Today is Sunday, 1 November 2015, and I am sitting at the grand "Panellinion" café in the town of Mytilene with a glass of wine. It's a big, old building, with columns made of marble, and even the occasional pigeon flying about, minding its business, and it is as far removed from the events of Wednesday night as it gets. H., the journalist whom I accompanied in this fact-finding mission, who has just boarded her flight back to England, texted me a minute ago that she feels like she has left a war zone.
We arrived in Lesvos on that unforgettable Wednesday night, 28 October 2015, a date when the Greeks traditionally celebrate their heroic "OXI" to Italian demands for surrender at the beginning of WWII, and hurried to Eftalou from the airport in a taxi. Owing to its geographical location, Eftalou, near Molyvos, is currently one of the hotspots in the migration path of the unfortunate, be they from Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan or Iran. Its coast is about ten kilometres from Turkey, and it has seen tens of thousands of people attempting entry into Fortress Europe in the past year or two. Things got much worse when the road crossing at Evros, a natural river border with Turkey in the north-east of Greece, was fenced; I am not certain under whose orders that happened, but the crossing is sealed.
Since the road crossing was fenced off an ever-increasing number of people have attempted the passage to Greece by sea, in small dingies or dilapidated sightseeing boats. Single young men, whole families, young kids with no one accompanying them, attempt to cross the treacherous border on a daily basis, the lucky ones arriving here scared, wet and freezing, and carrying very little if anything at all with them; the unfortunate ones never make it, as the sometimes stormy and cold sea swallows them.
This last Wednesday was a very bad day; I wish I could say it was the worst, but I am almost certain that this was just the beginning. We arrived in the harbour of Molyvos to apocalyptic scenes of immeasurable suffering and tragedy; until that night I had never witnessed tragedy of such magnitude, never got to actually sense pain and despair almost as a smell. The horror sunk in gradually, it took me some time to realise that these ghost-like figures in the harbour were people who had literally just come out of the sea. According to the official reports, that night a little over two hundred forty people were rescued, seven people were found dead in the water, and at least another thirty four were reported missing. These numbers are still being revised upwards in terms of casualties. The numbers are just numbers, but in a town the size of Molyvos one cannot hide from the tragedy; it's everywhere, and it's very hard to take in. The rescued people, many of them injured or in shock, were walking up and down in the small harbour, trying to find their relatives, their kids, or to call someone back home to let them know they made that part of their journey. I asked three kids if they minded me taking pictures of them. They didn't mind, nor did the parents, and as I was taking that sad, but also joyous, photo of kids who actually made it, a young woman who sat nearby broke down, crying in a way that I will never forget. She had just lost her own baby in the cold, windy sea. That day will of course go down as a particularly grave one, due to the number of victims and the recklessness of the people smugglers who put so many people on a boat that was almost designed to capsize.
At the harbour in Molyvos there are about five black rubber boats, unmarked and somehow strange as they seem to have been put together in a rush on the other side of the channel, on the spot rather than in a workshop; they almost look disposable. Apparently the usually Turkish (but sometimes Syrian) people smugglers used to make the journey with their "goods", the people. Nowadays they assign the task to one of the people who are making the journey, under the threat of a gun according to some reports. People also report that when they finally see the dingy and express their doubts, again the gun talks and says that either they get in or lose their thousand or fifteen hundred dollars: that's the deal. As part of this grotesque ritual the hapless "captain" is handed a knife, and told that he must "pop" the rubber boat upon arrival. Why the boat should be "popped" has been bugging me for five days now, but a man sitting next to me in this café, a young Greek military officer with his unemployed wife, just explained that a sunken boat means "rescue", whereas a boat that's intact means simply a "visit". God knows...
Upon arrival in Eftalou and Molyvos you will bump to a number of individuals and members of charities, all involved in the management of this unnecessary and seemingly never-ending horror. It is fair to say that Molyvos never saw so many guests in early winter, nor even summer, let alone Eftalou. Swedish, German, Danish and other northern European charities are there to welcome and treat the boat people as they arrive, and to take them to the buses which will ferry them to the port, with the final destination being the promised lands of Norway, Sweden, Germany or somewhere else, usually via Macedonia. Very quickly people start specialising, there is a lot of know-how required to minimise casualties at the point and moment of entry. G., a woman from New Zealand, who watches the dingies arrive through her binoculars from her hotel window, is among the first to run to the spot and try to gain the knife-carrying "captains'" trust quickly, so that they listen to her when she shouts 'trust me, no pop, no pop!' One of the reasons is that when the boat pops it makes a sound just like a gunshot, and so there have been reports of people jumping into the sea at that very last moment. There is a real danger of hypothermia and drowning, particularly as many of these people come from the mountains of Afghanistan, so they've never seen the sea before, let alone swum. Also, they sometimes forget that they have a rucksack on their back, and some carry babies. Adventists, atheists, Christians, locals and many Americans volunteer. Among other tasks they always try to quickly get these people to change their clothes so that they don't get cold, something which many of them resist for reasons of modesty. They also clear the shore of the thousands of golden, space-exploration-like thermal blankets handed to the new arrivals; these blankets and the abandoned bright orange life jackets are what adorn the shore of Eftalou now, along with the deflated dingies, and the remains of the sightseeing boats used to smuggle people into Europe.
