Chapter 6: Night watch

We were unloading the supplies we brought from Kaloni when a pale-skin and tired-looking doctor came up and brusquely asked whether we brought a cylinder of medical oxygen she has asked for. We had not, as we came directly from the depot of ‘Angalia’ in Kaloni, and medical equipment of this kind could only be had in Mytilene. She then went on to tell us that she needed one today, because the previous cylinder was used two days ago, and that someone should go back to Mytilene and bring one by tonight. This is how I met Asimo (her name deriving from ‘Ασημί’ (=asimi, meaning silver in Greek), the only doctor we had in our operations field when I arrived. ‘She is a volunteer here, also from Athens like you’, Alexandros tells me, ‘She came many days ago, but now she has only two days left before she goes back to her regular job in Athens’ he adds. ‘What will happen after she leaves?’, ‘Will we have a doctor available here?’ I ask him, ‘It does not look like it’ he tells me, his voice sounding oddly determined given what he had just told me.

Alexandros later recounted the incidents where the previous oxygen cylinder was spent. They happened two days ago and one nearly ended in tragedy. A boat full of refugees had just come, and a small baby fell into the sea during the final approach to the shore. Asimo rushed in to treat it after they got it out, and that cylinder in her hands made all the difference in the world. The same cylinder was then used to treat a hypothermic refugee picked up from the sea the same day, and it was now spent. Alexandros looks around and asks another volunteer, Yiannis, to drive to Mytilene and pick up a new oxygen cylinder and bring it to our operations field.  Up to that moment, Alexandros and Asimo were the only people from our camp that I interacted with. I turn around to introduce myself to Yannis. Then in a scene out of a cartoon, he shakes my hand, ‘Yannis!’ he says and then, in a blink of an eye, he dash-runs to a compact red car parked in front of our camp. ‘Petros’ I offer back meekly, him now almost at the car door. Alexandros looks bemused, I guess he has seen this act before. The car starts and then abruptly brakes, a window rolls down, ‘Petro do you want to come along?’ he asks, I turn to Alexandros to ask whether I might be needed here for the next few hours but he has gone into the medical tent. ‘Don’t worry they will not be any boats coming before we are back, but hurry, we still must be back here before six’ Yannis says. Wondering how the hell he knows all this, I jump into his car. As we drive away from Scala, a mere two hours after I first arrived here, Yannis tells me that it has been a quiet two days with nearly no boats arriving. This is because Alexis Tsipras, the Greek Prime Minister, along with a few European dignitaries visited the island[1] and for some reason this seemed to have such an effect. It was so noticeable by the various volunteer crews, that small printed humorous notes were posted all around the camp and Sykaminia, ironically thanking Tsipras and the European dignitaries for their visit and the resulting ‘break’ that the humanitarian relief workers enjoyed because of it…

‘It will be back to normal chaos from now on’ Yannis says, and then goes on to add that even when that …normal chaos ensues, there are still some regularities. One is a break in boat arrivals somewhere between around 2 and 5 pm. Maybe the human traffickers on the other side were giving us a long lunch break (mostly used for clearing up the camp for the next human waves rather than lunch), or maybe it was a result of theirs, who knows… ‘Sometimes boats still arrive during that time, but far fewer, still a respite, courtesy of the bastards’ Yannis tells me, ‘bastards’ being the human traffickers. In case I missed the point, a mountza[2] he gave with both hands (momentarily leaving the steering wheel while driving on the winding road up!) towards the opposite coast made his point perfectly clear.

‘One hour to go, one hour stuck in Mytilene’s end-of-work-day traffic, and one hour to come back…, we can be back before six, and with that damn cylinder!’, says Yannis while he drives madly fast from village to village and slowing down only once we are in them, ‘Thank God that there are no tourists around’ I am thinking. We are now tracing back my previous route from Kaloni to Sykaminia, only this time bypass Kaloni and continue directly to Mytilene while driving much much faster.

