Chapter 9: Second wave

The boats of the second wave are now seven, approaching spread over almost the entire North coast! Two are heading directly towards our camp, one far to the East of it, beyond the village and towards the cape of ‘Korakas’ which is inaccessible by the coastal road and our operational capabilities. One boat remains mysteriously idle mid-sea while the other three are heading well to the West of our operations area. If they continue on this course their landfall will be all over the rocky part of the coast where the coastal road passes high up. There, we will not be able to reach them, unless they land even further West near Molyvos where that road comes down and near to the shore again, while the shore itself becomes gentler.

Once we are done with the two boats that are coming directly towards us, we plan to send cars to the west coast to search and guide any group of refugees that somehow managed to negotiate the steep climb up to the coastal road. We also hope that a group of (mostly) Dutch volunteers operating out of camp OXY near Molyvos would find them and take care of them. A group of volunteers from Spain formed another very valuable tight-knit team operating along our coast. They were professional lifeguards, in a team of three or four, and were very well equipped for near-shore rescue. They used a 4×4 to patrol the coast at all hours except night time. Their presence and efficiency made our work, and that of our doctors, much much easier. Today they were stationed near our operations area, waiting…

During waves of boats, like the one approaching us now, we used hand signals, orange-color lifejackets from the beach waved in wide circles over our heads, and shouts, to get the attention of the people on the boats, and guide them as close to our camp as possible. The Spanish rescue team tried similar techniques for getting the boats to head towards parts of the shore where landfall was deemed easier and the coastal road easily accessible. Then the people could walk towards the camp or, in case of emergencies, we and our doctors could reach their landing spot fast with cars. All this signalling only worked intermittedly, with some boats indeed changing course towards the points we indicated, but often they simply continued on their original course, landing in rough and inaccessible places. During bad weather this often had tragic consequences.

Right now all the boats stayed their course while the one adrift mid-sea remained idle. This is my first witnessing of refugee-carrying boats approaching our coast, the first wave having arrived very early in the morning before I arrived.  I could now see the people riding on the boat coming directly at us without the need of binoculars. I could not believe my eyes. There were 30-40 people(!) on a black rubber inflatable designed for no more than 10 people maximum as Yannis tells me. Forget images of fast-moving zodiacs riding over the waves. This was a heavily-laden inflatable, moving very slowly about, its inertia made huge by the sheer number of people on it. I have never in my life seen such a boat so much laden with people. It was so full that it had to come very close so I could discern its bow and side tubes barely clearing the water line by no more by a mere 30-40 cm, a terrifying sight even in the calmest of the seas.

During this second wave the winds have picked up a little since morning, small waves are now lapping around the approaching boat, often cresting over its low-lying side tubes and bow, washing over inside it. ‘Switch off the engines!’ Alexandros shouts to no avail, as the boat comes right up and hits with some force the low cement wall that marks the boundary of the cement-paved part road in front of our camp. We jump into the water and grab the two sides of the boat, trying to stabilize it enough so that we can start an orderly unloading, the sheer number of people on it making this difficult. The problem is then compounded by several refugees jumping in the water around us from all corners of the boat, making it wobble about. ‘The children first!!’ shouts Lefteris that left the food tent and came down to help with the evacuation. To make the point clear to all, he takes a little boy out of the boat and hands him off to another volunteer to take him out to dry land, and so it starts…

It all goes smoothly until one little boy, around 6 years old, cries and does not want to come out of the boat, afraid of the sea around him. His mother, now on land, pleads with him, his father still on the boat does the same, kids him, to no effect. Then an angry voice from the father does the trick, and the boy jumps right into my arms with enough momentum that he almost tips me over, with him in my arms, into the sea (in that shallow spot, we are immersed in the water up about the waist). The little boy, an Afghani it seems from his looks, looks at me and laughs at our combined wobbling, young eyes laughing as I hold him and wade ashore to take him onto the soil of Europe…, a little boy that came running from an East that was burning.

Many months later, while I was in a restaurant in Monastiraki, Athens, a beautiful Greek song about a most famous city straddling the boundary of East and West, powerfully triggered the memories of those moments, and did so ever since, it was a particular verse in it ending as: “…αλλάζουνε εντός μου τα σύνορα του κόσμου. . .’’ (allazoune entos mou ta synora tou Kosmou), translating as: ‘‘….changing they are, inside me, the borders of the World’’, and so it was, the East coming to be embraced and sheltered in the West, changing those borders inside me as I cradled that little boy and waded ashore that afternoon in Sykaminia.