Chapter 25: All camps are full!

Alexandros had not called me not because the shore was quiet but because they were utterly overwhelmed, even more so than yesterday if that was possible, with 30 boats having already arrived by mid-day, landfalls continuing unabated when I arrived at the operations field! The coast was so full that for a while I could not see any volunteers, either from our own operations or those of ‘Faros’, our numbers swamped by the numbers of refugees already at the coast. Finally, I see Apollo, ‘What is going on?’ I ask, ‘Same story as yesterday’ he tells me, ‘…only with even more boats’ he adds. I join the volunteers at the clothes station, we can barely keep up with people asking for dry clothes. Later on I see Bryan wandering about, a stunned look in this eyes, ‘I guess no soup today’ I think. Later it turned out that poor Bryan did not even cook a new set of pots, no provisions arrived today, and he had exhausted his supply of vegetables yesterday.

The Greek Coast Guard and FRONTEX ships are doing wide-arc interception manoeuvres, yet this does not deter the traffickers, as they keep sending out boats. At some point I see the Coast Guard ship slowly towing a large inflatable to the port of Molyvos. Khalid is absorbed solely by translator duties now, there is no point him looking out for boats launched and coming, we knew they were there. All I remember from that part of the day was that I was running from station to station, helping here, helping there, yet having the feeling I was merely treading water. Then news reaches us of a refugee boat that foundered near the small cape of ‘Korakas’, a mother with her child drowned, the Coast Guard recovered their bodies from the coast this morning.

Angry at our inability to do anything about such events happening in inaccessible parts of the coast, I am thinking of taking the car and drive on the steep downhill and uneven dirt road that nearly reaches that cape, to search for the rest of the people that must have come out, give them water and thermal blankets and guide them out. ‘There is really no point in doing this Petro’ Marina, the local woman volunteering in the food tent tells me, ‘those that made it there will have already left that place by now and be on their way to Mantamados’ she adds. ‘If they made it out’ I add to myself…

As the day progresses we run out of dry clothes to give out. There is only tea to be had at Bryan’s station, milk and cookies at the packaged food tent. A group of young Syrians, all wet, come up to me and ask whether they can get dry clothes somehow. I am astonished to find myself angry, momentarily thinking of our inability to help as in the previous days, somehow to be their fault. “Too many boats…, too many boats! No more clothes!” I tell them loudly now and repeatedly, “30 boats already! No clothes!’ I find myself saying. Then, one of them simply puts his hand on my shoulder, “Do not worry” he tells me smiling, “we know, we know that you do all you can do for us, and for this we have only thanks”. This checks me and in a low voice that now contains all my weariness, and sense of defeat (and the day is not even over yet), I tell them how much we would like to help more. Then, another one of these young guys tells me: “We are safe here, no bombs, nobody is trying to kill us, so no worry, this is already Paradise, no worry!”. “Hell, here we are, people out of a war zone doing psychological support to me” I find myself laughing at this thought[1]. I make some small talk with them, all young professionals out of the war zones of Syria, an engineering student here, a young dentist there, a computer programmer…, the human smithereens of the exploded middle class of Syria. “European countries should be fighting over who is going to get more of them rather than trying to pass the buck or worse…” I find myself thinking, news of water-cannoning of refugee columns up on the Balkan corridor having reached us recently.

At around 3 pm there is a lull in boat arrivals, “maybe the ‘break’ that the traffickers usually give us is here” I think hopefully. I was ravenous with hunger, as there was no soup today. I guess many in our operations felt the same way since unlike past days when we stayed in the camp to clean up and organize ourselves for the next wave, we found ourselves sitting in a long table at the ‘Mouria of Myrivilis’ tavern ordering food with near murderous intentions. I savoured even the ordering of the various plates. Our orders then go to the kitchen, and we do some small talk with Grigoris. Smells of grilled fish waft from the kitchen, a quiet anticipation in many faces while waiting for the food to arrive.

