The weather was already turning when the distress call went out. A rubber dinghy with 130 people onboard was adrift in the choppy Mediterranean waters.
On the bridge of the Ocean Viking, one of the only remaining NGO rescue boats operational in the Mediterranean, 121 nautical miles west, stood Luisa Albera, staring anxiously at her computer screen and then out at the rising storm and falling light at sea.
When the distress call from Alarm Phone, the volunteer-run Mediterranean rescue hotline, was received late on Wednesday, the Ocean Viking was already engaged in a rescue mission. All day the crew had been combing the horizon for another vessel, a wooden boat with 42 people onboard, but so far their search had been in vain. No sign of life or position had been received since early morning.
A seasoned sailor who had already conducted dozens of rescue missions, Albera knew that time was short. A violent storm was coming, and it would take the Viking hours to reach the dinghy.
She also knew that if the they didn’t turn around, the 130 people onboard would most likely be left to die. At 5.30pm, the Ocean Viking abandoned its search for the other vessel and altered its course: Albera had decided to go after the rubber boat.
“These decisions we are forced to make are life-and-death decisions,” said Albera, the search and rescue coordinator for SOS Méditerranée, the NGO that operates the Ocean Viking. “It is never easy to abandon a search but we had an updated position on the dinghy and there was a chance we could make it. I have to live with these decisions every day. It’s a burden I shouldn’t have to shoulder.”
As night fell, the sea turned hostile. Two hours later, the Ocean Viking was plunging through 5-metre (16ft) waves towards the last known position of the dinghy. Then, the call they were dreading came. An anonymous mayday signal was received, an urgent call for all ships in the area to divert and attempt a rescue of those onboard the rubber craft. It was last located in the Libyan search and rescue (SAR) zone so Albera called the Libyan authorities to request help. They refused to confirm whether they would be assisting, or to give the Viking any updates on the dinghy’s position.
She next called the Italian Maritime Rescue Coordination Centre (MRCC), and the European border agency, Frontex. Neither replied.
“It’s very rare for any of the authorities in Libya or Italy to agree to help. Sometimes you can get lucky and you can catch someone who might be persuaded on a human level to provide assistance but it’s still rare,” she said.
As the storm raged and lashed around them and the boat was violently tossed from side to side, below deck the medical team went through inventory checks of supplies and first-aid drills to treat multiple casualties. “We knew we wouldn’t arrive until morning. If there would be any survivors they would have been in the water for hours. They would be freezing, seasick and have hypothermia,” says Tanguy Louppe, a former soldier and firefighter turned sea rescuer and who now heads the search and rescue team on the Ocean Viking.
Yet the mood had changed onboard the Viking. Without immediate assistance, both the deteriorating weather conditions and the darkness would mean that the boat would capsize or be torn apart. The Viking continued to power through the waves, but the storm was making progress painfully slow. Every hour that went by, the chance of finding anyone alive was slipping away.
Louppe gathered the crew together and told them to prepare for a mass casualty plan. “We know we won’t be there until morning. We have to expect the worst,” he told them.
On the bridge, Albera was clinging on to hope. Three merchant boats had also responded to the mayday call. None of them would be able to carry out a rescue, but if they located the rubber dinghy they might be able to give it shelter until the Viking arrived.
At 5am on Thursday, the Viking finally reached the last-known location of the dinghy. With no sign of any help from the Italian or Libyan authorities, the three merchant vessels had coordinated their efforts to mount a search, and once again Albera called Frontex to request aerial support to assist.
For over six hours, the four ships scoured the waves for any sign of life. Then, at 12.24pm, one of the merchant vessels radioed to say that three people had been spotted in the water. Ten minutes later, Frontex announced that it had spotted the remains of a boat.
When Albera and her crew arrived, they found a scene of desolation: an open cemetery in an otherwise breathtakingly pretty, deep blue sea.
The rubber boat hadn’t stood a chance against the fury of the storm. The deck of the boat had disappeared. Only a few grey floating buoys remained. Around them, dozens of lifeless bodies floated in the waves. The Ocean Viking, with a team of trained rescuers and medics onboard, had arrived too late. Among the men, women and children they found in the water, there were no survivors.
This stretch of sea has become a morgue for thousands of people trying to reach Europe on cheap wooden boats or fragile pieces of rubber thatcannot withstand the elements or the political indifference that seals their fate.
Since 2014, 17,664 people have lost their lives crossing the central Mediterranean. This week another 130 were added to the death toll.
