Chapter 23: Alert on the coast!

‘Come down to the coast immediately!’ Alexandros tells me in a call that wakes me up very early in the morning in the dark of my apartment in Kaloni. ‘There are boats, boats everywhere!’ he says and abruptly hangs up. I quickly get up and rush out after putting on the same soggy pants and shoes from yesterday, soaked when I jumped in the sea to help a boat ashore. I come down, get a coffee and a pasteli from the cafe, rush to the car and quickly drive out of Kaloni. I reach Mantamados and pass by the Medecins sans Frontieres camp outside it. Now unlike all previous days there are numerous families camped out in front of its big tent in addition to a long line of people in front of the entrance of its biggest tent. Within only a few days this place went from an empty camp, its large spacious tents looking adequate to cope with the refugee flows we had, to one filled to the brim.  Buses from the UNHCR started arriving to pick up people from there as well (maybe those buses going to Stage-2 were no longer enough?), and take them to Mytilene’s port, as to keep the camp manageable. It seemed to work for now, but barely.

I drive on and upon reaching the cresting part of the road, I look out to the sea channel between Lesvos and Turkey. There is the Greek Coast Guard ship, the FRONTEX one, and another boat (maybe the Norway-contributed one) all doing wild interception manoeuvres, wide curves and speed-ups marked by large white-foam wakes. I start towards Skala, and well before I reach the UNHCR/Stage-2 camp outside the village, I realise that this will not be an ordinary day, even by the standards of what we faced up to now. Walking up the steep road towards me, there are several columns of refugees. Not the mere smattering of a few tens of people I saw during my first day, but hundreds! Long columns of people snaking up along the small village road, men in the front, but not far behind women cradling infants, children in tow, grandmothers and grandfathers wearily, slowly, making their way up. Many people are dripping wet, not a thermal blanket in sight, not even for the little ones! A sorry sight to me since I was used to the fixture of gold-foil thermal blankets wrapping up these people soon after arrival on the coast. I get the few such blankets I had in the car, stop, and give them out to the first ones I deemed the most vulnerable, some children. While I am doing so I am swarmed by young people that speak English, Syrians. ‘Where is the Mantamados camp? The buses?’ they ask me, ‘Why are you walking there?’ I ask back, ‘why don’t you stay at the UNHCR camp outside the village?’ I continue, ‘the Mantamados camp is far, and buses come also to the UNHCR camp’ I tell them. ‘The UNHCR camp is full, no buses go there anymore’ some tell me, to my utter surprise. ‘What the hell is going on?’ I now find myself thinking. It cannot fathom that Stage-2 overflowed in less than a day. When I passed by it last night it all looked OK, no line up, and the buses have taken most people to Mytilene, the remaining ones all sheltered inside its large tents.

I start doing transports of the people I deemed as the most vulnerable towards Mantamados. At some point while standing there, the car idling, waiting for some people to come in for another transport my mobile rings again. ‘Where are you?’ Alexandros demands, ‘…come down here immediately we have medical emergencies for transport to Mytilene, we need you to drive them there!’ he says. That does it. I go into the car again and slowly continue downhill towards Skala. The stream of people walking up past me continues unabated, and I have not even reached anywhere near the UNHCR/Stage-2 camp yet. I now roll up all the windows, and try to maintain a look-ahead-only cold and determined look on my face so I can make it past these columns of misery in some fashion, without having to stop all the time to explain why I cannot drive people up or help them in any other way. Still every now and then I glance sideways, and my eye catches mothers cradling infants, and 3, 4, 5 year olds following exhausted in tow. Tired little boys and girls looking back at me…, for a moment I picture my little son among them, or my niece…

’…Shit! I should stop right now put them in the car for transport to Mantamados, to hell with the fucking camp!’ I find myself thinking, an ache in the heart every time I pass by such a group, and they were many. I roll the windows down again, and the moment they catch my eye, or try to ask me a question, ‘Medical problem’ I keep telling them like a drone repeatedly, pointing with my left hand down to the coast, the other on the wheel. Most do not understand, a quizzical look in their eyes making the corner of my eye as I drive slowly past them, some do and manage a faint smile of understanding, a smile that meant the world to me then. I kept on driving.

Now with the shore closer the sight is overwhelming. There are boats, boats everywhere, at various distances and stages of approach from the coast, along almost the entire east-west horizon! It now seems as one long continuous wave rather than a collection of two three discrete ones as in the previous days. It is now obvious what Alexandros meant. I finally reach the level of the UNHCR/stage-2 camp, and I almost cannot see its grounds because of the sheer number of people crowding in the small alley in front of it. For some reason there are no buses, so the number of people that walk up to it keeps pilling up. No wonder some decided to walk all the way to the distant Mantamados camp. At the entrance to the camp’s inner grounds a Faros employee shouts something in English at the people lining up to get in, ‘This will not help much’ I murmur, and I slowly continue past it towards the final steep downhill stretch of the road to the village. The road between the village and the operations field is chock-full with refugees. Yannis’ car slowly passes through them heading in the opposite direction, it stops next to me, stoplights flashing, he nods, ‘Medical emergency to Mytilene Hospital’ he tells me, pointing to a family inside and continues on. I finally reach the entrance of our operations field and stop the car as a worn-out-looking Alexandros approaches me.

