Chapter 16: You are safe now!

The next day I got up, looked out of the window, scattered clouds only, still very windy. I see two calls from Sakis on my mobile, so while I am buying coffee and breakfast from a cafe in Kaloni for my on-the-road breakfast, I return them. ‘Good morning Saki, how are things?’ ‘All fine here Petro, I just called to see how are you, how are things at Sykaminia?’ he asks, ‘They are getting bad’, I reply, ‘we have steadily increasing numbers of people, only last night high winds stopped the flow early’ I add. ‘I heard reports of drown people there today Petro’ he tells me, ‘and I called you to see if all is OK’. ‘I have not been down there yet, I don’t know’ I reply. ‘Well, these are news we got from the Coast Guard today’ Sakis tells me. ‘If any boats did set out last night or early this morning, they would be in trouble’, I tell him, ‘Once you know please let me know, and be careful yourself’ Sakis says. After ending the call, I start racing the car towards Mantamados. After I exit this village I glance towards the Medecins Sans Frontieres camp. Many tents are there now, some buses, and many more refugees, but its capacity still comfortably accommodating the number of people around it.

As I drive towards the North shore and the final stretch to Sykaminia I check for Greek Coast Guard and FRONTEX ships from the usual vantage point. There is only one ship, I am not sure which, doing a regular East-West sweep, no wild turns or irregular patterns. ‘I guess the strong winds still hold refugee boats back’ I thought. Then I see what appears to be a naval-grey Turkish frigate sailing similar patterns but nearer to the Turkish coast, ‘well maybe this does it as well’. A bit later I see some refugees walking on the road towards me and presumably towards the Medicins Sans Frontieres camp I just passed. A car ahead of me going towards the same direction as me suddenly stops next to a group of refugees. The person inside it then starts handing some things out of the car window, it continues on, stops again and the same act repeats with another group of refugees. I slow down to figure what is going on, then after the fourth such stop, the car U-turns and heads back towards me. I slow down and hail it to stop. ‘Good morning, what are you doing?’ I ask him, ‘Just handing out water, and some dried fruits for the road’ a local middle-aged man replies nonchalantly, ‘…but I ran out of supplies just after a few stops’, he complains, ‘…made the mistake to hand too much at the beginning, I should have even out the distribution better…’ he continues, ‘Still a great idea’ I tell him, and drive on. ‘A damn good idea, I should do this myself’ I think as I drive away, the column of refugees now past me.

As I arrive to the camp, I see a few tens of refugees there already, the rough equivalent of two boats. Alexandros looks grim, his dark eyes, darker still ‘All OK?’ I ask, ‘…a large wooden boat capsized on the West coast, far outside Molyvos today, by the time the Coast Guard and fishermen reached it, 10 people drowned, several children among them…’ he says. I look out to the sea, full of wave and spray, ‘we cannot operate out there…’ I repeatedly tell myself, trying to calm down, ‘we can only do things near shore…’, still it feels terrible, just damn terrible.

By late afternoon the Turkish frigate is gone and so is the Greek Coast Guard ship. ‘Boats many boats are out!’ Khalid tells us, pointing towards several directions. I guess strong winds are not that much of a deterrent during daytime, or maybe the traffickers just waited for the ‘road’ to clear of frigates and Coast Guard ships, who knows. One wonders why would the refugees step into overloaded rubber inflatables during such windy days to begin with, why not wait for calmer ones? After all many of them stayed for days on the Turkish coast waiting for a passage. I have been told that the traffickers simply lower the prices during such days, and keep sending out boatloads of people. Still I suspect that this is not the whole story.

Like today, strong winds in the North Aegean typically emanate from northerly directions. The Turkish shore where the boats are launched being exactly northward of ours meant that even during windy days like today the sea near the opposite shores would appear deceptively calm, the Turkish coast being in the wind ‘shadow’ projected by the mountains there. But this also meant that when the refugee boats would reach mid-sea, and out of that ‘shadow’, the waves would be whipped up by the full strength of the north wind. By the time this happened the boats would be near or have already crossed into Greek territorial waters, and very difficult to try and turn around against the wind, even if such a notion could be contemplated by people on an inflatable loaded to the brim in rough seas. Moreover, even as commanding the boat would become difficult because of the much larger waves whipped up mid-passage, the wind would still be pushing it towards the general direction of the North shore of Lesvos anyway.  All this makes for a very cold-blooded calculation, easily applicable to people without sea experience as the vast majority of the refugees is, but it also made for some truly terrified arrivals on our coast during such days. One can only imagine the terror among those people as they suddenly became near helpless mid-sea, while even small deviations of the wind from a strictly northern direction would serve to scatter their boats across the entire coast between Molyvos and out to the cape of Korakas to the east of the village of Skala.

An hour later we can see, without binoculars now, all those approaching boats Khalid indicated. ‘They are all over the place!’ Nikos, a local man volunteering in our food tent, shouts. Two boats head well to the east of our position, to Korakas, where the coast is rocky and inaccessible by the road, and three head towards to our general direction. The Spanish lifeguard team already started signalling in order to draw the boats towards a smooth patch of the coast, some of our people do the same, though I doubt if these boats have much capacity for significantly changing directions now. ‘Not in this wind, and not if they are as heavily-laden as they usually are’ I am thinking. Later on we can guess where one of them will likely make landfall and start going there. By the time we reach the place the boat has drawn closer, and I can see the people on it, mixed nationalities it seems. The man manning the outboard is doing some erratic moves as they approach risking having the boat caught sideways by the waves. In previous landfalls some smiles would already be forming by now among the people aboard. Not today. Only terrified looks and silence as the boat draws nearer and nearer to the cresting rollers.