The crew of the Viking have been through this before but the scale left them stunned. “We are heartbroken,” Albera said. “We think of the lives that have been lost and of the families who might never have certainty as to what happened to their loved ones.’’
On Friday, as news of the tragedy made headlines around the world, Frontex issued a rare statement to Italian press agency Ansa, confirming that they had issued the mayday signal and defending their response to the tragedy.
“Frontex immediately alerted national rescue centres in Italy, Malta and Libya, as required by international law,” it said.
The agency said in its statement that it had “issued several distress calls on the marine emergency radio channel to alert all vessels in the vicinity due to the critical situation and bad weather” and confirmed that it had sent out aerial support.
For Albera, the Frontex statement is an acknowledgement of the gravity of what happened that night. “This is the first time that Frontex has ever confirmed it sent a mayday because the situation was so grave,” says Albera. “They knew the boat had no chance of making it.”
Alarm Phone, who initially sent out the first alarm signal, claims it was in contact with the dinghy for over 10 hours and repeatedly relayed its GPS position and the dire situation to European and Libyan authorities and the wider public. “People could have been rescued but all authorities knowingly left them to die at sea,” it said. The United Nations migration agency also condemned the inaction. “The lack of an efficient patrolling system is undeniable and unacceptable,” Flavio Di Giacomo, Italy’s spokesman for the UN migration agency, said on Twitter. “Things need to change.”
In 2017, Europe ceded responsibility for overseeing Mediterranean rescue operations to Libya as part of a deal struck between Italy and Libya aimed at reducing migrant flows across the sea.
Since then, Libyan authorities have been accused of ignoring distress calls or intercepting dinghies and returning people to detention centres in Libya, where aid agencies say they suffer torture and abuse.
Since the start of 2018, there have been around 50 legal cases brought against NGO crew members or rescue vessels by the Italian and other European governments, and boats have been blocked in harbours or forced to remain at sea with migrants onboard.
For over 10 hours after they arrived at the wreck, Ocean Viking stayed with the bodies, waiting for instructions from the Libyan authorities. Since the dinghy sank in Libya’s search and rescue area, the responsibility for recovering those who had died fell to the Libyan MRCC (Maritime Rescue Coordination Center). If the Viking crew had tried to pull people from the water, then their entire mission may have been jeopardised. Yet no patrol boat arrived.
The decision to leave was, says Albera, traumatising for everyone onboard the Viking. “It is terrible burden to have to make that choice. We waited all day for instructions [or for a patrol boat to arrive]. There was nothing more we could do for those poor people,” she says.
Since 2016, the Ocean Viking and the Aquarius, the other SOS Méditerranée vessel, have saved 32,711 lives at sea. “We have to continue our mission, as this way there is a chance that we can prevent others from meeting the same fate,” says Albera. “But the decision to leave is something that all of us onboard will have to live with for ever.”
US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) confirmed on Sunday that Rep. Adam Kinzinger (R-IL) has been appointed to serve on the US House-approved select committee probing the January 6 attack on the US Capitol building. This move comes days after Pelosi rejected two out of five GOP recommendations from House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-CA).
“Some Republicans have been saying … that the GOP should play ball on this committee. You could get the three,” a reporter asked in reference to Reps. Rodney Davis (R-IL), Kelly Armstrong (R-ND) and Troy Nehls (R-TX).
All three lawmakers received Pelosi’s approval for appointment, but they were ultimately held back by McCarthy, who demanded the House Speaker also appoint Reps. Jim Jordan (R-OH) and Jim Banks (R-IN). Pelosi has asserted that Jordan and Banks would endanger the probe’s “integrity.”
McCarthy brushed the reporter’s suggestion aside, arguing that Cheney and Kinzinger are the only House Republicans who would “play ball” in an effort for the commission to have a bipartisan quorum.
“Who is that, Adam [Kinzinger] and Liz [Cheney]?” he floated. “Arent they kinda, like, Pelosi Republicans?”
“We’ve got very serious business here. We have important work to do,” she asserted to reporters on Monday.
Both Cheney and Kinzinger are slated to meet up with their Democratic colleagues for their first select committee meeting on Tuesday. The group’s first witness is also expected to make an appearance.
Presently, Democrats on the 13-member group include Rep. Bennie Thompson (D-MS), chairman of the select committee, Zoe Lofgren (D-CA), Adam Schiff (D-CA), Pete Aguilar (D-CA), Stephanie Murphy (D-FL), Jamie Raskin (D-MD) and Elaine Luria (D-VA). Kinzinger and Cheney are the sole GOP lawmakers assigned to the committee.