‘It was six in the morning when they started arriving’ Alexandros starts, ‘…and they have not stopped since’ he tells me. ‘Worse was that the landfalls were scattered almost along the entire coast, each boat full to the brim, and with more children and old people than the usual’ Alexandros says. ‘We could not cope with them all. So those that landed far had to make it out on their own and simply walk here, we took immediate care only of those that made landfall close to our position.’ I look around our operations field, every station is full! In the baby station alone there are four babies been changed on the table, as many as it can hold, with several mothers and their babies waiting for their turn. In the clothes station any semblance of order is gone. With so few volunteers, we now simply point to the various cartoons containing the dry clothes and the changing place for women, and let the refugees sort it out by themselves. We manage to help some vulnerable cases, but still, it is far from adequate. Bryan looks sad for the first time, staring at his empty soup pots, all this within the course of a few hours, scattered empty Styrofoam cups all around. Even the numerous packaged food supplies kept in the tent next to Bryan’s kitchen are exhausted, only a few milk cartoons left. Marina and Kostas, two volunteers from the village working in that tent today, looked around incredulously, not believing what has happened. ‘We have nothing to give but water from now on’, she says, ‘unless we can re-provision today or early tomorrow’ Marina adds. Outside the medical tent there is a line-up of 15-20 people, all waiting to see the doctors. At some point Meliades comes out, the easy royalty of his manners absent, weary-looking he enters the tent again, now with a young Afghani mother and a wailing infant and Khalid in tow for translation.

As the night approaches boat arrivals are tailing off, maybe this one aspect of the pattern of arrivals will hold, who knows. There have already been 40 boats, each having 30-40 people arriving on it, an astounding 1200 to 1600 people arriving on the coast over the course of a single day! I start taking up people to stage-2, helped by another man from Athens, also called Yannis. He drives a small beaten-up green car, and he is also filling his car with people to the brim as well. Fortunately, buses returned to Stage-2 later that day, taking many people to Mytilene and unclogging the UNHCR camp. This meant that the people we were taking up there now could sleep sheltered for the night. Later on Yannis (the diver), returned from his medical emergency transport to Mytilene’s hospital, and joins us in this camp-to-camp transport. In a funny scene that took place in the small alley in front of the entrance of Stage-2 camp (where we momentarily parked our cars for people to get out) Yannis stops his car very tightly next to that of another volunteer doing such (stage-1)-(stage-2) transports: ‘So here I see my favourite neurosurgeon in Lesvos!’ Yannis says loudly, the window from the other car then rolls down: ‘…and here is my favourite diver in Lesvos!’ another voice exclaims, it is Hamdi the Greek-Syrian doctor, they both laugh, U-turn their cars (a tough task in a small alley filled with refugees), and down they went to pick up more people to bring up.

Later in the night a minivan, driven by Dutch volunteers from an NGO whose name I do not remember, came to our operations field and picked up few people, mostly families, that were still there and took them to the camp OXY near Molyvos to spend the night. This was a welcome first, since relief workers from that NGO and camp dealt primarily with refugees arriving to the western end of the coast, near Molyvos, well beyond our range of operations. In another first, Rob from Faros, I suspect without authorization from his boss up at Stage-2, let us use one of the two tents to shelter about 20 people, 5 children and one infant among them, the last refugees left in our operations area.

‘Rob what is going on man?’ I ask him stunned by today’s large wave of people that so unpredictably came rushing to our shores. ‘I do not know’ he says faintly, his face one of subsiding shock and rising tiredness, ‘I do not know’ he repeats to himself rather than me. ‘Maybe the good weather was responsible for it’ Rob continues, looking unconvinced by his argument. ‘That cannot be the only reason Rob’ Yannis interjects. He had just come back from the last transport of people up at Stage-2. ‘We had good weather before, and nothing of this sort of surge happened’ Yannis says. ‘Maybe something political has gone off over there, or one more Syrian town got sacked by this or the other army of fucks’ Yannis says.

‘We barely managed to shelter people for tonight’ I say, ‘this is worrying, we should be prepared if this happens again’ I add. ‘I agree’ says Rob. Then there in the darkness, exhausted, we quietly made an informal pact. That we will use all the resources on the coast, the two large tents of Faros next to us, even the small ones we had at Stage-1 (to store material that needed to be dry, and only temporally house people awaiting doctor examination or transport to Mytilene’s main hospital), we would use them so that nobody would sleep outside once nightfall comes and temperatures drop, nobody. We would do this without waiting for any damn authorization from anybody should this red line be approached again.

I stayed at our operations field for a night watch together with Yannis until one in the morning, should any surprise boat arrivals happen. They did not, so afterward, after eating at the tavern of Lefteris and Grigoris (they kept it open again for the two of us), we left Sykaminia. I arrived at Kaloni a ghost, and went to sleep after setting the alarm for six o’ clock in the morning.