Who do you save from the Mediterranean Sea?

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Who do you save from the Mediterranean Sea?

Amel al-Zakout is a Syrian artist. She nearly drowned in the Mediterranean Sea after her boat turned over on the way to Greece. Gerard Canals is a volunteer lifeguard. He was part of the rescue operation. Hazel Healy asked them both to speak for the first time since the rescue.


Illustration – Denise Nestor (figures) Amel al-Zakout (background scene)

In October 2015, a boat with more than 300 people was shipwrecked many kilometres from the coast of Lesvos. Amel al-Zakout was one of those in the water. She was a young Syrian refugee. She travelled from Turkey that day on her way to meet her partner in Germany.

Gerard Canals was a Spanish lifeguard. He was the first to arrive on a jet-ski. He normally used it for beach rescues of holidaymakers. He and his team of three volunteers saved the lives of 242 passengers.

Four years later, the two are together for the first time. Amel is speaking from the German city of Leipzig. She is studying fine art there. She speaks from her flat, where she now lives with her baby daughter and partner.

Gerard is on a videolink from Barcelona. He helped to start the charity Open Arms after the death of Alan Kurdi, a month before Amel began her journey. Since the shipwreck, the NGO has become a search and rescue charity. He is Chief of Operations. The charity has saved over 59,000 people from the Mediterranean Sea.

The rescue

Amel al-Zakout: I’m happy to see you again. I remember seeing you from the sea. I remember your face very clearly. I don’t know how much you remember about that day – 28 October – when a boat sank with 303 people on board?

Gerard Canals: It’s impossible to forget that day – it was our first shipwreck. Usually we had rubber dinghies with 50 people. We weren’t expecting such a big wooden boat. It was a terrible experience - there were so many people in the water, and so few rescuers and it was impossible to help everyone. So, you had to start choosing.

Amel: You were looking for children – I always have this picture in my mind. You were the first to reach us, on your jet-ski.

Gerard: When we arrived, I saw children with their faces down already, floating in the waves. And I saw mothers in the sea with their children tied to their chests with plastic. They didn’t want to lose them in that boat with so many people – but the children were drowning under the water and they didn’t know. It was so terrible.

Amel: I remember people in the water were fighting to hold on to rubber rings. I had one and I lost it because people tried to hold on to it. There was a girl in a ring and she asked me to hold her because she was scared. And I’m sure that’s why I survived. I wanted to ask – you were the first to arrive, how did you know about the shipwreck?

Gerard: Our volunteer lookouts called us. I picked up the binoculars and saw hundreds of orange spots in the sea – the boat was gone already. We started Open Arms a month before, and I brought the jet-skis from Spain two days before. I remember the rescue lasted at least three and a half or four hours. And when we finished, it was dark. We had no lights on the jet-skis and we were so very tired.

Amel: I was in the water for four hours. Yes, it was night. After I was rescued, I woke up when we reached the port and I thought, ‘What time is it?’ It was like a dream.

Did you have drownings like this every day?

Gerard: No, only once before, as a lifeguard. I’m 38 now, I’ve been a lifeguard since I was 19. But in one day in Lesvos I rescued more people than in all my time working on the beach.

Emotional Shock

Amel: What do you do about something like that, emotionally?

Gerard: It’s difficult. I remember a little girl that I pulled out of the water. She was breathing but that kind of breathing happens just before you die. I have a daughter – she is five now. And every time we go to the beach and she comes out of the water with blue lips, I remember that moment.

We had to send one of our lifeguards home. He hasn’t done any more rescues with Open Arms. He doesn’t talk about it much. It was hard for everyone, but especially for him. A team of psychologists support us now, but not then.

What I do is to tell myself, ‘If I hadn’t been there, more people would have drowned.’ I cannot blame myself for the people who die. I’m just happy to help the ones I can. But it’s not that easy. Especially the children.

