Saturday, October 31, 2015

Paradise turned purgatory: Day 1 on Lesbos

"The weather's a bit bad, is the ferry still running today?" a woman asked upon entering the ticket office, visibly worried. The man behind the counter nearly rolled his eyes. "The fishing boats have gone out and they have only one motor. These ferries have three. There's no weather in which we don't go." The woman did not look reassured. "Well, can we change our tickets, then?"

Her fears were unfounded. On this clear, sunny day in late October, the high winds and choppy water indeed posed no more threat to the ferry running between the Turkish town of Ayvalık and the nearby Greek island of Lesbos (Mitilini) than the possibility that a passenger might spill her tea as the boat crested over a rolling wave. But for the thousands of refugees making the crossing on leaky, overcrowded rafts in search of sanctuary in Europe, the rougher weather can be fatal.

A rescue off the coast of Lesbos.
© 2015 Zalmaï for Human Rights Watch
"People have been sending me photos of their family members lost at sea, and now I'm getting photos of the bodies that have been washing up onshore today in hopes that I can make a match," one long-term volunteer on Lesbos explained after our small group arrived on the island this afternoon.

Volunteers like her are saving drowning people from the waves, and burying those who don't make it. They're serving food and buying tents and providing medical care -- "not only in Greece, but all along the dismal journey that people fleeing war and persecution follow through the Western Balkans to reach asylum in Western Europe," Peter Bouckaert of Human Rights Watch wrote today. "All along the route, there is virtually no humanitarian response from European institutions, and those in need rely on the good will of volunteers for shelter, food, clothes, and medical assistance."

The scene on Lesbos is a surreal one -- looking out at the green hills and the blue sea, driving past stately mansions, and strolling down picturesque side streets filled with cafes, it's easy to see what an idyllic place this must have been, not so long ago, for a holiday. Today, the visitor disembarking from the ferry enters a parking lot packed with people, entire families in tents, makeshift shelters, or completely exposed to the elements, waiting for their chance to continue further into Europe. Bright-orange life jackets and parts of deflated rafts scattered on the island's beaches attest to the continuing arrivals on the dangerous journey by sea. At one camp, we met a pregnant Syrian mother of six whose husband had been killed in the ongoing war. Her young son pulled his shirt half-off to show us the scar where a bullet had passed through his arm.

An encampment on Lesbos. Photo: IRC
With the sun shining, people seem relatively relaxed, spared from the torrential rain and mud that just a week or so ago was causing cases of hypothermia and trench foot as people waited for days in kilometers-long lines to register under new Frontex procedures. But the need is still dire, the resources and infrastructure limited, and the efforts disorganized.

Many refugees staying on Lesbos are eating only one meal a day, a foil takeout container of lentils and rice doled out by some ad-hoc kitchens operating on the island. Most of our day was spent sourcing industrial-size cooking pots, basic ingredients, and a kitchen in which to prepare vats of porridge so at least some people can have an additional meal tomorrow morning. In the evening, as the wind whipped fiercer, we took crates of apples and oranges into the parking lot by the harbor, passing them out to men, women, and children who formed a crush of people in just seconds, holding out their hands, pleading for just one more. I fall asleep to the sound of the wind whistling outside, hoping that it will not capsize any boats tonight.

Full series of posts on refugees and relief efforts on Lesbos: 


Senior Dogs Abroad said...

Jen, Wow. Didn't know you were headed to Lesbos. All of this terrible suffering - it must be heart-breaking, especially for volunteers who are up close to the situation. When we were in Assos recently, we saw boatloads of refugees headed over to Lesbos but at least it wasn't in howling winds like we have now. Take care of yourself, hope to see you soon.

Julia said...

Following your updates closely, here and via social media. Can't imagine what the situation must be like for everyone on Lesbos. You're seeing for yourself, now. Take care.

BacktoBodrum said...

When will the a Relief Agencies realise that they have to send in teams to save these poor people? Locals can't sustain this help program all winter. Well done for going over to Lesbos to help. A a Similar effort is being made from Bodrum to help in Kos with ferry companies transporting volunteers and resources for free.