Chapter 7: First wave

Πικρός κι ανάποδος είσαι  ω κόσμε, μα έχεις και τις παράξενες σου τις γλύκες.Έσκιζε  η βάρκα τα κύματα και πήγαινε κατά την Σκάλα.    
Bitter and warped you are oh World, but you also have your strange sweetness.It was slicing through the waves the boat, and was going towards Skala.
«Νησιώτικες ιστορίες», Αργύρης Εφταλιώτης, Λέσβος,  1894
Island Stories”, Argyris Eftaliotis, Lesvos, 1894


The next morning, I left very early. Breakfast was to be had in the car while I was driving. Knowing now the inland road to Skala Sykaminia’s I soon reach Mantamados and the Medecins Sans Frontiers camp outside it. ‘Three tents already, it is going up fast’ I am thinking. Then I see that a small group of refugees is already there, maybe some of those we saw walking on the road yesterday. I reach the road’s cresting point, there I stop the car to take a careful look at the sea passage between Lesvos and Turkey.

There are two large ships sailing in it, one being the Greek Coast Guard, the other I could not tell, but I figured that by being closer to Lesvos than the opposite coast, it must be FRONTEX. Unlike yesterday when I first saw them, today they were not doing the smooth East-West sweeps of a typical patrol, but sharp turns around various points at sea, and sudden speed-ups marked by wider than usual white-foam trails behind them. The small refugee-carrying inflatables cannot be seen from up here, even as specks, so it was again the behaviour of the much larger Coast Guard and FRONTEX ships that gave clues about the presence of refugee-laden boats, and thus about how busy with boat arrivals our coast would be. It since became a daily ritual for me to do this first ‘reading’ of the sea traffic from that vantage point of the road before heading down to Sykaminia.

‘There must be several boats coming’ I am thinking, and I continue on driving downhill. I quickly pass the UNHCR/Stage-2 camp just above the village, managed and staffed by a NGO called ‘Faros’. It is nearly empty. So far so good. Then to my utter surprise, as I reach the village itself I find its small square chock full of refugees! An absolute explosion of people. The contrast with yesterday absolute. Some have their lifejackets still on, many children, some crying or shyly smiling, old people with stoic looks.

‘Damn! Several landfalls already! I should have come earlier’ I tell myself angrily, ‘…and some must have been right on the village harbour itself!’ I slow the car to a crawl to pass through unbelievably dense crowds, trying to clear the way and head towards our operations area. Children swarm around the car making this very difficult. Hopeful adults knock on the car windows, ‘Camp?  Camp?’ they ask, some others ask ‘Port?’ and a few, astonishingly ask where Athens is (!) betraying a complete lack of knowledge about where they just landed and that Lesvos is an island rather than part of mainland Greece. My cell phone starts ringing, it is Apollo, one of the young volunteers in our camp, ‘Where are you?!’ he demands, ‘Come quickly several boats have already arrived!’. ‘I am just next door, in the village square’ I reply, ‘one boat or more must have landed right on the village harbour, it is full of refugees’ I tell him, ‘Come to the camp immediately!’ he replies and hangs up.

I finally clear the square, turn left towards the camp, driving on a small segment of the coastal road paved with cement up to our operations theatre (which turns into a dirt road beyond it). That small stretch of the road between the village and our camp is full with refugees, coming from our camp’s direction. Unlike the others, these ones look dry, no life-jackets on, some holding the Styrofoam cups with warm soup or tea that our field kitchen gives out, more smiles and waves than the previous group. I quickly give them directions for walking up to UNHCR/stage-2 camp, and then continue my slow drive. I find our operations area full. Numerous refugees stand at the food tent where Lefteris from Kaloni, and a young couple from California hand out bread, dates, milk for the children, juice, and maps of the island and Greece. Others stand in front of two huge pots of the field kitchen where Bryan, our field cook, prepares those cups of tea or soup. In front of the medical tent, there is a small group of people, a worried look in their eyes, from inside the tent I hear baby cries. This explosion of people happened so abruptly that all I could register was a ‘sea’ of people, unable to focus on any individual faces, cries, and pleadings unless repeated many times and from several directions.

