Logbook #64: “Behind the numbers, there are human faces marked by tragic stories and hardship”

Logbook #64: “Behind the numbers, there are human faces marked by tragic stories and hardship”

Charlie, 27 +

He has the stature of a Viking, an occasional mischievous smile on his face and the determination of a fighter. Charlie just blew out his 27 birthday candles. He is probably older, but he has been elusive about his real age. It doesn’t matter. Aboard the Aquarius he just turned 27 again. Besides being at least in his late twenties, Charlie is a dedicated humanitarian, readily giving everything he has for his convictions.  

Imagine a blond Swedish child growing up on the island of Styrsö in the archipelago of Göteborg. Scenery straight out of a Camille Läckberg novel: two-storey wooden houses, their red painted facades contrasting the blue Swedish sea. There are no cars here. The moos of cows are the loudest disturbance for the 1300 inhabitants. Charlie is a curious, yet inconspicuous child, who prefers to observe from the back of the classroom. In his own words he is more of a solitary wolf. Nothing to suggest he would later embrace the title of ‘human rights defender’. The sea is not merely his passion, it is engraved into his DNA. On the Island of Styrsö, being a sailor is a family tradition. He goes on to work on fishing boats and tankers. Today he is at the helm of a rescue boat.

Contemplating the world from his nearly 6 feet, the injustices he sees do not agree with him. He wants to understand. He turns to books to better comprehend the world and its workings. Being wise beyond his alleged 27 years of age, he knows that he alone cannot change the world. He studies international relations, where he first heard about the association Ship to Gaza. It’s the beginning of a new life, the start of a humanitarian engagement that would last for nearly a decade.

He knows war and has witnessed its horrors and destruction. Twice, the Israeli authorities detain him. Deprived of his liberty, his determination only grows stronger. One night in the summer of 2014, he fears for his life. Together with hundreds of civilians, he is protecting the hospital of Beit Hanoun during aerial bombardment. For 12 hours, he is surrounded by missile and drone strikes. “I though ‘that’s it’; I would never see the next sun rise again”. He will leave Gaza hunted by the image of Salam Shamaly. Salam was looking for his loved-ones in the ruble of his destroyed home after the attack. When Salam left to get help, he was shot by a sniper and lost his life right in front of Charlie’s eyes.

The man who retuned to Sweden was no longer the boy who left. The air of innocence had dissipated. Charlie wants to bear witness, but for this tall blond “it is never enough”. He organizes a travelling photo exhibition on Gaza, touring 24 Swedish cities to raise awareness and share his impressions. But it is not enough. Charlie, the human rights defender, creates a blog. The tragically accurate logo for his blog is a trembling plum dipped in a pool of blood.

When more and more refugees die trying to cross the Mediterranean, he has no choice but to follow his convictions.  He has to act, has to do something about this tragedy. While this will come at the cost of several well-paid jobs elsewhere, he knows that what really matters is found elsewhere.

After working on Lesbos, Charlie embarks on the Aquarius. In three weeks, this tall humanitarian sailor helps rescuing over 900 migrants. “Behind the numbers, there are human faces marked by tragic stories and hardship”. One of these faces will stay with him forever. A young Bangladeshi, rescued from the sea, insists on sharing his bread with him, fearful that Charlie has not had enough to eat. When the sailor recalls this story, his voice is shaking; he is struggling to maintain his Nordic composure. There are still many lives to be saved in the Mediterranean.

Tonight, the Aquarius is sailing off the cost of Libya, and Charlie is a long way from his home island of Styrsö, but he has found a new family aboard the Aquarius to, once more, celebrate his 27th birthday.

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Text: Perrine Baglan
Translation: Sebastian Frowein
Photo: Patrick Bar