Over the Cliffs and Through the Thorns

To rescue a boat we go!  That was where I found myself at four in the morning two nights ago: carrying a box full of baby socks, running across a cliff (and occasionally climbing up or down the side a bit) to reach a recently landed refugee boat.

Let’s back up a bit.

01:00 Wednesday, Feb. 17, Moria.  I arrived at the night shift with Henni, Polly, and Lilian ready to rumble.  We expected a busy night with lots of boats and consequently lots of buses coming to Moria.  We were prepared to be the best clothes distribution team to ever hand out dry socks.  When we rolled in however, it turned out that half the volunteer population of Lesvos had the same idea, and there were WAY too many people.  We quickly divided everyone up into teams and dispersed to our various tasks.  Shortly thereafter Cyril, shift leader from Switzerland came over to Distribution and told us he was organizing two vans full of clothes and volunteers to patrol the coast, since we had so many people.

We immediately started cutting up emergency blankets and balling them inside socks, making boxes of trousers, blankets, and sweaters, and finding bottled water.  It transpired that almost no one had any experience either in Distribution or on the beach – of the volunteers there Cyril and I had been there the longest, followed by Henni, Polly, and Lilian.  Of those, I was the only one with First Aid training, and the only one who had any knowledge of the beaches.  I ended up giving an impromptu training talk on the proper use of emergency blankets and basic hypothermia identification and treatment.

We split the distribution team in two.  Six people would go out in two vans, and the rest would stay in Moria to deal with the situation on the ground.  By 02:30 we had collected two doctors, bringing our total patrol team up to eight, and agreed on which sections of the coast we would both cover.  I directed everyone to the lookout point at Tsamakia, where we met the rescue team there, a group of Spanish lifeguards called G-Fire.  We left one van there, and my team drove North to cover the coastline further up.

In the van we had Camille from France, Tini and Sergio from Spain, and me, token American.  Camille, Sergio, and Tini had just arrived.  It was their first shift ever.  Tini and Camille and Tini’s boyfriend Craig had all arrived together in the van, which was named Percy, and Camille told me when we got in, “We have a CD of ABBA, so we will have a good night!”  We became Team ABBA from there on out, and I readily admit to quite a lot of off-key, tired singing.

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Tini, Camille, yours truly, and Sergio

We found a good spot to watch a large swath of sea, settled in, and started bonding in the way that becomes possible when four strangers sit together in a little van at an unholy hour of the morning.  We didn’t sit for long though.  Only half an hour later we saw a little light, and moments after that another rescue team pulled up next to us, told us to follow them because there was a boat, and zoomed off again.  We clambered back into Percy and followed.

We ended up parking down a tiny, steep driveway that led onto what looked like a working farm.  I’m still somewhat astonished that no irate Greek farmer came out to yell at us, but we escaped unscathed.  There weren’t very many of us there at first, since most boats land either in the North or the South.  We were in the middle.  One team of two had come down from Korakas, and the rest of us were from the Mytilene area.  The team from Korakas explained that the boat was heading for a stretch of beach inaccessible by car, so we would have to walk for almost a kilometer to find them.  On the map it didn’t look too bad.  I picked up my socks, strapped on my headlamp, and we headed out.

Shortly thereafter we discovered the cliff.

There’s a common weed in Greece much like a thistle, but infinitely worse.  It’s a low bush that grows needles in triangular patterns and can stab you from eight million directions at once.  It’s everywhere, and it hurts like blazes if you get caught in it.  The cliff was, predictably, covered in it.  Where it was clear of the thorny bushes, it was muddy.  The night was warm and humid, and the only light we had came from our headlamps.  When we stopped moving we could hear children’s voices drifting from where we knew the boat had landed.  We moved fast regardless of mud and thorns.

04:15 Wednesday, Feb. 17, A Cliff.  When we reached the boat it had already landed.  The people had disembarked, started a little campfire, and were waiting for us.  One young man spoke decent English, and started translating for us into rapid Arabic.  It was a happy boat – no one was too wet, no one was sick or hypothermic, no one had drowned.  There were only 26 people, which is very small.  Their feet were wet, but none of the kids were crying, and they’d even managed to bring one old man and his wheelchair safely across.  Everyone I talked to was from Iraq.

We handed out water and dry socks.  Everyone already knew to put the emergency blankets next to their skin, which speaks of good communication between volunteers and refugees on the Turkey side.  They’re better prepared now.  One little family (a mother and her two daughters, one much younger than the other) wanted a picture with me and Camille, we grinned like fools with our arms around each other.  I used a few words of Arabic to say “Welcome!” and tell them my name, and ask for theirs.  We talked in smiles and gestures mostly, and a few words of English and Arabic.  I got some serious side-eye for being American.  Hazards of living in a country that invades everyone we possibly can, I suppose.  Sometimes I say I’m from Canada.

The wheelchair, the little kids, and the one very pregnant woman in the group posed a problem.  How would we get them to the road?  When I say we climbed over the cliffs I’m not exaggerating – we literally climbed hand over hand up a tumble of volcanic rock to get there.  We had to go up in stages because we were carrying so many boxes of clothes.  There was no way we could get the wheelchair over that, even if the kids and the pregnant woman could do it.

In the end we called another team that had a rescue boat, and they ferried the people off the beach and over to the tiny nearby port of Skala Mistegna.  Then we waited for the UNHCR buses to come take them to Moria.

05:00: Still waiting.

06:00: Still waiting.  We call them again.  I take a tiny catnap.

07:00: The refugees are stoic, they have no problem waiting.  The volunteers start getting grumpy.  I take a few pictures of the misty dawn.  It’s colder now.

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The tiny spit of land behind the main bulk of the cliff is where they landed.

08:00: I take another quick nap in the van, and eat some chocolate.

09:00: We give up on UNHCR and cram people into our own vans and cars, even though it’s not really allowed.  I try to phone the police to inform them we’re transporting unregistered refugees (standard procedure) and get no response.  Oh well, I tried.  Off we go to Moria.

Everyone gets there safely.  It’s been a busy night in Moria, and, exhausted, we go out for breakfast at Damas before dragging ourselves off to bed.  I take a day and a night off the next day to recuperate, which brings us to now!  I’m about to head off for another night shift, though I doubt I’ll be out on the beaches tonight.  Wish me luck!

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