A day in the life of the Med's migrant lifesavers

ABOARD THE MS AQUARIUS (Italy) (AFP) - The sun beats down on a flat sea as a gentle breeze blows up from the Libyan coast but the Mediterranean idyll is soon to be shattered for the crew of migrant rescue ship the MS Aquarius.

Just after dawn the first call sounds around the bridge: an overcrowded dinghy is in difficulty 90 minutes away and the one-time German coastguard patrol boat is being sent to its aid.

"We are going to take on a full load today," predicts Alexander Moroz, the Belarusian captain of the vessel chartered by the charities SOS Mediterranee and Doctors Without Borders (MSF) to help the search and rescue operation in the waters between Italy and Libya.

The skipper's instinct proved right: Tuesday was a busy day. The Aquarius was one of 23 vessels deployed to help stricken migrant boats and by nightfall the Italian coastguard had counted 3,000 people rescued, bringing the total to 5,600 over the course of 48 hours.

On the bridge, SOS Mediterranee's rescue team get ready for action.

Deployed since the end of February, the ship has already saved more than 1,000 lives but the crews rotate for missions of three to six weeks and many of those on board are here for the first time.

"You can never have enough experience to be ready for everything, and everyone has to start somewhere," says Christian Bahlke, the mission chief.

An experienced 59-year-old seaman, Bahlke has found a way of combining that experience with his desire to do something in response to the migrant drama.

Just after 10:00 am the crew gets a first glimpse of the boat they have been sent to help, a tiny sliver of white on a horizon of a vast expanse of blue.

- 'Here there is life' -

Another boat has already distributed life jackets and provided first aid to a seriously sick infant, a two-year-old boy from Cameroon who has had no adequate nutrition for three weeks and is suffering from dehydration and a lung infection that is causing the MSF doctors concern.

Soon the Aquarius's lifeboat returns from its first sortie with 15 other children, some of them very young.

They are taken to a room reserved for minors where staff attempt to comfort and calm them as they wait for their mothers, who will be the priority for the lifeboat's next shuttle.

The barefoot women arrive looking exhausted, a little dazed as they are taken onboard. One greets everyone with a relaxed, happy air, another cries in silence.

The men are the last to be brought to safety, some of them very weak. They have to be found places on the bridge.

Franck Kameni, a 29-year-old from Cameroon, cuddles his 11-month-old son Josue.

He recounts the ordeal they have endured -- being forced from place to place at the hands of people traffickers over the course of several months in Libya.

"Here there is life. Finally we are men again," he says before being interrupted by the roar of an Italian navy helicopter sent to evacuate the sickest boy.

His condition is now critical. Strapped to a stretcher and hooked up to a portable drip, the child is bound for the medical unit on board the Italian aircraft carrier Cavour.

- Crushed by exhaustion -

A little later the helicopter returns to pick up the infant's mother and a weary calm descends on the Aquarius. Crushed by exhaustion, the migrants crash out wherever they can find a space.

Among those rescued is a 21-year-old Cameroonian woman who gave birth on Wednesday to a little boy on board the Aquarius, with help from an MSF midwife and doctor.

The boy's overjoyed parents named their baby Destine Alex -- a tribute to Alexander Moroz, the vessel's captain.

After sharing in the family's joy, Moroz fires up the engine. The Aquarius has got new instructions from the coastguard control centre in Rome: pick up migrants saved in the morning by a tug boat from an offshore oil rig.

As the day has progressed, the sea has picked up and now the little tug is being buffeted around and getting the lifeboat near it is a complex job, fraught with danger. The transfer will take hours.

Once again there are many women and children among the rescued. All of them from West Africa or the Horn of Africa. All of them physically and mentally close to collapse.

The Aquarius crew are sweating like never before: by 7:30 pm there are 385 passengers on board, the biggest human cargo the boat has ever collected.

"We're full up," the captain tells the Coastguard and soon a new map is up on one of his screens showing the route to the Sardinian port of Cagliari.

The destination allocated from Rome is two days away: for the men, women and children on board, two days to a new life.

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