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February 5, 2014
February 5, 2014

The week I will never forget

Author: Matine Ntanou Translator: Eleni Nicolaou
Source: Vice  Category: Borders
This article is also available in: frel
The week I will never forget

It was just before Christmas 2012 when I suddenly found myself in the island of Lesbos. A few days earlier a boat full of migrants a Turkish trafficker was trying to pass to Greece, was sank off the coast of island of Lesvos and, by the next morning, the sea began bringing out bodies – a total of 21 up to that moment.

They were just some out of hundreds trying, at that period, to arrive to Greece, in small skiffs, from the Turkish coast. The situation in Syria and the fence in Evros had diverted the entire flow of migrants towards Lesbos – the old familiar destination. At first, in small numbers, 10-15 people every three days but, around the end of the year, more and more were arriving, wet and tired, in several eastern beaches.

They were so many that the police did not even arrest them anymore, because they had nowhere to put them. The detention centres were jammed with families and children. There was no space available, the conditions were abhorrent, there was not enough food for them, so they were left out in the streets. Rainfall started, children and pregnant women sat soaked on the steps of the municipal theatre, it was cold and the crowd kept growing and growing.

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At the same time on the island, an island with progressive left-wing tradition, citizens’ groups from all kind of organisations mustered to help fellow human beings. They had named the initiative the “Village all together.” From 2009 until September 2012 the flow of migrants had almost stopped so the group had focused its attention on solidarity and aid to citizens in need, due to the crisis. But when the new wave of migrants broke out, especially after the Golden Dawn attacks against some of them –in Lesbos , Golden Dawn followers are few and easily confined– they took action again. They put pressure on the local authorities and managed to be granted the PIKPA camp’s facilities on the island in order to accommodate migrants. Therein, the volunteers of the “Village all together”, in just one afternoon, set up a mechanism for housing, feeding and clothing, a model open-reception centre for migrants, and they operated it smoothly for a month, succeeding, without preparation, without any know-how, something that had not been done for years by any authority.

I was there for four days with my good friend and photographer, George Moutafis. I slept very little, I got very tired, I got even wetter, I was cold as never before. But I have never felt more grateful for my luck for being there.

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For one month, PIKPA, a large lawned area, with pine trees, playground, 11 little wooden houses and a central two-storey building, enlivened, hitherto, only at summers when it was full of the camp children, was now bursting with life. Happy kids of all races were playing on the playground, volunteers were organising meals in the main building, women were arriving, carrying hot pots, dozens of citizens were cooking in their kitchens in order to feed all these people that some days were as many as 145. Residents, shopkeepers, the Church, the Aegean University, associations gathered food, clothing, medicines. Volunteers were solving technical problems, bringing at their own expense the necessary technicians – some of whom offered volunteer work. The Doctors without Borders had set up their makeshift infirmary. The scouts were standing outside the supermarkets, asking customers to give something for the Village. The percussion group of the city was fundraising, singing the carols. “Some days we were saying there is no way to have enough food and yet, in the end, a little miracle would always happen”, Vasiliki Andreadeli, responsible for catering, coordinating the situation almost like a magician, was telling me. She had an assistant, Magdi, a political refugee from Iran who had applied for asylum, but spent three months in jail. He was freed, under the associations’ network guarantee and was now helping with translations and coordination. When he was not around, saying in Farsi “the plastic spoon, do not throw it away, keep it” was a challenge. In the next room, the clothing room, migrants were entering in small groups, trying out cloths, looking mainly for leather waterproof shoes, a little embarrassed, thanking all the time, “oh dear, it looks great on you”, the volunteers were saying to them, they were all laughing together. A lady with hairdresser’s hair, who was carrying food from her home on a daily basis was asking persistently if the sandwiches waiting to be distributed contained ham or turkey. Why such a gourmet interest in sandwiches, I asked George. “The migrants do not eat pork, they are Muslims”, he reminded to me “and the people here are anxious about it, too”.

