The weather on 3 October was beautiful in Lesvos. Sunshine and barely any wind, no waves. As a result many refugees crossed from Turkey. We witnessed 16 dinghies arrive between three and five in the afternoon at the fishing port of Sikamia, a village of 200 people. Stratis Myrivilis who wrote so eloquently about the horror of war, came from this village, now receiving war refugees.
An average of 45 people per boat (without counting babies) means around 700 adults plus around 20 babies arrived in that two hour slot. The beach of Sikamia is not really a beach. It’s a pebble stone shore, quite difficult to walk on, particularly when you walk out of an over crowded rubber boat, with wet shoes, dizzy from the crossing, unfamiliar with the sea as many refugees are and bearing all the previous trauma of war and violence of the smugglers.
There was the Afghan woman with her one month old baby, wrapped in a huge blanket and tied with a rope to keep him in position and warm. Of course if the boat sank, the baby would quickly become so heavy with the blanket that he would go down. But all is well that ends well and the baby was safe and sound and quiet surrounded by girl volunteers admiring and asking the mother questions she couldn’t answer, as she spoke no English.
A little girl with her brother came out of the boat crying in shock. I helped them take off their wet jackets, relax them and feel more comfortable while their parents came on shore.
A group of 7-8 artists from Damascus in their 20s, a singer, a musician, an actor, a sound technician… dressed like they were from Athens, boys with long hair, girls of many colours. They opened a small bottle of whisky and drank to life, laughing, hugging that they were finally safe. Then they sat and looked at the other side where they had come from. I wondered who is left behind in Syria.
At some point one of the boats veered off the usual track. We went to the church (Panagia Gorgona) on top of the rock that separates the beach from the port and directed the boats to go towards the beach where there is more space to get down. There were two boats full of young Iraqi and Syrian men. Two of them jumped to the water to swim the last few metres to Greece but were not the best of swimmers. The Spanish rescuers swam to help them. Another shouted from the boat ‘behabak’ (‘I love you’) while others were thanking God for the end of the trip.
Once a first boat entered the port, three others followed within a few minutes. It looked like a flotilla. We counted up to four with our bare eyes. A drone was flying above filming the arrivals. A Syrian handicapped boy of 12-13 with limited mobility was carried on shore by a local man and taken to a corner where he could sit and wait for his parents to come out. The boy was smiling happily to be taken in with love, although he could hardly speak. I smiled back in tears.
Clearly the Syrians and Iraqis were the best captains for the boats. The smugglers on the Turkish side (some of them Syrian, Afghan, even Pakistani) show one of the people onboard how to steer the boat and then leave them alone to do it all the way to Lesvos. The Syrians are more exposed to the sea and less afraid so more relaxed and as a result able to make the trip shorter and less arduous. The Afghans arrive exhausted and shivering. There was a woman with her two daughters, barely able to take off her life jacket from the shock.
A Syrian man with a heart condition collapsed the moment he stepped on dry land. Volunteer doctors took care of him until he was strong enough to get up and walk a few metres to the village. A young man had an injured leg from the weight of others sitting on it in the boat. Many people are injured in the boats due to the numbers loaded (smugglers throw away bags to put more people and threaten with weapons if someone complains). Others are injured when they come out of the boat, twisting ankles and scratching knees or stepping on sea urchins on the rocks. Afghans often tell bizarre stories, which I think are figments of their imagination due to their unfamiliarity with the sea: bitten by sea snakes, feet burning in the sea water. Many refugees with chronic disease omit taking their medication while traveling and hiding in the forests in Turkey before crossing (as the smugglers make them do – often robbing them in the process). They arrive in clinics on the island trying to remember the name of their medication in Syria or Iraq, explaining their condition as best they can.
We took a Kurdish family from Damascus with us in the car as there were hundreds waiting for the buses to Mytiline. They had spent two years in Turkey but decided to leave now because of the imminent elections, afraid there would be a crackdown on all Kurds, whether from Turkey or Syria. I thought of them yesterday with the huge explosion at the peace march in Ankara.