Chapter 33: The Angels of the Aegean

Looking at the gently lapping waves along the coast one early morning after another day and night of struggle with waves of human fear and desperation, I see the usual debris of destroyed or near-intact rubber boats and the occasional wooden ones floating about near shore. Unmistakable among all those life-jackets, discarded usually with joy, but often with trepidation during landfalls. Several children’s life jackets are among them, a few in joyful colours and patterns, in stark contrast with the grey and black rubber inflatables or the lifejackets of the adults. ‘Nothing to worry about’ I tell myself, ‘they all made it… all made it.’ Then, while scanning the horizon with high-powered binoculars for boats, I catch a glimpse of a few empty life-jackets adrift far out at sea, bright orange ones.

‘Backflow shore flotsam’ I calmly tell myself, repeating these three words often, trying to plaster my mind with them, as to leave no room for any other interpretation. Suddenly that image of that 3-4 year-old Syrian toddler found lifeless, yet almost like gently sleeping on the opposite coast, bursts through. So did other images of this kind that documented similar deaths since I arrived here. So did yesterday’s news about yet more loss of life in a foundering boat that the Greek Coast Guard had found. A time-delayed grief strikes me again, charging up like that jackal of grief did a few days ago during my night drive back to Kaloni. Time-delayed it would find me as the fast-evolving dramas around us kept one busy and focussed on the immediate, until a lull, a quiet moment would arrive, like the one now…

We did all we could to save people, to give them a helping hand, and a real shelter. The first one they would have in their long and tortuous journey from the burning East to us. There is one precious Greek word that encapsulates the meaning of such a shelter: ‘Απαντοχή’ (=apandochi) and is of female gender (so ‘Απαντοχή’ is a ‘she’). She was nowhere sweeter to give than it was to children. Still we lost quite a few people on that beautiful coast, many children. We will never know their last dreams, or the dreams they had about the World in their once sheltering homelands, and what those dreams would have become had they reached Europe alive. ‘Loss’ is too poor of a word to use for all this, as one can also lose one’s damn car keys. ‘Tragedy’ is a better one perhaps, or maybe no single word can ever do, the horrors we set forth surpassing even our language. For me, that life’s preciousness is an axiom rather than a theorem deriving from the love and value given to it by a human-caring God, all those deaths are loss of Light and encroaching Darkness. Darkness not as a metaphor for evil as religious and even non-religious views would have it, but simply one like that of the night-dark seas of the Aegean, indifferent to humans and their affairs, where luminous us drift all alone.

Howling grief comes a bit closer barking at me now, then suddenly it quietens again, leaving only sadness in its wake. It will probably come back later, during some other detached moment of solitude. White-hot anger sometimes comes out as well, blindly barking about towards many directions, from grand-scale geopolitics, to an old man quietly sipping coffee in a cafe in Mytilene, or a couple in front of a store mulling about what to buy. ‘Don’t they know what the hell is going on??!!’. This anger fades out much faster, barely leaving a trace. Later, back in Athens, waves of sadness became rarer with time and with the bustle of ordinary life all around me, but they do sneak up on me every now and then.

I hope that one day monuments on both the coasts of Greece and Turkey will be there to commemorate all this loss of life, perhaps with names and ages of all those lost, as many as we can gather. Humanity eventually does manage such acts of compassionate self-consciousness even if too late to make any difference for those already lost, or alas, to stem future mass madness like the wars that have set of the current wave of human desperation engulfing the islands of the North-East Aegean.

After my return to Athens, during a quiet afternoon under the Acropolis, near the Ancient Agora, a blue sadness washed over me once again while thinking of all those deaths at sea. Suddenly a beautiful and popular folk song of the Eastern Aegean islands played out somewhere in the distance. Since then I have been unable to shake it off my mind as an unlikely and, at first, unintended tribute to the deaths of all those children. It is a song played in many Aegean island summer fairs, and is well-known also in mainland Greece. Because it is such a happy song, instantly evoking summer island joy I had to weigh it very much before suggesting it here for such a role. Then a much more solemn rendering of that same song, using only a santouri (that beautiful instrument that came to us from the East) and the voice of a solitary child[1], rescued me somewhat from the dilemma. Still I hope that my fellow Greeks, and especially those from the Aegean islands whom I especially love, will forgive me, and even quietly understand why I lay it here translated for the foreign reader of this account as a lasting tribute to all those children lost in the Aegean Archipelagos. Finally, I also hope that the many many children we did save make it to be the new citizens of Europe, spreading across her and reconnecting her with their dreams, those ones realized at long last. Then one day they may come back to Lesvos, Chios, Kalymnos, Samos, Leros, Kos or tiny Kastellorizo and spread flowers over the Aegean, roses perhaps, in remembrance of all those little brothers and sisters that did not make it across. Here is the song:

Title: In Aegean waters (Μες του Αιγαίου τα νερά)

In the Aegean’s, oh come out and see, in the Aegean’s, the Aegean’s waters, oh in the Aegean’s waters, angels are fluttering. And while they flutter, come out my star, and while they flutter, roses they scatter. My Aegean, oh help my Virgin Mary, oh my Aegean calm your azure-blue waters, so that they come, come out to see them, so that they come your children from foreign lands. So that they come, your children from foreign lands to your desired islands. Rosewater, come out my little star, rosewater do become, Ah rosewater let them become my Aegean, your waters[2]

For all those little angels from Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq and all other tortured lands lost in the Aegean Sea.

[1] Such a rendering, but of only half of the song, can be found sang in the opening ceremony of the Athens Olympics: For a similar solemn execution with the solitary voice of Nena Venetsanou, see also: I hope that one day the full song, using only a santouri and one child’s voice is produced as a lasting tribute to those refugee children lost in the Aegean.
[2] The translation is mine. I have not translated all the repetitions and turns of the island song’s verse, but I tried to keep the meaning intact (in some versions of the song the opening verse is: ‘’In the Aegean’s island’’, the rest remaining the same).