Missed the first part of the adventure? Get caught up here!
A thrill ran through me. A big boat? How many people? The boat crew for Red Mist, as well as for the 'Shark' – a small outboard powered dinghy – scrambled and took to sea. The morning slowly passed into the afternoon and a feeling of anticipation grew. Large groups of volunteers began streaming into Limantziki Beach, and the sparse field that served as a parking lot was soon full with the smallish cars and vans used on the island.
I felt deep anticipation as we waited for the boat to come in. Slowly, over the horizon we saw a large shape emerge. It was tall and coming in fairly quickly. As it came closer, its shape was changing on the water's edge, lengthening and shortening, indicative of heavy turning. For an overloaded, top-heavy old boat, this was extremely dangerous. Anxiety punched at my gut. Would there be another capsizing, as there had been on October 28th? Three or four small boats buzzed around the refugee transport, keeping their distance from its crazed turns. How many people would those four small boats be able to save if the double decker went over in the water? How many children could they pull out of that crazed mob and transport to shore? And how many would drown before they made their way back?
My mind struggled to make sense of everything it was seeing; in a cerebral sense, it was a culmination of years of current events coming into play. It wasn't just a boat overloaded with people, careening through the dark Aegean; it was a result of years of foreign policy, warfare, and desolation. It was the rawest display of human desperation I had ever seen.
The boats came closer and closer, and soon we could make out the colors. The boat was brown with a forest green trim, but overcasting all other colors was orange, orange, and orange. Over 200 lifejackets blazed their color across the distance, each lifejacket providing flimsy, vain protection to the human being it encased.
It's a strange cocktail of emotions that emerges at a time like that: urgency, heartache, terror, and above all a determination. Limantziki had the part of the bay that was ideally suited to taking in wooden boats due to its depth, but the path to the beach was choked with the detritus of other wrecked ships. We diverted our energies into moving the smashed pieces of vessels along the beach into a separate pile. It was messy, dangerous work, lifting heavy, awkward, nail-studded pieces of spar, beam and hull over the slippery rocks and seaweed. It was a welcome diversion though.
The boats drew closer, within a few hundred yards, and the lifeguards sprang into action. As one mass we waded out of the shore into the shallows. The refugees were waving excitedly but they failed to see the massive peril that would result from their boat tipping in even the shallowest of waters. We waded out too far and had to draw back as the boat came in closer, too close, threatening to crush us between the impossibly loaded hull and dark black rocks of Greece. Finally, the boat cut the engine and the rescue boats stabilized it in place. Nikos, the strongest and tallest of all the lifeguards, boarded the ship off of the 'Shark' and climbed the rails to where the gangplank would have been. Two of the tallest volunteer lifeguards stood up to their chests in water by the boat and the rest of us lined up in tow parallel human chains. Josh and I stood side by side, he to my left and Sophia to my right
How to describe the next hour? Quickly, delicately, we offloaded the infants and children first, struggling to lift them overhead and keep their feet out of the water. Many of them were terrified, wailing toothless screams into our faces. Pity swelled my heart and I tried vainly to comfort them in passing. I would try to look into their eyes and smile as I picked them up from Josh by the lifejacket and handed them to Sophia.
'Heyyyyy, you're OK, you're OK…' I would croon, but it soothed them little. Cold, probably hungry, taken from their parents and passed overhead by strangers, there wasn't much to do to assuage them.
“Shway, shway!” we cried, trying to calm the anxiety and eagerness of the refugees to get off of that damned boat. The children got bigger and heavier, but also started becoming happier. They were old enough to understand their situation, to understand that now they were relatively safe. Some were smiling as we passed them overhead, even if their feet and legs started dipping in the water. The footing we had was slippery and it was hard to keep our balance in the waist-high water. It was good that there was dry clothing and space blankets in the tents
Soon, the adults began coming in. They would drop off of the boat with the assistance of the two lifeguards at the rail and from Nikos at the gangplank. Some experienced shock as they hit the frigid water. We took them under the arms and helped them walk along the rocks, smiling and welcoming them. Again, a strong mix of emotions: terror, joy, release! One man, to much protestation, balanced quickly on the edge of the ship and performed a shallow dive into the rocky waters. He came to his feet and strode quickly to shore, and we let him go. I wondered at his determination. Was he simply fed up with waiting? Did he have such a strong aversion to assistance? Did he resent westerners? Or had he simply promised himself on the long boat ride over that he would walk on to Greek shores under his own power? I would never know.
One woman wailed as she immersed up to her chest. There was no acknowledgement as we helped her by, but a pained focus pinched her face as she took step by step to her freedom. We tried our best to hoist the elderly and one overweight woman with a leg injury nearly pushed me under the water. One man held his phone aloft as he made the final steps of the crossing, what was presumably his favorite song blasting from the speaker.
Throughout the whole offloading, there was a woman working across from me that I will never forget. She spoke assurances in Arabic to the refugees as they struggled ashore and wore a dark habib over her hair. The thin cloth framed a petite, heart-shaped face with a brilliant smile and glowing, violet eyes. We looked across at each other often as we passed the children and assisted the adults, and I couldn't help but smile each time.
Lord, she was captivating.
Finally all the passengers were offloaded, and we began passing their bags across, no small task in of itself. At last the boat was empty and we climbed aboard like pirates. From our elevated position I had my first good look at what was happening onshore. A cacophony of activity was taking place. Groups of volunteers in yellow vests milled around, handing out food and asking questions. There was a heavy media presence, cameras rolling, and medical personnel examining individual refugees. Most of all, we saw the refugees. There were large groups standing around in fresh clothes, talking, decompressing, and holding their children.
We crawled over the refugee barge like monkeys, and I had a picture taken at the helm, harkening back to my days as a master helmsman on a destroyer. It was a simple vessel, double decked, and it looked like it would be a passable ferry for 40 or so people. It had been crammed like a Japanese Subway train, however, with over five times as many people as would have been safe. The floor was smeared with streaks of cold mud. Finally we disembarked, the last folk to drop off the barge into the water.
It was a euphoric moment; working en masse, we had brought over 200 souls ashore. A hundred disasters had been diverted and a hundred stories had been born. Josh and I hugged onshore and snapped a photo of the two of us with the empty boat behind us. Soon, the refugees began to be taken to the encampment where they would be housed and have their identities processed. The afternoon lengthened under above the cloudy sky and it slowly darkened.
There would be other boats during our time on Lesvos, including one that dropped off a group of refugees at night, which was a harrowing affair. None though, left as powerful an impression as that first barge and its desperate human cargo. It was our first impression of operations on Lesvos, our first touch upon the tapestry of nations that came together under the Greek flag in order to serve the higher calling of compassion. Although all of us that worked with ISLA during that time have left the island, the Greeks of Lifeguard Hellas are still on station, manning the beach and holding the watch. They still wait, watching the ocean with binoculars and night vision glasses. Through the night, the cold, the wet, and the blasting winds, they wait on the shore. They will be waiting until there are no more boats on the horizon.