No real drama can ever take place without its heroes and, in this instance, the heroes include the Spanish saviours. Originally a private-sector company now turned into a charity (Pro Activa), they came here with their jet skis, and with their skills they've saved countless people from drowning. J. was clear that he's not interested in politics, nor in the greater scheme of things, although he went on to say that there should be no borders, and that the European Union as an entity should respond to this catastrophe. What J. knows well is the sea, and how to quickly get to people in that very moment which separates death from life. At that moment, J. has to make a snap decision as to who can possibly make it, and who can't. The greatest single mistake at that second is getting too close to the people you are trying to rescue. They will grab the jet ski, or clutch at anything they can, very likely endangering you and everyone else. J. has an eighteen-month-old daughter in Barcelona; the last thing he wants is to have to report the death or injury of one of his team, something that seems to be getting increasingly more likely as the numbers of people making the crossing swell, and the winter closes in. Also, the equipment available leaves a lot to be desired. For example, the most pressing need now is for fast, inflatable, low-height boats, boats with which you can approach people quickly, and which people can get onto easily. As doctors and the Spanish volunteers explain, what really matters is simply getting people out of the sea as quickly as possible.
The island itself cannot cope with the crisis, let alone Molyvos as a town. People are being helped out of the boat, or fished from the sea, and then managed by a series of volunteers and NGOs. The refugees are invariably handed the thin golden thermal blankets that have the curious effect of visually separating "them" from "us". They are then asked to form a line, where they are counted and assessed according to their needs and the state they are in. Some people are declared vulnerable, including kids with no family, and are taken to the detention centre, apparently for their own protection. The volunteers try desperately to reunite families, something that was not always possible this last Wednesday as some people lost their kids and mothers and fathers. Volunteers gather at the "Captain's Table" café in Molyvos, which seems to be the centre of the humanitarian effort, to organise their response and discuss what needs doing next. On Thursday morning you could witness a group of international volunteers being introduced to the basics of responding to the needs of the newly arrived, often traumatised, and culturally diverse people. By listening you get to know what now seems obvious: that young men offer less resistance when someone asks them to change their wet clothes than, say, middle-aged Syrian women. Communication is very important: the first thing that people do after crossing the sea is fish out their mobiles from zip-lock bags and so it is that a northern European volunteer is responding to the crisis by putting together charging stations so that newly arrived people can talk with family and friends and let them know that they've made it.
That dreadful and unforgettable Wednesday night I responded to the crisis by going to the bar and getting myself beer as quickly as I could. At the bar I got to hear locals and members of the Coast Guard talking about the events as they were unfolding. Someone asked someone else "how many did we get today?", to receive a response along the lines of "two hundred, two fifty, about ten missing, two of them ῾μωρουδέλια' (moroudelia)"*. At that moment it sounded to me just like fishermen talking about the catch of the day: another day, another few dead. The fact that I am a native Greek speaker gave me an advantage, in that I could both overhear people, like the Coast Guard, and converse with the locals. What is striking this time is that, unlike the past when everyone would be expressing loudly their opinions and swear at the powers to be, and the politicians, this time the majority of the locals kept to themselves. With the exception of the occasional middle aged guy in the café who would rudely interrupt my typing to offer his conspiracy views, most people simply don't talk. Both a woman in a shop in Molyvos and the owners of the hotel I was staying at only spoke cautiously, after gauging me, mainly asking me what I thought of the situation. What needs stressing here is that the refugee crisis has followed another Greek crisis, the financial one, making the impact of the latter even worse in places like Lesvos, Kos and Kalymnos. The islands' health and other public services were already stretched to the point of not been able to deliver services normally, when the boats and dead started dominating their life. It is my impression that the locals, barring neo-Nazis, fascists, and other remnants of the dark Greek past who don't seem to be the majority, hold the refugees as the least responsible for the situation. Many foreign journalists and NGO members were quick to make the point that a large part of the population of Lesvos were refugees themselves. Not only they themselves were refugees: the ones who came here followed exactly the same routes, and quite possibly many drowned; furthermore, few others fled to Syria. But, at any rate, encountering hundreds of distraught, desperate, displaced people on the way to school on a daily basis is hardly conducive to a "normal" upbringing for the kids of Lesvos. A man who runs a taverna in a small harbour past Eftalou pointed out how weird it felt to him to be able to lock the family house door after 7pm and all that pain out - it's "as if it's all normal, but I want my children to know that there is a problem out there. Yet, I have to protect them", he said.
