Chapter 24: Inter-camp shuttle service

In the morning I checked my mobile for any phone calls from the people on the coast, nothing. ‘Maybe it will be quieter today’ I am thinking hopefully. I wash my face where an eight-day beard grows, put on some dry clothes this time, get coffee, a pasteli and leave. As I approach the village of Mantamados, I find large refugee crowds in the village itself and beyond it. ‘Has even the Medecins sans Frontieres camp overflowed?’ I wonder. As I drive out of the village and come into view of the camp I see so many people there now that they extend its size way beyond the area of its tents. The big alley in front of it where buses come to transport people to Mytilene has now quite a few families camping there, a small smattering of still smoking fires indicating that some people must have spent the night in the open. ‘This does not start well’ I tell myself.

It is now seven o’ clock in the morning, and as I continue on driving large columns of people are walking from Sykaminia towards Mantamados, indicating an overflowing UNHCR/Stage-2 camp. Having received no urgent phone calls from Alexandros, I decide to start doing transports of people towards Mantamados. I drive to the back of a particularly long column, U-turn and then slowly drive alongside them to spot vulnerable cases. I find a mother cradling an infant, herself limping, and two small children in tow, ‘Get in’ I tell her after I stop and open the car doors. They come in alright, but then quite a few more people come up and offer me their children alone for transport. ‘Families only’ I say, ‘Families together’ I repeat, simultaneously making the sign of my two index fingers rubbing together. I am trying to adhere to a protocol of not separating families, no matter what. There are smiles all around, ‘maybe they understood me’ I think, then one man comes up with two more children, and says ‘family, family!’ pointing to the woman and the children already inside the car, she looks out and without missing a beat she says ‘family family!’ I smile, they smile, and a bunch of young Syrians laugh. ‘Well OK get in too’ I say nodding towards the car. That makes two adults, one sleeping baby, and four children in it. I drive slowly towards the Medecins Sans Frontieres camp, and still manage to fit a young couple with a small girl along the way…’I am getting good at this’ I am thinking as I arrive at the camp’s big reception alley. The people then come out and all the little ones array themselves for hugs. Tender if brief moments. Then they all leave to join the now long line-ups at the entrance of the main tent. I was about to glance away when one little boy, no more than 5-6 year-old, turns back to smile one last time, waving his little hand. That little face, all alone in that river of people, looking back, almost cracked me again…

As I slowly drive out of the camp’s front alley to go and repeat the transport pattern another car arrives in a fury, a beaten-up green one. Looks familiar. Then several refugees sitting in the camp’s front alley rise, waving and smiling towards it in unison… It screeches to a halt, and out comes Yannis that other Athenian that was with us last night, along with… eight(!) people packed into his car, picked up presumably from those long columns that kept walking out of Sykaminia. He drops them off and takes off again. I turn to Kostas, the guy at the tent’s entrance who has witnessed the entire scene, “He has been doing this for many days now” he says guessing my question, “many refugees in the camp, even if they usually stay here for just a day, recognize him and his car since he does this many times a day” he says. “…a hell of an inter-camp shuttle service” I tell Kostas, “seems a rapid one too…” I add jokingly. “I once saw him bring up 9 people in that small car, I do not know how the hell he did it” Kostas tells me. “At some point the police stopped him to check whether he was taking a fee for all this” Kostas says. “What did he do?” I ask, “…well he send that police car up here for us to verify he was indeed a volunteer, and registered it and his name with the police headquarters on the island” Kostas tells me. “After this he became literally unstoppable, doing his back-and-forth sometimes until late at night”

I leave Kostas and the Medecins Sans Frontieres camp, and head towards Sykaminia to continue bringing people back here. After a few such transports (still no telephone from Alexandros) the columns of people walking from Sykaminia towards Madamados are still substantial. Later on, agonizingly slowly Yannis the Athenian and me manage to finally ‘thin’ these refugee columns from the weak and vulnerable people. As this happens we have to drive way back, closer to Sykaminia to find families with children or old people still walking towards Mantamados in need for a lift. I am about to give this up, and leave it only to Yannis, when I chance upon an astonishing sight.

Right in front of me, on a steep uphill part of the road close to Sykaminia there is a refugee pushing a wheelchair…a damn wheelchair…! with a man with abnormally short legs on it, the face of the man doing the pushing straining with the effort, sweating a river. “How the hell did they make it to Lesvos?” I ask myself incredulously, trying to think how this could happen using a rubber boat out of the Turkish Coast, what it would have meant if they landed on the rocky parts. Still here they are… I stop and nod them in. The man with sort legs slowly comes off the wheelchair and into the car with his panting and smiling friend. The wheelchair folds, great! I load it in the back leaving the baggage door open as now it cannot close. I pick up another family along the road, and drive them to the Medecins Sans Frontiers camp. Before leaving I go up to the man arranging the order of people boarding the buses. I ask him to give priority to the two people with the wheelchair, even if they had just arrived to the camp (and long rows of people were waiting to board the buses). ‘No worries!’ he answers, and goes to pick them up to bring to the bus. When I finally head to Skala is already mid-day. On my way out, the beaten-up green car of Yannis from Athens wheezes past me, with yet another load of people.