The first thing that you notice about the north coast of Lesbos, after the life vests and the shipwrecks, is how incredibly close Turkey is. I reckon on a good day your ocean-trained Aussie could swim it, and a Syrian man has successfully done so, but for the people I met today the sea is anything but welcoming. I spend most of my time travelling along the beaches with an Israeli organisation called Israid. They spot the boats from kilometres out and drive to where they land. From here women and children are bused to the camps by the IRC, and able bodied men and youth walk.
The first landing point I come across has seen three boats that morning. People queue to receive a ticket that notes if they are in a family. The presumption is that they are Syrian, signs everywhere are in Arabic and volunteers know basic words. But at least 15-20% are Afghan. When the weather was bad last week smugglers dropped prices and there was a surge in Somali and Libyan arrivals. One of the most harrowing things I’m told is that a certain type of life jacket (blue) is stuffed with paper. Almost without fail the wearers are from Afghanistan or Somalia- fake life vests for the poorest. Even amongst refugees there are first and economy class tickets.
The morning has been relatively quiet, the president was supposed to be in town and there are rumours that the coast guards on both sides of the Aegean were told to slow the boats until after he left. There is huge suspicion here towards the authorities, whom people are convinced don’t want to help. Whenever VIPs show up they block traffic on the already poor road and slow down rescue efforts. The first boat I see come in has little trouble. It is a packed rubber dingy, but the people seem relatively calm and even clap as they are escorted in by fishermen. It appears as though there are as many volunteers as refugees on the beach, and the whole process is relatively ordered. Babies and children are handed over first, one little boy hops off and starts walking up to everyone holding his hand out to shake. A pretty Syrian teenager who is one uniform away from looking like she belongs in a private Sydney high school asks me in perfect English what time the first bus will arrive, tells me my shirt is dirty, and then flounces away leaving me very confused. These people are clearly middle class. They unwrap phones that are much more high tech than mine from plastic bags and start taking photos. They are well prepared and seem to know what’s in store for them.
This boat was clearly an exception. That afternoon I see about five more, and the sound that characterises them all is of children screaming. One is stuck 200m or so from shore and is waving for help. They are not sinking, but cannot go anywhere, so Frontex (the EU border agency) sends a ship to push them to where the lifeguards are waiting. They have landed at an awkward spot and have to climb up the steep, muddy hill to get to the road.
Smugglers in Turkey herd the people onto the boats, start the engine, and point in the direction of Greece. This is what 500+Euro gets you. If your engine dies or your boat leaks, or you go the wrong way, or the sea is rough, tough shit. Last week several larger wooden boats arrived. The tickets for these are more expensive because the smugglers brand them as safer, but when refugees show up to board they find they have been packed beyond capacity, and in reality these are the boats that most often sink. There are stories of people having guns put to their head and told that they are now the captain. As astonishing as the number of people on Lesbos is, the refugees consistently say that it is nothing compared to the masses waiting to make the journey on the other side. This problem is not going anywhere. The Mediterranean is clearly not deterring anyone, and people are dying because there is no safe passage.
The coastline from Molyvos to Skala is crawling with people. Some look relieved and some look shell-shocked, all look shattered. The thing that is impossible to ignore is just how much these people are like us. Little girls are dressed head to toe in Disney princess get up, parents are trying to get their children to listen to them, a middle aged woman reaches over to give her husband a kiss, an elderly couple wring out their clothes and then grip each other’s hands for the entire walk into town. I see a young girl walking down the street holding her little brothers hand, while their parents trail after them with their belongings in plastic bags, squabbling about the best way to hold their luggage and telling the kids not to go too far ahead. It’s a surreal scene. Anyone who thinks these people are somehow intrinsically different is so wrong. The things that make us human; fear for our children, concern for the people we love, gratitude towards a stranger that helps, curiosity for something new and someone different- these commonalities are so much stronger than the choice to wear a head scarf, praying by putting your head to the ground, or not eating pork.
The last boat I saw today was the most harrowing. It was getting dark, the wind was strong, the water starting to get rough, and I was freezing with three layers on. I stay out of the way and leave the rescuing to the people who know what they’re doing. But once people are out of the water there are traumatised individuals everywhere. I start taking off soaking life jackets and try to comfort people who are in distress, but I really didn’t know what to do. One woman is wailing and shaking, I grab her by the arms and try to steady her and sit her down. But as soon as I touch her she bursts into tears and falls to the ground. Another is sobbing uncontrollably and convulsing with shivers. I rub her arms and wrap her in one of those foil blankets you see on TV that feel as light and useless as they look. But it is only when I manage to sustain eye contact with her that she seems to register she’s no longer in the ocean and stops hyperventilating and starts saying thank you over and over again. It’s a very short moment, but it’s the closest I come to tears all day.
A Canadian who quit his job and with his girlfriend now lives off less than 8K a year so they can be full time volunteers tells me that last week he was helping a Libyan man with a broken leg and a severed arm, when he suddenly started bashing his head against the wall. There are so many traumatised people and so few volunteers here with the relevant training. They do the best they can, but with so few resources and basic supplies, what they can do is often limited to my contribution today, human touch and empathy. It matters, but these people need so much more than that.
The final story for today is of a volunteer who was driving a young woman and her daughter from the beach up to one of the camps when he heard pained screaming. He pulled over to find a little boy wailing next to the body of his father, whose eyes had rolled into the back of his head and was having an epileptic fit in a ditch. The volunteer had to unload the mother and child and ask them to watch the little boy while the man was put in the back seat and hurried to the camp. He then drove back to pick up the son, who hadn’t stopped sobbing and screaming out for his dad. The man survived, but only because someone drove by at the right time. This frustration is something I hear time and time again, why aren’t the camps on the beach, why aren’t there enough buses, why should people who have just been through hell have to walk two kilometres uphill? The guy telling me this story sounds pretty traumatised himself, and his face is etched with exasperation. We were able to save that man’s life he says, but why should his life be entirely up to chance?