On the ‘mouth’ of the dry riverbed is our clothes changing area, flooded with people now, manned by a smattering of volunteers. A large white bed sheet hangs from the bridge that spans that riverbed as to create some private space for women to change. The bridge itself is used by us to carry supplies (clothes mostly) from the main camp area to the clothes distribution desks, without passing through the riverbed itself where the refugees change clothes. I go and start assisting there, under on-the-fly instructions by Iro, a 20-something year old volunteer. ‘Baby clothes there’, ‘shoes, socks there’ underwear, sweaters and jackets there’ she tells me as she points towards various desks, all the while helping various people to change into dry clothes. Apparently we even have a baby-changing station, which is just a large clean table set out in the open, under a tree, with a baby there now being changed.

The sea was not rough today, no large rolling waves on the beach, allowing smoother than usual landfalls on the shoreline near our camp. This meant mostly wet pants, wet shoes, wet socks and lower underwear, and a rather lopsided depletion of the stocks in our clothes ‘department’. I started handing out clothes to people of all ages, hearing ‘Thank you’ in all the languages of the Middle East, plus Greek and English. This being daytime, with calm seas, and boats that landed nearby where we could quickly assist, meant no gravely scared people among this first wave. The children were, as always, the first ones to adjust, maybe thinking of all this as a family excursion of some sort, a particularly exotic one for their eyes I suppose. I had to hold and take care of many of them while their parents were changing clothes, funny faces, laughter, and baby smiles all around. Some drifted around the camp, away from their parents, curiously looking around. Seeing them wandering alone like this would often scare the hell out of us since we tried hard to keep families together at all times. A tough proposition given the size of some families in the Middle East, or the complete chaos that would often engulf our coast. In any case I was grateful that the words ‘Mama’ and ‘Papa’ are near universal around the World. This along with the near universality of the flick-of-the-wrist ‘where are they’ hand move solved most of such problems.

In the main area of our camp there are three benches facing the sea and refugees would often sit there to rest (grandparents especially), talk, or tend to their children. As my work in the clothes ‘department’ eased up and the volunteers there could manage it, I went up to those benches. In one of them I saw a little girl standing, no more than 6 years old, with dark curly hair reaching a little longer than her ears, with a mop covering one of her eyes sideways. She was crying and sobbing silently, no parents around. I knew where the toys were, in a sack next to the medical tent. I go and grab a funny extra-terrestrial-looking doll cat, with huge eyes (I will always remember that first toy I gave out), hide it behind my back, and tiptoe up to her. Funny faces, my large nose, and assistance by the extra-terrestrial cat did the trick…, and that little girl handed me the first identifiable victory of that day, an absolutely sweet smile, and a giggling laugh at the end of it. Her parents came over from the nearby food stand where they have gone. They were young, around 25-30 years old, from Aleppo, Syria. I plant a kiss to the cheek of little one, now great friends with the extra-terrestrial cat, and hand her over to the parents. Like many young Syrians, they both spoke fluent English, so I could give instructions on how to reach the UNHCR/Stage-2 camp, without an interpreter. As they are about to leave for Stage-2 Yannis the diver, stops his red car and beacons them in, with four more people already inside (‘how the hell does he fit them in?’ I ask myself yet again). That will save them the steep 2km uphill walk. Before they step into his car, the young mother turns around with her daughter and wave goodbye…, they momentarily stand still and smile amidst all that ebbing and flowing of turbulent humanity around them. For just a brief moment my eyes and mind rested on that mother-daughter “island” …, I waved back.

Of that river of people, I saw that day in Lesvos, that young mother and her little daughter lingered on its banks long enough for me to remember. I held on to their faces long after I left the island, along with those of a few others, keepsakes, and sure-fire memories for bringing up a smile when thinking about all this in some other time. Now the ‘river’ was here, and a particular swirling eddy of it, Yannis, his red car, and his impatience, swept them away.

Now all around the camp the refugees are slowly drifting out, most walking, a few others (families mostly) driven up to stage-2 by volunteers. We stay back to clean up, re-order, re-stock the various stations, take a breath, and wait for the next wave.