Greece: A Reluctant Journal of a Forgotten Humanitarian Emergency
“They are here because you were there. There is an umbilical connection.”
– Stuart Hall, Black Chronicles.
The following is a reluctant journal of my time volunteering on the Search and Rescue boat ‘Mo Chara’ for Refugee Rescue off the shores of Greece. I originally wrote this so that I would not have to speak about it too much to my family – something they and my friends can attest has gone out the window, as I can’t stop speaking about it.
Since 2015, people seeking asylum from their war-torn west Asian homelands have been making the “short” but dangerous crossing from Turkey to Greece. A small town in North Mytilene called Skala started to take the brunt (for lack of a better word) of this influx of refugees, and was in fact nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize due to the work its 150-strong population did to help.
Today, despite the fact that the emergency is growing worse – with more people having crossed in 2019 than the whole of 2018 – there are only two NGOs that remain in the area: Refugee Rescue and Lighthouse Relief. They’re both flat out trying to provide care, shelter, food and clothing for everyone in need of refuge.
Once people have crossed the Aegean Sea successfully, they are sent to Moria, the only refugee camp in Lesvos. It’s a place that has been described as “Hell on Earth”, with some refugees stating it would have been better to drown than live there.
Moria is the destination after Stage 2: a basketball court that has been turned into a medical area and large shelter. It is where new, dry clothes are provided, and the human element of the care given can be provided. The relief seen in the refugees’ faces when they arrive there adds to the shame felt when you volunteer there, knowing they will soon be forced to move on to Moria.
The people I encountered were all Afghani, fleeing the Taliban, and the desperation they have to make that journey and then cross the Aegean is not one I feel; I can only describe.
February 11, 2019
I leave for the airport too early, having slept too little, and wonder if the decision to go is right. The airport is timeless, as all airports are, and my decision to leave early is fruitful, as I manage to sleep at the gate and then for most of the three-hour flight to Athens.
In Athens, I pass my seven-hour transit by reading ‘This Is Going to Hurt’. I am almost finished just as boarding for my plane to Mytilene is called, and immediately see a mid-20s Scandinavian-looking woman sitting and reading the same book, with a Medicine Sans Frontiers bag prominently displayed in a position it can not be missed. I put my book in my bag and avoid eye contact.
The landing is the first time I’ve encountered true fear on a plane. The locals are all calling out to each other and anxiously laughing during it, only reinforcing the fact that this is not how these flights usually go. We land with one wing almost touching the ground, and one set of wheels still firmly in the air. I assume a sitting foetal position until the other set of wheels has made contact with land.
My pick-up team are late, but when they arrive they are happy and bubbly and take me into town for some gyros before the hour trip to the north of Mytilene where the charity I’m working for has their boat and spotting crew.
By the time I arrive, my hosts are in bed, but one gets out to welcome me, which I appreciate. Another is cooking and offers me dinner; however, I’m too tired to function and go to sleep.
I realise I dislike writing journals.
February 12, 2019
Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) training with the captain.
Meet my crewmates and have coffee.
Tour of the rescue boat – Mo Chara. It means ‘My Friend’ in Gaelic.
February 13, 2019
I don’t sleep until 2:30am, and wake at 4:30 to find out that training for the morning has been cancelled due to bad weather. This is, for me, a relief. I’m woken again at 8:50 by the captain telling me to get up and get dressed in my PPE, as we need to get in the water. His calm demeanour and my inexperience combined mean that I get up, brush my teeth and piss, only to open the door and find my three house and crewmates moving swiftly and clearly not in a “this is just a drill” kind of way.
Shit, I’ve misjudged this.
It turns out that there are people in the water, potentially over 40.
I am yet to have a training session, so my first day on the water will be a real exercise – the usual heady mix of adrenaline, fear and something like happiness waves over me. It’s not happiness that people are in trouble; it’s happiness that I’m lucky enough to be in situations I believe I am good at, can think clearly in and can help people with. It seems rare to me that people encounter this in a job, and I am yet to forget how privileged I am to do what I do on land, and now, in the water in a voluntary capacity, however briefly.
We leave the harbour at 9:10 and speed across the water to the wrong place. Miscommunication has occurred due to faulty communication, a reliance on iPhones in heavy rain and large waves, and the confusion of refugees landing without being spotted.
New information comes through that around 40 people have landed near Tsonia, a small town, and they are saying a nine-year-old girl has been lost at sea. The enjoyment of the large waves throwing the small rescue boat around ceases. All eyes are on every small thing we can see in the waves around us.
Just before we arrive at Tsonia, we see a dingy that has been partially destroyed on jagged rocks by the shore. There is a young boy and a man retrieving things from it. We shout “Salam!” and they wave, pointing to the sea and then beckoning us over. In response, we point to the nearest port and start to sail there when an older man starts running and frantically pointing to sea; clearly something is pretty fucking wrong.
