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NBA star Marc Gasol aboard Spanish migrant aid ship: “It’s inhumane. These people should be rescued”

The Memphis Grizzlies center player participated in the rescue of a woman in the Mediterranean Sea

Marc Gasol on an expedition with the NGO 'Proactiva Open Arms.' AFP

Marc Gasol, one of the best players in the NBA, on Tuesday helped rescue a migrant who had been abandoned to her luck in the waters of the Mediterranean. The center forward of the Memphis Grizzlies, who talked to EL PAÍS on the telephone from aboard the rescue ship Astral, has witnessed firsthand the daily tragedy of thousands of immigrants who risk their lives crossing the Mediterranean to flee wars and poverty in their countries.

Question. What were you doing aboard the Astral, which was sailing alongside the Open Arms?

If we had arrived earlier we might have saved more lives. And if we had arrived 15 or 20 minutes later, Josephine would be dead

Answer. Around a year ago I met Óscar Camps [founder and director of the non-profit group Proactive Open Arms]. We asked him to give a speech at my basketball club, Basket Girona. I liked what he said. Last year I couldn’t go aboard because I had to play in the EuroBasket. This time I was able to.

Q. What happened out there?

A. We tuned in to a conversation between the Libyan coast guard and a merchant ship [the Triades], which was asked to set a course for a location where there was a migrant ship in danger. We later found out that the Libyan Coast Guard had brought the survivors back to shore and had destroyed the boat where the migrants had spent two days and two nights. But they had left at least three people behind.

Q. What did you do?

A. We followed a search protocol. This morning [Tuesday], at around 6.30 or 7am, we caught sight of a rubber dinghy half submerged under water. One of the volunteers, Javier Filgueira, was the first to jump in the sea. The water was filled with fuel, which together with salt becomes really corrosive. At first it seemed that nobody was alive. But when we got closer, we saw that there was a woman. She was staying afloat with her arm over a piece of wood that can’t have been more than half a meter long.There was another woman and child who were already dead. The survivor was in shock, frightened. We told her that we were going to help her. She said her name was Josephine and that she was from Cameroon.

A crew member of NGO Proactiva Open Arms rescues a woman named Josephine. REUTERS

Q. Why are you doing this?

A. The situation is such that it goes beyond my personal feelings. We are talking about inhumane and criminal acts. They should have rescued those people. The Libyan Coast Guard said they saved 158 people. And if we had not shown up at the scene, nobody would have known any better. But we discovered that there were bodies there, that they left people in a life-threatening situation.

Q. What feeling has this left you with?

A. Frustration. I feel angry and powerless. It’s also the feeling of having saved a life. If it hadn’t been for our team, nobody would have known that this happened. If we had arrived earlier, we might  have had time to save more lives. And if we had arrived 15 or 20 minutes later, Josephine would be dead.

Q. What motivated you to join this initiative?

They have an amazing team and you can see that they’re doing it all for the greater good

A. There’s no specific motive. Of course, the photograph of the Syrian boy who died on the coast of Turkey [Aylan Kurdi] in 2015 filled me with rage. And it made me see that we all have to do our part so things like this won’t happen again. It was then that I met Óscar Camps and the people at Open Arms. They made me see that this is a reality that many children around the world are facing. Their conviction had a real impact on me, how they put all their personal, logistic and economic resources into helping these people. I admire that type of person, someone who goes out and does something and doesn’t wait for other people to do it.

Q. Do your own children have anything to do with it?

A. I have two children, Julia and Luca, and I want to be a role model to them. I can only imagine how it must feel for a father who has to make a trip rife with extortion, murder and all types of dangers just to get to a country where he and his children can live in peace and dignity. I would like someone else to share their time and money, to give me a hand in some way. I think we all need to do our part. It’s very different to read or hear that this many people have died, and to actually see a dead person. And you know that this person was at the center of someone else’s world, but now they are gone. And the way the work of the humanitarian organizations dedicated to stopping this is being undermined and rejected... I think it’s an unbelievable lack of humanity.

Q. You are an NBA professional, a hugely important player for the Memphis Grizzlies. By doing this, your own risk is double.

A. We have to draw attention to this, to show the gravity of what is happening. I want to be a direct witness to this and save people. The risk it may entail due to being a player in the NBA comes second to that. There is no better example than the volunteers that I am with here. They have an amazing team and you can see that they’re doing it all for the greater good.

English version by John Clarke.