Chapter 27: A Syrian Princess

‘Ίσως ήταν της αθωότητας το πρόσωπο, ή ήταν τα Δάκρυά σου,
Ή το φως που σ’ έφερε έξω από τις Σκιές…
Δώρα που μόλις μπορέσαμε να κρατήσουμε στα χέρια μας
 μια Νύχτα του Χάους.
Τι κάνεις εδώ Πριγκίπισσα;
‘Maybe it was your face of innocence, or it was your Tears,
or the light that brought you out of the Shadows…
Gifts we could hardly hold on our hands in a Night of Chaos.
What are you doing here Princess?’
ΑνώνυμοςποιητήςτουΑιγαίου, 2016
Anonymous poet of the Aegean, 2016


‘Why are these people with their life-jackets still on?’ I ask, pointing to a family of Afghanis with three small children, all wet and shivering in the dark next to our clothes station. It was around 9 pm and they were there part of an earlier wave of arrivals. They seemed to improbably waiting for their turn to change to dry clothes, while all other refugees have gone on a ransack mode looking through our clothes stock themselves, any order now gone after the multiple waves of arrivals all day long. Despite a large stock of clothes delivered today from Angalia’s depot at Kaloni, there had been no time to sort it out and lay it properly in the clothes station as people kept arriving on the coast. So we resigned ourselves into simply pointing the various clothes cartoons to the people and let them find what they needed. It made for one sure mess.

Khalid comes by and asks the Afghanis what they are waiting for, indeed they are waiting for their turn! ‘Hell, what a surrealist thing to do in this chaos’ I thought. Truth is I often saw Afghanis shyly waiting by the wayside in moments like this, while Iraqis and Syrians went for it. A pecking order even among refugees perhaps, the Afghan war being the forgotten one, save for the recent fall of Kunduz back to the Taliban that have made it into the Western news, the Syrian civil war the more recent and well-covered. I started helping them, taking off their life-jackets and trying to find some dry clothes amidst all the mess. Soon Iro comes along with Eleni, and take over from me, as Alexandros asks me to drive a large family up to UNHCR/Stage-2 camp. It remains full, the morning bus rides to Mytilene not having made a dent because of the continuous boat arrivals. In all the other camps the situation remains equally desperate.

I let the family out of the car, and they join the long line up outside the entrance of Stage-2. Then, just as I am about to go into the car and drive back to our camp, a group of young and frightened Syrians comes up to me. ‘Please help us’ they say in English, ‘What is going on?’ I ask them, ‘A boat is out there, its engine not working’ they tell me, pointing in the general direction of the sea, ‘They need help!’ a girl tells me. ‘How do you know all this?’ I ask her, ‘They just called us’ she tells me, waving her mobile. For one brief moment I am stunned, ‘Of course’ I then quickly tell myself. The distance between any boat drifting out there and us sitting prominently above the village of Skala, overlooking the sea passage between Lesvos and Turkey, can be covered by any mobile. ‘Ask them where they are’ I stupidly tell them, as if those people were lost somewhere on land. There is a frantic exchange of sms’s (to preserve battery I guess), and then the coordinates arrive in latitude and longitude(!) the person on the boat, having used a mobile application to obtain them. I then quickly call the Coast Guard and tell them about the incident and give the coordinates, only to receive the answer that there are no available Guard ships to send! And FRONTEX is not out either. There is nothing I can do but worry. As I drive back indeed I see no patrol boats out there, no powerful beams of light sweeping the dark sea, no hope for drifting boats until morning. There is nothing I can do, I kept saying to myself many times…

I came back to our operations field around 10 pm, the last boat having arrived nearly two hours ago. ‘I hope it is really over now’ I tell myself while surveying the absolute chaos prevailing in the camp, people falling asleep everywhere, the two tents of Faros next to us full. We are now resigned to all this, and just do our best to provide blankets around, cardboard pieces, some milk for the children. We are beyond exhausted, for much of the day operating on adrenaline and as it now wears off, tiredness makes a full out assault. An hour passes by and we try to wrap up the night as best as we can. The EINA doctors that were with us today have left for the night, so is Aline and Wolfgang.

Then suddenly at the west end of our operations field I hear cries, wailing, Yannis and Alexandros shouting words, words swamped by an increasingly rising commotion. Then a large crowd, the equivalent of at least two boats, emerges from the darkness, illuminated by the solitary lamppost near the ‘mouth’ of the dry riverbed where our ransacked clothes station is.

‘There have been boat landfalls to the west, many people in very bad condition came out, they are all marching towards here!’ Alexandros tells me. He had gone for one last night patrol with Yannis, and they came upon a large crowd of refugees whose boats came out on a rocky patch of the western coast. ‘Now we are done in…’ I tell myself upon hearing this, ‘there is really nothing we can do to help anymore’. Then they started streaming in, women and children crying, men with fear in their faces, limping people, old men and women supported by younger ones that could hardly walk themselves, and it went on and on… So many people filled our clothes station area, that our few feeble camp lamps could no longer penetrate through the shadows cast by so many people, and the night around us kept producing those shadows wandering around the camp crying, mumbling, screaming…