‘Boats, many boats are out!’ says Alexandros after bursting into the tavern, the food yet to arrive. ‘Shit’ I tell myself, ‘There goes the damn lunch’ Yannis says cursing the traffickers across the considerable range of curses in his vocabulary. In near unison everybody gets up, and then in complete disarray, tumbling over tavern chairs, we all run back to the operations field. I find Khalid on the beach looking intensely towards the North-Western coast, while Yannis immediately leaves for that part of the coast along with Manos. As I look out to sea another large wave of boats slowly materializes in the horizon, its largest concentration heading towards those difficult shores.

An additional 10 boats arrived during the supposed ‘break’, making a total of 50 boat arrivals. This amounts to nearly 2000 people arriving on the North shore of Lesvos within the course of a single day. Many have been taken care of by the people at the OXY camp near Molyvos, but a great many walked towards our operations field, or have landed right on it. Then, as the night progressed and we were giving out the few things left to give, word reaches us from the UNHCR/Stage-2 not to send any more people up there anymore The camp was full. There would be nowhere to shelter them if we sent them up, we were told, and with buses no longer running, refugees send there would have to sleep outside for the night.

‘Rob lets go and prepare those tents’ I say to Rob who has just come down to the coast. ‘Yes but if we do, with so many refugees still around here, we will be quickly overwhelmed. They may rush the tents…’ he tells me and he is right. ‘There is not enough space in the tents for all of them’ he adds. To make matters worse, one of the Dutch volunteers that have just arrived from camp OXY driving their small white minivan tells us that OXY is full as well. ‘We can do only one more transport to OXY besides this one’ she says, ‘after this, it is over for tonight, we are full’ she tells us firmly. ‘How long will it take until you are back here for that last one?’ I ask her, ‘About an hour’ she replies. I check out her van, it can take in 15-20 people, I make a mental note of this, as it means that we could afford such an overflow at Stage-1, provided she and her friends from OXY indeed come back for that last transport. ‘Yes’ she assures me, ‘Do not worry, we will come back!’ and then she drives off towards the west coast and OXY, with the van crammed with refugee families, its red backlights blinking in the dark.

‘Here is what we will do Rob’ I start, ‘we will not reveal the presence of the two tents to people still around in the camp, we will fan out among them, and quietly pick the most vulnerable, families and old people, and then individually lead them in the tents, until they become full’ I tell him. ‘This sounds good’ he tells me, ‘let’s hope we can shelter at least those with children’ he adds. In my mind, this silent scheme of selecting people to take to the last shelter we had left, without the entire camp noticing and rushing the tents could work because of the darkness. Moreover, these two tents were behind a stone wall, inside a small olive grove, making them nearly inconspicuous to anyone walking along the coastal road, unless he purposely came near to the entrance of that olive grove.

Thus, me, Rob, and Yannis whom we let into the plan, and another worker from Faros start going around the many people still left in the camp. As the temperatures dropped many of them started shivering, several with wet clothes still on, or only partially changed to dry ones because we have run out of various clothes items. Many children, many old people among them. All waiting for us to do something about their miserable state, silently waiting, just looking at us, sometimes smiling in the dark, as we fan out. ‘This will be a difficult one’ I tell myself, ‘I wish they were talking to us, asking us, so I could explain that we have ran out of shelters…’ Their silence, their eyes, makes it so much more difficult, I steel myself and start.

I go up to a family, the mother with an infant in her arms, two young children around her, no man in sight. ‘Come with me’ I tell her quietly, nodding in the dark. She smiles, calls her two little ones to come along, and then in the most business-as-usual walk I take them along the coastal road for the few minutes walk to the two tents near us. It is good that the clothes ‘station’ of our operations field is towards the same direction, so for all practical purposes we simply go there for some dry clothes. While we walk, a man comes up to us and smiles, she smiles back, the father joins us. I reach the entrance of the olive grove where a Faros employee takes them, after marking down the number of people. I go back and repeat the pattern a few times, along with Rob and Yannis. One of the tents, the one where I sat with Ismael and his group some days ago, is slowly becoming full.

