Who do you save?
In October 2015, a boat carrying more than 300 people was shipwrecked several kilometres off the coast of Lesvos. Among those in the water was Amel al-Zakout, a young Syrian refugee who made the journey from Turkey that day, heading to meet her partner in Germany.
The Spanish lifeguard Gerard Canals was the first to arrive at the scene, driving a jet-ski normally used for beach rescues of holidaymakers. He and his team of three volunteers would prove indispensable to a dramatic, drawn-out rescue that would save the lives of 242 passengers.
Four years later, the two are reunited for the first time. Amel is connecting from the German city of Leipzig – where she is enrolled on a fine art degree – from her flat, where she now lives with her baby daughter and partner. Self-possessed with a warm, infectious smile, she expresses herself in careful, deliberate English.
Gerard comes in via videolink from Barcelona. A genial, high-speed talker, he communicates the same contained, pragmatic outrage that first moved him to co-found the charity Open Arms in the wake of the death of Alan Kurdi, a month before Amel set out on her journey. Since the shipwreck, the NGO has crystallized into a fully fledged search and rescue charity, of which he is Chief of Operations. In the intervening years, it has saved over 59,000 people from the Mediterranean Sea.
The conversation between them ranges over the events of the shipwreck: how they dealt with the trauma that followed; how rescuers came to be treated as criminals and working out who, fundamentally, is to blame.
Amel al-Zakout: I’m happy to see you again. I remember seeing you from a very strange perspective – from the sea. I can recall 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. We were used to rubber dinghies with 50 people on board. We weren’t expecting such a big wooden boat. It was a terrible experience – to realize that there were so many people in the water, and so few rescuers, that it was impossible to help everyone. So, you had to start choosing.
Amel: You were looking for children – I always have this image in my mind. You were the first to reach us, on your jet-ski. People were helpless, trying to reach you, but you had priorities, which I really respect.
Gerard: When we arrived, I saw kids with their faces down already, floating in the waves. And I saw mothers in the sea with their kids tied to their chests with plastic – I guess 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 realize. It was so terrible.
Amel: I remember people in the water were fighting to hold on to rubber rings. I had one and it was torn away because people kept trying to grab on. 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 had disappeared already. We had set up Open Arms a month before, and I had brought the jet-skis from Spain two days earlier. We had just finished building a slider to launch them into the water that morning – without it, we couldn’t have used them. I remember the whole operation lasted at least three and a half or four hours. And by the time we finished it was dark. We had no lights on the jet-skis and we were so exhausted.
Amel: I was in the water for four hours. It’s quite right what you say about it becoming night. After I was rescued I lost consciousness until we reached the port and then I woke up thinking ‘what time is it?’. It was like I’d dreamt it.
Did you have to deal with drowning incidents like this one on a daily basis?
Gerard: No. I had experienced it 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 my entire life working on the beach.
Amel: How do you deal with an event like that emotionally?
Gerard: It’s difficult. I remember a little girl that I pulled out of the water and she was still breathing but this kind of breath that 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, it takes me back to that moment.
We had to send one of our lifeguards home. He hasn’t done any more missions 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.
The way I try to deal with it is I tell myself, ‘if I wasn’t there, more people would drown’. 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 kids, it’s very hard to see.
Amel: I remember the day after the rescue so clearly. The sun was amazing, it was like the opposite of the sea. Since then, I’ve tried to face the memory of what happened, to work through it and put it behind me. What helped me the most, was to work on it from what I like to do, which is art and film.
I wanted to document the journey – for myself, because it’s not a normal thing to do and to share it with my partner, who was already in Berlin. So I had brought all my equipment, including a waterproof camera. After the boat disintegrated I lost everything. But the waterproof camera on my wrist was on all the time – I filmed the whole thing unintentionally, and sometimes intentionally.
It was a year before I could watch the footage. It was very hard to work with it, to be honest. But I wanted to talk about my experience. I didn’t want to make a film about refugees – who we can see everywhere in the media from different perspectives – because I insist that we are individuals, we have our own life. The media can’t see this, they see us as a group.
