The baby was so young that he couldn’t hold his head; he was livid, icy and inert when Juan Francisco Valle, 41, carried him on his mother’s back into the waters of the Mediterranean Sea off Ceuta – a Spanish setting in northeast Morocco. The image has traveled the world through social networks, newspapers and TV channels.
The rescue took place on Tuesday (18), in the midst of one of the biggest diplomatic and migration crises between Spain and Morocco. The day before, after relaxing at the border promoted by the Moroccan government, thousands of people tried to swim through the 200 meters that separated them from Tarajal beach on the Spanish coast.
Despite the relatively short distance, many fumbled with the clothes and the commotion. “I jumped into the water as soon as I saw that the mother was thrown into the sea with the baby. They would drown if we didn’t help them, ”Valle – or Juanfran, as he is called – said in interviews with Spanish media in the days following the rescue.
A diver with the Special Unit for Underwater Activities of the Spanish Civil Guard, he says he only thought of swimming with all his might to get to the beach before the baby froze to death. The action earned him the nickname “hero of Jerez” in the Andalusian media, the region in which he was born, but in Juanfran’s memory it was a traumatic day: two migrants died trying to reach Ceuta.
“It was a human tide, hundreds of desperate people. So many people at the same time that it was impossible to take care of them all. Unfortunately, we lost some, ”said the agent, who does not know how many people he saved this week. Until the situation calmed down on Wednesday, he slept two to three hours a day and spent more than ten hours at sea.
He told state broadcaster RTVE that he had never been in a similar situation. “Some were on floating toys, others were hanging on something, like empty bottles. Some were wearing ill-fitting life jackets which, instead of keeping their heads above the surface, pushed them underwater.
One of the most tense times was dawn Monday through Tuesday, when people began to jump into the sea by the dozen, in the dark, and rescuers were unable to see them properly.
“There were a lot of fathers and mothers with their children tied to their backs with fabrics or clothes, trying to survive as best they could,” he told El País newspaper. In many cases, children’s heads barely emerged, and due to lack of light, officers were unsure whether they were backpacks or babies. The elderly have also gone through difficult times, he said.
Trained in emergencies, Juanfran was a diver in the Spanish Navy before joining the special group of the Civil Guard ten years ago. In his new work, he devotes himself mainly to the recovery of the bodies of people drowned in rivers, marshes or in the sea.
“This time we had to save people alive,” he said, saying the agents were trying to quickly find out who needed their help most. The baby and its mother – rescued by a colleague from Juanfran – are doing well, according to the Spanish government, which however has not informed the sex of the baby or provided a name or age.
Of the nearly 8,000 Moroccans who arrived in Ceuta between Monday and Wednesday, 5,600 had already been returned or returned voluntarily, according to the Spanish authorities. However, around 800 unaccompanied minors remained in the interlock, opening up a new crisis. According to the Red Cross, the majority are very young boys, under the age of 14.
According to Spanish law, responsibility for immigrants lies with the autonomous provinces, but the administration of Ceuta does not have the structure or the resources to care for children and adolescents. The central government is trying to negotiate with other provinces to receive minors.
The Spanish government and the European Union have criticized Morocco for encouraging turmoil this week amid a serious diplomatic crisis last month over the arrival in Spain of the leader of a separatist movement in Western Sahara, considered as an enemy by the Moroccan government.
The Ceuta tragedy has also taken the world by storm in another image, that of Red Cross volunteer Luna Reyes consoling a desperate migrant. “Until I hug him, he cried uncontrollably and said he wanted to kill himself,” said the 20-year-old Spaniard.
In March, where she is doing an internship to supplement her university studies in social services, Luna says she only knows that the young man she kissed was from Senegal. “I cried like a child, holding the hand of a friend who seemed unconscious. He spoke in French, showing his hands as if he counted. I think he listed the friends he lost.
To Spanish newspapers, she said she was shocked by the reactions of the public, who harassed her with insults on their social networks. “They saw that my boyfriend is black and they keep calling me names and making horrible racist comments.”
The head of the Red Cross of Ceuta, Isabel Brasero, defended the attitude of the volunteer and said that desperate people needed shelter. “Hugging in the heat of the moment is the most normal thing in the world. I was your lifeline, ”Luna said. Internet users responded to the harassment with hundreds of messages of support using the hashtag #graciasLuna.