind of emotional punch than it did the first time.

Amani  welcomes newly rescued people on board the Bourbon Argos 
© Francesco Zizola/NOOR

Amani welcomes newly rescued people on board the Bourbon Argos
© Francesco Zizola/NOOR

In particular, he cites the example of a young mother who recently died of dehydration, along with four others, before the Bourbon Argos could reach her. ‘It was the most emotional time in my life,’ he says. ‘I tried to convince myself that they died naturally. But there was a mum of three young children. And I am a father of three children. So I wondered if that was my wife, and they were my children, how hard that would be.’

As an Eritrean, Amani has an easy connection with this particular set of passengers. But one of them seems more relieved to see him than most. It’s Lingo, the geography teacher. ‘Remember me?’ Lingo asks him, once everyone is safely on board. At first, Amani doesn’t. This guy looks old. His beard is grey, his skin is wrinkled. Amani can’t place him.

Two men clamber out of the hold of a rescued refugee boat 
© Francesco Zizola/NOOR

Two men clamber out of the hold of a rescued refugee boat
© Francesco Zizola/NOOR

But Lingo remembers Amani. For they are in fact the same age: 35. They were contemporaries at university, in the days when Eritrea still had one. They attended the same student protests back in 2002. After they were arrested for their activism, they were taken to the same underground prison. And here they both are again, meeting 13 years later in the middle of the Mediterranean. Amani’s eyes widen, once he realises who Lingo is. ‘He looks so much older,’ Amani later tells me. ‘That’s what Eritrea does to you.’

But Amani has also changed, says Lingo. ‘He’s put on a bit of weight,’ Lingo laughs. ‘All that European cooking.’

The smell of humanity... That smell is something that will stick with me the longest. The smell of people who have had fear going through them for a long time – that fear has a smell of its own.

Gordie Hatt, MSF logistician

It is a poignant moment amid a scene of chaos. The intense drama of the morning has died down. The pregnant woman has been evacuated to an Italian navy ship, later to give birth in Malta. The Argos is now on its way to Italy. On deck, confusion reigns. There are more than 1,000 people here in a space meant for no more than 500. The captain has grudgingly opened the fore deck, but still there is not enough space for everyone to sit in comfort. Some don’t mind. This is the safest place they have been in months, and so they’ve just lain down on the floor, shut their eyes, and slept.

But most people are moving around, half delighted to be safe, half anxious about what happens next. Where are they going? How long to Italy? Will there be any food? Is there any more water? Are there any cigarettes? There’s always something going wrong. The toilets are blocked, or a bit of the deck is flooded.

The detritus left aboard a rescued boat in the Mediterranean 
© Julie Remy/MSF

The detritus left aboard a rescued boat in the Mediterranean
© Julie Remy/MSF

It’s a slightly awkward place to report from. There’s barely any space to stand, and I find myself interviewing people while squatting between sleeping migrants. The MSF team could do with an extra hand on deck, rather than someone asking endless questions. On a few occasions I put down my notebook and start behaving like a human being – helping to answer questions from the Arabic speakers, and then distributing sheets of gold foil that the Eritreans fold around themselves to keep warm at night.

Once everyone’s wrapped up, it makes for a grand sight: more like a throng of carnival - goers in their glinting fancy dress than a deck of refugees.

A man looks towards Italy as the Bourbon Argos comes into port.
© Alessandro Penso

A man looks towards Italy as the Bourbon Argos comes into port.
© Alessandro Penso

Handing out food is the biggest headache. One thousand people tend not to form very orderly queues. Amani and his colleagues desperately try to create some sort of process. But with so many people, and in such a confined space, ultimately they have to let people organise themselves.

MSF logistician Gordie Hatt speaks with refugees on the deck of the Bourbon Argos following the rescue of 95 people, mostly from West Africa, from a sinking rubber dinghy
© Francesco Zizola/NOOR

Gordie Hatt breathes in the air. ‘The smell of humanity,’ he says. ‘That smell is something that will stick with me the longest. The smell of people who have had fear going through them for a long time – that fear has a smell of its own.’

Inside the makeshift hospital the medical team gets the best understanding of where that fear comes from. All day people queue outside for the chance of seeing a doctor for the first time in months. Many have been beaten, during three separate stints inside the compounds of Libya’s traffickers. Several of them have broken limbs, untreated since their pick-up rolled over in the Sahara.

‘Never enter without knocking,’ one of the nurses warns me. ‘You don’t know if there is woman inside telling me that she has been raped.’

One has a bullet wound courtesy of his time at the hands of Isis, who shot and kidnapped him earlier in the summer. A woman has a bruised vagina, after concealing around $400 inside it. In Libya, if you keep your money in such a thing as a wallet, it will be stolen within hours.

And many women have had experiences even darker than this. ‘Never enter without knocking,’ one of the nurses warns me. ‘You don’t know if there is woman inside telling me that she has been raped.’

The clinical staff’s role is sometimes as pastoral as it is medical. The team places the families and the unaccompanied children outside the hospital door, so that they can keep an eye on their most vulnerable passengers. On this particular trip there are 70 children without parents – most escaping Eritrea’s slave state, which turns all minors into child soldiers. The nurses try to give them more attention: some of them are just 10 or 12.

Others set out with their mothers, but their mums died en route. ‘ There was one father with three boys, and their mum died, and the boys didn’t realise it,’ says one of the nurses, recalling a previous trip. ‘But the closer we got to Italy, the more they realised. And then they asked us: could you be our mother?’

On this trip, it takes two days and two nights to reach Italy. Most get sent to Sicily, where the biggest reception centres are. But it’s late August – Libya’s peak smuggling season – so Sicily is full, and the Argos is sent instead to Crotone, a port on the heel of Italy.

It’s a bittersweet moment, easing into port to find a waiting gaggle of doctors, coastguards, Frontex officials and journalists. On the one hand, this is cause for huge celebration. It marks the end of a traumatic ordeal that has seen most of these people trek through a desert, subject themselves to repeated torture and humiliation in Libya, and then a terrifying sea voyage. Kids gathered in a line near the gangway grin with delight and expectation. Behind them, a trainee priest from Eritrea is welling up. ‘I don’t believe I’m actually nearly there after all we went through in the Sahara,’ says the would-be pastor, his eyes reddening. ‘It’s a dream come true, and sometimes when things feel like a dream, you can’t believe them.’

Patrick Kingsley's book - The New Odyssey: The story of Europe's refugee crisis - is available to buy from the Guardian Bookshop. Profits from the sale of the book will be donated to MSF.

Find out more about MSF's work in the European refugee crisis

Listen to Canadian doctor Simon Bryant describe his time on one of MSF's search and rescue vessels, in the MSF podcast 'Everyday Emergency'