Στα ανοιχτά του πελάγου με καρτέρεψαν, με μπομπάρδες τρικάταρτες, και μου ρίξανε…
In the open waters they have set an ambush for me, with 3-masted warships, and they fired upon me…
«Άξιον Εστί», ΟδυσσέαςΕλύτης, 1959
“The Axion Esti”, Odysseus Elitis, 1959
It is now near midnight, the temperatures keep dropping, even if I, because of my constant moving around, did not feel it much. Yet people all around me, some wrapped in thermal blankets, some in some ragtag blankets, are shivering. I survey the camp, there is still several tens of people, many families with children left out of shelter. Apollo goes to look for any blankets we may have in one of the tents so that we can distribute them around. He comes out with several. People take them and start going to sleep in all places around the camp. As I walk by, my flashlight muffled by my palm in order not to startle them, I see many of them trying to sleep under only one miserable blanket they to try to stretch to cover an entire family, pieces of cardboards around them made into buffers against a light wind that now makes the atmosphere colder still.
My impromptu Syrian translator from the tent episode, is still with me. He is from Aleppo, a 23-year old engineering student, left in a haste as his city rapidly became the ultimate urban battleground in the Syrian civil war. I deliberately kept him around, even as the need for his translations diminished, with people around us going to sleep. He did not know this, but his presence and the discussions we had that night about Syria and the state of the World, helped me stave off a growing sense of defeat and helplessness. Many months later I would still remember his face, even if we talked only under the intermittent illumination of flashlights and low-level camp lamps.
At some point, while wandering around the camp, I notice an old man sitting on a rock next to the clothes station, cocooned in a blanket (he must have gotten this from Apollo I guess), only his face showing. The faint illumination, him being wrapped up like this, led my eyes to focus on his face. He seemed to be around 70-75 years old, with a moustache, and an uncanny resemblance to my late grandfather from Peloponnisos. I go up to him, and to my distress I find the old man shivering, his clothes wet since the landfall of his boat a few hours ago. A quick glance at our empty and ransacked clothes station makes it immediately hopeless looking for any clothes for him. He sees me, smiles, then slowly gets up to greet me, the blanket dropping to his feet. He rises up to nearly two meters high, his shivering momentarily gone, there is a regal patriarch in our midst!
I smile widely at this near-instant transformation, then my Syrian translator friend comes along, greets the old man, and tells me that they were on the same boat, and that several members of his extended family are with him. I hug the old man, ‘he is indeed a giant’ I think as I do this. Then I don’t know what has gotten into me just then, maybe anger on its way to become resignation, but my next words to him were exactly these: ‘Ah Papou Papou (Papou meaning grandfather in Greek), what the World has come to? You being here like this, you should be enjoying life back in Syria, surrounded by children and grandchildren…’, my words meant to release my ‘steam’ rather than be understood by the old man. Then, in another surprise, without waiting for any translation from my Syrian friend, the old man replies: ‘Ah yes yes this World, such a trouble, these days, such a trouble…the World…’ and smiles again serenely but sadly, with one of the most beautiful smiles I have ever seen, that patriarch from the East.
Later the Dutch volunteers with their minivan arrive back to our operations field as they had promised, for one last trip to take people for sheltered sleep at OXY. We first put one family with an infant in it, then the clan of the old man appears, and starts filling in. Many people, sensing that this as their last chance for a sheltered sleep, keep pilling in and nearly leave the old man out! I get angry again, and demand that he gets in, berating them for this rush. Before he boards I take the old man aside, I hug him again, not really wanting to let him go, he gives me one last smile, ‘Sokran’, he says and climbs on. Then I turn to Simpli my young Syrian translator for that night ‘Now you get in as well’ I tell him, ‘Really? I can sleep outside Petro, really no problem’ he tells me, ‘let’s go around and see if there is anybody else we can still squeeze in the van?’ he continues. ‘No, you get in as well’ I insist. He stands hesitant for a moment, then he extends his hand for a firm handshake that quickly becomes an embrace, ‘Thank you very much’ he says in Greek, and climbs on.