I finished the film last May 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 share it with you. You are in the footage. I remember when we were working on the material, we were conscious that we didn’t want to harm you, the rescuers. We were careful not to show faces, in case that could be used against you.
Amel: It’s hard for me to get my head around this but I know rescuers are being prosecuted. How could that happen really, on what grounds?
Gerard: Yes, I would say it’s funny except of course it’s not funny at all. We’ve been doing the same thing since the beginning, but depending on who is in government, we are either criminalized or under their co-ordination. They are two sides of the same coin.
In 2016, the Italians would give us the co-ordinates of the boats and organize which ports to disembark people into. 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 by taking away the rescue boats. The military ships disappeared and Frontex [EU border force] ships reduced their area of operation to 30 nautical miles off Italy.
And then they started prosecuting the NGOs. In 2018 I was detained and one of our boats was impounded for over a month. I was charged along with two others for ‘facilitating human trafficking’. In the end they couldn’t prove it, nothing happened. But they want to make us disappear because they think we are a pull factor.
Amel: But this is ridiculous. When I took the trip, I didn’t think about rescue (you were there though, thank God). No-one thinks about this when they are fleeing. It sounds like they [Europe] prefer 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 prevent people coming and if one of the ways to do it is to let people die at sea, that is what will happen.
But we know we’re not a pull factor because for a while 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 spotter 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 missions, it’s taken 48 hours to disembark when it should have taken 12. (If I rescued white people from a cruise ship or a sailing boat, you can guarantee I would be docking in just a few hours from the closest port).
And the coastguard don’t always call us. Recently there was an incident off Lampedusa and the Italians didn’t report it, despite knowing that we are fully equipped and fast-moving with a high capacity. It’s very frustrating, knowing they are playing games.
Then the Spanish government has threatened to stop our boats if we are active in the Libyan Search and Rescue (SAR) zone, without being called first. And our captains are threatened with losing their licence.
Amel: This sounds really difficult. Obviously, they are trying to scare you, as well as the refugees who are coming. What makes you continue in the face of all this?
Gerard: Once you know what is going on, you cannot turn back. So we find a way to go on. We look for the best lawyers, we look for funding (because it’s super-expensive to maintain one of these operations). We do whatever we can because if we disappear, these people will die. And it will be in silence.
Who is to blame?
Amel: When you go through an experience like that, it’s hard not to look for someone to blame. From the start, it’s related to fleeing your country and the borders being closed. But when it comes to the actual rescue, I can’t stop thinking why it took the Greek coastguard and Frontex so long to reach us.
Gerard: What I blame them for is that 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 pick people out. So we had to bring the people close to the boat with the jet-skis, then the lifeguard would get back in the water and swim 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 capacity.
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 provide CPR, they didn’t have blankets – they didn’t have anything.
Amel: I agree. I came to know the main purpose of Frontex from the sea. Although they did try – I mean they did manage to save some people.
Gerard: Yes – but it’s not enough. They know they are operating in a place with a lot of refugee boats. It’s not in Frontex’s mandate to rescue people but it’s a legal obligation to help people at sea. They should be ready to respond to an emergency.
Back then, we only had the jet-skis. But once we raised the funds, we bought three big boats and each one has a RIB [Rigid-Inflatable Buoyancy] lifeboat that 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 challenge they have to fight. They approach it as a problem. But these are people fleeing 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 spread fear.
Amel: This is a strategy of governments everywhere, Syria too.
Gerard: So obviously there’s a need to act on a political level, but it’s not my area of expertise. I focus on rescue.
Amel: But what you are doing is politics. I find this approach 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 basic.
Amel: This is not basic, it’s very big.
Gerard: Big, in a way, but simple really. It’s in human nature to help others and it’s in the law of the sea. At sea, it’s a life in danger. And we have the obligation to 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 see it as our duty to do this work. I’m very happy to meet you. It makes all the hardships we go through as rescuers worthwhile.
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