‘Those fucking rollers!’ Yannis exclaims, cursing the only downside of a smoothly shallowing beach when it comes to landfalls, namely its high rolling waves when strong winds buffet it from the sea. This is what we had today, not very high, but high enough to worry. When nobody was there to help them ashore, some refugees would find tragic deaths a mere 20-30 meters away from shore as these rollers seized and capsized their boats. On rocky shores the rubber boats would be thrown about the rocks by the waves, some of the chambers puncturing, with often fatal consequences. Such tragedies were made easier by the usually poor seamanship and sheer fear of the person manning the outboard engine, a refugee himself. He would be appointed ‘captain’ by the traffickers, after just a cursory lesson of less than an hour on how to handle the outboard taking place in the beach from where the boats were launched. Children were the most vulnerable during such accidents for obvious reasons and their parents, mostly unable to swim themselves, could hardly help.

Our near shore experience and the much more comprehensive one of the Greek Coast Guard designated such moments as some of the most dangerous for losing people. We tense up as the boat, loaded with more than 30 people, comes closer. We are waiting for it, Yannis, Alexandros, me, and Nikos, all of us in the water. We grab it from both sides trying to stabilize it, then one side violently slips from our hold, the boat turns sideways, exposed to the next cresting roller…

We turn the boat quickly so that it faces the crashing wave on its stern rather than being caught sideways in it (a sure recipe for capsizing). At least this time the ‘captain’ has turned the motor off so we have only the momentum of the rollers themselves to face. Then the adults on board start doing two things simultaneously, giving us waling babies and terrified crying children, while many of them started jumping out of the boat from every side of the boat possible. Shouts and screams fill the air around us along with the heavy boom of the rollers. At the end, after few moments of sharp terror, we get hold of both sides of the boat and everybody on shore, wet to the bone. Nikos goes to bring thermal blankets from his car. We give them all out, but they are not enough. Yannis puts a family in his car and takes them to the camp, I do the same, while Alexandros and Nikos stay behind to give directions to the rest. As I drive towards the camp I see the other boat having made a successful landfall with the help of the Spanish lifeguard team, the people from it are now walking towards the camp. At the end it all went well. Still even with few boat arrivals on windy days like these, we have come to dread them as the possibility of near-shore fatalities rose dramatically. I don’t want to even imagine what the personnel of the Greek Coast Guard must be going through, having witnessed so many of deaths both near and far shore while operating around Lesvos and the other North-Eastern Greek islands.

‘Some people have swum right into the village’ Manos tells me when I arrive back to the camp, his happy-go-lucky face replaced by seriousness. ‘Hell, there must have been another boat arrival we did not notice’ I tell myself. ‘Well, jump in, let’s go’ I tell Manos after the family I transport, Syrians-Kurds from Kobane, comes out to our clothes station to change. We arrive in the small village square, and in the small cafe/restaurant adjacent to the small harbour there is commotion with many locals coming in and out. We make our way inside to find three dripping wet people, two teenagers, and one middle-aged man with a moustache shaking badly, all three are naked but fully wrapped in thermal blankets. ‘This is certainly not the whole boat’ I tell Manos.

‘What about the rest of the people? Where the hell did the boat land?’ I ask the locals. ‘There was no boat, they just swam into the village harbour’ they tell me impossibly, ‘What?!’ I ask incredulously, ‘How could that be?’, ‘We do not know’ they reply. Manos examines the middle-aged man, ‘hypothermia and fear’ he tells me, ‘We better get them some dry clothes’. I go back to the camp and bring some trousers. After putting them on, and with thermal blankets now wrapped only from the waist up all three of them step out in the village square. The young ones understand English, the mid-age man only a little, Syrians.

‘We jumped off the boat’ they tell me, ‘What boat? Where?’ I ask. Then they went on to tell me that they were on a boat whose outboard stopped mid-sea, so they started drifting with the strong wind taking them eastwards of the village. With the approaching shore appearing rocky, these three decided to jump and try to swim to the village itself, and here they are, a father and his two sons.

‘It may have been one of the two boats we saw going towards Korakas’, ‘we should send a car there, go as far down towards the shore as the dirt roads allow’ I say to Manos. I then turn to see the father still shaking, ‘Don’t worry, you are safe now! No bombs, no Assad, no militias’ I tell him. Upon hearing this, he starts crying, and kept shaking. I turn around and give him a steady hug, and I continue: ‘Why are you crying? You are safe now papa! You hear me? Safe! And your boys are here too! What is there to worry?!’ He kept tearing up but now a faint intermittent smile started cracking up on his face, and his boys? Well those bastards simply started laughing! At the end, a laughter of relief and camaraderie spread from them to me, the father, and to Manos as we all walked out of the little village square towards the camp.

Our search around the cape of Korakas came up empty. A shepherd there told us of a large column of refugees that walked through his village early in the morning. I cannot fathom how they made it up from that coast, and whether they all did.

The next day before I left Kaloni I bought water bottles and dry figs from a small hole-in-the-wall grocery shop next to my apartment. I wanted to do the same trick the local driver did yesterday. The grocer upon hearing my purpose he hands me another sachet of figs for free, and this was a man so poor that once quietly asked Sakis to buy him some lunch for he had no money that day. On my way out I see that he has some good vegetables at great prices, the thought of our celebrated field cook came to my mind, ‘maybe I should tell him this’ I think, smiling at the very thought of Bryan.