McCarthy has maintained that Pelosi is pursuing a “sham process” by rejecting Jordan and Banks from the select committee.
U.S. House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) announces the withdrawal of his nominees to serve on the special committee probing the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol, as two of the Republican nominees, Reps’ Jim Jordan (R-OH) and Jim Banks (R-IN), standby during a news conference on Capitol Hill in Washington, U.S., July 21, 2021
“Speaker Pelosi’s rejection of the Republican nominees to serve on the committee and self-appointment of members who share her preconceived narrative will not yield a serious investigation,” McCarthy wrote on Sunday, shortly after Pelosi announced Kinzinger’s appointment. “The Speaker has structured this select committee to satisfy her political objectives. She had months to work with Republicans on a reasonable and fair approach to get answers on the events and security failures surrounding January 6.”
Republicans have also argued that the investigation should focus on why the US Capitol was not properly secured on January 6, despite reports claiming law enforcement had information leading up to the attack.
“The U.S. Capitol and the men and women who protect it suffered a massive leadership failure. We must make sure that never happens again,” the House Minority Leader noted on Sunday, claiming the GOP will carry out its own probe on the deadly riot.
On the wide, flat plain of the Sinjar district of northern Iraq, Naif Khalaf Qassim lets his dog, an eight-year-old Belgian shepherd, range across the dry earth on a 30-metre leash until Branco stops and sits, tail wagging, looking towards his handler with enthusiasm.
Branco has detected something underground and, when the mine-clearing team is brought in to investigate, they find an improvised explosive device (IED), known locally as a VS500.
It is about 30cm (1ft) wide, with a plastic casing and a central pressure pad. The VS500 is not the name Islamic State give the device; no one knows that. All that is certain is that it is one of thousands produced when the terror group held sway over this part of Iraq and commandeered plastics factories in their Mosul base, forcing the workers to make souped-up versions of the Italian-made VS50 landmine.
A VS50 could fit on the palm of your hand, and contains about 100g of explosives. The deminers call this type of mine the VS500 because it is 10 times the size and packed with up to 15kg (33lb) of explosives. The pressure pad is sensitive enough for a child to activate, even through 30cm of packed earth. The explosion can take out an armoured vehicle.
Branco is trained to sniff ahead in a controlled manner and stop if he gets a scent – so he doesn’t tread on the mine. Belgian and German shepherds are used because they are most adept at distinguishing scents.
“I knew Branco would find the IED,” says Naif proudly. “I believe in him and his abilities; I know him and what he can do. He is more of a friend to me than a dog.”
Four years ago, Iraqi forces managed to take the last stronghold that Isis had left in the country, the city and surroundings of Tal Afar. The Iraqi flag was raised on the historic Ottoman citadel at the heart of the city, and the militia was pushed into Syria.
The war might have appeared over by late August 2017, but retreating Isis forces seeded the towns, villages and countryside in that area of Sinjar with IEDs, and the job of clearing them is still far from done.
But it is moving at a much faster pace, thanks to the introduction of the small sniffer dog team, including Branco, and his handler, Naif, 35.
Mine-detection dogs are not new – the British-based Mines Advisory Group (MAG) has been working across northern Iraq for three decades. In the year from June 2020 to June 2021 the Iraqi dog team has found and destroyed 3,540 landmines and explosive remnants of war, including 670 improvised mines and 148 other improvised devices.
Now MAG has embarked on a specific programme to better detect the explosives used by Isis and other non-state groups.
Dogs are usually trained to sniff out explosives, mainly TNT, but the IED dogs take this a step further. Trained in Bosnia-Herzegovina, their noses are attuned to rubber, metal and batteries as well.
This is key where explosives are often improvised from domestic items such as pots and kettles, with detonators and batteries. Training dogs to focus on a wider range of scents allows for more opportunities to detect anomalies below the surface.
The new four-strong dog team (with two more on their way from Bosnia-Herzegovina) is currently working on 8sq km of land near Tal Afar that was used as a barrier minefield by retreating Isis fighters in 2017. While people armed with mine detectors painstakingly scour a known mined corridor, the dogs range across the areas either side, deemed low or medium risk, to seek out any randomly planted devices.
The programme for the “super-detector” dogs was curtailed until now by Covid and by difficulties negotiating with the administration in Sinjar – divided between the Iraqi federal government and the Kurdistan regional government.
The dogs start work at 5am, so that they can finish before the sun is too high – last week temperatures there hit 49C (120F). The handlers are from the Yazidi community.
Vian Khaider Khalaf, 26, was a student before starting work with the dogs in 2017. She works to support her family in Sinuni, but like everyone on the team, her driving motivation is to clear the mines so that families can return to their farms.