Amel: I remember the day after the rescue so clearly. The sun was wonderful, it was like the opposite of the sea. Since then, I’ve tried to think about the memory, to work through it, and put it behind me. What helped me the most was art and film.

I wanted to make a film about the journey – for myself, because it’s not a normal thing to do and to show it to my partner. He was already in Berlin. So I brought all my equipment, including a waterproof camera. After we lost the boat, I lost everything. But the waterproof camera on my wrist was on all the time – I filmed everything. Sometimes it filmed without me knowing and sometimes I decided to film it. It was a year before I could watch the film. It was very hard to work with it. But I wanted to talk about my experience. I didn’t want to make a film about refugees. We can see them everywhere in the media. We are individuals, we have our own life. The media can’t understand this, they see us as a group.

I finished the film in May 2019 and now we are sending it to festivals and waiting for news. It’s called Purple Sea.

Gerard: I would love to see it.

Amel: I would love to show it to you. You are in the film. I remember when we were working on the film, we knew we didn’t want to harm you, the rescuers. We were careful not to show faces.


Illustration by Amel al-Zakout


Amel: It’s hard for me to understand but I know they are prosecuting rescuers. How could that happen? And why?

Gerard: Yes, I would say it’s funny but of course it’s not funny at all. We’ve been doing the same thing since the beginning. But it depends on the government. One government sees us as criminals and another government works with us. They are two sides of the same thing. In 2016, the Italians told us exactly where the boats were and organized which ports to take people to. And everything was easy. But then, they decided to close the borders inland. And they thought the way to close the borders at sea was to take away the rescue boats. The military ships disappeared and the Frontex [EU border] ships only operated 30 nautical miles from Italy.

And then they started prosecuting the NGOs. In 2018 they stopped me and kept one of our boats for over a month. They charged me and two others for ‘helping human trafficking’. In the end they couldn’t prove it, nothing happened. They think more refugees are trying to come because they know we are there.

Amel: But this is terrible. When I took the trip, I didn’t think about rescue. But you were there, thank God. No-one thinks about this when they are refugees. It sounds like Europe prefers dead bodies to live people.

Gerard: Yes, that’s how it is. The bodies will be washed up on the Libyan shore. Or just disappear. They just want to stop people coming and if one of the ways is to let people die at sea, that is what will happen.

But we know more refugees did not come because of us. Because for a time there were no rescue boats at sea – and people still came in their rubber dinghies and small wooden boats. We know because when they stopped our boats, we flew our planes instead.

Eventually, we got our ships released and we went back out. But it’s hard to operate. Our ships can dock, but not easily. On our last three rescues, it took 48 hours to dock when it should take 12 hours. If I rescued white people from a cruise ship or a sailing boat, you can be sure I would dock in just a few hours and from the closest port.

And the coastguard doesn’t always call us. Recently there was a shipwreck near Lampedusa and the Italians didn’t tell us. And they knew we are ready and can move fast and we have a lot of space on our boats. It’s terrible when we know they are playing games. Then the Spanish government threatened to stop our boats if we are in the Libyan Search and Rescue (SAR) zone and they do not call us first. And they tell our captains they will lose their licence.

Amel: This sounds really difficult. It is clear they are trying to scare you, and the refugees who are coming. What makes you continue with all of this?

Gerard: When you know what is going on, you cannot stop. So we find a way to go on. We look for the best lawyers, we look for money because these operations are very expensive. We do what we can because if we disappear, these people will die. And it will be in silence.

Who is to blame?

Amel: When you have an experience like that, it’s hard not to find someone to blame. It’s about being a refugee and when they close the borders. But when it comes to the rescue, I don’t understand why it took the Greek coastguard and Frontex so long to find us.

Gerard: I blame them because they weren’t prepared. It was very hard for the Greek coastguard to rescue anyone with the boats and equipment they had. Their main deck was between 2.5 and 3 metres above the water. And with the waves we had that day, it was impossible for people to climb in, or for them to rescue people. So we had to bring the people close to the boat with the jet-skis, then the lifeguard got back in the water and swam with the person to the coastguard’s lower deck.