The red lights of the van are dimming into the distance, and I must now turn my attention to another problem. Just after the first trip of the Dutch volunteers from our operations field towards OXY, I took a family aside, a mother and father, two boys and a girl, and put them all in my car, the engine running, to keep them warm. The intention was to put them into the van once the Dutch volunteers came back for the last trip to OXY. Now the van is gone, and in the dim car cabin light I left on (so I could check the state of the family from afar) I see them all fast asleep. As I walk closer I see the father in the front seat, asleep, his little boy on top of him gently asleep as well. ‘What the hell should I do now?’ I ask myself, the thought of waking them up to tell them to join the rest sleeping out in the cold around the camp hitting me in the stomach. I stay silent, looking at the car, the family sleeping inside, the darkness around…, not wanting to move one bit or do anything, all options bad.
‘Maybe Stage-2 can get just them?’ I ask myself. Then I entertained the idea of taking them all the way to the Medecins Sans Frontieres camp in Mantamados on my way back to Kaloni, ‘but that camp was full today like the rest’ I am thinking. It was well past midnight, bus trips out of the camps having stopped hours ago, so there is no way that that camp’s state would have changed.
I get in and slowly drive the family up to UNHCR/stage-2 camp as they sleep. I see many people sleeping on both sides of the road, my headlights momentarily waking up a few. Up at the camp itself it is all quiet now, a few low-level camp lamps, islands of soft foggy light break the darkness around, and people, many people sleeping out there in the open, in the small alley in front of the camp, further up the road, everywhere! I go up to the solitary guard at the door, tip-toeing around the people asleep, and ask him to bring some blankets for them, he goes in and brings a couple of good wool ones. I then finally wake them up, feeling shit, and tell them we have arrived. I leave the family behind, and drive back down to Skala. All workers have left now, and I wander ghostly about in the grounds of our operations, people sleeping all around. Our red line had been crossed, tonight we were really beaten, even by the minimal standard we set for ourselves last night. I went to the tavern ate and quickly drank quite a few beers. Seeing my state, Grigoris, says nothing, except at the end, ‘It was bad today no?’ he asks, ‘Yes’ I answer, and along with a mutual ‘Good night’ that was our whole exchange for that night.
It was well after midnight when I started my long drive back to Kaloni. While driving through a forested region, today’s images swirled in my mind, all those children and old men and women sleeping outside tonight, our tall regal patriarch of the ‘troubled World’, Simpli’s face, the image of that little boy, the age of my son, sleeping peacefully on his father’s chest in my car. I held up alright, I was sad, but I held up fine, boy was I strong! I can do this forever…!
Then I just remembered one poor guy I got angry with for wanting to get his large and heavy bag inside the van to OXY, ‘why the hell did he want such a large bag anyway’ I thought back then. It is funny how little of a crack it takes to become a slinging open trapdoor to grief, that thought started my free fall. ‘What would *you* take you damn idiot, if you were given a notice to leave house, all past life and country behind?’ I asked myself while driving, ‘I bet you bastard, you would need a truck and not just one fucking miserable bag like the one that guy was pulling about…., you would need a damn truck!!….and you rushed that guy??! How could you??!!!’ That did it, that silly thought cracked me, bursting the gates open for grief to come flooding in.
I don’t think I merely started crying then, I think I really went underwater… I was beyond crying, grief was howling out like a wounded jackal, I was lost and could not find myself. I gasped for air and howled. I would stop mid-grief, bang my fists on the steering wheel, the dashboard, on the left rolled-up window, on the windshield… Then, as if on the dock of some imaginary court hovering just outside in the darkness in front of my windshield, I would loudly exclaim amidst sobs towards the night sky ‘But they are alive!’ ‘They are all alive!’ They made it Sir! Yes, they all did! They all damn made it!’ They are safe now! Safe!!, Do you hear me?! Safe!’ I screamed and howled, while barrelling down the empty country roads towards Kaloni. This sorry performance would act to temper my howling grief for a while, only for a while, then all those images of today’s despair would reassert themselves in my mind, and I would be underwater again…, cycles went on and on, tidal runs of grief continuing unabated.
The next day our operations area looked like some strong wind had gone through it, and in a sense, it had. We were all too tired last night to clean anything. In the morning when we came many people have already arrived, leaving no time to order and clean things up. Another continuous wave of boats without any mid-afternoon lulls, breaking all past patterns, swamped us. Around 8 pm it appeared to diminish, and we dearly hoped that it would stop for the night like it did yesterday. It didn’t.