‘I think that they are slowly coming in’ says Apollo, it is the boat we thought it was idling mid-sea! It now seems closer, I grab the binoculars, indeed it is closer as I can now clearly see the people on board, all wearing orange colour lifejackets, ‘Syrians’ I tell myself. While looking at that boat, a large navy-grey inflatable, I notice something strange, there is no noticeable wake behind it or any constant bow-rising wave-front to indicate that it is moving under power, even low power. There is only some strange wobbling of the boat, ‘well this mystery will soon solve itself….’ I say to myself, as I lower the binoculars and cross the road to go up on the little plateau with the benches where the main area of our operations was.
Suddenly one of the two cars that have gone to patrol the Western coast to seek the other three boats comes back to the camp fast, a large cloud of dust kicking behind it. It brakes, and Nikos another volunteer, comes out with a little baby wrapped up in a golden-foil thermal blanket. He races into the medical tent, and slowly out of the same car comes the mother and the father, along with what looked as the grandfather, and all slowly head up to the tent. I have no time to go and see what is going on, but with Asimo and the Norwegian nurses around the tent, I would not be of any extra help anyway. ‘Two boats made landfall on the rocky western shore’, ‘we do not know where the third one went’ says Nikos in a resigned voice as he comes back to the idling car, ‘refugees from both boats climbed up the road, and are marching towards us, about 60-70 people, many children’ he tells me. He then gets back into the car and leaves for the western shore to pick up any other people in urgent need and bring them to our camp.
In a pattern of assistance, we used along the coast, the top emergencies were the medical ones, to be driven to the camp first. Then it was families with children deemed too young to walk the 3-4 kilometres of the coastal road, and/or those with infants, or with grandparents. However, with entire families riding on those boats, all three generations marching out on road after landfall, made the choice of lower level emergencies difficult to put it mildly. So what we typically did, was to drive to the back of often very spread-out columns of people marching towards the camp, pick up those we deemed the weakest and drive them up to the camp. We would then go back and do it again and again, until this column of misery and tiredness was shortened significantly, and its front deemed to be close enough to the camp. This was a very improvised pattern and much sketchier than what this clinical description implies simply because we never had enough cars available for this. At best we had two, usually just one, the other used to transport medical cases that our field doctors deemed serious enough to be send to Mytilene’s hospital. As for ambulances that could be at hand for such a purpose, the entire island of Lesvos had two, and with the financial crisis in Greece raging, no prospects for more. Still, while I was there, these ambulances came quite a few times to transport wounded or sick refugees to the main hospital. During my last days at Sykaminia a donated ambulance arrived from Wales, I hope there are more there now. I shuddered at the thought of what must be the situation in other smaller Eastern Aegean islands like Kos, Chios, Leros, and tiny Kastellorizo. They had much fewer such resources and must have been impacted by these large refugee streams even more disproportionally, especially given their smaller populations.
As I watch Nikos’s car vanish in a trail of dust, the front of a column of people appears in the distance, coming from the Western shore walking along the coastal road. On this sunny day, with many of them already wrapped in the golden-foil of the thermal blankets, it was the strangest of sights. As they drew nearer I could see exhausted faces, limping people, children walking along parents that often also cradled infants. It was that image more than those of approaching boats that made me suddenly realize, that in terms of immediacy, a war zone was not that far, and here is what comes of that ‘machine’. As they now stream pass me, some manage a smile, a ‘thank you’ in Arabic, Farsi, English, Greek, or some combination thereof, but most too tired even for that. ‘Our benches will come handy’ is my first thought, ‘how the hell did they manage to climb up to the road?!’ my immediate second, ‘the coast there is so far below the road’ I am thinking in amazement. I guide them to the food station for warm soup or tea, cookies and milk for the children, so they could get some strength, changing into dry clothes can come later…
‘They are paddling!’ Alexandros says. I turn and see the boat we thought as idle close enough now so we could see its engine indeed not running. The men on board use their bare hands and two miserable oars to push an inflatable loaded with 40-50 people slowly, agonizingly, ashore. The mysteries of the lack of boat wake and the strange wobbling are solved, but still I cannot not believe my eyes given the distance involved! As they came close, their joy in making it ashore palpable, we cheered with them. We took them out, again many children. Apparently their outboard engine had seized up about mid-distance between Lesvos and the Turkish coast so they paddled the rest of the way with the two miserable oars and their bare hands. No wonder it was a slow coming boat, and the men that did this went to lie down on the shore, their weather-worn faces up to the sky, for a long time before receiving any food or dry clothes.
Later on one more column of people approached us from the West. There are around 100 people in the camp now, many children, and several infants at the baby station under the tree. Our provisions are taking a beating with this third wave. Tomorrow somebody would have to go to Angalia’s depot in Kaloni with a truck and bring material to re-stock pretty much everything. The weather helps for now, just light to moderate winds, no rain. The latter would render our current clothes ‘department’ and baby care stations unusable as they are set out in the open and on that dry riverbed. In the case of a strong rain, we had no hope that that dry riverbed would stay dry.
Today was the last day we knew we could depend on a doctor present in our operations. Asimo goes back in Athens early tomorrow, to her regular job. For the days she was with us, overworked and exhausted, her presence was crucial, I wish we had more people like her with us. The UNHCR/Stage-2 camp above the village, managed by the NGO ‘Faros’, had yet to get a doctor during those early days of October, despite all that salaried staff and the significant financial resources such NGOs commanded (significant with respect to the all-volunteer, self-organized effort like the one I joined that is). Alexandros’ words during our drive to Sykaminia came back to my mind. Still, despite its woeful under-preparation at that time, Stage-2 was critical as the place where refugees would gather and where the large buses (supplied by the city of Mytilene, later rented by UNHCR on a regular basis) would come to pick them up. They would then be taken to the refugee identification/classification centers of Moria or Karatepe. Finally, Stage-2 had a large capacity to shelter people from the elements, which our much smaller operation base on the coast could not deploy.
Later that day we learned that the other remaining boat drifted all the way to Molyvos and its port, where the locals helped the people ashore. There was no news about what happened to the one that we saw heading East towards the cape of ‘Korakas’. Five more refugee boats arrived that day, before the lull which we expected, the one to to last until late afternoon finally came.