Six days adrift: A perilous Mediterranean crossing

Stefan Pejović shares his account of being on board MSF's Geo Barents search and rescue vessel on the Mediterranean.

An aerial view of a small MSF rescue boat in the middle of the  Mediterranean sea.

Mediterranean Sea 2023 © MSF/Stefan Pejovic

With a dearth of safe, legal options for migrants, refugees, and other displaced people seeking to reach Europe, the Mediterranean has become one of the world’s most dangerous sea borders. Stefan Pejović is currently on board the Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) Geo Barents, a search and rescue vessel on the Mediterranean. He shares this account below. 
By Stefan Pejović, field communications manager for MSF on the Mediterranean


Girls, boys, men, had been drifting for six full days on the Mediterranean Sea, somewhere south- southeast of Malta, "below" Italy and "above" Libya. One teenage girl is the age my generation was when we sat in the park drinking cheap wine and playing the guitar. 49 people boarded our ship. There were 50 when they started the journey. 

One is gone. Quietly, but not meaningless. 

MSF staff on a small boat up against a ladder to the Geo Barents search and rescue ship on the Mediterranean Sea.
On August 7, 2023, the MSF team, with aerial support from Sea Watch, performed a rescue operation for a group of people on an unstable iron boat within the Maltese search and rescue region.
Mediterranean Sea 2023 © Mohamad Cheblak/MSF

The journey across the Mediterranean Sea 

After two days, they ran out of sandwiches and water—almost all of them teenagers, most under 18. They drank the sea to survive, some of them reluctantly. The red-hot iron of the boat seared their limbs and left bruises on their weakened bodies.  

I asked them if it was worse during the day or at night. They didn’t know how to answer: the day was hot and difficult; the night was cold and terrible. And dark. It didn't matter that there were 50 of them—everyone had only their own fears. 

They traveled for days from despair to hope, then back to despair and hopelessness. Just as they had traveled for months and years—most, from Gambia—to Libya and then to Tunisia, the starting point of the sea route.  Six thousand kilometers (37,00 miles). Like walking from Lisbon to Tehran. If you're lucky, you will manage to get on a boat in Libya or Tunisia. If you aren't, you stay in Libya until you somehow earn money for the trip—or until you die.  

MSF staff walks between a row of people in a tall open section of the Geo Barents search and rescue ship on the Mediterranean Sea.
Every morning, on deck MSF's Geo Barents search and rescue ship, the team provides key information to the survivors and distributes food for the day.
Mediterranean Sea 2023 © Nyancho NwaNri

Escaping the dangers of wrongful imprisonment in Libya 

One of the survivors was detained for half a year in a Libyan prison. His crime: being a sub-Saharan African. For six months he had nothing to eat except bread, until he managed to escape with a friend. The friend was shot.  

The one who escaped was helped by people in Libya, later in Tunisia, before that by Algerians and others. Algerians, Libyans, Tunisians and others also turned their backs on him. He says that there are good people—and not so good people—everywhere. This is something that I often hear in my home countries, in the Balkans—and that he will repay them all, individually, when he earns money from playing football. That’s his dream—like millions of other teenagers. 

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Migrants carry the places they come from 

Another survivor says that before the trip, his father told him to be a man and a human being, above all else. His mother told him to work honestly, not to think of robbing and stealing, but to earn his money through hard work and sweat. This is what he was telling me as he gestured to wipe the sweat from his forehead.  

He says he loves his mother; that every day she would walk him kilometers to the bus that would take him to school, and then take him home for dinner. He says that his mother worked hard so that he could have good food and an education. But I don't think that's the only reason he loves his mother: He also loves her simply because she's his mother, who he misses, just like he misses his little town and his friends. People who leave or lose their homeland are cursed. You can neither really love a foreign country, nor return. That’s something we know in the Balkans.  

He got his hair cut on the ship—we organize a barbershop regularly, and it's a cheerful event for everyone on board. I teased him that his haircut was not symmetrical. We both laughed. Even though I couldn't laugh really—especially not at him. 

Two men are getting their hair cut and their face shaved on MSF's Geo Barents search and rescue ship on the Mediterranean.
To cope with the traumatic journey migrants experience out at sea and in Libya, the "barber shop" on board the Geo Barents offers survivors a chance to restore their sense of dignity by providing grooming services.
Mediterranean Sea 2023 © MSF/Mohamad Cheblak

The humans sacrificed for negligent migration policies 

The rope unwound like a human life: On the sixth day, 50 half-dead teenagers saw a bottle of water float past their boat. Tired, starving, with burnt lips and throats, two jumped to reach it to save themselves and others.  

The sea current was too strong, and two more jumped to rescue them. One of them was Abe. One got back to the boat; three of them remained in the water, holding each other desperately. The current swept them away. 

Abe disappeared.  

We found the other two.  

Experienced colleagues say that that it would take a miracle to find a person under such conditions. And miracles do happen. 

The 49 survivors who had made it onto the Geo Barents held a collective prayer before disembarking: they were praying for us to save more people. 

I still do not know whether their prayer is a tragedy or a reflection of the fullness of life. 

Six days after the rescue, I just know that Abe will find his place among the righteous, whatever it's called. Because there is no greater love than a man who lays down his life for his friends. 

Some names in the text were changed to protect people’s identities.