Irish Navy prepare for journey home as crew recover from latest rescue mission
Published 16/09/2015 | 02:30
As the crew of the Irish Naval ship the LÉ Niamh prepare to return home at the end of the month, they don't want to bring the distressing scenes they have witnessed back to their families.
Docked at the Sicilian port of Catania yesterday, the crew were recovering after their latest rescue mission, which saw them come to the aid of 329 migrants in the Mediterranean last week.
"Whenever we set to sea, we represent the Irish nation. We're all very proud of the professionalism we've gained, and we're proud that we're saving lives", says Commander Ken Minihan.
The LÉ Niamh will be replaced by the LÉ Samuel Beckett in a few weeks' time.
The crew have witnessed some horrific scenes and are careful to ensure that nobody's mental health suffers as a result.
"We need to make sure we don't bring these harrowing scenes back to our families; we've always been very conscious of the effects on the crew," says Cdr Minihan.
The naval service provides stress management personnel who can talk to the crew on board and make sure they are dealing with the situation the best they can. Those supports will also be available to them when they get back to Ireland.
"The crew here have done an amazing job. It just shows that the naval service is a well-trained, highly motivated organisation that can act in the international arena and we can hold our head up high.
"As the Italian navy says, it's about saving lives, and that's what we're here for."
And the Irish Naval Service has certainly saved lives. It has rescued 6,720 men, women and children since it started operations in the Mediterranean this summer.
The Irish vessels have become a vital lifeline to refugees fleeing war and hardship in Africa and the Middle East, in particular Syria.
Alongside Syrians, hundreds of Eritreans, Somalians, Libyans, Sudanese and Egyptians take their lives in their hands to make one of the deadliest journeys imaginable - across the Mediterranean to Europe.
The Italian ports of Palermo, Pozzallo and Messina receive thousands of refugees daily - many of whom have sold all of their worldly goods to pay violent smugglers in Libya around $2,000 (€1,770) to travel on boats completely inappropriate for the rough seas.
Abdul Wahid Osman Mohammad (25), from Mogadishu, said he had no choice but to leave his home and his son and daughter behind, after he was forced to fight with Al Shabaab - the Somali-based Islamist terror group, during an intense period of hostility last year.
He bears a scar in the middle of his forehead after a battle, which involved his father and brother - both of whom were subsequently executed by the group.
"We were ordered to attack all government soldiers, as well as Kenyan soldiers, Ethiopian soldiers - all African Union soldiers defending Somalia's brothers. After that, my mother told me, 'you have to go'."
The journey embarked upon by migrants - dubbed 'the death trip' - is made in overcrowded boats and rubber crafts.
For migrants leaving from Libya, the smugglers appear even more brutal than in other ports, such as those in Turkey.
"We left Tripoli for the port, and when we saw the boat, it was old and small and unsafe, many of us told them we didn't want to get on board. Those that refused were shot and killed. One or two tried to run and they caught them and broke their arms.
"There was around 150 on my boat with lots of women, children and men," recalls Abdul.
He made it across to Italy after his boat was intercepted by a vessel similar to LÉ Niamh, but untold numbers don't make it. He is now safely in Sicily and is one of those supported by Oxfam Ireland, which arranges intercultural programmes and psychological support for young men, women and unaccompanied minors.
"We're trying to do our best, considering our resources," says Oxfam's Salvatore Maio.
"We are trying to help people deal with the traumatic experience of the journey - which sometimes includes torture, kidnapping and death," he says.
"Our local partners help the asylum seekers identify these traumas; they need specific support, and we're trying to give it to them."
One of the more harrowing rescue missions the LÉ Niamh engaged in occurred last August 6.
Cdr Minihan's crew saved 365 lives when a fishing vessel capsized in the Mediterranean with over 600 people on board.
Around 200 people who were locked in the hold in the lower deck died.
"It was an incredible achievement that we saved 365 lives; one minute the vessel was upright, the next it was gone."
Many migrants perished because they couldn't swim.
"The crew put their own lives at risk, and did everything humanly possible to save as many people they could," he recalls. They were running exhausted and working for about five hours trying to make sure people were taken from the water.
"One of Ireland's leading seamen revived a child that he plucked out of the water. The child was unconscious, and he revived that child," said Cdr Minihan.
Shona Murray is a journalist with Newstalk radio