Chapter 5: Operation field Sykaminia (Despair’s flotsam)

A beautiful little church standing propped up on an outlying rocky outcrop and almost surrounded by the sea, was the first distinct and endearing aspect of the small village harbour of Skala Sykaminia’s. The harbour was full of fishing boats, nearly a little village by itself gently rocking about the waves. A huge tree, a ‘Mouria’ as it is called in Greece (mulberry tree, a berry fruit tree) was right in the middle of a tavern that was built more or less around it. This apparently famous ‘Mouria’ was called ‘Myrivilis Mouria’, named after the celebrated literary son of Lesvos, Stratis Myrivilis, who frequented this place and even wrote a novel using this village and its small church ‘Panagia i Gorgona’ (The Mermaid Madonna) as its setting.

It was in this tavern named, what else? ‘Myrivilis’ Mouria’, and the cafe adjacent to it where our team members, workers from the various NGOs, Greek police personnel, and sometimes FRONTEX sailors came to eat at any time of the day or night events would allow, if they allowed. The two brothers operating it, Lefteris, and Grigoris, would often keep it open up well past midnight, even for the very few rescue/relief volunteers that would tiredly drift in for some food before going to sleep in the various villages around.  My first day at Skala Sykaminia’s was to be the last when I could sufficiently detach myself to take in the beauty of this place, some of the peacefulness of its land and seascapes.

We then left the village to drive the short distance towards our field of operations. It is very near the shore, next to a dry riverbed which has a small bridge over it. The coastal road that one takes to come out of the small village square is the only divide between our main operations area and the shore, a mere few meters away. It was then when I saw the first boats.

Black or grey inflatables, of the type used to transport divers, were dotting the entire coast from the village up to our operations camp and well beyond it, as far as could I see. They are all empty now, gently rocking along the shoreline or completely washed out on the coast. Some are fully inflated, looking brand new, having carried the most recent wave of refugees. Others are partially or fully deflated, some are shredded, by some locals I was told, that used the plastic pieces to shelter crops or partition fields. All boats, even these that looked as the most recently arrived one, were mysteriously lacking any outboard engines. There are also two large white wooden ones, of the type used as lifeboats in line ferries of large cruise ships, rocking about slowly. Next to them there is another small wooden boat nearly completely broken up except for its tiny nearly intact helm cabin. It is was fishing boat, not unlike those in the village port. To me it appeared so small that transporting anything more than its captain, a mate, and a modest fish load would make a trip with it very precarious.

There were piles and piles of lifejackets and discarded clothes everywhere on the beach or gently bobbing in the waves near it, and the occasional toy. It all looked like a major shipwreck had recently happened out there, its flotsam now dotting the entire coast. Then, just in front of our operations area I see a large grey inflatable boat, intact, and completely washed ashore. Right beside it there is a colourful life jacket for a child. It is pink, with mermaids and various cartoon characters imprinted on it. ‘It must have been a girl’s, no more than 6-7 years old…’, I am thinking, its joyful colours in stark contrast to the grey inflatable. This whole scene on the coast was strange for its absence of any human sounds, all the while loudly proclaiming of the many waves of people that have been there. Having seen many scenes of waves of refugees arriving on Lesvos in the Greek TV and the foreign media I find all this quietness perplexing.

Then me and Alexandros went on for a short exploratory drive along the coast towards Molyvos before returning to our operations area just as the sun was setting. Everywhere we went, the same gently lapping waves, the empty boats, the lifejackets, the seagulls hovering above or scampering along the rocky beach, the blue sea stretching in the horizon, silence, and a feeling of foreboding…

‘Why so quiet?’ I ask him, ‘I don’t know’ Alexandros answers, his eyes wearingly scanning the sea towards the Turkish coast, ‘I don’t know…’