A slight hiatus, a long absence. I’m far away from my green Umbrian world and slightly out of my comfort zone, though I must say that at times I start worrying that I’m easing myself a little too whole-heartedly into this bizarre Lesvos microcosm. I can see how Stockholm Syndrome could set in.
I’m a tiny port called Skala Sikamineas (though there are as many spellings as there are maps: transliteration from the Greek is not an exact science) on the north coast of the island, looking across a narrow stretch of water to Turkey. When the light’s good, you can see each individual house over there with your naked eye. But even when rain needles down and huge waves heave stones up on to the water-side road, Turkey never quite disappears and the refugees who you know are hiding in the woods across there, waiting to hop into a dinghy and make the crossing, never quite slip your mind. It’s difficult to stop every white breaker turning into an imaginary vessel.
The crisis of 2015 with displaced Syrians pouring across the Aegean has become a distant blip in the news cycle but the flow has never stopped. There are fewer Syrians now; for the moment Afghans make up the bulk of arrivals. The first week I was here was one long downpour, but still there were boats washing ashore. Up to 7 February, 23 boats had already arrived on the island, bringing 805 desperate souls. Last night, when winds dropped after several straight days of gales, four boats came to Lesvos – three much further south – bringing a total 167 people.
On my very first night of spotting from the Lighthouse, 36 Afghans in a dinghy were almost on the beach below by the time we’d finished setting up the night vision equipment. We pulled them out of the surf, settled them in the abandoned lighthouse building then handed them over to the landing team which appeared on the scene half an hour or so later. After which we spent the next ten hours sitting in the grimy spotting hut with wet feet, frozen from the knees down. A tough introduction to emergency response work.
The next time I was up there, the opposite happened. A boat came over the sea border just as we were swapping the night vision equipment for the telescope. The Refugee Rescue rhib MoChara was already on the water, and zipped out to intercept before the dinghy reached the shore. The Hellenic Coast Guard bowled up in their great big boat, took everyone on board and off they went to Skala harbour without us having to move from the hut. As it turned out we didn’t/couldn’t move from the hut for another couple of hours because all available vehicles were elsewhere, transporting refugees and bringing new volunteers from the airport in Mytilini.
There was a silver lining to the wait. A pod of dolphins put on a leaping display for us. There may have been ten of them, including babies whose acrobatics as often as not ended in twisty, ungainly bellyflops. It was joyous and mesmerising in the early morning sunshine.
For a start, there’s the glimpse it allows into this tiny fishing port which would be as dead as the many other little towns around here were it not for the constant presence of a heterogeneous crowd, from all over Europe and the US, which makes the harbour-side bar its office and daytime chatting spot, and spends enough in the two restaurants to tide them over from one bunch of sunny Sunday day-trippers to the next.
The volunteers are tolerated by some, adored by others. Returnees (and they do return) are met with hugs and cheers in Goji’s bar. There’s a language barrier obviously, so volunteers can’t slip so easily into village life. But there’s respect too, for example for tall, taciturn Stratos, the fisherman who was nominated for a Nobel prize for the selfless gut-reaction helping hand he has always extended to refugees on the water. As far as I can see, there’s none of the anti-refugee hostility that has driven NGOs out of Molyvos along the coast. The only signs of a crisis they have in that pretty (and at present pretty dead) holiday spot are Frontex boats in the harbour.
Also, I’ve come to understand the intensity – and eccentricity – of an experience C has been living since she started working with Lighthouse Relief two years ago. I thought C might be offended when I considered coming here. But no, she rather kindly told me that it would be salutary for the regular lot to see that they were not the only generation that cared about the world’s troubles.
I’m seeing the outfit at an unrepresentative time: in summer, I’m told, there’s a more studenty, less ‘professional’ feel. Even now though, there are very few people out of their 20s. But what people they are. Doctors, journalists, engineers, a marine biologist, a psychologist – all recently graduated (or still on their way there). With a dedication and seriousness beyond their years.
They see all too clearly how mired-in-confusion officialdom fails to deliver on a large scale (the confusion as UNHCR pulls out further and leaves the running of refugee operations to the Greek government is an object lesson), and put their shoulders to the wheel doing things which, in an ideal world, would be completely out of their hands.
I keep saying it’s like a weirdly positive Lord of the Flies. But it’s better than that. It’s a beacon of hope and a very good sign for the future. They should be running the world.
And Lesvos? It’s a wild island, with a rocky, mountainous largely uninhabited centre and inexplicably extensive olive groves with trees emerging from drystone walls and terraces of startling green. The olives are magnificent – sculptural marvels of the type you rarely see in central Italy. There are lush fennel plants everywhere, and also tufts of green-blue asphodel leaves, indicators of the poorest possible soil of course, but it must be a frothing marvel of flowers in the spring.
The little towns are similarly rocky, their streets and ramps of steps paved largely in that same white stone. In smaller less trafficked places, after such unusual amounts of rainfall, these streets are engulfed with greenery. Often in village centres metal structures span streets and squares, with wisteria vines clambering over them. Again, it must be a gorgeous mass of bloom in spring. The citrus trees are magnificent: at this moment they’re drooping with lemons and oranges.
By the sea, doors and windowframes are painted a vast palette of blues. Further up in the hills, this gives way to browny burgundies, greys and greens.
All the towns have their grand constructions – solid, elegant, well heeled-looking dwellings, more often than not boarded up and in various stages of crumbling. Clearly there was a time when there was a little more wealth in this far-flung spot than there is now… if not for the masses, at least for the wealthy few who now seem to have given the place up completely.
Used to Italy with some lovely surprise in almost every little town, I expect other Mediterranean places to be the same but I’ve come to realise that Lesvos is too poor for that. The church in Agiasos was calmly beautiful; the great monastery in Matamados was too full of its own importance to be really moving. Along the coast from Molyvos in the ghost resort of Efthalou (it comes to life in summer), there’s a tiny white igloo-like hut jutting out to the sea containing a spring full of boiling mineral-rich water; it’s filled with steam but laser-streaked with light from small holes in the roof.
Most memorable of all, above Efthalou, a huge swath of hillside is where discarded life vests and tatters of dinghy end up in what’s known as the graveyard. I’m told that quite a lot of the debris has been moved away and disposed of. But the mountains that are left really took the wind out of me. It was hard to catch your breath when presented with so many symbols of individual desperation.
(The second instalment of my Lesvos tale can be found here.)
LIGHTHOUSE RELIEF URGENTLY NEEDS FUNDS TO CONTINUE ITS VITAL EMERGENCY RESPONSE WORK ON THE NORTHERN COAST OF LESVOS AND ITS PSYCHOSOCIAL SUPPORT PROGRAMMES IN RITSONA REFUGEE CAMP NORTH OF ATHENS. ANY DONATIONS TO THEIR GLOBAL GIVING CAMPAIGN WILL BE MUCH APPRECIATED. PLEASE SPREAD THE WORD.