Yannis takes his car, parks it inside the dry riverbed, and turns its headlights on to illuminate the clothes station. This helped, but it also created an outlandish side-ways illuminated landscape that accentuated the chaos of those moments. Khalid kept yelling out something in Farsi, people were ransacking an already many-times over ransacked clothes station, having ran out of everything except water, a wave of helplessness fully washed over us. My eye catches Iro, she is trying to help a family put on dry clothes. I nearly laugh madly when I see her doing all this amidst a sea of people all dripping wet. I gave up doing anything. I just stood there motionless and numb for I do not know how long. People kept running around, Alexandros was saying something loudly, but at this point I do not think I could understand even Greek…

Then there she was! Shivering and softly crying when I first saw her.  Her life-jacket still on, her face, suddenly illuminated by a shard of light from Yanni’s car headlights, was that of an angel, framed by long wavy honey-brown hair. ‘My my…what are you doing here?’ I ask myself ‘How could you even land here amidst all this chaos beautiful one?’  I go up to her, bent on my knees to look closer to her face, and try to comfort her, but it wasn’t working. She was the most beautiful 5-year old girl on the planet Earth. An angel made it across the Aegean in the deep of the night and came among us poor disoriented devils…

Her father, next to her, was another standout as the only man I saw smiling and even laughing amidst all the misery of that night, and did so often. ‘I was the Captain!’ he exclaims happily and boastfully when I ask him about the boat they came with (the refugee that the traffickers put in charge of the outboard engine). The rest of the family assembled around me, the mother and a boy, Syrian-Kurds. I turn my attention to the little girl again, she was still softly crying. I bend down again, look into her eyes, listen to her sobs, my previous numbness gone. Then a most determined attitude up-welled, ‘This one I will take care of…’ I tell myself, ‘…the rest of the camp can go to hell’.

From that moment on, it all took the quality of a dream, as I mentally subtracted all the chaos around me, the screams, the wails, the misery, and I completely focus on that little girl and her family. The happenings of that other world, the camp at large, Khalid shouting, Alexandros, Apollo, Iro, running around, the complete disorder of the night, all now reduced to a slow motion blur of light and shadow. I first went to find her a blanket, I found one, went back, took her life-jacket off, doing some funny faces all the time, her father next to her still impossibly smiling. ‘What the hell is he thinking?’ I kept asking myself.

I wrap the blanket around her, and hug her to warm her up, she then slowly stops shivering. ‘Some good clothes for her now…’ I nod to the father to keep her hugged and warm, and go about the clothes station. ‘Red would be great’ I think when I see a small red sweater which I then grab from a huge pile of clothes. Then amidst the now ruinous state of the clothes station, I find myself impossibly, ludicrously, looking for matching red clothes while various hands around me intrude into my field of view and disturb the piles of clothes, all images beyond it cut off in my mind. This takes time, so periodically I go back to the little girl, to check out how she is doing. She is no longer crying, but regards me with some big-eyed seriousness, sometimes a faint little sob still comes out. She now feels safe enough to study me, and with my frantic back and fro, a dive light hanging loose below my shoulder (given to me by Yannis, that I used to go about places in the camp not illuminated by the camp lights) there are strange enough happenings for her to study alright.

I went back again at some point (still no dry clothes), all her shivering is gone, and there is the faintest of smiles at my funny faces. ‘A brave one’ I think, ‘for I must more scary than funny, not having managed to shave my beard of so many days, and with that dive-light of Yannis dangling, switched-on, below my shoulder, illuminating my face, and hers, in all sorts of scary angles’. I go back to my mission, and after a while I manage to find long red socks, a reddish skirt, and even a pink scarf. ‘I am nearly done…’ I tell myself.

I return to her, and with the help of the father we take her wet clothes off and put on the ones I found. Slowly she is being transformed into a beaming image of red. I take her in my arms, and she now laughs and giggles. ‘Hell I am missing shoes’ I am thinking, I give her back to the father, and go for another round of search. I find some small red booties, and grab them just before some hands are about to snap them. ‘Now I am really done’ I think and go back to them. I put the booties on her, a bit large, and there she is! A princess with appropriate clothes at long last. Civilization came back to our miserable camp, a meteor of joy! The mother also managed to dress her little brother in a patch of dry clothes, but herself and the father are still in wet ones. ‘Not much I can do about that’, I am thinking, most dry clothes for adults exhausted several hours ago by the previous waves of arrivals.

‘There is no way I am going to leave them around here’ I tell myself. So I nod to the father to follow me, and with the little girl in my arms, we go to my car. “Bonama?, Bonama?” the father loudly asks me from the seat next to me, waving his wallet[1], as I slowly drive them up. He wants to pay me. “No bonama” I tell him, the little girl now smiling to me from her father’s lap. We reach the UNHCR/Stage-2 camp, and I go up to the guard and tell him some nonsense about a medical problem, and why these people must get in the camp and not stay to sleep out. It’s OK, he will let them in.  I hug them all, and then take the princess in my arms, and plant kisses on both her cheeks. She gives me one last giggle and her beautiful smile, and then I hand her back to the father. I see them all quickly vanish behind the high wired fence of the camp in the dark, a catch in the heart right then…

Many months later, back in Athens, I often thought of all this as my only real feat during my days in Lesvos, the calming, the improbable dressing of that five-year old Syrian Princess in near-matching red and pink colours amidst the chaos of that night. I would not give those moments back for the whole world. Her smiles and laughter that night was already that for me, and I will remember the Princess for a long long time to come. I dearly hope she is safe somewhere in Greece or up in North Europe with her family. I also hope that one day she comes back to Lesvos and Sykaminia as a young woman, looks up to the stars one night, in peace now, and then she smiles that smile of hers once again…

[1] In Turkish “bonama” means a reward.