We meet the running man at the port. He collapses, laments to his god and tries to talk to us in Farsi. The only response we have is to use our cheat sheet: “Ma doost haseem” we say, We are friends. “Esmeh shoma cheest?” — What is your name?” This to me seems a paltry introduction to a man who has just sailed 10 kilometres on a semi-inflated dingy through seas so rough a designated rescue boat refused to go out in them, but it’s all we have, and he seems to briefly appreciate them before trying to urgently tell us something else.
The NGO’s translator arrives and tells us the man has lost his daughter during the landing, as when they hit the rocks during the dark of the morning, chaos ensued. We get back on the boat and begin a new search of the area. The experienced Search and Rescue medic on the boat and I begin to go over resuscitation protocol and who will get what piece of equipment if we find her. We do this for a nine-year old girl who has just made the overland trip from Afghanistan to Turkey, crossed on a dingy, and has now been lost in cold and dangerous water for possibly four hours with no life-vest.
Hope is the worst of all emotions.
We search the waters near the landing point (which, to me, looks like a crash zone, with debris everywhere) for what feels like an eternity, then we make our way to a small island close to us. Skirting around the island we see flotation devices, but none with anyone in them.
After another hour, we are joined by the heroic efforts of the Croatian and Argentinian border force patrols (groups, I am told, largely made up of ex-bouncers), who search in places they’ve decided may be useful, and disregard any information given. It is then that we get another message from the translator that the girl was wearing a green dress, white trousers and white shoes. “Divers have been called,” the informant adds.
We tow two divers along the shoreline for another hour or so, before dropping them off and doing a wide search of the coastline, going against the current in order to see if we can find any debris drifting. Any time a piece of green is seen on the rocks, feelings of fear and relief are replaced with, well, for me, emptiness and sorrow.
Eventually we are forced to head back as the sea is getting even worse and it will soon be dark. We have searched from Skala (our mooring harbour) to Palios (the furthest south of our jurisdiction), have been on the water for eight hours. None of us have eaten more than a biscuit or two, and none of us have drunk water. This seems immaterial.
The girl’s body wasn’t found. She travelled a minimum distance of 3950 kilometres (according to Google Maps, with the cursor on the furthest west border of Afghanistan), and died three feet from safety.
Smugglers charge less if refugees launch in rough weather, and even less if they do not have life vests.
She was wearing a green dress, white trousers and white shoes.
February 14, 2019
Another morning of bad weather means we can not launch and continue our search. I sleep until 10:50 and wake up to go the café. The NGOs have organised a mass debrief with two psychologists, which is impressive, although it appears some people may struggle to openly speak in such an alien environment. Those who do completely blow me away – to have no training whatsoever and experience such a horrific occurrence is astounding, and nothing short of heroic.
The story of the girl’s family at the safe space known as Stage 2 emerges and it is awful – her mother stares out to sea and keeps gesturing to it whilst refusing help. The two brothers show pictures of the missing girl to a volunteer and her father is inconsolable.
February 15, 2019
No search today due to further bad weather – it needs to be conducted near the shoreline where the rocks are huge, meaning that searching in bad weather is pointless. I hang out at the café and read all day. I’m beginning to find that the true difficulty here is the down time. Being on call 24/7 means I can’t explore the town or even run further than one kilometre away. Cabin fever is certainly a risk.
February 16, 2019
February 17, 2019
During today’s training, the captain tells me a story of his first experience with death out here. About two years earlier, 32 people went into the water after just crossing into Greek seas, but weren’t spotted until much later. By the time Mo Chara and the coastguard were on scene, 30 people had drowned and the remaining two had been in the sea for 12 hours.
One of them was close to nine months pregnant and had begun to struggle to stay afloat, so the other had given her a bag which had some trapped air, making it helpful; however, in doing so she had sacrificed her buoyancy and they had drifted apart. Another example of ultimate selflessness in desperate times.
Mo Chara found both, and the woman gave birth to a healthy child.
February 18, 2019
Search and training. New crewmate.
February 19, 2019
Search and training.
February 20, 2019
Day off. A rarity and something I specifically asked for. I get wasted.
February 21, 2019
I have a day off the boat and volunteer to be on call for Stage 2: the area refugees are taken once they land. During the night, we have a call to say a group has arrived, and I run up to help prep the area and give out dry clothes. This is where the reality of what I’m doing actually hits, as a woman with three children walks towards me inside the area and enters the tent.
This is the more human part of the work here – there’s no adrenaline, no bad weather or fast boats: just people who have travelled 4000 kilometres in desperation, and who now just want to be warm.
I play with a young boy and his toy car. We pass it back and forth to each other for 30 minutes whilst others hand out chai tea to the rest of the refugees. Eventually, some food is found – the people who were supposed to provide food have been delaying the delivery for weeks – and handed out to everyone. This boy managed to get a handful of biscuits and his first instinct was to come over and offer me some of the tiny bit of food he’d been given.
I didn’t cry for the girl who died, but I did there and then with him.
February 22, 2019.
