Chapter 13: A march of shadows

Sky blues are becoming deeper and deeper, nightfall approaches along with the time when the traffickers, if they followed their usual pattern, would send the last wave of boats, sometime between 5 and 8 pm. None of us had had any time for lunch, we made do with the soup that our cook was making for the refugees, the odd cookie here and there, and quite a lot of coffee, sleep always in short supply among us during those October days. Even without refugees present in our camp (aside from medical cases), we still had lots of work to do. Clean up as best as we could and re-order the dry clothes sets since each human wave rushing to our clothes ‘department’ would upset that ordering despite the best efforts of our volunteers to hand out clothes in an orderly fashion. A well-ordered camp was even more important for any night arrivals than daytime ones since darkness, punctuated only by the few light sources we had available, made everything more chaotic and our work more difficult.

During such lulls those of us with cars would transport families, old people, or people with obvious frailties and disabilities up to the UNHCR/Stage-2 camp sparing them the steep road up. This was often a fun task as you would get to cram the car with entire families, or otherwise large groups of people, and proceed uphill very slowly (you could hardly do otherwise). This gave us a long enough time to interact with them but not so long as to make it hard to dissociate once you had to drop them off at Stage-2, though it did not always work that way. Yannis would do several such transports day and night, feigning disgust that instead of rescue at the coast he was operating a minivan service using a …small red car instead (‘driver rather than diver’ he would put it). Today, Alexandros, upon seeing the number of people Yannis could fit in that compact red car, in a moment of rejoice said: ‘Hey Yanni, do you want me to find you a real minivan?’, to which Yannis did not answer. In his typical fashion he was already on his way up with another 7-8 people carload. I often joined him in this task with my car. During such times, given the narrow road up to Stage 2 (one-lane inside the village and barely two-lane outside), and the need to avoid scattered columns of refugees walking up (often at night), or sleeping by the roadsides, I found that a small car was not a bad choice after all. This was provided one was ready to do the Sykaminia-(Stage-2) route ten times or more during the course of a day, if he wanted to make any serious dent on the large number of people walking up.

The people we transported this way already had had time in our camp, the dangerous land and sea crossing behind them, and some safety they could at last believe in. Smiles thus instantly flourished, laughs, sparkly little boys and girls would poke their little heads over our shoulders to the front of the car to check out this funny Greek driver, and start bumbling out words we did not understand but laughed nevertheless and teased them all the while. We would continue doing this well into the night unless there was any alert for more boat arrivals on the coast. Tonight we finished such transports early evening. During the last one I saw worryingly that Stage-2 started showing signs of crowding and backlog of people left lingering in its front alley as well as inside its main perimeter (bus transports would typically stop during the night).

We decide to stay on until midnight, after which boat arrivals on our coast usually stopped. Our hero of a cook had to be persuaded to go to sleep as we needed him early the next morning. Apollo starts placing some low energy consumption camping lamps all around, one hanging from our food tent, one near the baby station under the tree, a couple in the clothes ‘department’. ‘Islands’ of soft white light created in each location, ‘submerging’ rapidly into the darkness around us within a short distance. The only well-illuminated part of our operations was the interior of the medical tent. I can now see Yannis preparing again his diving lights to start his beam sweeps of the sea in front of us. As the nightfall is now complete, I take my car to patrol the west part of the coastline, and the Greek Coast Guard ship makes its first pass in the sea in front of us, FRONTEX is not patrolling tonight. ‘Just one ship search beam to go by tonight’ I say to myself, remembering the valuable indicator role those beams play for us, from my first night watch. ‘Khalid, are you sure a night version of your day radar is not possible man?’ I ask, ‘I wish it was, Petro, but no’ he replies and laughs. It is now nearly 9 pm, ‘It is unlikely there will be any more arrivals until early morning tomorrow’ Alexandros says, but we stay on, while the Greek Coast Guard ship continues its East-West patrol sweeps in the passage between Lesvos and Turkey.

Nobody saw them coming ashore, no surprise there given a now completely night-dark sea and black or grey inflatable boats coming in slowly with their heavy human load, but to entirely miss their approach to our camp along the coastal road until they were so close to it was startling! The first people at the head of column were abruptly illuminated by a street light right next to our camp’s edge and they kept coming, emerging one after the other from a darkness that seemed to be walking alongside them, until they reached the street light right next to our camp, where she suddenly missed a step. I had finished the last patrol of the western coastline only just an hour ago and I saw nothing! They must have landed close to our location shortly afterwards, and on a patch of the coast smooth enough for them to quickly come on the coastal road, then walk towards the village lights, stumbling on our camp along their way.

Nightfall in the countryside induces an almost silent, guarded, code of conduct among humans, as long as no widespread panic or fear is present. This group of refugees approaches us silently, a long column of quiet shadows marching along the coast, faces dimly, slowly, and only transiently lit by the street lights sparingly dotting the road near the camp. One could easily conjure the disturbing image of them walking drenched right out from the night-dark sea, continuing on along the road, phantoms of all those that did not make it alive in their final passage to the island.

We quickly offer out a welcome to put them at ease.  Some must be terrified of night journey towards an unknown island coast, no matter our assurances. ‘Hell I was terrified during my first night sea passage towards a known island and its port, and I was on board a sleek sailboat, not a goddamn dingy inflatable loaded with people’ I say to myself, momentarily remembering my first such passage from Athens to the island of Kea during another October nearly three decades ago.  ‘We are from Syria, landed an hour ago, there!’ says one young man in flawless English, pointing towards the general direction of the western coastline. ‘Come in, welcome, whoever is wet please go there to get some dry clothes’ I tell them and point towards the direction of the clothes station where Iro, Eirini, and Martha are. The first refugees of the column started making a turn towards the mouth of the dry riverbed, and they kept coming, shadow faces now illuminated by the soft glow of the lamps Apollo had placed around. Some smiles, ‘thank you’ in Greek, English, Arabic, and occasionally Farsi, as they walk past me. Then towards the end of the column I saw them, children, many of them…

My first inner reaction upon seeing little boys and girls in the dead of the night on that coast, sometimes clutching a beaten up toy in one hand, and a father’s or mother’s hand on the other was: ‘My my you should be in bed by now little one!’. This silliest and simplest of reflexes, a faint smile from them, a hug from little arms to that stranger that their father or mother was now suddenly friendly with, did me in. I went and wept out of their sight for the first time since I arrived in Lesvos. Doing this towards the sea helped a little for she was dark and cloaked me, and that was good. If one is to be wounded, let it be with a chest towards the sea.

Around midnight we finished handing out dry clothes to people, some cookies and milk for the children. Then Yannis and me started transporting families up to Stage-2. It was well past midnight when we were done, with a lot of people having fallen asleep by the wayside below it. They slowly stir in the beams of my car lights as I slowly make my way back to Kaloni.