Chapter 10: Tears for the East

Άξαφνα σώπασε η γριά, γύρισε την κλαμένη της όψη της κατά το πέλαγο, κοντοστάθηκε συλλογισμένη σα να άκουγε κάτι… 
Suddenly the old woman became silent, she turned her tearful face towards the sea, and stopped in deep thought, like she was listening onto something…
«Νησιώτικες ιστορίες: Το προσκυνητάρι του Αϊ-Νικόλα» Αργύρης Εφταλιώτης, Λέσβος, 1894
“Island stories: The pilgrimage of Saint Nikolas” Argyris Eftaliotis, Lesvos, 1894


We are nearly done with evacuating the boat that landed directly on our operations area, two babies were also on it, only a few months old! To the west of us, the Spanish team was doing a great job evacuating the second boat that made landfall nearly at the same time. Volunteers from our camp give out thermal blankets to the refugees even as it was not particularly cold that day. Quite a few were almost completely wet even though these two landfalls happened in shallow enough waters that wading ashore should mean mostly wet lower bodies. I guess that in such heavily laden boats, even in the mild winds of today a whiff of sea-spray can easily splash inside and soak the people, especially those sitting at the front. Finally, for small children and babies, a small body mass makes them much more susceptible to cold and hypothermia when wet. These we wrap in thermal blankets nearly always until we could give them dry clothes.

The people from the two boats are now slowly streaming into the camp, first in the ‘mouth’ of the dry riverbed and our clothes ‘department’ where volunteers help them change to dry clothes, then on to the food tent where snacks, tea, and warm soup is handed out. Just these two boats alone yielded 60-70 people in the vicinity of our operations field. With around 6-7 volunteers on the camp grounds that moment this meant a near 10:1 refugee:volunteer ratio. It was the best we would have it during the days I was there. From that day on this ratio steadily deteriorated, and the hard realities of rapidly rising refugee flows during that October of 2015 would soon overwhelm our capacities in nearly every respect.

It was during that afternoon that I first came across the Norwegian nurses. They were in our camp during most of the time I was there, but I do not remember whether they belonged to a NGO, or funded by the Norwegian government, or came ‘self-propelled’ like many of us in our camp did. They helped us immensely during the crunch times when several boats would arrive in rapid succession. I asked one of them, Anna-Sofia, what brought them there and she told me that they knew that many of these refugees would end up to Norway. So they thought it would be necessary for them to come to a refugee entry ‘point’ to see for themselves what these people are going through, as far down the ‘chain’ of events as possible. ‘This way’, Anna-Sofia tells me, ‘we can be better prepared to take care of these people when they arrive to Norway’. ‘A thorough approach’ I thought admiringly, and was glad to have them around us. Sometimes the nurses would team up with the girl volunteers in the camp to tend and change diapers to numerous babies on the special table we set for that purpose under a tree near the clothes ‘department’. There were some days and nights with so many babies that their cries made that area sound like a fair-sized nursery.

Today, with only two babies in the camp, was not one of those days, and the good refugees-to-volunteers ratio allowed the nurses to go around the camp to look for people in need of special care, even if one not immediately obvious. This was a luxury we did not often have because of the sheer number of refugees arriving on our coast. It was during such a quiet moment, on one of the benches we had in the camp, when I saw one of the Norwegian nurses sit next to a grandmother, about 75-80 years old, stoically looking East across the sea passage that she and her extended family had just traversed. The nurse puts an arm around the shoulders of that grandmother and then her stoic look abruptly vanishes and tears, many tears started streaming silently from the grandmother’s face, with only the faintest of the sobs, while she kept looking East. And on and on it went, no matter how hard the nurse tried to console her, asking whether she felt ill, where was the rest of her family, and other such things. With no translator around this was rather pointless, but I doubt whether it would have made any difference at all.

In the days that followed I saw a few more old people trance-out like that while looking East, and if they were to start crying, those grandmothers and grandfathers of the World they were simply inconsolable, for they knew, I think, that may never have the time to go back. You see with children it was easy to stop tears, some sweets, toys, tricks, funny faces, and a bit of time around the camp would nearly always do the trick, and their world was new. Not so with those grandmothers and grandfathers of the World… After some time I have come to see their tears, more than those of the children, as the shame of the World, of all those geopolitical gangsters that passed for statesmen in their nations[1], and of a West too content for far too long with a rotten but convenient (for her) political order in the Middle East (much of it of her own geopolitical making), content until it came knocking hard on her own door. Shouts from the lookouts in our operations field disrupt these thoughts, and I run to see what is going on, leaving the Norwegian nurse and the grandmother behind.


[1] All these geopolitical gangsters keep forgetting the simplest of the facts, that the World is round, even geopolitically, and these days well-populated too. So any push for lebensraum, vital space, spheres of influence, strategic depth or whatever you want to call it wraps around it, and sooner or later its usually nasty results tap you in the back. In this simplest of frames for geopolitical machinations, the sophisticated ones differ from the crude ones in only one aspect, namely how long it takes for this wrap-around. For the sophisticated ones it can take long, and different generations will pick up the pieces, and that particular gangster may even be invited in respectable galas, parties and think tanks to dispense geopolitical ‘wisdom’ (e.g. Henry Kissinger). For the cruder ones, associated mostly with run-of-the-mill dictators, the same generation, and occasionally even the geopolitical gangster himself may suffer the consequences.