Another landing. 72 people on a tiny dinghy. The same scenes as the day before, except we’re nearly out of clothes and completely out of men’s shoes. The past 24 hours we’ve had 160 or so people land.
February 23, 2019
Training is cancelled due to bad weather. 20 minutes later, I’m woken up for a transfer of 40-something people. The weather is so bad that not even the coastguard had been out the night before, yet the Turkish smugglers had launched a dinghy.
The protocol for refugees when the coastguard reaches them first is to have Mo Chara come up and transfer them to shore. This is a dangerous and lengthy procedure in calm seas, let alone in weather so bad that the designated sea authorities have declined patrolling as normal.
We line ourselves up, throw our mooring ropes to the coastguard and begin to take passengers on board. The waves are now so high that the coastguard ship is rising up above my head, and I’m having to either hold people and sit them down (Beshi) or try and keep Mo Chara in line with the boat. The captain is literally holding onto the coastguard ship to prevent it moving too far away or coming down on us.
Babies are now being passed to me at the stern, and I’m giving them to random women (women and children first, always). I turn around and see a baby being held by a crewmate just as the sea pitches a huge wave at us. The baby is almost dropped between both boats. Reality begins to hit again.
We manage to transfer all the people in three trips, which take approximately two hours. Once we get back to shore, we are told two more dinghies have landed, right on top of where the girl died only a few days before.
We spot both dinghies with no one around them after racing there across high seas. The adrenaline and love of speed hits again. There’s no guilt this time: I am a firm believer that to avoid burnout, you must enjoy the bits that you can before returning to empathy and care.
The police are there already with one refugee who states that his wife felt ill, collapsed and now he can’t find her. We search the land with him for an hour, but can’t find her. In wet and cold weather, lying on the ground for a prolonged period of time (especially after a prolonged crossing) is terrible, and I begin to fear the worst.
Mo Chara is told to return to port; it transpires that the woman was with another group. She’s up at Stage 2 and has been reunited with her husband.
There have now been 260 new arrivals and the NGOs are out of blankets, food, clothes and shoes.
February 24, 2019
No morning training due to weather.
I volunteer to go night spotting, which is where a group go up to a goat farm on Karakas and look through a night vision telescope all night. It is cold and tiring work, but essential to help people. Just below the spotting area is a lighthouse warning of the insane rocks beneath the sea in that area. Refugees naturally head to this light, not understanding that it is trying to prevent exactly that.
It starts to snow and the spotting is cancelled, as it will be too dangerous to get back, not to mention stay in the cold in a tiny shed.
February 25, 2019
February 26, 2019
Too rough to launch. Stretcher / C-Spine training. Night launch.
February 27, 2019
Morning training. I realise I am coming down with a bit of a sniffle (man flu). The captain notices and asks me to consider taking the next day off. Pride fucks with me for a while, but I realise its probably a good idea.
February 28, 2019
I’m too ill to train in the morning. I listen to and help with a talk from visiting teenagers on a school trip. Then we have CPR training.
March 1, 2019
Morning training leads to a last-minute interception. I am first contact on the boat. 36 refugees. A tow boat. I have lunch with the crew in an astounding location with our own beach. I am struck by the fact that I am a tourist on others’ misery. I eat more octopus.
March 2, 2019
We are getting into bed when we hear the phone that’s linked to the coastguard and other authorities go off. There has been a landing and we need to find it.
Mo Chara launches and we find the people high and dry around fires. The weather and location is too dangerous for us to land, so my crewmate and I have to swim to shore. We get our dry bag, which is equipped with walkie talkies, emergency medical supplies, emergency blankets and water, and jump in. I don’t quite swim (it’s more like an unathletic floundering to the rocks), but my crewmate does. We reach the shore and climb some rocks.
Immediately we are told there is a “sick baby”, whom I go over to assess: breathing – good, colour – good, tone – good; following further assessment, the baby is wet, but happy.
My crewmate goes to find the nearest road with some of the refuges whilst I stay with 40-something of the rest. He is gone for a long time as we are in the middle of nowhere and there are few paths. Eventually, he finds the landing crew and guides them back to us (I have no idea how – the man is a wizard) and we all begin the 45-minute hike back to the police.
March 3, 2019
Feel like I shouldn’t leave. Contemplate staying, and freak girlfriend out by saying that I’m staying. Captain tells me to go home to assess before making the decision.
March 4, 2019
Wake up and get driven to the airport with a coordinator who’s fantastic. On the way, we encounter a group of refugees who have just made the crossing without being seen and are now walking along the road. One is in a wheel chair. Police arrive and I make it to my plane on time.
I watch The Office in the airport in Athens, look around and have the classic what-the-fuck-am-I-doing wobble.
Arrive home, see my mum and girlfriend, drink ouzo and realise I want to be back.
Four weeks after she was lost, the body of the 9-year old girl was found. The awful task of retrieving her body was given to the crew of Mo Chara. I sincerely hope that this allows the family to have closure.
Photos provided by the author