Lesbos Spring 2018
We choose the cafe on the harbour because it is pleasant, a nice terrace, a good atmosphere.
In the background the tv shows the court of Mytilene: a trial that has been going on for many months about helpers being judged, will they be considered people rescuers or people smugglers? The verdict is due today.
At sixteen or seventeen, at any age really, one shouldn’t be in a camp, in a container with seven others, barbed-wire all around, alone but for makeshift friends.
Here we are, sitting with three men. Let’s call them Alex, Mike, and Rob, friends of friends of friends we promised to visit. Two of them are still children, really. They could be our sons.
Biting on their burgers, dipping chips in ketchup, maybe a sip of beer, Alex and Mike have the beauty of youth, and its clumsiness, long arms, the glimpse of a tattoo, gawky bodies, still growing.
But their stories are not our children’s stories, and shouldn’t be any child’s story.
Alex – the Joker on his sweat shirt, a braided bracelet, hair up in spikes – could be from London, but is from the Helmand province, West of Kandahar.
His father, who worked for the US doing menial jobs, received a letter from the Taliban, a warning, which he ignored. He was taken and never came back. Alex, his mother and four siblings, seeking safety, left for Pakistan.
From there, aged 13, he started on his journey: Pakistan, Iran, Turkey. In each country he would work, earn enough to move on. In Turkey he got his tattoo. Ten months ago, he crossed the sea to Greece. Alex, who looks so much like our sons do, hasn’t seen his mother in four years.
If his asylum application is granted he will be able to leave Lesbos…but to go where? I ask him
– I don’t know, he says, I don’t know Europe.
I read the curled letters inked on his forearm: Keep loving me, a plea, a prayer that Europe is ignoring.
Second time lucky?
Rob looks after Alex and Mike, a bit like a big brother. Rob has made it once to Germany, where he demanded asylum. The judgement of his case was that Afghanistan was a safe country and he was sent back. On his return he was kidnapped and tortured but managed to convince them he came back from Iran. He didn’t wait to start his journey again. And here he is, for the second time, on Lesbos.
We walk past Moria, the entrance of the camp busy with people of all colours, of all languages. It could be so joyous if it wasn’t so desperately sad.
We walk further up towards the olive groves that are now covered in tents. There is a young man behind the barbed wire, sitting on an electrics box, he plays the guitar, alone.
Our hotel is in the harbour of Mytilene. Every morning, from our balcony, we spot the changes the night has brought: A few jackets in an empty inflatable boat; people who arrived in the night on the southern coast of the island being transferred from one bus onto another, to be taken to Moria camp, or from a rescue boat onto a coach.
They still carry those gold and silver first aid blankets…
Their only belonging, a single rucksack, is roughly handled by the guards. Someone is looking for his bag, which doesn’t turn up.
There is Stella, who comes from Congo. She had to leave when her husband disappeared after demonstrating against the government. She searched for him. Someone warned her “you’re searching too long, too hard, go or else”. She left her daughter in the care of her grandmother and started on her long journey to Europe, pregnant. Her baby son will never meet his dad.
She too, has been through Lesbos. Now elsewhere in Greece, she is waiting to move on, and dreams of being reunited with her eldest child.
A Sea of Stories
Once, we take the winding road to the North of the island. After about an hour’s drive and a few sharp turns we reach our destination. A sea of discarded survival vests, each a story. A sea of stories of loss, separation, grief, hope.
New Year 2018
In the courtyard of Attika warehouse, there is an inflatable boat. The first one of the year, which arrives just after midnight on 1st January. There were 75 passengers on board.
We are taken for lunch in a very secret place, a family home by the sea. Another winding country road. We stop in what looks like the middle of nowhere. Through the green hedges that line the road, we are lead into someone’s garden, someone’s shack where we will have lunch. We can touch the water. There is a couple, he is Greek, she is North African. They are in deep conversation. We are at Rick’s, conversations are being had. And Rick turns up, feeds us, makes us drinks…and minds his own business.
Tonight Omar has agreed to take us on the first shift of a night watch. We are on a stretch of land by the sea, the van parked behind us. By the light of a torch Omar tells us what to do if we have to help a boat land. He draws in the sand. “Two on each side, stabilise the boat, don’t go at the back because of the engine” He shows us how to wrap survivors with the emergency foil blankets, unfold a corner, pass it under the t-shirt or jumper at the waist, pull it out through the collar, silver side against the skin to keep warm.
What scares me most are the cars that occasionally approach us, they use the stretch of land to turn around. I keep expecting a group of far right guys to jump out and bash us up…
In Greece, many people smoke. And so do I.
We smoke while we wait on the night watch, when the air is cooler; in the cafes, with volunteers, while making notes of the help needed, and of course with refugees.
Someone with very little can still give a cigarette.
We will step out to smoke, a moment when stories can be told, or we will stand there, silent, together. We might need a second cigarette, it will be my turn to offer.
In the cafe on the harbour, the burgers have been eaten, the drinks drunk. A Greek man, the owner of the place, steps on the terrace. He opens his arms wide and announces “This is a great day for humanity!”
The verdict has been pronounced. The accused have been declared rescuers, not smugglers.
To hear it from a Greek restaurant owner whose business must suffer from the current situation is heart-warming.
Of course, names have been changed.