Την άλλη μέρα ο γρίπος έφευγε, κι είδα τον καπετάν-Γιώργη να κομματιάζει ένα καπότο, μουρμουρίζοντας και κοιτάζοντας προς την θάλασσα….
The next day the fishing boat was leaving, and I saw captain George tearing apart a piece of cloth, whispering and looking out to Sea…
«Νησιώτικες ιστορίες: Καπετάν Γιώργης», Αργύρης Εφταλιώτης, Λέσβος 1894
“Island stories: Captain George”, Argyris Eftaliotis, Lesvos, 1894
‘This kakavia fish-soup is delicious’ I tell Lefteris, while Grigoris, his brother looks on with a satisfied look, him being the cook of the tavern today. It is midnight and they kept their tavern ‘Myrivilis’ Mouria’ open, just for Elena an EINA doctor, and me, wrapping up a night watch. That was our only proper meal of the day. Even though the traffickers on the other coast gave us the 2-5 pm break, we were too busy cleaning up the camp, transporting refugees up to Stage 2, re-ordering the supplies, to be able to go for lunch. ‘Well, always tell us and we will keep the place open for you people’ Lefteris says. ‘Thanks, this really means a lot to us’ I tell him. Indeed, just thinking that a good meal could be had at the end of an 18-hour day at the coast was a small mind booster of sorts. Then there was the beer, usually on the house, as several of the meals were. I drank more than I should have given the one-hour night drive needed to reach Kaloni. I usually did, for it helped calm my mind for the drive back.
Elena leaves to go to sleep in the monastery where she is hosted. I stay behind a little longer, a second beer comes around with a flourish, offered by Lefteris. I then start recounting to him a bit about the frictions between our operations and those of the UNHCR/Stage-2 camp, even as he is probably aware of them, his wife having participated in that ill-fated coordination meeting between us and the Faros people yesterday in the cafe next to the tavern. ‘Listen Petro’ he starts quietly, ‘I know all this, people of this village know all this, but understand that people here are tired. This has been going on for years…do you understand this? Years!’ he says his voice now slightly rising. ‘How many’ I ask uneasily, he then turns to his brother Grigoris, then Grigoris quietly answers that the first refugee boat, one full of Iraqis, came out here during the Iraq war, back in 2002. Seeing my surprise, Lefteris goes on: ‘What did you think? That all this started now? Or only just a year or two ago?’ ‘No Petro it has been going on for years! We took those poor people in our houses, cafes, did what we could for them, long before you people from Athens, the NGOs, or those North European countries noticed any of this!’ ‘Sometimes there would be so many refugees that we could not do much, only give them water and a bit of bread. Then they would simply walk up and then head to Mytilene on foot, day or night’ ‘Can you imagine what this does to your psychology, to have all this going on for so long?’ he demanded. ‘The nights were the worse’ he adds.
‘I can hardly picture all this Lefteri’ I say meekly, at a loss for words after such a wrenching and complete picture of the catastrophe was set in front of me. ‘This is why we really cannot accept any moralizing from the NGOs, or you people from Athens, welcome as you may be because of all the help you provide here now’ Lefteris adds, his voice rising further on the word ‘any’. A silence ensues, Lefteris looks a bit regretful for his outburst, his voice low and weary now he continues: ‘Last year one day he went out for fishing’ he says pointing to his silent brother, ‘He came upon a foundering boat full of refugees, many already at sea. He started, all alone, pulling people up on his boat. Then he jumped in to save what appear to be a whole family in the water. It was winter. He managed to pull almost all of them up, but the mother and another man, slipped, just barely slipped from his hands as he tried to grab them from their hair and pull them up to the surface. After this he refused to go out fishing for weeks, he sat alone in the village harbour looking out to the sea, chain-smoking and silent’ Lefteris’ voice trailed off to silence, his brother not saying a word.
I gave Lefteris and Grigoris a wave and a good night, thanking them for the food and the beers, and left for the car. I walked away with some new appreciation for the villagers of Skala, and thinking of the many such local people across the Eastern Aegean islands. I can only imagine the different impact of such a situation on similarly small communities in Germany, Sweden, Austria for example (commendable as they are for taking in the most refugees until now) or other North European countries, not to mention Hungary and the rest of the so-called Visegrand countries. To have some of their village and small city populations double with refugees almost overnight, and stay double for many months on end, with migration ebbing and flowing for years! This is what happened in Sykaminia and Mytilene where refugees eventually congregate. Lesvos being an island also meant that these desperate souls could not just walk away from the communities they were unwillingly but profoundly affecting. I think that in other places the long knives would have come out, the bonfires of hate and discrimination burning bright. I was glad that this did not happen here, and found myself thinking with affection even the two ‘vultures’ I saw removing the outboard engines from the rubber boats after their landfall on the coast earlier today (another mystery solved). Lefteris told me that during rough seas when boats capsized because of large shore waves, adults, children and infants falling overboard, the ‘vultures’ (as the locals called them) would throw themselves in the sea frantically trying to save people. When a death occurred they would not approach the coast again for weeks.