Lesvos, January 31st, 2016, night shift

If I was afraid not to know what to do in Lesvos that certainly didn’t last long. Sunday evening, 8 pm: I decide to go sea watching with two other volunteers who are staying at the same hotel. We have to meet up at 11pm, as the boats come mostly at night. Apparently that’s the best way to avoid the Turkish and Greek coast guards, and Frontex. For those who wonder (that was me a couple of hours ago), those three border controls play different roles in that tiny patch of sea which separates the Turkish coastline from the Greek Islands.

According to the Greek Prime Minister, officials of the European Union have asked Greek authorities to stop the influx of migrants (surprise…) even if that meant letting them drown at sea. But if a migrant boat is intercepted by the Greek coast guards – the boat must for that reach Greek waters – it is in theory – I’m not at sea, so I can’t verify- brought to the port of Mytilene and the migrants are immediately brought by buses to the island’s main camp, Moria. There, the refugees are apparently divided according to their nationalities. I haven’t been there yet, but there is an “Afghan hill” in that former military base. But back to the sea. If the migrant boat happens to be in Turkish waters, and is intercepted by the Turkish coast guards, it will be brought back to Turkey and its travellers imprisoned for one, two, three, ten or more days… depending on what you can offer to the prison gua…ah, I shouldn’t talk about what I’m not sure. Let’s forget Turkish jails for a moment then. A third instance is if the boat is intercepted by Frontex. The European police. The Ghostbusters of the Union: you don’t see them but you know they exist, “they”, as in a novel, will come for the refugees, because “they” are here to prevent any attempt to reach Holy, Sacred, Coveted Europe. To sum it up, Frontex is in charge of keeping the migrants out of Europe. Following this political logic, they make sure the migrant boats remain in Turkish waters, though I do hope that they don’t turn a blind eye when people are drowning.

I probably sound very disillusioned but that’s what happens when you see the lights of Turkey in front of you, when you see its road traffic, and when you know that somewhere in the dark ahead in the sea lies a frail boat filled with people desperate enough to try the passage and foolish enough to still think Europe will welcome them.

Anyway, back to sea watching. First night in Lesvos, I’m tired, would like to sleep, but I need to be operational at 11pm. I lie down, because it’s what volunteers do before the night, apparently. Can’t sleep, too many thoughts in my head. Will I be strong enough for whathever awaits? At eleven, I head to our meeting point. I meet a German woman and a Scottish man (with Greek parents, so he’s fluent in Greek, the lucky one) and we decide to head south of the airport, about 25 kilometers from our hotel, to the beach where boats are most likely to arrive. As we drive along the coastline, Martina, the woman, tells me to look out for tiny intermittent lights at the sea. I see lights, but they’re likely to be Turkey. When we arrive at the beach, Yannis, our Scottish friend, is already here lighting the fire. It’s very windy, we hope no one will try to cross. I’m cold despite having three layers of clothes under my jacket. I forgot my wellies, but Martina tells me I won’t need to go in the water: other volunteers, professional rescuers, will do that job. We are here to provide covers, dry clothes, tea, whatever is needed. We don’t need to enter the cold water. I tell her I’m glad because I didn’t bring a second pair of shoes so I wouldn’t want to ruin them on the first night. And she said, “well, if a person’s life is at stake…”. Obviously. I don’t think I’d care much about my shoes at that point but these are the silly thoughts I busy myself with in order not to think too much about reality.

Earlier, in a Facebook group gathering information for volunteers, someone had posted First Aid tips to rescue people suffering from hypothermia. I’m trying to recall all the important steps now. As the fire begins to make nice sounds, we are joined by a Spanish rescue team. They are firemen from Sevilla. I ask them if they were let out of jail, referring to the team of Spanish coast guards briefly detained by the Greek police a couple of days ago, they laugh and tell me they’re the new team. They paid for their trip and for their equipment themselves, they’re volunteers like us. It’s their first evening on the island, and at first they don’t dare to join us. So the firemen form a circle and the apprentice firemakers are warming themselves up around the fire. We still haven’t spotted any boat, but Yannis reckons it’s too early. We invite the Spanish to join us and we all sit around the fire.It’s about 13¤C out, but the wind makes it feel colder. The sound of the waves makes me even more aware of the danger the refugees incur out there on those stupid, inflatable boats. By the way, a ticket on the ferry from Turkey to Lesvos coasts about 5 €. If you’re born in the wrong country however (that would be Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq, you name it), you will have to gather a minimum of 800 € to risk your life in one of those inflatable boats if you want to try illegally, because there is no legal way, to reach Europe. As I write these lines it occurs to me that the European national anthem, composed by Beethoven, has been adopted without lyrics. Should there have been lyrics though, they would have been the following:

“Europe is united now. United that it may remain; Our unity in diversity may contribute to the world peace. May there forever reign in Europe Faith and Justice and Freedom for all its many people in a greater motherland. Citizens, Europe will flourish, a great task calls on to you. The stars in the night sky are the symbols that unite us.”

Yeah, good that the lyrics part was abandoned, that would have been a lot of things to answer for.

