[Eyes of the photographer] “No boat, no wreck, no remains, no bodies. The question we all had in mind was: what happened to them? “


On May 25th 2023, the Ocean Viking was involved in a long joint operation  with the rescue ship Life Support,  Seabird and Colibri aircrafts to search for a boat in distress reported by Alarm Phone with approximately 500 women, men and children on board. Camille, photographer on board the Ocean Viking recalls these hours of tense search.  On May 23rd we were alerted by Alarm Phone about an overcrowded fishing boat with around 500 people onboard. According to Alarm Phone the boat was slowly sinking, and people were starting to panic. Among them, there were dozens of children and pregnant women. The boat was drifting into the Maltese SRR when its engine stopped.  When we received the alert, we were about 36 hours away, no rescue ship was in this area, so we decided to head in their direction, along with the NGO rescue ship, Life Support . We were hoping for them to be rescued before our arrival, since they were close to a busy commercial route.  But no one rescued them. As we arrived in the area of their last known position, Alarm Phone had lost contact with them for more than 24 hours.  As soon as Life Support arrived – 10 hours ahead of us – they started a search pattern, at night, but didn’t find the boat. The planes Colibri and Seabird flew above the area but did not spot anything. No boat, no wreck, no remains, no bodies. The question we all had in mind was « What happened to them? »  How can a boat carrying 500 people simply disappear in the middle of the Mediterranean Sea?  As we arrived close to their last known position we started, in coordination with Life Support a search pattern as well. A double lookout was activated, to observe every possible inch of the ocean around us. At the same time, on the Bridge, our SAR Coordinator was on the phone with the other humanitarian organizations involved in the search, and the maritime authorities of Malta and Italy. This phase of lookout is crucial, even during a regular operation. Because even if we have radars, and alerts from the planes or Alarm Phone, it is always with our own eyes that we spot an embarkation before we can proceed to the rescue. We cannot miss anything, any corner of the sea, otherwise we might miss the people in distress. We need to be focused, calm, and methodical. It is a key part of the job, because prior to the « Rescue » there is the « Search ». That day, our eyes were their last chance to be seen. But that day, the search was in vain. We never found them, but we never found any wreck either. I felt a great pain inside of me, not knowing what could have happened to them.  During the days following this search, we learnt that the boat was pushed back to Libya before we arrived in the area. According to IOM and UNHCR, the people were brought back to Benghazi by a vessel belonging to Libyan National Army, a force in the east of the country led by military commander Khalifa Haftar.