There are two routes for reaching Skala Sykaminias from Kaloni, one that mostly lies along the coast, and a completely inland road passing through several picturesque villages, the largest one called Agia Paraskevi. While the inland route is the most winding one, it is still the shortest if one knows where to turn and what blind alley and dead-end road to avoid in all those villages. Alexandros knew the inland route well so I followed his instructions, making as many mental notes as I could for the time when I would have to drive it alone.
A long stretch of the inland road passes through a beautiful lush forest of pine trees, with a canopy dense enough to cast a near complete shadow within certain forest areas. Given the needle-like shape of the Aegean pine tree leaf, this was quite a dense canopy indeed, extending in the valleys and small mountains surrounding us so much that I thought we were driving somewhere deep in the mainland of Greece rather than in an Aegean island.
While driving I start to get to know Alexandros a bit, and what brought him to the island and this effort. ‘I worked as a fixer’ he says tells me as a matter-of-factly, ‘when teams of reporters or cinema people want to film something, scenes, people, etc., I go out there first, make the right contacts so that they can film whatever they want without a problem’. He has worked in several countries, and also for a now discontinued but once popular series in Greece, called ‘Reporting without borders’. At 40 years old he was the oldest of the people I met up to now, with a small, wiry but strong frame, world-weary I-have-seen-things intense dark eyes, accentuated by thick eyebrows and a moustache. He had an ingrained and strong distrust of what he considered as ‘The System’, the political order of the day, those compromised with it, and anybody remotely serving it in his eyes. During our drive to Skala Sykaminias he tells me that as far as he was concerned most NGOs operating on the island were in it for the money, the sweet overhead that goes into their operations. On top of that he tells me that despite the significant resources these NGOs commanded, they seemed woefully inefficient and arrived unprepared for operations where it mattered most, the coast towards which we were now driving. It was there where most of the refugees entering Greece during the Summer and Autumn of 2015 were arriving. ‘No refugees have yet died in our areas’ he tells me, ‘while there have been a few deaths in the areas where all these NGOs operate.’
At the point I had no experience whatsoever about the issues Alexandros was talking about. My views were those held by many in the West, thinking that humanitarian relief NGOs are run mostly by volunteers like us, with most of the effort and money spent on the front lines of humanitarian disasters. I never gave much thought about how much money went to their administrative structures and overhead, to their managers, versus their actual field operations and the people there, or whether serious profit motives were involved and to what extent. Later I realized that there was a large grain of truth in Alexandros’ views about the NGOs, even if not fully justifying the stark and absolutist terms he used and his quiet vehemence on this issue. At that moment I simply considered his views on this as theorems deduced from his core set of political axioms; for Alexandros, along with a few others, was a member of an Anarchist-Autonomous group in Athens. It was them that came to set up the refugee rescue and relief operations in Sykaminia I came to join, provisioned by ‘Angalia’, a charity founded by a Greek Orthodox priest. Knowing how anarchists view priests and priest-related organizations in general I had to smile at this coexistence (Apollo, a young anarchist in our crew routinely called priests ‘τράγους’ (=tragous), which means male goats in Greek, hardly a flattering term). Maybe those axioms were not that rigid after all, and that is a good thing out here.
After passing the village of Mantamados the first signs of a now slowly mounting international relief effort came into view. A large camp with one large white tent, set up by Medecins sans Frontiers just outside the village. It was still being set up, only a few workers around. The big cavernous tent was empty, its sides flapping in the wind, a strange scene of ordered desolation under a clear blue sky.
We kept on driving and suddenly, projected against that sky, I saw the first scattered columns of refugees walking towards us along both sides of the road. It was an almost impossible people-against-sky projection, facilitated by our now steep uphill drive towards them, and them being at the cresting point of a road that went steep downhill beyond that point. They were not many, 50-60 people in total, but all generations were there. Mothers and fathers with children walking in tow, women cradling infants, grandparents tiredly trailing further behind. This encounter with refugees in Lesvos I remember vividly for its otherworldly people-on-sky projection but also for its serenity, and utter lack of any sense of urgency or tragedy.
Many of them wave and give a shy exploratory smile, one that would flash to a full one in an instant once you smiled back. A small wave of smiles followed our car uphill. Then there were all these primary colours of the clothes of the Africans, the elaborate scarves of young women that appeared to be Afghanis, and the clothes of the children where a full colour riot was taking place. ‘Few people’, ‘…a rare day’ says Alexandros. He then goes on to tell me that when numbers are this low, our operation theatre can easily cope and give to the refugees some dry clothes when necessary, a cup of warm soup and child food, and also let them have some rest before they start walking up to the UNHCR/Stage-2 camp outside Sykaminia (ours on the coast being designated Stage 1). ‘I wish every day was like this’ he says quietly, his eyes scanning the landscape.
As this first column of refugees now recedes in the rear view mirror, we reach the cresting point of the road before starting downhill towards Skala Sykaminia’s. A panoramic view of the entire North shore then suddenly comes into view revealing a beautiful green-blue coast, with forests reaching all the way down to the sea, with the coast of Turkey on the other side the closest I have ever seen it. The first sight of the north coast of Lesvos from such a vantage point on a sunny day can make one want to spread wings and fly over the Sea of Aegeas, hover over it, cross it and finally rest in the East, that now intimately close East. As we descend on the narrow winding road, the Greek radio stations are inexorably fading away, blanketed by static and then gradually replaced by Turkish ones. We reached the small village in the late afternoon, the news of the burning East all around us, in a language we did not understand.