But at midnight, this Sunday night, we, European citizens sharing a common value about the meaning of humanity, are sitting together, and we are watching. The stars. The sea. Turkey. Frontex. Coast guards. And we wait, anxiously. We exchange the latest we’ve heard about our situation: some “conservatives” in Europe are trying to illegalize volunteers. It is becoming increasingly difficult, especially in Greece, to help refugees.

Finally, a text arrives. A boat has just left Turkey. It should be here in about three to four hours. We decide to go back to the hotel and get some rest before serious things start. The Spanish team will remain out to watch. On the way back, Martina drives past the harbour. The last ferry to leave the island for Athens is filling up with refugees. Those who didn’t manage to get a place there are gathered on the pavement. They will sleep here, waiting for tomorrow morning’s ferry. Back at the hotel, I lie on the bed. We have two hours to rest, before it starts again. I can’t sleep, knowing that somewhere in the dark, about 40 people are floating in a small boat towards us. Martina doesn’t sleep either, so we text. She sends me updates about the boat, we see it coming closer on Google Maps, a litte pin in the sea. It’s sailing pretty fast, so at 4am we head off again. And again, on the road towards our beach, we look out for a tiny flickering light at sea. They are somewhere out there. Short before our first spot with the fire, we see other volunteers gathered on the coast line. Those are making signals with the car’s lights. It’s not allowed. Who cares, we’re doomed anyway. So we send signals. Finally, the tiny light is here. About 5 kilometers away, I’m told. Five cars are parked, facing the sea. Our lights blink. The light in the sea keeps on flickering. This goes on for about an hour. We see the light moving slowly towards Mytilene, a bit further away than us, but we stay here. We are powerless, but we won’t give up, not when lives are at stake out there. And the little power we have: light signals, exchanging information and trying to make people aware of what’s happening out there at the borders of Europe, will be used as long as it’s needed.

But soon, stronger boat lights point at us. It’s “them”, the coast guards or Frontex. They have seen our signals, we have to stop if we don’t want to get into trouble. And we don’t, since we have to stay here in case the boat comes on our beach. So we stop flashing the lights. The wind is stronger by the moment, the sea is getting rough and the waves stronger.

Then, we see a ferry, leaving Mytilene. It goes right onto the sea, right towards where the light is flickering. We all look at each other. Some of us try to play it down. Nah, they aren’t going to crush the boat. The boat is still too far. But the giant ferry approaches, blocks the view. Short after its passage, there is no more light. That could mean that the phone displaying the light has no more battery, there is no need to panic just yet. But the GPS signal with the boat is soon also lost. We have no more means to know whether the people on board are ok.

While all that happens, the Swiss team I had met earlier on at the small shop arrives, we greet each other. They don’t know more about the boat but we keep waiting. We see the coast guards patrolling in the area where the boat was. What happened to it? An hour later, still no news. Martina gets really nervous, she decides to go patrolling along the coast. We take the car, we drive to another point. In the meantime, we get contradictory information from various sources. Some say the boat has been lost, others that it safely arrived in Mytilene where it was brought by Greek coast guards. We don’t know and people’s lives are at stake, so we don’t call off the search just now. We arrive at another watching point. I am overwhelmed by what I see: about ten cars of volunteers, resolutely parked, face the sea. Soon, three buses, from NGOs, here to collect people, also park there. We all face an empty, dark, and soon grey as the sun rises, sea. We watch, endlessly. Sleep doesn’t matter, we are here and together for the same reason: humanity. I could cry, probably out of tiredness, but also out of relief, just because it’s comforting to know that so many other people care and are determined not to let go off what should make us human: our capacity to show empathy. We wait, till 7 in the morning.

Finally, the news fall, it’s a good one, given the circumstances: the refugees have indeed been intercepted by the Greek coast guards, they are in Mytilene, now 15 kilometers away from where we are. All arrived as safely as possible, shoeless and wet, but alive. The wait is over. We hear that another boat just left Turkey, but that will be dealt with with the morning’s shift of volunteers.

For now, Martina, whose time in Lesvos is over now, wants to finally have a moment for herself in Mytilene, the city she hasn’t taken the time to visit these past ten days, so we head for breakfast as the sky gets gradually brighter.

At 9 am, we’re back at the hotel. The warm water of the shower seems very precious after having stared at icy waters the whole night long. I crash into the bed, hoping I’ll remember all that happened when I’ll wake up so I can make sure everyone knows.



4 thoughts on “Lesvos, January 31st, 2016, night shift

  1. Thank you for your being there and writing about it. Martina sent the link to me. I am going to read your mails from now on and hope to be able to read the recent contributions as well. All the best to the boat people, to you personally and your fellow volunteers. Yours, Bernd from Nuremberg


  2. Fantastic piece of writing Emma. So vivid. I am proud of you as our friend. Here in South East London I will try to think of you and your comrades every night. Xxxx Jennie.


    1. Thank you so much for the moral support and for reading Jennie. It’s crucial to let people know about what’s happening, we will look back in a couple of year’s time and how we reacted today will be judged I’m sure! I just naively hope history won’t repeat itself. And I’m honoured to have friends who care about the world too.


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