The sky and the water are both the colour of the night, inseparable from one another.
With the exception of the faint glimmer of a Libyan gas platform in the far distance, the horizon had all but disappeared.
Onboard the Ocean Viking search-and-rescue vessel, the bridge had five hours earlier been alerted of numerous people on a boat somewhere in the Libyan search-and-rescue region.
Details were scant, and – with the Libyan coast guard making record interceptions – the chance of finding them on the boat appeared slim.
But the Ocean Viking still pressed on, its exhausted crew up since 3am, after two other rescues that had taken place earlier that same day.
The wooden boat had first been spotted by Pilot Volontaires, an NGO. Its location was approximately 80 nautical miles from the Libyan port city of Zuwara, a known smuggling hub.
“We have a visual, it is only a blinking light. It is less than one mile away,” search-and-rescue team leader Jeremie [EUobserver is only using the crew’s first names] told his small crew onboard the Ocean Viking at around 9.30 pm on Sunday (4 July).
“It is night time, we can’t see shit. I don’t want to hear any sound, I want everybody to be focused,” he told them.
“We don’t know what it is at all, so we are going to launch, we are going to have to investigate ourselves.”
Ten minutes later, Jeremie’s rescue speed boat was lowered into the black sea with EUobserver onboard.
The second speed boat, led by Charlie, was launched from the Ocean Viking’s starboard.
It then pulled back from the Ocean Viking with Jeremie radioing the bridge asking for an estimated bearing of the distress case.
“Zero, four, one from the ship and 1.6 miles,” replied the bridge.
The twin 115 horsepower outboard engines churned the water a frothing white, as they headed in the direction of the bearing.
They then pass in front of the Ocean Viking, also at full speed, its massive red bow momentarily towering over us.
The bridge then suddenly loses visual on the wooden boat – but is still able to track it on radar, now appearing as a green dot on a monitor.
“Five degrees starboard side. You are three cables away,” says the bridge, over the radio.
Then Ocean Viking slows down to a stop as the two speed boats continue slowly, and at distance, into the near-silent darkness.
Standing on the bow platform, Jeremie shines a flood light into the water, momentarily turning the surface of the sea into hues of dark slate.
He then switches it off, the engines kick into gear and the speed boat begins to slowly advance into nothingness.
But then in the near distance a sharp white light suddenly appears and then disappears.
“We are struggling to follow the light,” says Jeremie into the radio, as they advance.
The people emerge like an apparition.
First the blue hull of the wooden boat and then the vague silhouette of bodies, some standing.
“Light the water and the structure of the boat for the moment,” Jeremie tells Charlie, over the radio.
Hundreds. Squeezed one-by-one. Their legs dangling over the edge of the boat as the sound of their excited voices become clearer and clearer.
A bilge pump on the side is channeling out water, suggesting more people are in the hull.
Jeremie calls it in, telling the bridge they’ll have to launch the third speed boat along with at least two life-rafts.
“I guess we have to go by the book,” he says, also requesting additional life jackets to those already brought along.
His rescue boat touches the stern of the wooden, and shines a light over their faces.
In the back, a person holds up a baby before sitting down.
Jeremie’s Egyptian crew member Hassan stands next to him, ready to interpret and shout instructions in Arabic for those on board.
Disembarking is the most dangerous moment
The moment is critical.
An overexcited crowd can be dangerous, may capsize the boat and lead to massive drownings.
None appear to be wearing any life jackets, and a few are holding black inflated tubes.
“We are going to be here the whole night,” says Jeremie.
The plan appears straightforward.
Extract 25 people at a time, shuttle them back to Ocean Viking and then return with 25 additional life jackets.
“This boat is dangerous – those people, and those people,” shouts Jeremie, pointing to those seated on the very edge.
“They are in danger,” he says, noting they will get the first life jackets.
Some begin to shout, one is pushed, and a fear appears to spread in the crowd.
The speed boat quickly pulls back into the distance, waits for the calm to restore and then returns.
The extraction begins, one by one they are brought on the rescue boats and ferried back.
On the Ocean Viking, the medical and deck crew teams are helping the new arrivals.
A group of Libyans from an earlier rescue are helping as well, handing out surgical masks, spraying santisers on their hands while welcoming the near new arrivals with pats on the back.
A young man from Bangladesh is in total shock, sobbing uncontrollably into his arm, his right hand shaking as he takes a seat on a wooden bench by the medical module. “Thank you, thank you so much,” he says through tears.
The last survivor, out of a 369 saved on this night, stepped onto the Ocean Viking at 3.30 in the morning.
It is the largest rescue ever carried out by the Ocean Viking. The total number of survivors currently on board is 572, also a record.
Now they have to find a port of safety and disembark, a prospect that will likely lead to a stand-off with the authorities.
For its part, the European Commission told EUobserver on Monday (5 July) it had no say in the matter, and will not put any political pressure to ease disembarkation for the Ocean Viking.
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.
The Syrian government has repeatedly accused Israel of conducting regular airstrikes on its territory, calling on international organizations to denounce the attacks as violations of Syria’s sovereignty and introduce sanctions against the Jewish State.
Syrian air defense systems have destroyed two missiles fired by the Israeli F-16 fighter jets toward facilities in the Damascus region, Rear Adm. Vadim Kulit, the deputy head of the Russian Center for the Reconciliation of Warring Parties in Syria, said on Sunday.
This comes just after Russian-made Buk-M2E air defense systems downed all the rockets launched at the central Syrian province of Homs in the early hours of Thursday. The Russian military added that two Israeli F-16 fighters fired four guided missiles at several facilities in the Homs province. Syrian state media also attributed the strikes to the Israeli military, which never denied nor assumed responsibility for the attack.
According to the official, in the early hours of Sunday, two Israeli F-16 fighter jets conducted an airstrike against facilities in the Set Zaynab settlement, south of Damascus, without entering the Syrian airspace.
“Both missiles were destroyed by Russian Buk-M2E missile systems that are used by the Syrian military’s air defense forces,” Rear Adm. Vadim Kulit said.
On Monday, state-run Al-Ikhbariya TV reported that the Syrian air defense was repelling an air attack from Israel on the Syrian city of as-Safira in the Aleppo Governorate. The Russian military confirmed later that seven missiles fired by Israeli F-16s at Syria were destroyed by the Pantsir-S and Buk-M2 systems of the Syrian air defense.
Air Defense soldiers during exercise, Ashuluk firing ground
While Israel avoids commenting on foreign reports, as it says, in December, IDF Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Aviv Kohavi did acknowledge that the Jewish State had conducted numerous attacks on Syrian territory to counter what he called Iran’s “retrenchment” in the Arab Republic.
It is also reported that Israel uses Lebanon’s airspace to launch strikes against Syria, while some of the rockets are launched from the occupied Golan Heights, captured by Israel in the 1967 war.