We got the oxygen bottle and drove back to Sykaminia, arriving at dusk. Then, with the volunteers still left in our operations area, we set up a night watch. This simply meant that few of us would stay up to 10-11 at night (we did not have enough people to operate around the clock). Boats rarely came later than that, any arrivals tailing off by 7-8 pm. Maybe the traffickers tailored their activities to our capacities, who knows. We started patrolling the coastal road to the left of our camp, but also kept lookouts along the small stretch of the road between our camp and the village. The northern coastline to the east of the village was not accessible by the coastal road, while 2-3 km to the west of our operations that road rose well above the shoreline which was also much rockier. Whoever ran aground there had either a steep climb to reach a road passing much higher up or the choice of negotiating the rocks and large boulders while walking along the shore towards our camp until that shore become gentler, and a few steps inland could get one on the coastal road again.

For refugees approaching a dark shoreline on rubber boats at night such choices were the toss of a coin. So some of us went out there along that road with the high beam car lights on, trying to act as lighthouses, coastal road markers of sorts, to boats we could not see (grey or black inflatables with no lights were great choices for evading the Greek Coast Guard or FRONTEX ships, but decisively poor ones when it came to helping us help them make safe landings). Yannis, a diver in his everyday life, pulled out two powerful dive lights from his car and, while standing on the cement plateau right next to the camp, he ‘played’ their beams out to sea, sweeping them slowly 180 degrees from East to West, a one-man lighthouse.

We had no night vision equipment whatsoever, handy as it would have been, only a pair of high-power daytime binoculars. Still we were not totally blind to the happenings in the dark sea in front of us. The powerful beams of the Greek Coast Guard and FRONTEX ships sweeping the sea in search of refugee boats were giving us valuable clues. If the ship’s beam sweep was to stop and the beam stay stationary at some fixed point at sea for a long time, we knew that they must have found a boat, and then that other boats must be out there as well (they never came one by one but in clusters). Where all these other boats would come ashore was still anybody’s guess, but at least we knew they were out there. We then had a strong incentive to stay on and patrol the coastal road with cars, trying to cover as many probable landing areas as possible along it. At the camp Yannis would turn on his bright dive lights to mark its position, while we hoped that our car lights going up and down on the accessible segments of the coast would help refugee boats towards safer landfalls, away from the inaccessible parts. Of course for all this to work, it assumed that the refugees did not consider all these lights as markers of a less benign force and try to avoid them instead. At the end of the day we simply hoped that news of the humane way they were treated by the Greek Coast Guard[3], and the police force of the island[4] must have trickled back to the refugees still on the other side so that they would not be afraid of our lights, even if they judged them to be indicators some sort of official authority.

Tonight, my first on the coast, just one Coast Guard ship was out there doing smooth East-West runs. For a little while it stopped, its powerful beam came on and did a broad sweep around, momentarily flickering towards us. Then the beam switched off, and the ship resumed its patrol pattern, its green and red side lights the only ones left marking its position in the darkness. Around midnight it stopped patrolling altogether, and Yannis packed his equipment and left. We also decide to stop the watch so we could start again early next morning. One of us went to sleep in one of the camp tents, the rest left for various villages. I drove back to Kaloni, got lost a few times in villages now soundly asleep (which meant nobody to ask for directions) but managed to have the shorter inland route back to Kaloni imprinted in my mind. I reached Kaloni well past midnight and fell fast asleep, the alarm set for six o’clock in the morning.

[1] It was to be the first of several such visits, since it was during that Autumn of 2015 that the long-festering refugee crisis reached alarming proportions and decisively entered the political ‘radar’ of Europe at large. Up to that time she, Europe that is, was preoccupied with saving her…. banks.
[2] Mountza is an obscene gesture in Greece, given with palms facing out and all fingers widely spread.
[3] This meant no boat tow-backs to Turkish territorial waters, escorting the boats closer to shore for a safe landfall or often bringing the refugees aboard and into the port of Mytilene, and of course full rescue operations if the refugee boat was found in trouble. Such rescues numbered in the several hundreds during the time I was there. Despite these heroic efforts several people, many children among them, lost their lives at sea during my stay at Sykaminia.

[4] They never interfered with our operations while I was there, operations that often involved us transporting refugees in private cars to other camps or to hospitals, an illegal activity if the letter of the law was to be applied. What they did do was chase hard after a few people that took up such transport for a hefty fee.