This article is part of our series called "The New Europeans." Ahead of the European elections, we are visiting people who don't dream of Europe, but who live European lives. The series focuses on moments of joy and conflict that wouldn't have happened without the EU.
On Sept. 10, 2016, two ships crossed paths on the Mediterranean about 15 to 20 miles off the Libyan coast: the Iuventa, which belonged to the Berlin aid organization Jugend Rettet, and the Vos Hestia, a vessel operated by the NGO Save the Children. On board the Vos Hestia that day was an Italian security guard named Pietro Gallo.
At the time, such maritime rescue teams were still highly regarded. Roughly a dozen private rescue vessels from across Europe were crisscrossing the Mediterranean and, working in cooperation with the Italian state, they were ultimately able to bring tens of thousands of people safely ashore. No one doubted whether they were doing a good deed.
But Sept. 10, 2016 changed all that. It marked the beginning of a series of events that would ultimately lead to the cessation of such patrols by privately run rescue ships. It would lead to vessels being detained in Italian and Maltese ports and activists being charged with crimes. Italian authorities are currently investigating 10 former Iuventa crewmembers, and they could face up to 20 years in prison. And all this is partly the work of Gallo, the security guard, who is now unemployed and bitter. And who claims he didn't intend for any of this to happen: "It would have been better if I had never boarded the ship," he says.
What, though, happened on that day?
Since 7 a.m. on that morning, the activists had been busy transferring refugees from unseaworthy vessels to the Iuventa. So busy, in fact, that before long, the small ship was dangerously overloaded. In previous rescue operations, the crew had brought up to 150 people on board, but by noon on that day, there were already in excess of 400 people on the ship and almost 100 more on a life raft floating alongside.
The evacuation of the Iuventa began around noon. At 1:16 p.m., an Irish Navy ship arrived and took many of the refugees off their hands. But it wasn't enough, so the Vos Hestia was radioed for help, since it still had room on board. And at 3:49 p.m., according to the Iuventa logbook, the ship's crew began to transfer the remaining 140 people to the Vos Hestia, where Gallo was standing on deck.
It was his first assignment at sea. A few weeks earlier, the ex-policeman had been hired by IMI Security Service, a private security firm contracted by the shipping company that had leased Vos Hestia to Save the Children. Hiring such security firms was standard procedure on rescue vessels that didn't belong to the NGO's themselves.
On that day, Sept. 10, Gallo observed something that he thought looked suspicious. He recalled seeing two men with dark complexions who set off from the Iuventa in a rubber dinghy and headed for the Libyan coast. He then devised a possible explanation. The boat leaving the ship "made me believe that the crew of the Iuventa had evacuated the 140 migrants from this inflatable before our arrival, and then left it in the water, with the smugglers on it." That's what Gallo later told the police, and that's what now stands in the investigative report.
Gallo interpreted the scene as proof that Jugend Rettet was working hand-in-hand with the smugglers – and that's also how it would later be interpreted by everyone who disapproved of the NGO's activities in the Mediterranean. The observations made on Sept. 10 would become the key scene in the Europe-wide debate over what these private ships on the Mediterranean actually represent. Are they rescuers fighting to uphold European values? Or are they self-absorbed activists who are, knowingly or naively, playing into the hands of the smugglers?
There is, however, no evidence – no videos or photos – that might prove Gallo’s version of events. There are only his statements and those of his colleagues.
Sascha Gierke, the head of operations on board the Iuventa on Sept. 10, has another explanation for Gallo's observation. The crew had in fact tied one of the evacuated refugee boats alongside the Iuventa that afternoon, partly because they hadn't had time during the rescue operation to destroy it, but also because they feared that more refugees would be rescued that day and they worried they wouldn't have enough space on deck and on the life raft to accommodate them all.