Chapter 29: Moria’s Hell

‘My my how little this one is!’ I say whispering while looking at a small baby wrapped and sleeping in a gold-foil thermal blanket outside the medical tent. ‘She is only a few weeks old’ Meliades tells me while holding her, ‘she must have been born on the Turkish coast or while travelling towards it’ he adds. Then I see a little wound, with a scab formed on her little head, and to see wounds, even apparently healed ones like this one, on a baby this small is really heart-breaking. Royal Meliades has seen things like this before I guess, so he remains calm, royal and doctor-like when he tells me: ‘She must be taken to Mytilene’s main hospital today, I think there is some infection and she needs to have blood tests.’ ‘I will take her’ I volunteer, ‘where is the rest of the family’ I ask him, ‘Right there’ he says pointing towards several people hanging about outside the medical tent. I go up to talk with them, while Meliades goes back into the tent to prepare the baby for the trip and write the referral letter I must take with me to the hospital for the baby to be admitted in.

They are from Iraq, an extended family of three women, two men, and two children (besides the baby girl), none of them speaking English. One man is young around 20 years old, the two women are in their early 30’s, and the third one must be around 40 years old. Then there is an old man, the patriarch I guess, that must be around 65. Claudia, our Italian Arabic translator, is nowhere to be found, so I start trying to explain to them that we must take the little baby, along with father and mother, to the Mytilene hospital. I use the most general of the English words, with plenty of gestures and pointing towards my car that I will use for the transport. They seem to understand, ‘So far so good’ I tell myself. ‘Mama?’ I ask, and the woman in her forties comes forward surprising me somewhat as I am used to much younger ones as the mothers of babies and small children during my days here, ‘Papa?’ I continue, and the old man steps forward, ‘…. maybe papa means also grandfather in the Middle East’, being unsure, I ask again twice ‘Papa?’, “Papa, Papa” the old man says pointing to himself with a shy smile. ‘Well, what the hell…he is the father after all’ I tell myself, now even more surprised. He is brown-skinned with light brown eyes and a demeanour that reminds me of a shy child rather than an old man. He walks frailly, with a cane. I ask Anna-Sofia, one of the Norwegian nurses, to come with us so that I will feel safer transporting this fragile little one on a 1.5-2 hour journey to the hospital, and she immediately hops in to the front seat. Then the mother holding the baby wrapped up in some new clean clothes gingerly steps in, and the father next to her. Before I drive off, I take a look towards my Syrian-Kurdish ‘neighbours’ in the little tent. I kept them around, violating the informal protocol about not having people stay in our operations theatre, and did this two days in a row now. The father is outside with his little ones, joining a fresh stream of refugees in front of Bryan’s kitchen, ‘Late lunch’ I am thinking smiling. As I am about to drive off he turns and we catch each other’s eyes, he smiles knowingly, I smile back and leave for Mytilene.

We reached Mytilene’s main hospital at around 5 pm, and the nurses take the baby, and the mother to stay in the hospital so that they both can undergo some blood tests. The old man however cannot stay, so we must take him to Moria a bit outside Mytilene itself. With KARATEPE closed to prepare it for the winter, Moria was the only refugee registration centre Lesvos had during the October of 2015. We get our directions from the hospital personnel and I drive off. After several wrong turns and dead ends that exasperate me but not the cool Anna-Sofia we finally find it. How could I miss a place like this! The sheer number of people milling about it makes it well, hard to miss. I park the car at the place on the road where a huge number of people, and the buses parked near it, make it look like the entrance. Anna-Sofia and the old man stay inside the car while I get out and go up to the large group of people that drew my attention in the first place. I am looking for some gate behind them marking the entrance of Moria’s processing camp, thinking of all those people being in front of it and obscuring it. I find no gate behind them, only more people as I walk in a now increasingly dense crowd. ‘Where the hell is the gate?’ ‘where is the damn entrance?’ I keep asking myself as I walk past more and more people.

I give up and go back to the car, ‘Maybe this is not where the entrance is’ I say to Anna-Sofia. ‘But this must be Moria’ she tells me confidently, and I know she is right. After all, just by applying the exclusion principle to the places we have already zigzagged around, this must be it.  …but where the hell is the entrance?! I go back to the same group of people but this time I ask them, not expecting to be necessarily understood, ‘Moria camp? Entrance?’ I ask them. They seem to understand, and then they all impossibly point towards the direction I have walked previously when I did not find any entrance.

I start again towards the same direction until I finally realize that I am walking along a road, a wide one at the beginning that gradually narrows. It was the sheer number of people, and the gathering dark (it was already 8 pm), that obscured this during my first foray. I keep walking until the road narrows further and starts going steeply uphill, remaining crammed with people, only now it starts looking like a line-up of sorts, but one several rows thick, and not moving forward at all. ‘Where is the gate?’ I keep asking, and they all keep pointing up.  I see men, women, and children sitting or lying down left and right of that frozen river of people in various stages of despair. Little fires lit to keep them warm, and needless to say that even if one wanted, it would be really hard to uniformly provision this surrealistically long line-up of people with water and food.  It amounted to an impromptu refugee camp set outside Moria, the only differences with the other ones, a somewhat one-dimensional distribution of people (towards a gate I could still not see) and having none of the amenities that the camps could provide[1]. Ismael was right.

