Per la libertà di movimento, per i diritti di cittadinanza

Colibrì, we love you!

The fourth episode of the reportage «Crack. Testimonies and reflections from the central Mediterranean»


by Pietro Desideri, volunteer onboard the Nadir

«Crack» stems from my experiences and emotions aboard the sailing ship Nadir, as a volunteer with the German association RESQSHIP, during a monitoring, search and rescue mission. It is a five segments story that comes out every Wednesday in November, starting on 2.11.2022: an infamous day for the renewal of the agreements between Italy and Libya. «Crack» is part of what I would like to say to Fortress Europe 1.

Ph: Sea-Watch

It is the last day of the mission, we are tired but happy that we did all we could. We see a plane in the sky, we recognize it, it is Colibrì!

Colibrì by Pilotes Volontaires has been with us since the first days of the mission. It is one of the monitoring aircraft that support the civil fleet, from their vantage point they can spot distress cases more easily -they are true allies of the skies. There is complicity between us and Colibrì: when flying over us, they have circle around the Nadir once and test radio communication, before continuing their flight path. A maneuver that is also a hug. When they perform it for the last time, I look at Abbi and Niels, they say “yes,” I take the radio and say “Colibrì we love you, take care!” “We love you too,” they reply.

In this article I write about the cooperation and exchanges we had with other actors of civil society. They make up a mosaic which includes other vessels of the civil fleet, search aircraft, associations with medical expertise on board the Charlie Papas, associations providing first aid on the ground, among many others.


The beginning of rescue operations of our second and third cases is marked by the collaboration with Seabird, the monitoring plane of Sea-Watch. I am on the bridge of the Nadir and hear their message of alert over the radio. Not only they confirm the location of the boat in distress that we learned about a few minutes earlier, but they also launch a mayday relay for another case, previously unknown to us. It is a mayday relay that follows the etiquette of radio communication perfectly. They describe the boats, about forty people in each, without life jackets, without a working engine, the waves are high and the boats are in danger of capsizing. Behind the precision of the communication, though, I clearly sense the knot in the human’s throat, his anguish.

That anguish melts only hours later. While we are still rescuing the first boat, Seabird continues to fly over the second one, they do not lose sight of it. When we can finally proceed towards their position, it is almost night, and Seabird’s bright, concentric circles are really helpful to keep the right course. We spot the boat, let Seabird know we have visual contact, and they reply that they are happy, they feel “relief“, they add.

The day after the rescue, the sea is very rough, a storm is forecast and we have to find shelter in Lampedusa. Shortly after docking at the pier we receive visits from friends, comrades and activists. The Colibrì crew arrives -we hug each other. While we are eating the cannoli that the volunteer medical staff onboard the Charlie Papa brought, we talk about the transshipments made between the Nadir and the Italian coast guard, they reassure us about the health conditions of some of the people rescued. We also meet the Seabird crew we worked with the day before and the person who launched the mayday relay. They tell us about the operations from their point of view, how, for example, they were almost out of fuel when we had our last they radio communication.

Ph: SOS Méditerranée

In the evening I meet a volunteer for an association that provides first reception at disembarkation, she shows me the Favarolo pier. She points towards the toilets available on the pier, which due to an administrative limbo were not kept clean. She also explains to me that during the disembarkation process the official system does not foresees the distribution of water bottles, it is the associations that have to either insist with the authorities or provide them directly – I remember one of the persons we rescued, who had told us that she had not eaten or had water for days.

Being in Lampedusa finally allows us to put faces behind the organizations we work with, exchange views and ideas. However, the crews of the other civil fleet vessels active during our mission are not on the island. Those were the Geo Barents from MSF, the Open Arms Uno (OA1) from Proactiva Open Arms, and the Louise Michel. I would have liked to get to know them in person, talk about past operations and each other’s experiences.

One of the closest coordination we had was in fact with OA1. We are off the coast of Tunisia, close to of an offshore oil rig. The boat in distress that we are trying to rescue has managed to reach the rig autonomously. We learn that one of the people did not make it, and that the body was left onboard the drifting boat. With OA1, we decide to conduct a joint search operation, following complementary routes, to find the deceased person. It is night, so we try to flash the waves with our lights and we keep looking at the radar. In the distance, I see the OA1 scanning the sea with its cyclopean eye-they look like a floating lighthouse. At dawn we manage to spot the boat, and OA1 recovers the deceased person.

An association that is less physically visible, because it does not operate ships or planes, but which was somehow always present during our mission is Alarm Phone (AP). The hotline that the association maintains 24/7 since more than eight years now has saved thousands of people. Once a distress call is received, AP forwards the information to the competent SAR area authority, copying to the emails civil fleet vessels. AP’s work is also critical to document states’ compliance, or non-compliance, with international laws.

The network of connections between civil society organizations multiplies what are in reality limited resources. It is an inadequate band-aid that should not and cannot replace state support. However, it often has to face its absence, or its hostile and obstructive presence. Yet collaborations with states are possible and already tried and tested: between 2014 and 2017, most rescue operations were initiated and coordinated by Italian authorities, who urged the nearest vessels to assist boats in distress. Civil fleet vessels were perceived as a key asset as institutional capacity had been weakened by the end of Operation Mare Nostrum 2. Subsequently, the deterioration of the political environment doomed that coordination to end, at a very high price in terms of lives. The next article concludes “Crack” and focuses on European policies.

  1. The opinions contained in these articles are personal
  2. Cusumano, E., Villa, M. da “Angels” to “Vice Smugglers”: the Criminalization of Sea Rescue NGOs in Italy. Eur J Crim Policy Res 27, 23–40 (2021)