“We always had dogs at home, as my family are farmers and shepherds,” says Khalaf. “I fled with my family in 2014 when Daesh [Isis] came. I still have family in an IDP [internally displaced people] camp in Kurdistan. My family are afraid for me, of course. But they are proud of me and see me working hard and bravely, and that makes me want to take on more challenges.”
Khalaf has worked with her dog, X-Lang, since she started with MAG. He was originally a mine-detector dog, but was selected for the IED upgrade training. She says: “The relationship between me and my dog is not really that of a human and an animal. He is my dear friend. If I could take him home with me at the weekend, or live on the base with him, I would.”
After their shifts out in the fields, handlers and dogs spend the rest of the day together, often around the pool on the base.
The team supervisor is Salam Rasho, a former noncommissioned officer with the Kurdistan military, the peshmerga. He is also a Yazidi and has seen the devastation of his community. “Our aim is to return the people to their land, to get people farming the land again,” he says.
It’s impossible to estimate how much unexploded ordnance there is in Iraq – one of the most mined countries in the world, according to some estimates. There is little information about where mines were laid over the past 40 years, from the Iran-Iraq war in the 1980s, to Saddam Hussein’s assaults on his own people, the Gulf War, and finally Isis. It is thought that in federal Iraq alone there are some 3,000 sq km of mined land yet to be cleared, with 8.5 million people living in close proximity.
The real benefit of the dogs, says Salam, is that they can cover a huge area much quicker than humans – about 1,500 sq metres a day. The success of the Iraq deployment means that MAG is stepping up its IED dog training and even going to the next level – finessing the programme so that dogs can also be used to help clear booby-trapped homes.
Clearing Iraq of unexploded mines is a task that will take many more years, but at least now the land is being freed from the lingering grip of Isis at a faster pace than before thanks to Branco, X-Lang and the other dogs of war.
The surge in Covid-19 cases due to the spread of the more contagious Delta variant has prompted a debate in Germany over whether people who have not yet been vaccinated should face restrictions – after other countries like France and Greece made similar moves.
“Vaccinated people will definitely have more freedoms than unvaccinated people,” chancellor Angela Merkel’s chief of staff, Helge Braun, said in an interview published on Sunday (25 July).
If infections continue to rise, unvaccinated people might be forbidden from entering restaurants, cinemas, theatres or sports stadiums because “the residual risk is too high,” he said.
Merkel has previously spoken out against making vaccination itself mandatory.
According to Braun, cases are increasing by 60-percent per week and are expected to continue rising.
“If the Delta variant were to continue to spread at this rate and we don’t counter it with a very high vaccination-rate or change in behaviour, we would have an incidence of 850 [cases per 100,000 inhabitants] in just nine weeks,” he said.
Braun argued that introducing further restrictions for unvaccinated people would be legal since “the state has the responsibility to protect the health of its citizens” – triggering a debate even within Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union (CDU) party.
The CDU candidate to succeed Merkel as chancellor in September’s national elections, Armin Laschet, has opposed such measures.
“I do not believe in compulsory vaccination, and I do not believe in indirectly putting pressure on people to get vaccinated,” he told ZDF television.
“We have had a rule that you must be tested, vaccinated or recovered and I think that is a good principle,” Laschet said.
For his part, the leader of the Social Democratic Party, Rolf Mützenich, warned that politicians are not going “to change the vaccination behaviour of individuals with threats”.
About 60 percent of Germany’s 83 million people have received at least one dose of a Covid-19 jab, while just 48 percent are fully-vaccinated.
All jabs approved in the EU – BioNTech/Pfizer, Moderna, AstraZeneca, and Johnson&Johnson – appeared to be effective against the Delta variant when both doses are administrated in the case of two-shot jabs.
Other countries like Italy, France, and Greece are trying to increase vaccination rates by imposing vaccine passport schemes or mandatory vaccination for certain workers, such as health and care staff.
Those moves have sparked protests over the weekend.
Thousands gathered on Saturday in several French cities to speak out against the new Covid-19 restrictions for unvaccinated people and mandatory vaccination – with far-right activists and members of the ‘Yellow Vest’ movement clashing with police in Paris.
Similar rallies took place outside the Greek parliament in Athens for the third time this month, while large crowds took the streets in Dublin to protest against the introduction of vaccines passports.
As part of a so-called “Worldwide Rally for Freedom” campaign, protest against vaccine passports, wearing masks, and further lockdowns were organised in major cities across the world, including Sydney, London or Rome.