Chapter 8: Khalid the radar

‘What the hell do you mean there are boats out there?’ I ask him incredulously ‘I see nothing at all!’, ‘Well, there are two boats there, one there, and two more in that direction’ Khalid says with an easy certainty and a still easier smile. ‘Hey Apollo, Lefteris, come out here’ I shout, ‘Do you see anything?’, ‘No’ they both answer, ‘but we trust Khalid on this one’ they say, and laugh. ‘Hell!’ I cry out, then march into one of the tents and grab the only set of high-power binoculars we had. I come out and train them to the places Khalid indicated. Sure enough I see small black rubber boats in all of them, and with the numbers Khalid indicated. ‘Man’, I manage to say, ‘this is incredible’ ‘Does it work also at night?’ I joke unsurely (hell maybe it does…), ‘Then we do not to depend on the Coast Guard and FRONTEX ship beams’, ‘No’ he says with a smile, ‘I can do this only during the day’. This is how I first met Khalid the ‘Radar’ as Yannis the diver from Athens nicknamed him for reasons now plainly obvious.

Khalid was our Farsi and Dari interpreter, which along with Arabic, was the most valuable language skills to have in our camp. He was from Afghanistan, and came to Greece nearly 13 ago also through Lesvos, and he was now practically a Greek citizen. He spoke flawless Greek, and was with us as a simple volunteer, helping everywhere. He often worked with the doctors in the camp where he was truly indispensable as one can imagine. Numerous intense dialogs between the doctors and refugees about what was wrong with this baby or that silent grandfather were facilitated by him. Then there were these ‘radar’ eyes of his…, which today gave us an accurate distribution of the next wave of boats setting out from the coast of Turkey.

In a front line operation like ours though, translations often demanded more than just language skills, for fear and suspicion followed people even after they fled war zones and completed the perilous journey to safety. In some cases, Khalid had to try really hard to gain their trust before they started talking at all. Still, in one very intense incident, a refugee from Syria, upon hearing Khalid speaking Farsi got very angry and moved towards him in a threatening manner. It took some effort to convince him that he just worked in our camp as an interpreter, and that no…, he was not an Iranian spy or connected to any Shiite militia like those fighting to keep the dictator Assad in power. At the end it worked out fine, but it was a serious reminder that the waves of the geopolitical storms raging in the Middle East would come lapping right up on our shores. I guess the world is round after all, even geopolitically.

I now train again the binoculars towards the directions Khalid indicated, ‘here there they are’ I think upon seeing all those black colour inflatables, still in quite some distance out. With the boats still nearer to the Turkish coast, I cannot make out the number of people on them, their presence betrayed only by orange-colour smudges. ‘This is the colour of the lifejackets Syrians mostly use’ Khalid tells me. ‘These are the safe ones, but also more expensive. Afghans and Iraqis usually buy the cheap ones, blue, or grey colour, with a tint of red here and there’ he says. ‘That is why you cannot see them easily from such a distance’ he concludes, ‘…and certainly bad colour choices if you want to be seen and rescued when adrift at sea’ I add inwardly. This was another little secret of this coast, how to tell nationalities on approaching boats by the colour of their lifejackets. Disturbingly Apollo goes on to tell me that the cheap ones that the Afghanis and Iraqis typically wear are nearly useless, providing at best only auxiliary buoyancy to people that are supposed to be swimming. ‘They are inadequate to keep one’s head above water if they cannot swim or are otherwise incapacitated in the water’ Apollo tells me. Given that most Afghanis do not know swimming, and that for many of them the sea passage from Turkey to the Greek islands is their first encounter with the sea adds a terrifying aspect to Apollo’s last comments.

I raise the binoculars again, now I can finally make out individual lifejackets of the people on board. There are already six boats out there on their way to our shore when suddenly Khalid says ‘More boats have been launched from the Turkish coast!’ pointing in several directions, I see nothing with naked eye, I then raise the binoculars and sure enough I see several more in the distance. ‘How did you get these radar eyes Khalid?’ I ask him. ‘In Afghanistan I lived on the mountains’ he says, ‘there one gazes far into the distance or distant objects during everyday life, far more often than city people, maybe this is why…’ He then tells me that this particular skill of his makes him very popular at the bus stations all around Athens. I smile at the thought of him reading bus numbers and directions well in advance of old and young people alike squinting to discern them in bus stations around Athens. We then disperse back in the camp to help the others prepare for the second wave. It looks much larger than the one of the early morning.