The sea section
•LH Hello, I’m fine (warm smile) You have to excuse me I’ve just finished working out. I just published a book in May based on my diary, I always write a diary, it’s about four of my most challenging assignments in my ten years of working for MSF (Medecins Sans Frontieres). I was there at the earthquake in Haiti in 2010, during the first months of the war and conflict in the Central African Republic in 2013-14, in Liberia (Monrovia) when the Ebola outbreak happened in 2013 and on a rescue ship in the Mediterranean last summer. The notes are taken from the perspective of an earthquake, a civil war, an epidemic and an acute refugee crisis at sea.
•UDL That’s wonderful. What’s the book called?
•LH It’s called ‘The Others’. Its aim is to tell stories about people I met that prove that there really are no ‘Others’, we are all earthlings, that’s what I try to preach. It also tells of how we work in an acute crisis situation. It’s very difficult but inspiring. People have told me they get inspired by reading it. One woman living close to an asylum centre in particular. There’s often some resistance to the asylum seekers but this woman told me how she ended up having a coffee with an Afghan family after reading my book. A section of the book will be published by MSF in December.
•UDL The compelling thing for me was seeing you on the ‘Refugee Crisis‘ documentary. As you know I was emotionally inspired and wanted to join. When did you join Doctors Without Borders?
•LH Ten years ago. I was a TV producer working in entertainment. I wanted to switch from entertainment to humanitarian work. It was a long time coming so I submitted my application in Oslo and it was in July 2006 that I was sent to Ivory coast for one year after joining. You can do it with the right motivation and good skills, in particular in people management. So it’s not too late for you, I’m the living proof.
•LH In terms of numbers this is fairly small in the scheme of things. Like if you look at the Congo situation that is massive. When I worked in Bangui during the violent conflict in 2014, there were 100 000 people seeking refuge at the international airport in need of massive humanitarian aid. However, the 3 boats in the Mediterranean was unique in its way as in, we have never done anything like this at sea. Some say it’s not a medical act, and we are first and foremost a medical organisation so why do we do it? But it is for sure lifesaving act as these boats will never make it safely to Italy.? and it took a very special effort for us as an organisation and for me as an individual.
•UDL Many People think this kind of work shouldn’t be the responsibility of MSF, what do you say to that and why do you guys do it?
•LH We don’t think it’s our job either, we think it’s the European member states that should be doing this and not just Italy. It’s easy to knock Italy but they were doing this on behalf of the rest of Europe and have been doing so for many years. However, when Italy decided to end their operation ‘Mare nostrum’ (set up to rescue people in international waters), what we saw during the spring of last year was increasing numbers of people drowning. From hundreds to thousands, the deaths were like war numbers. The Mediterranean was turning into a huge grave so we decided we had to do something. An acute crisis demands an acute and fast response, and we saw nothing of the sort from Europe.
•LH Initially there’s that tension but they sort it out. After the rescue, it takes two days sailing to get to Italy and the boat is extremely crowded with very little space for each individual on our back deck. But at some point, they’ll start to communicate across groups, language, culture. It’s mainly the children, they don’t care if someone is different. Algerian, Syrian, Nigerian kids will all play together. It’s extraordinary to see all these diverse cultures together figuring it out. Once I counted over 25 different nationalities on-board, including our international MSF crew, literally all in the same boat figuring out how to make the best out of it. We have six toilets and we rescued between 500 and 1000 people every time. . They have to work it out. I say “Guys, we’re a rescue ship, not a cruise ship and we have 800 of you on-board and six toilets, we gotta work this out.” I ask them to help me. Many of these people come from being treated with no respect and now someone is trusting them and asking them for help.
Eritreans are the largest group of people, many of them have been fleeing for years, survived horrible conditions along their route. First Sudan, then through the desert, then kept captive in Libya for weeks, sometimes many months. They are often a tight-knit group, they have seen it all and are not discouraged by the condition of our boat. Then there’s the Syrians who are not used to being in this condition. Some are teachers, other’s shop owners, living regular lives and suddenly they have to mix very closely with hundreds of others very different from them and you can feel that they’re thinking ‘How the F*** did I end up here’?
A Nigerian guy said something to me once, while we were talking we had a laugh and he said ‘Wow it’s been so long since I made someone laugh’. There was so much in that sentence.
•LH Home is Norway, Oslo I guess that’s where I would call home. I do travel around but my base is Norway. I am not married and have no children. I have a boyfriend he’s Italian so I guess Italy is also kind of home. I have my parents and my brother too. My mother worries a lot about me. She realises this kind of work is what I’m gonna do and she’s quite happy that I’ve found something that gives clear meaning to my life but I know she would rather I have a regular job at home. That’s the one thing that bothers me, I have bad conscience knowing I give her so much stress so I try to send her good news by SMS or mail every day so she doesn’t have to spend her days worrying.
Sometimes I feel the need to bring politicians and policy makers to experience this.
•UDL Of the many people you rescue, do the people appreciate your help and if not, have you ever been attacked?
•LH They have all appreciated us. This was the most intense human experience I’ve ever had in my life. I was never attacked on the boat. They are extremely happy to be saved. I often compare to Ebola, only to explain the contrast. During my time working in the Ebola epidemic, most people died and on top of that, I had to dress up as an astronaut to meet and touch these people. It was a very depressing and dark assignment. Being on the boat was the total opposite: almost everyone survived, (although some did die during my time) and I got to know many of them, to hug them and have human interaction. There were hundreds of people from different backgrounds and cultures and it also makes you see that we are all the same: we all have the same fear of dying and we all feel the same joy when being rescued from death Yes, they were grateful, hugging 800 people and each one of them telling you ‘Thank you for saving my life’, it’s indescribable. It was even too much at times, I didn’t know how to accept it. Just to see the face of these people when they’re on the boat with that look of fear of dying and getting them onto our boat and watching their expressions change to relief. The contrast, that wall of emotions, they cry, they faint, I don’t think anyone can imagine that feeling. Sometimes I feel the need to bring politicians and policymakers to experience this.