The road now became a narrow uphill footpath, and ahead of me I see the end of this impossible line, at an entrance gate illuminated by high-powered beams from tall lampposts. If that is what it is, it is nearly half a kilometre up from the road where I have left the car with Anna-Sofia and the old man. ‘There is no way I will dump the old man at the beginning of this fucking long line-up’ I tell myself, as I now make my way down back to the car. ‘Yet with many old people around here, I certainly cannot use his age to get him ahead’ I am thinking. Finally, I reach the car, and deliver the news to Anna-Sofia, ‘It does not look good at all’ she says. I decide to drive the car up that road for as far as I can, so at least I can spare the old man some of that walk up. We slowly drive up, the crowd around us parts for us to pass through without any protests, still it is very slow going.

We finally reach the part where the road becomes a narrow footpath and the car can no longer proceed. I stop and we are surrounded by something like 100 or more people, all waiting aimlessly along a line that does not move. Then the happiest thought of that day comes to my mind, ‘I will simply say that he has family checked in the hospital, and he must register as fast as possible, so that they can join him here’ I am thinking, ‘…and I still have that referral paper from Meliades!’ (the nurses only looked at it and then gave it back to me) ‘I will show it to the police, and it might just do the trick’ I conclude. I tell Anna-Sofia about my plan, she thinks it might work, given the policy of keeping families together. However, just in case it doesn’t, I do not want to drag the old man all the way up to that gate, only to be told to go back down again and put him to stand on that impossible line. ‘Anna-Sofia, please stay in the car with him, I will go up and discuss this with the police’ I tell her.  ‘That is OK, but please hurry, I am a bit afraid here’ she says, ‘it is only men on this part of the line’ she adds.

After these words I take a look around. The scene around us could have come from a civilization-has-collapsed movie, little fires burn, people huddle around them in a grim state. Indeed, as Anna-Sofia noticed, this part of the ‘line’ consists mostly of young or mid-aged men, the old ones and the families are further back, or simply have left the line to rest further afield. ‘Do not worry, it will only take 5 minutes!’ I tell her. Well, it took much longer than that, but I got the OK.  I went back to the car, Anna-Sofia is waiting outside, the old man sits inside. The people around them calm, but with a look of deep resignation in many faces. I take the old man with me for the final walk up to the gate of Moria’s registration center. As he slowly walks up with my support and his cane, the lines of young men around us gracefully part, while he looks up stoically towards the gate. ‘Moses is walking up on this hill…’ I am thinking, but the gates of heaven are locked, and those guarding them no angels.

We finally reach the gate, Greek riot police guards all around it, but now there is a different commanding officer than the one I talked to when I went up earlier on to get the OK. ‘Where are you taking him?’ he asks sternly, ‘For registration, he has family taken in Mytilene’s hospital today’ I tell him, and I flash Meliades’ referral note to him. ‘Brief and business-like should do the job’ I am thinking, ‘…plus an official little note, even with Meliades’ wiggles…’. A tense one minute ensues while he looks at me, the old man, and the note. ‘OK’ the officer finally says, and nods for the old man to walk in. Then an inner tension I never knew I had, coils pressed deep inside me, suddenly all unwind at once, I breath the deepest sighs of relief, and suddenly I feel very very tired.

Then, there in front of that gate, under the beams of strong flood lights, heavily equipped riot police around us, I turn and really look at the face of the old man for the first time. ‘What a beautiful beautiful old man he is’, he smiles gently at me now, ‘Sokran, Sokran…’ he says. I smile back, look at him for one last time, and hug him. One of riot police breaks ranks of sorts and smiles too, the others remaining expressionless. He takes the old man in. ‘Do not worry, he will be alright, we will send people in the hospital to get his family’ the commanding officer now tells me. Yet before I go back down, I must solve one last riddle, so I ask him: ‘How many people are in there registering refugees?’ pointing at the compound behind the tall wire fence where registrations take place, ‘Two’ the officer answers[2].

I went back down, and made a purposely long coastal night drive back to Sykaminia with Anna-Sofia. I left her to the village where she was staying, and then continued back to our operations field. I arrived there around 11 o’ clock, Yannis is still there, playing his dive lights out to sea. ‘Boat arrivals stopped two hours ago, and most people have left’ he tells me. I start recounting to him what happened in Moria. When I was done he turns to me and says: ‘Well…from the sound of it all, it looks like one of the old man’s last ‘shots[3]’ placed him ahead of the worse line-up on the planet Earth…, not bad, not bad at all’ Yannis says while steadily sweeping his dive light beams out to sea. ‘You bastard!’ I cried out, doubling down in laughter…

[1] I have been told that this changed for the better with the opening of KARATEPE. Still I shudder to think of other such bottlenecks leaving people despairing, and especially those created by the complete shutting of borders in the so-called Balkan corridor. Early signs of what was to come were showing even back in October of 2015. 
[2] In October of 2015 no FRONTEX personnel was there yet to help with this task, while the dramatic increase of the refugee flows through Lesvos leapfrogged ahead of all preparations, KARATEPE being closed made matters even worse.
[3] Yannis’s not so subtle way of indicating what it takes (from a man’s point of view) to make a baby.