The grip such a crisis has on a society, particularly a small one like this, is something the central politicians and governments involved are totally unaware of, if not intentionally ignoring. The refugees are been used as a political pawn, a bargaining chip between the EU's core, Greece, Turkey, Hungary, Serbia and Croatia. The most recent signal from Berlin was that of the possibility of a loosening of the "Greek bailout" terms, if the Greeks accepted more refugees and camps on Greek soil. As we speak a concession was already made, for camps to house 50,000 refugees, somewhere in the Greek mainland. These commitments by the likes of the Greek state usually mean that they will make sure that there are 50,000 people there, so that more funds from the core can be released. No guarantees about the services available to these people should be expected, the "ultra left wing" new Greek government is not in a hurry to bind itself by "humanitarian nonsense" any more.
The original plans wanted the refugees housed in the islands of arrival, thus destroying one of the few industries left to them: tourism. I cannot tell whether we are dealing with insanity, or criminal neglect here. Wasting no time, Turkey, a key player in the unfolding nightmare that is the dismemberment of Syria, is demanding concession upon concession, threatening to push up to two million refugees to Greece. With the current death rates we would be looking at about 300,000 to 500,000 possible deaths, should Turkey make good of their threats. This kind of politics now seems normalised and perfectly acceptable in the parliaments of Strasbourg and Berlin and Paris, in the corridors of the EU, the White House, and the UN.
This grotesque admission that human life doesn't matter anymore is now OK across the whole spectrum of European citizens, conservatives, socialists, and of course nationalists. As I am looking at the hundreds of people who have gathered here in Lesvos, from the US, from Canada, from across Europe and even the Middle East, to cover the situation and to help, I can't stop thinking that we have now reached a new era of brutality, one where the Greek Prime Minister has the audacity to... "demand an end to the deaths", as if he cannot open up the border in Evros, or stop making use of the refugees as a discount token to keep his electorate happy.
Acknowledgements and Corrections
This piece was written in a rush, in a single breath, to take it out of my chest so to speak. As a result, there are omissions, parts that could have been written better, and even errors or problematic passages. For example, where I say "Some people are declared vulnerable, including kids with no family, and are taken to the detention centre" - that's not quite correct. In the main camp in town there is an extension to it which is fenced with barbed wire, and in which live the kids who were found alone and deemed vulnerable. No adults stay there as far as I know. Whilst this centre in all looks and purposes resembles a detention centre, people are cautious not to call it that. I am not sure what that means, since the kids are not free to go anywhere, but the point is that they are locked up for their own protection, which is more shocking that the semantics of detention. Leaving aside this kind of corrections, which will be done in a follow up, perhaps a shortened version of this, I am more keen to point out the omissions. Namely, I'd like to state here the organisations involved, as well as a summary of what I understood is more needed right now, should one want to help.
There are many organisations involved but at this moment I'd like to focus on the following
- The Starfish Foundation
A grassroots organisation, Starfish work on the ground directly with the refugees. They are amongst the first ones in touch with them straight as they come out of the boats, but more importantly they are there, at the Captain's Table, in Molyvos, helping with clothes, arranging for places to sleep, distributing food, connecting people with other members of their families, finding interpreters, consoling the devastated and broken ones; in short, providing all those first line services required to see these traumatised people through the first one or two nights, before they are moved to the temporary camp in Oxy. This first wave of processing and services is required as people need to be counted, casualties need to be documented, families to be reunited and also, because there is a shortage of buses and places in camps, or even boats to Athens and Kavala. These first hours after arrival are extremely crucial and Starfish are doing a fantastic job.
Their postal address is
Hellenic Postoffice of Mythymna
C/o Starfish Foundation
Molyvos, 811 01
Please do consult their facebook page before deciding to send any donations, because any items sent to them that they don't need reduce the storage available for items they do need. The facebook page is the easiest way of contacting them. Generally I'd say that volunteers are always needed, but please do keep in mind that just to get used to what's happening may take up to a week, so consider spending a little bit more time than just a week.
- Pro Activa
I mentioned the Spanish life guards with their jet-skis at length in this piece. I don't think I need to explain how much appreciated their role is, how many lives they've saved, or my shame for the fact that the Greek protectorate, or Frontex, with their big boats and helicopters, cannot do just that: save bloody lives. Pro Activa Open Arms have a very informative website with information about donating, the situation etc. Please do consider donating, they are working extremely hard in potentially lethal conditions and circumstances, and this line of work is taking its toll on these young people; this winter will be tough, I suspect they need any help possible.
- Islamic Relief
I don't know much about Islamic Relief, but one of the most urgent requirements is that of translators, and IR were there to provide just that. I suspect that there is an urgent need for Farsi translators since Farsi seems to be a safe bet of a common language amongst different peoples from Afghanistan. Please check their website for details, their engagement, and possible donations. They have got a page dedicated specifically to the crisis in the Med.
- Clowns Without Borders
I just realised that although I was planning to mention them, I somehow left the Clowns Without Borders out of this first account. Bloody clowns! These people were visiting the camps, the harbours with the new arrivals, the refugees everywhere in short, and performed shows for both the kids and the adults. In my books it's very important that life goes out of the extra gear and back into normal, particularly for the kids. A hurrah to the clowns without borders and please do check their website, or Facebook page for possible donations, or just to see what they are up to, which is excellent stuff!