My days in Lesvos

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Descriptions don’t come easy. Pushing the tangle of emotions aside doesn’t come easy.
Let me begin with the original idea: a report on solidarity initiatives and structures. Inevitably, this would take me to Lesbos, the capital of solidarity.
The original idea: a feature article about the island, with some historical background. Starting from the boat “Evaggelistria” and moving to Xenias Hill, the University of the Aegean, Pagani and Ayiasos and all that happened there, Kara Tepe and Moria, the village of “Oloi Mazi” (“All Together”), the self-managed solidarity initiative of Platanos, Skala Sykamias.
But when you reach Skala, everything else recedes into the background. The young volunteers of the self-managed initiative give a novel, richer substance to the notion of ‘comradeship’: it’s Rayan’s grin, asking you if you’ve had breakfast as he stands behind the stove in the kitchen, as if you’ve known each other for years. And you’ve just arrived!
Everyone else’s eyes are clear, unsuspecting. Tired eyes, but with a beautiful, calm shine. These women and men have realized the concept of ‘welcoming’ in full. And you, fresh visitor, find your place and way to be of help, immediately, quietly, silently, like everyone else.
When the first boat lands, I freeze. All the images that flood the internet suddenly become reality. A reality whose dimensions cannot be grasped unless you happen to be there.
And this is where reporting ends. Where everything ends. Where any guise, any ‘official’ role in which you may have arrived ends. You have a pair of arms and these arms are desperately needed. Help is desperately needed.
Later on more boats arrive. Ten or more, at once. The beach is strewn with life jackets and isothermal blankets. The premises of the solidarity initiative is filled with people, wet clothes, children. The place is filled with solidarity: a word I used to utter often, without realizing its real meaning until now.
Afterwards, we clean up, tidy up. The boats keep coming and the initiative must be ready to welcome them. This is why we are there.
The kitchen must always have warm food, hot water, hot tea. The tent where children have their clothes and nappies changed must be always clean and stocked. Fresh clothes always in order, and the premises clean. It is a struggle against time.
Some of the life jackets are mockups. Filled with Styrofoam. I freeze when I see them. “What’s wrong?” they ask, and I explain. The answer makes my blood curdle: “This is nothing… wait till you see those filled with old newspapers”!
In the afternoon the EU commissioner visits. Immaculate, dry, in a suit, surrounded by cops, to check. The boat arrives and they watch calmly, he and the cops of his entourage. Not one makes the slightest attempt to help. The volunteers get on with the rescue and the official team simply stand by. How fitting, I think: in this human drama, this is all that the institutions and authorities represented by the commissioner do: watching calmly, with no trace of emotion.
The night falls. After having posed for photographs, made statements to the media, and dined, the commissioner is gone. The rest of us stay there, in the silent dark. Suddenly Rosa is barking at the sea. We hurry. We can hear human voices. A boat is approaching, but we can see nothing. We rush with torches and whistles, in the hope that they will hear us, see us, steer the boat towards the shore. We are not stopping before the boat has reached the shore safely. And when it lands, the people who disembark are frozen, shivering, in shock. Restoring their strength and spirit is not easy.
We ask if there is another boat coming. The say there is, one more, half an hour behind them. Some of us stay on the shore. We scan the darkness. Someone next to me is holding the strongest torch, pointing its beam out into the dark sea. I hear him pleading “come this way, don’t go near the rocks!” We whistle and point our torches and have no way of knowing what will happen. The most unbearable moments are these: until the approaching boat is located. Until the boat, and its passengers, shocked even more than the earlier arrivals, are guided to the shore.
We hurry back to the camp. I’m handed a babe who’s crying incessantly. My knee-jerk response is to do what I used to do with my niece: I sing a lullaby. The baby calms, exactly like my niece. ‘With the foliage of dreams, with dreams like foliage’.
And then the camp have to be cleaned again, it has to be prepared for the morning.
This is how the days go by.I meet an elderly refugee woman, a fresh arrival. Her face is like the face of all those women who go to church in the morning, who smile while offering you a treat, who ask you “whose son or daughter are you?” Familiar elderly face, driven to exile by circumstances.
I speak with the locals. They tell me that refugees have been arriving at the island for ten years now. This summer, however, was unmanageable, because the boats kept coming and coming and never stopped.
Tourists would phone the police to report that some of the arriving were refugees very ill and needed to go to hospital. The response was that they –the police – could do nothing: if the callers wished, they could transport the patients with their own vehicle, but if they did so they run the risk of getting arrested (for people smuggling). The tourists were bewildered with Greece’s irrational reality.
The local inhabitants are happy with the presence of the solidarity initiative there. They feel that, at last, some other people have come to help them. Because they have only their own clothes to spare, nor any extra supplies of medication for the refugees. All they have had, they gave in the summer.
I am sad to leave the Platanos. I arrive at ‘Oloi Mazi’ village. After giving me a tour, they apologize for their tiredness. Until the day before they were buring victims from the boat wrecks. The graveyards are filled to capacity. They have run out of tears and I have run out of words.
I sit down to have a smoke. A man with crutches approaches me. He asks for a light. For a while we sit together. When I finally get up to leave, to the port, to catch the return ferry, he stops me. He shows me a video from his home: him, giving water to his pet. He tells me how many animals he used to have in his garden. And that one night ISIS came. They killed all his animals, all his family, all his neighbors. He was the only one to survive. He was pulled out of a water tank, where he was hiding with three bullets in his body. The bullets are in his body still. He uses crutches because one is lodged between his bones. I also have my mobile at hand. As I am about to ask him where he wants to go, I see the images from Idomeni[1], where refugees cross to Macedonia. The border is to be closed in the next days. I keep silent. I say goodbye. The though cannot leave my mind: where is he going to go?
On board the ferry, Beloyiannis’[2] words hover in my mind: “ I think that life has to contain these three ingredients: greatness, beauty and astonishment. Greatness is to immerse yourself in the struggle for a better life. Who fails to do this merely crawls behind life. Beauty is all those thinks that adorn life: music, flowers, poetry. What is astonishing is love…”

[1] Greek town on the border with Macedonia.
[2] Nikos Beloyiannis (1915-1952): Greek communist and anti-Axis resistance leader, excuted in 1952 for high treason and espionage (for the USSR).

text: Georgia Nikolopoulou
translation: Penny Travlou

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