Finally, after I bring one more family there, the Faros employee tells me that this is it, this tent is now full, the rest must go to the last one remaining. Before she zips that tent shut so that the people in it can sleep, I take one last peek inside. In an image that I will remember for all my life for its heart-breaking fragility and unintended tenderness, all, all of Humanity seemed to be sleeping in there, huddled up under the soft white glow of a low-energy camp lamp, really it was the whole World in that tent. Children, babies, all huddled up fast asleep next to mothers and fathers, grandmothers and grandfathers, some young people still awake softly speaking to each other, the faintest of murmurs, joining the quiet breathing of so many souls. Such loneliness and such fragility under all those stars sparkling above[2].

I walk out as the Faros employee zips that tent, and go back the operations field to pick more families. Knowing the capacity of the one remaining tent, and the rough number of people still in our camp, I could make a mental calculation of how many will be left out tonight. Yet every time my mind was tempted to do this, I would send a diversion of this or the other thought, refusing to mentally add the number of people I see all around me. In a fundamentally unreal sense I just hoped that the numbers simply did not add up to this many people.

I do one more low-key selection of a family to take to the remaining tent. As we walk quietly along the coastal road towards the small olive grove next to our operations field, some people now start coalescing around us, walking in the same direction, silently. As me and the family reach the camp’s clothes station and we must now walk past it I can no longer pretend that this is simply some walk in the camp. I turn around and see quite a number of people following us now, several young men and women, some mid-aged ones, even a family. ‘You cannot come with us, only families’ I tell them, they stop and look at me quizzically, some faintly smiling. I did this well before approaching the vicinity of the olive grove where the two tents were. Then I try to resume slowly walking with the chosen family towards the tents, yet the people kept following us. ‘This is not working’ I tell myself, ‘if they see the tents, that would be it’, so I turn around once more, ‘Please go back to the camp, I can only take families with me!’ I tell them. ‘Sleep, some sleep?’, a young man asks. ‘I guess they know or must have guessed’ I tell myself. I now find myself increasingly exasperated and angry, ‘Don’t they damn understand?’ ‘I cannot leave babies sleep outside!’ I think. I turn around and say exactly this to the young man, pointing to the young woman I have with me and her infant boy sleeping in her embrace. ‘The baby must sleep inside!’ ‘I am sorry!’ I tell him. He backs off, nodding some understanding. I resume walking towards the tents once more, several people kept following us! I stop once more and repeat my mantra in an increasingly angry tone: ‘Only families, I am sorry, only families!’ I tell them. Then another young man, an Afghani I think, tells me those words: ‘…we all family, all family’ improbably pointing to all those people around us.

Those simple but devastating words shone right through the fog of my tired mind. I stop once more. ‘I am so sorry, but all camps are full’ I find myself telling them in a resigned voice. A young Syrian among them is now doing the translation to the rest, ‘you will have to sleep outside tonight’, I continue, ‘…but we try not to leave children and babies to sleep out in the open’, ‘I am sorry’. The young Syrian turns to me, smiles, and then in flawless English says: ‘We know you do all you can, we understand’ he smiles and nods. ‘Thank you’ I tell him, and he stays behind for the moment to talk to the rest, while I take the family to the tent. After a short while that second tent also became full, the entrance to the olive grove is now closed by a Faros employee with an improvised plastic fence, and all lights are turned off to keep the location of the tents secret.

[1]  This repeated a few times. Now if a rookie volunteer is to offer only one advice to the professionals of the NGOs is this: talk to the people you are trying to help, do not just wave them through from one stage to the next. Even if you lack a particular capability you would like to have to help more, tell them this, express your frustrations to them, and every now and then, you may be pleasantly surprised at the moral boost they may give you when you just needed it.
[2] Away from the immediate vicinity of the few lamp posts dotting that coast, there was very little light pollution and the view of skies blazing with stars was typical, a constant reminder of the Cosmos at large, the far out frame of Humanity’s strange and tragic canvas.