Chapter 18: Grandmothers, anarchists, and NGOs

Every morning when I came to our operations field, and if I was not rushing about with some urgent task, I would be invariably and warmly greeted by three grandmothers from Skala, sitting on a bench close to our impromptu entrance (where Bryan’s kitchen was). They would praise us like we were children (which we were for them I guess). Sometimes they would take and feed some babies of the refugees, which could then momentarily dash to Bryan’s kitchen to get some soup, or simply wash in the public sink next to the grandmothers’ bench. A particular photo of them, with one of them bottle-feeding such a baby made it around the world media, making them something of celebrities, but I did not know this at the time. One day one of them tells me these exact words: ‘these poor souls, running away from their homes, so awful for them…(pause)…but it is good they come here, for we were so lonely before’. One of the simplest, most unpretentious, statement of humanism I ever heard. Khalid once told me that they used to tell him ‘Welcome to Lesvos’ for a few mornings, thinking him as one of the refugees, until they figured he worked with us, after that he entered their ‘Good morning’ list, to Khalid’s infinite amusement.

Not all was peaceful between the people of the small village of Skala and the anarchists whose initiative set up the camp next to it, or between us and the NGOs operating on that coast. Today I saw Yannis, almost jumping on a poor public employee from the municipality that came with a garbage van to pick up the considerable waste gathering every day at the camp which we put in large plastic garbage bags outside the camp. ‘What happened?’ I ask him, ‘Well he said that this is the last time he picks up the trash, and within three days the camp must pack up and go!’ Yannis says. ‘On whose orders?’ I ask him. ‘Apparently of the mayor of the village’ he replies. ‘Why?’ I ask, ‘Well because apparently the mayor wants the UNHCR/Stage-2 camp uphill to be the only one left around here’ Yannis says. ‘Maybe our friends operated way off the local society consensus scale by taking over a piece of public land belonging to the Sykaminia municipality’ I retort, ‘Maybe’ Yannis says uneasily. When that same public worker passed by our spot again, I went up to him: ‘I am sorry’ I tell him. Him understanding that my sorry was about Yanni’s previous reaction, he simply says: ‘I want to help you people, I do not mind you here, but I am only doing my job, don’t be so fast with your judgments’.

There is a coordination meeting scheduled tomorrow between us, people from the NGO ‘Faros’ running the UNHCR/Stage-2 camp, and representatives of the village people. Given today’s incident with the public utility worker, I resolve to go, even as I never imagined myself going to any meetings on this coast, regardless how informal (the meeting is to be held in a cafe in the village). I may be able to smooth the ground between what appeared to be two different operating philosophies. Alas I did not know how different.

Later, during a small lull in our operations, I see Rob coming along the coastal road. Rob is a cool, tall, lanky English guy, with a stylish beret hat, and bookish wire-rimmed glasses who works for the NGO ‘Faros’. I greet him, and then in my first attempt to smooth the territory between the two principal refugee rescue and relief initiatives operating on the coast, I ask him whether we can use the two large tents ‘Faros’ has set in a small olive grove near us. ‘We can put refugees in there for short one-night stays in case they arrive very late’ I tell him, ‘I have to ask our director, but I personally think you should be able to if that need arises’ he says. He then adds, ‘but I guess one person from our team should be there monitoring the use of the tents and checking who goes in’. Later on I chat with Yannis, ‘I think our anarchist friends will never accept any such checking whatsoever, or the presence of a Faros representative’ Yannis tells me, ‘they consider such NGOs just money-making establishment tools’ Yannis says, sounding very pessimistic about such pooling of resources. ‘But Yanni, we will need those tents if the refugee arrivals keep rising, and especially if boats arrive late in the night’ I tell him, ‘Stage-2 has no buses running then, and we have no place to shelter people’ I retort. ‘Yes, yes I know, I know, this is the most logical thing to do’, Yannis says, and then tells me that he will talk to them. To my eyes, this is an obvious thing to do. It may even help smooth the relations between our operation and some of the locals since Faros is an accredited NGO with a formal permission of the municipality of Skala Sykaminias to operate the Stage-2 camp.

The exchange of words between Yannis and the anarchists regarding this issue, was rather brief. ‘I think it will be great to have access to those tents of the Faros people next to us, in case we have many refugee arrivals, and buses at Stage 2 have stopped for the night’ Yannis says, ‘I do not know about this Yanni, I am too busy here, better ask Alexandros’, Iro says dismissively while sorting clothes in the clothes station. Later on Yannis does just that, to only receive from Alexandros the reply that Faros people would subject us to their protocols to use those tents, and he would have none of this. ‘Besides, we are fine with what we have, we do not need those tents’ he says, ‘taking the refugees up to their Stage 2 camp is cooperation enough’ he adds tersely and closes the conversation. I can see Yannis barely holding his anger at this response, and then he takes for a patrol. ‘I better go to that meeting tomorrow’ I tell myself, otherwise the camp’s days may be numbered, a confrontation with the local municipality looming three days from now.