For me, the Greek coastguard’s purpose was border control. They are not there to rescue people, or at least they don’t have the boats or the equipment.

The big Frontex ship was useless because they only had a small dinghy with a small engine. They put too many people on the dinghy, so then they couldn’t rescue people. And they became too scared to use it.

They weren’t ready. They couldn’t give CPR, they didn’t have blankets, they didn’t have anything.

Amel: I agree. Yes, they tried, they rescued some people.

Gerard: Yes – but it’s not enough. They know they are operating in a place with a lot of refugee boats. Frontex is not there to rescue people. It’s a legal obligation to help people at sea. They should be ready to help in an emergency.

Back then, we only had the jet-skis. But once we got the money, we bought three big boats and each one has a RIB [Rigid-Inflatable Buoyancy] lifeboat so we can rescue 50 to 60 people at once. This is what you expect from a government.

Or at least do the simple, cheap things. People start drowning after 10 to 15 minutes when they can’t swim. But if you give them a CentiFloat – like a big banana they use for water sports – then they can hang on in the water. It exists, it’s not something I invented. Before we left Lesvos, we gave one to the coastguard.

But they aren’t interested in getting better. This has been going on for four years, and today they have the same border-patrol boats, nothing they can use to get people out of the water. If the shipwreck happened today, the same or maybe even more people would drown. It’s because they’ve always seen migration as a problem they have to solve. But these refugees are people running away for their own safety.

The trouble is, we lost empathy. We don’t see refugees as equals. And the media and some political parties use language to make people afraid.

Amel: This is what governments do everywhere, Syria too.

Gerard: So it’s clear we need to do something political, but it’s not something I know about. I do rescues.

Amel: But what you are doing is politics. I find this way of thinking more useful sometimes than saying, ‘We should help, people are drowning!’

Gerard: Yes, I agree, there’s a political side to what we do, of course. But we are just defending human rights – it’s very simple.

Amel: This is not simple, it’s very big.

Gerard: Big, in a way, but simple really. It’s natural to help others and it’s the law of the sea. At sea, it’s a life in danger. And we must rescue people and bring them ashore to a port of safety. I don’t understand why they don’t see it so clearly.

Amel: Gerard, I didn’t have the chance to thank you for everything you did. It’s something I will never forget. So, thank you.

Gerard: No, really… we must do this work. I’m very happy to meet you. It makes it all worthwhile.


The Mediterranean is the world’s most dangerous border. 14,700 have died since 2015.

To rescue people is a rule of international law. In the past two years Search and Rescue (SAR) has become very political.

The Mediterranean Sea is divided into specific ‘SAR’ zones, attached to states. Until 2015, the Italian coastguard did search and rescue in and around Italian waters.

NGO rescue ships were very important. The Italian Senate said that, during the first 6 months of 2017, 10 NGO boats rescued more than 33,000 of over 82,000 people. Up until June 2018, NGO boats rescued about 40 per cent of all people.

Greece, Italy, Malta, and Spain are countries which receive rescued people But since the summer of 2017, they have turned against their NGO partners, stopped and taken ships, brought criminal charges against them, blocked NGO rescues near their coasts, and stopped ships entering their ports.

To make matters worse, in June 2018, Libya successfully applied for its own SAR zone. This allows the Italian coastguard to refer any contact from ships outside its own SAR zone to the Libyan authorities. And this is with the abuse against migrants in Tripoli. The increasing number of legal actions against NGOs has resulted in less search and rescue in the Mediterranean when deaths at sea are high. In the Central Mediterranean the chance of dying rose from 2.6 per cent in 2017 to 10 per cent in the first few months of 2019.



(This article has been simplified so the words, text structure and quotes may have been changed)