Human Rights Column: Angels of the Sea

June 14, 2017

Proactiva Open Arms in action before the coast of Lesbos, Greece. Photo courtesy of POA.

Amy Rao, a member of the Board of Directors of Human Rights Watch, gave the introductory address at the presentation of the seventh ALBA/Puffin Award for Human Rights Activism to Òscar Camps and Gerard Canals, the founders of Proactiva Open Arms, at the award ceremony held at the Museum of the City of New York on April 16. Here she offers an eyewitness account of how she met these remarkable volunteer lifeguards in action as they struggle to rescue huge numbers of refugees from drowning.

I met Òscar, Gerard, and the Proactiva Open Arms team in October 2015. The head of the emergencies division at Human Rights Watch, Peter Bouchaert, was covering the crisis as it was playing out: dozens of boats filled with refugees arriving on the shores of Lesbos, Greece, around the clock. I had been following Peter’s Twitter and Facebook posts from Greece and very early one morning an email came from Peter asking for help. There was a need to quickly get some funding to “the only organization on the ground saving lives,” a small group of lifeguards from Barcelona, Spain, Proactiva Open Arms. Their immediate need was for jet skis with sleds. The lifeguards had come weeks before, equipped only with wetsuits and fins—but with water skills worthy of Olympians.

I arrived on Lesbos October 26, and as I drove along the sandy beach road to reach the lifeguards in the small coastal village where they were based, I was followed by a truck pulling a trailer with two jet skis. Gerard had already asked Paris, the handy proprietor at the small inn where they were bunking to build ramps for the jet skis so that they could be launched directly from where the lifeguards were housed. Within two days the ramps were built and placed into the water from the rocky beach directly in front of the inn.

I can remember all of us admiring how quickly it was done.

That morning, October 28, started as all the days before it and since the lifeguards had arrived. They guided boats in all morning, full of families. They unloaded the babies and toddlers first and worked their way through the disabled, those missing limbs from the bombings in their countries, to the women and lastly to the men. They wrapped all in blankets and administered first aid as needed. It was non-stop and to the unsuspecting volunteer, the situation would appear chaotic and without end. But the Proactiva team was always focused, calming, with great purpose and grounded in what needed to be done moment by moment to save lives.

At 3 p.m. that day, we sat down for a late lunch at the taverna on the ground floor of the inn. There were six lifeguards from Proactiva on the island that week. I sat with four of them for lunch and two remained out on the beach road that circled the island, keeping watch for boats in distress. Just as our food began to arrive, Fio, the only female lifeguard that week, picked up her phone to hear one of her colleagues say, “bodies in the water.” He gave the location from a road along a cliff. We jumped in two cars and sped a couple of kilometers up the road where we saw a Proactiva vehicle and the lifeguards looking out with binoculars.

Fio, the only female lifeguard that week, picked up her phone to hear one of her colleagues say, “bodies in the water.”

Something had gone very wrong. Looking out toward Turkey, one kilometer from the Greek shore, I could see hundreds of orange life preservers sprinkled like confetti bobbing up and down on the whitecaps. It was an instant shock to the system. From unloading boats with the lifeguards for the past couple of days, I knew that a good amount of those lifejackets were on small children, and that babies usually had no life-preserving device.

In what seemed like an instant I heard the screeching of tires peeling out, and off went all six lifeguards. Within 10 minutes, I could see the jet skis racing to the scene.

A large wooden fishing boat with more than 300 Syrian refugees aboard had collapsed and sunk off the coast of Lesbos. The tragedy happened at about 3:30 in the afternoon, and it remains the deadliest day on the Aegean since 2015. On that day in very cold weather, Gerard and Òscar and Niko and Dani all went out on the two jet skis in rough seas and heavy wind, and remained out there for nearly five hours, well into a chilly dark night. They pulled 243 survivors out of the water. I can’t bear to share the number of babies and children they worked tirelessly to save, but who are now painfully counted among those that perished.

Gerard and Òscar and Niko and Dani all went out on the two jet skis in rough seas and heavy wind, and remained out there for nearly five hours, well into a chilly dark night.

When the four lifeguards came back that night at nearly 9 p.m., they were chilled to the bone, their faces red. No words could come from their mouths. What they had witnessed was a warzone on water the likes of which they hope to never experience again. It was a sadness that permeated the entire island and a sadness without measure for the parents who survived.

Oscar-CampsI learned the next day that when they came back that night they went straight to their rooms and put the shower heads into the neck of their wetsuits to try to warm their bodies.

The next night I sat down with Gerard as he shared what had been his experience out in the water. Who did they go to first, with victims floating everywhere and countless children and babies? How did they do it? How did they manage to work in such cold conditions for so long? Each response was painfully difficult, but critical if they were to alter the future.

But on that day began a new readiness—the lifeguards would get more equipment, faster rescue boats, better ropes and ladders to arm the Greek coast guard vessels, more communication equipment and commitments from Frontex [the European Union’s border agency] and the coastguard to coordinate rescues. And all the rescue workers were to get trained on open water rescue and first aid. Because out on the sea that day, the only people equipped to pull people from the water were the Proactiva lifeguards. Although other fishing boats and coast guard boats had come out to help, no one on those boats knew CPR or first aid. No one on those boats was able to actually get into the water and help victims that couldn’t swim to a boat or pull themselves aboard. All 243 survivors were pulled out of the water by four lifeguards who know what is required to do successful rescues in open water.

What happened on October 28 would never again be repeated if Proactiva could get the essential resources they so desperately need to respond most effectively.

Proactiva posted a single online message following the October 28 tragedy:

“There are no words as our hearts are broken. We think only of those whose feet will never touch the dream that is Europe.”

You call them lifeguards; I call them the angels of the sea.

It is an honor to pay tribute to these heroes.

Amy Rao is the founder and CEO of Integrated Archive Systems (IAS) in Palo Alto, California. She is a member of the board of the Fund for Global Human Rights, the International Board of Directors of Human Rights Watch, and the board of the Schmidt Family Foundation.