•UDL You mentioned in the documentary that you see exhaustion and dehydration amongst the people, are there any other conditions that you see?
•LH Yeah, also we would always see pregnant women and even women going into labour, skin infections, Scabies… you see, many of these people come from poor living conditions and some have been tortured so you’d often see burn marks, cuts and broken bones. In general, most are healthy once they get over the exhaustion, get water and sleep. These people are not generally very sick, otherwise they would never made it as far as to the rubber boat (as mentioned, the journey from their home country to Libya is horrible, then the conditions in Libya is horrendous with massive abuse. So many die during the flight and normally only the strongest will make it out of Libya). However, I will claim all of them have mental trauma, especially women. They go through rape and physical abuse but we only have them for two days on the ship and it is limited how much we can do in terms of mental health and counselling. But treating everyone with dignity and respect, seeing them as whole-hearted individuals are already important steps. There’s a big gap in how they will be met once in Europe. We need to seriously consider the mental treatment and support they get here.
•LH There has been a shift in what we saw a year ago. That’s what I thought when I returned last September, that there was a shift from concern to people being afraid. And now it’s turned into numbness and indifference; it’s not even news anymore, it’s upsetting. It seems there’s a race in European countries to put up the highest wall. Who can be best at keeping them away, rather than who can help them?
It’s all very negative. Of course, there are important challenges linked to this and I’m not saying we should open up all borders but we should n’t see it as a problem and a threat – and think it will go away if we build a wall high enough. Some people call me naive, but I think the decisions makers and politicians are naïve, like the metaphor of an Ostrich with its head in the sand thinking this ‘problem’ will go away. But it won’t; as long as there are wars and as along as there is massive human rights abuse and as long as the resources and opportunities in the world are so unevenly and unjustly distributed – people will continue to flee to save their lives, to ensure a safe future for their family. In today’s world, we are closely interlinked on this planet and what happens only a plane ride away affects us whether we want it or not. The sooner we realise we are in this together, and that we need to help those human beings who are just like us – the sooner we will be closer to a sustainable solution for everyone. Building walls create suffering, cause death, increase the polarisation and conflict. Rather, we should ask how it can work and work on building a reception system?
There was a shift from concern to people being afraid…
Striking an example from the book. We had 3 rescue boats totally and we met other boats doing border control efforts, but they were also out rescuing people. But the difference between us was the way we greeted them. It was important for us not to use masks and gloves like with Ebola victims. They had masks, suits, gloves, they took their belongings, cell phones, gave them numbers…it’s like they were all a threat like terrorists. If you treat people in this way they will be upset and react in the same way.
We greet them in a different way, we say welcome, ask their names, we hug them. Arriving in Italy, the police look at us like some type of hippies with the love and peace and they don’t understand why? But if the boat was full of Europeans would we treat them this way? I don’t get it.
•LH Yes, I think so, and not in a positive way it looks like… but it is a turning point, from what into what I can’t say but we are giving up on basic, universal principles all states have agreed upon until now, like the right to seek asylum. These rights were not made for a sunny day, they are for times like these. It is when it is difficult and a bit painful to hold on to, that we really need to not let go. It is about safeguarding our humanity. And if humanity fails, we all fail.
We greet them in a different way: we hug them.
•UDL The aborted body of Aylan Kurdi washing up on a Turkish beach was a famous and horrific, emotional public event. We spoke to one female member of the Labour party who found that this really affected her. Being a woman and actually being at sea, how did this affect you and how many other cases are there?
•LH There were so many more pictures before this iconic picture that the media just didn’t pick up.
We had got to a location just half an hour too late after a boat had capsized. We saw these wooden planks and clothing. I remember, in particular, a Barcelona bag floating in the sea and I thought about how many people had died and wondered if we had come half an hour later we would n’t even have known it had happened. A shipwreck is not like another disaster like a car crash or a plane:, the media is on the scene right away and there are pieces of evidence from the crash site, bodies lying around, people crying and everybody knows. But the sea is so vast and calm; after a shipwreck, there is silence, a calm sea and it all looks like a perfect summer day. This is much bigger than the picture of Aylan Kurdi. Now, this does n’t even move us (the general public). We’ve become numb, it’s overwhelming.
Lindis informed me that she had no children, that made me question what the role of a mother means in our literal society. Is it the fact that one has come through labour and delivered a potential life from blastula to term? Or maybe to safely deliver a soul out from the cold dark broken waters to the safety of dry land? The effort is a group effort with an unspoken contract between those that extend their arms and those that open their hearts, with all other assistance in-between. Maybe Lindis is not just a Mother but a midwife too and also a lesson to those careless men whose reckless foreign policies and actions triggered this morbid situation. Maybe now, rather than think they can philander overseas with no thought of recompense, they will be grateful that they are not burdened with having to clean up the mess that they have created and next time, take full responsibility for those displaced lives-The fruits of their labouring abroad.
“After a rescue, I always board the boat if possible (when it is a large wooden boat) to check if any injured or dead people are left onboard. Once we found this (image above) underneath the deck. A strong image of what these kids have to protect them if the boat goes down”.