I Was a Witness To Their Deaths
These children existed. Right now on the Mediterranean, more people are dying. And there’s no one to even bear witness.
In 2016, Courtney Bercan, a nurse from Vancouver, Canada, worked with Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) on a search-and-rescue boat in the Mediterranean, the Dignity I. In December 2018, MSF was forced to stop operations of its last rescue boat in the Mediterranean, the Aquarius, due to political pressure from several European countries.
This news triggered harrowing memories for Courtney.
Years later, I still don’t want to think about it, let alone type it out. Three children, babies practically, dead before me. Their parents, dead beside them.
It is now two years since I was on a Doctors Without Borders search and rescue vessel in the Mediterranean and it’s been a slow path to find healing and peace for the things we saw and experienced there.
As my life back in Canada settled into a predictable rhythm, the memories started coming out of the blue and with intensity. They demanded attention.
The process of finding closure for a patient’s death, while not always easy, is not usually this difficult. There are mitigating phrases to help you along the way:
“They were elderly and had had a good life.”
“We did everything we could.”
“At least now they are out of pain.”
As health care professionals we rely on these phrases to keep us sane. But what do you tell yourself when none of them apply?
Those three children were the littlest bodies we recovered that day; their lives were short. Their time in Libya would have been characterized by deprivation and fear. Their parents would have agonized over whether to board an overcrowded dinghy with no life jackets, no realistic chance of making it to Europe, and little guarantee of rescue if they didn’t.
The trip would have been terrifying, uncomfortable, and exhausting. The sun beating down on them. Their throats parched after having run out of water. Fuel sloshing around the boat — stinging and burning their skin. I find it difficult to think about the flash of hope they must have had when they saw our rescue boat on the horizon.
But then someone slipped into the water, destabilizing the boat and the collective psyche. Panic ensued. The flimsy dinghy started to collapse, and the women and children in the middle and those sitting along the edges would have been among the first victims.
It’s impossible to piece together the exact sequence of events for many of those who drowned.
But what struck me about these babies when they were brought, lifeless, onto our ship was how plump they were. They were healthy and filled with potential until they drowned, just moments before we reached them.
They didn’t even have a chance.
There are no pat phrases in this scenario. No comforting words.
I have one specific memory that I had been suppressing. I rarely let my mind form a full picture of it. When I do, I am watching it from above — like it wasn’t really me there experiencing it. I try not to get too close to it.
I definitely can’t think about the cold skin, the tiny fingers, the wet clothes, the smell of gasoline… the fuel blisters. I really can’t handle the blisters.
I comfort myself with the thought that anyone who has worked with Doctors Without Borders has got to have these no-go zones in their mind, right? This is normal… right?
But the truth is, I knew it was time to go there because, months later, whether on a busy bus or an idyllic hike, this memory, among others, kept returning.
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The memory felt identical to that moment on the boat: a rock of sadness making my chest so tight it’s difficult to breathe. A rapid pulse. A lump in my throat so big that I had to bite my cheeks to keep down. My squeaky voice replying, “I’m fine,” to a colleague who knew I clearly wasn’t. I knew they weren’t either. How could they have been? And finally, the reverberations of energy in my heart as I carefully cleaned the bodies of those babies while silently chanting: “I’m sorry. I’m sorry. I love you. I’m sorry”.
I’m learning to make space for these memories and how they fit into my normal, very privileged life, but there are certain things that I struggle to reconcile.
Nothing I do can make up for, or even begin to fix, the incredible injustice of the fact that this happened in the first place. There was no memorial for three small children who died 80 years too young, a few hundred kilometers from safety. No possibility of conveying to the parents how sorry, how desperately sorry I was, since their parents were lying in body bags next to them.
In that moment there was mainly, I’m embarrassed to admit, startling numbness and a desire to run as far away from that ship as I could. And part of me has been running ever since.
So how do I, years later, find a way to honor those little lives the way they would have been if they had had the fortune of being born with the “right” color skin or the “right” passport? How arrogant am I to even hope that I could?
I wish I had an answer to this question — an easy one, a hard one, an incomplete one… I’d take anything. But nothing makes the deaths of these children less brutal, painful, or unfair.
And perhaps truly accepting that is the only option.
After months of processing, I am starting to feel power in the pain these memories bring. In the tears that are flowing down my cheeks as I write this, and in the nausea and lightheadedness that wash over me with waves of sorrow and rage. Time after time the same phrase comes to me:
I was there with them.
There WITH them.
We were there.
In the end, all we could be was present.
And for the first time I see a small shard of light in the dark moments I spent with these kids: I may not have been a witness to their beautiful, short lives, but I was a witness to their deaths, and the pain of it lives in me.
It’s not enough — not even remotely enough. I don’t kid myself. I cannot know their names, their favorite games, or even where they were from, but I know that they were. I have the incredible honor of feeling the sorrow of their deaths.
The pain is not pleasant, but I wouldn’t change that we were there — if only to bear witness to the fact that these children existed and the injustice that they no longer do. And if pain is the price we pay for that, the price we pay for knowing and acknowledging the intrinsic value of the thousands of lives that continue to be lived and lost on the Mediterranean, then I will cherish it. I will not run from it.
Rest in Peace to the tens of thousands of people who have lost their lives so senselessly in Libya and on the Mediterranean while European leaders stood by and watched.
We will not forget you and we will not be silent.