When Saving a Life Makes You a Criminal
It’s Ramadan in Lesvos. Thousands of Muslims, who have unwillingly become inhabitants of the little island, are fasting during their holy month. Some have been here for years; some have been pulled out of the water only a few weeks ago. Most of them are still waiting for family members to cross the ocean between Turkey and Greece during what we call the “refugee crisis”. Since 2015, over a million people have placed their lives in the hands of smugglers for the most dangerous part of their journey. With the Turkish shore in the distance and Greek families bathing in the almost lake-like water, the journey seems safe.
“‘Half an hour and you’ll be in Greece!’ is what the smugglers tell them,” says Manuel Elviro Vidal, a lifeguard and volunteer in Lesvos, as he pulls on a lifejacket. “But once they reach international waters, there are currents their overloaded boats can’t handle. They panic and their boats lose balance.” The lifejacket rips open, revealing plastic and foam: “These give them about 30 minutes to float and wait for help, before they are soaked and pull them down to the ground,” he adds.
Scenarios like these caused the death of over 5000 people in 2016, turning the ocean passage into an international graveyard. Helping fishermen with bodies caught up in their nets has become a daily task for the coast guards.
It was a story my friend told me that made me come to Lesvos. Shortly before she started lifeguarding on the island, some other lifeguards went out to rescue a sinking boat, ignoring legal instructions to only operate in Greek waters.
Saving hundreds of lives was their entry ticket to jail.
At night, I try to concentrate on the crackling of the fire to stay awake. I gaze at the calm water. The lights of a Turkish town shine bright on the other side of the sea. No boats. My bones crack as I get up and leave my bed, which consists of a thin mat and a towel on the ground. The radio crunches; a distorted voice mumbles. A few seconds later, the connection is lost. “Frontex,” says the dark silhouette sitting on a camping chair next to the dying fire. A few minutes later, a boat crosses the horizon.
Frontex, the European Union’s Border and Coast Guard Agency, has been established to secure the external borders of the Schengen Zone in Europe. Greece has been struggling with the pressure of migration flows for over a decade, but ever since the Syrian Civil War forced over 11 million civilians to permanently flee their homes, the country has not been able to tackle the issue alone. The EU sent Frontex to help out – or, in other words, to prevent the boats from entering the Schengen Zone where the EU would have to deal with them.
It’s been a quiet night for the lifeguards at campfire point, but as the year goes on, the number of boats filled with refugees arriving in Greece will rise again. As the sun appears on the horizon, I can breathe freely again; another night with no incoming boats has passed. I drive to my guest room, relieved to have not become a criminal myself last night, to catch up on sleep before I head to the warehouse.
The smell of my own sweat penetrates my nose as I lift my arms to tie my straggly hair into a ponytail. Unfamiliar sounds of Arabic, Farsi and Urdu fill the warehouse as people stream to the tables. My shorts are sticking to my thighs as I grab a tray of juices and wait for the last bus bringing people from the camps to arrive.
About half of the people accommodated in the three camps on Lesvos are women and children waiting for documents that will allow them to move onto European mainland. Whereas body language is often the only common form of communication with adults, their children curiously ask me to join their games while waiting for dinner. Whenever I answer their questions about my origin, Germany, a flicker of hope flashes over their faces. The boys playing soccer ask me if they can join a team once they make it to central Europe; Rania wonders about the price of a camera like mine, because she wants to be a photographer. Sayid is worried his German isn’t good enough to go to high school in Munich.
Meanwhile, the European Commission publishes a document entitled ‘Securing Europe’s External Borders’, and France’s Marine Le Pen plans an immigration block due to too many “illegal immigrants”.
I look at those kids playing outside just like my neighbours in Germany. If they weren’t labelled “illegal”, they could probably be friends one day.
Hundreds of heads turn as I distribute fruit juice and bottled water, mainly of women whose faces are hidden. I stumble and almost spill the juice as I hand a glass to a veiled woman sitting on a pillow. Slightly widened eyes examine me, my blonde hair, my shorts, the skin revealed by my little top, as I look at her elegantly draped headscarf. I hesitate, unable to tell if she judges my appearance and wonder if I’m being inappropriate. But as our eyes meet, her curiosity turns into surprise and finally, almost in disbelief, she returns my smile.
Cover by Manuel Elviro Vidal, inset and video by the author