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I was not the only one with this feeling. Barnaby Phillips, one of the best known British Al Jazeera correspondents was also there for the “Village all together” and seemed equally moved. “I have never seen anything like that,” he said. “This effort is unique”.

“It is not possible for a society to feel well and celebrate Christmas as if nothing is happening, when people are being drowned in the sea, close to their coasts, or are hungry in the streets or when families are stacked in detention centres. The PIKPA venture gave its own model solution, proved that an open reception centre is feasible, as a response to the detention centres like Amygdaleza, that are totally unwelcome in Lesbos . Let’s take advantage of the EU funds that our country is entitled for this purpose and let’s do something, at last”, Efi Latsoudi, one of the key players in this effort, was telling me.

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Father Cyril and his monastery contributed to the effort too. With his deaconesses he had undertaken the main burden of cooking for the village. I went to find him. “These days we saw what happened in the US”, he was speaking calmly, referring to the Newtown tragedy, where a 24 year old had opened fire in an elementary school killing 27 people, most of them kids. “We were all sad; we saw the reaction of the world, from the first to the last. And from the other side, we have experienced another reality here. We collect bodies of people through the seaweed and nobody cares about them. We will bury them without anyone ever seeking them, are they so unimportant? If 30 goats are drowned –sorry for speaking like this– some ecologist would come out and say, those poor animals, they were drowned. Thirty animals. For these people, the politicians were only trying to shake off their responsibility, nothing else. We helped the volunteers of the village, not out of a religious duty, but because we feel we are all human beings –white, black, Asian. It is not possible for me to be eating, while others are hungry, or celebrating Christmas, while others are lying drowned on a beach. We could say a typical “we will pray for them”, but Christianity is not exactly that. We did the minimum. I admire the ordinary people of Lesbos who give up time with their children, from their jobs in order to help. We all make our personal overrun. There is a duty; it is the law of love. This is how the heart has learned to beat; this is how we should be moving ahead”.

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It was Tuesday when I arrived to the island. I woke up at 5 am to catch my flight and I was in Lesbos at 10, tired and hungry. I was carrying my suitcase, my laptop and my bag and I was hoping that before I started work, I would find a little time to leave my luggage somewhere, in a house that would host us and to eat something. Such opportunities for field work outside Athens are seldom, although friends always wish you “happy holidays” when they hear that you’re leaving to cover a story. George was clear, we had to rush. We spent that first afternoon back and forth, in the camp, police station, interviews. At around 4 in the evening there was a chance for us to gather for a pit stop, but the phone rang. George’s phone always rings delivering various pieces of information you never know where they come from. Another boat with 30 people had arrived in the Mantamados village, northeast of the island. The migrants were trying to reach the PIKPA camp (they had already learned about it) on foot. They did not know it, but they were 30 kilometres away. I did not even have the time to be surprised, George grabbed me, like a plastic doll, and put me in the car. I do not know how much time we were driving, I had lost track of time. After about 40 minutes, we were in the middle of nowhere, neither homes nor villages around, when we saw them descending in small groups. Families with children, exhausted from walking, -they had already walked for 5.6 kilometres, after a full night in a boat in rough sea- pregnant women, young and older men. We left the car aside and went to the edge of the road. “Shouldn’t we transfer a few of them? The pregnant women and children, at least” I said timidly. It was getting dark. Transporting illegal migrants, even in such conditions, is illegal and one might be arrested for trafficking. If, in addition to that you happen to be a journalist and have been there to cover a story, your problem is not only being arrested, but the explanations you will have to give to your boss. Besides, dividing the group, by transferring some and leaving others behind, is wrong. We hesitated. Then, it started raining. Weakly at first. In Lesbos, when it starts raining, sometimes it forgets to stop. It was one of those times. I could feel the squelch of my footpad inside my boot from the very first 5 minutes, when we saw a family having stopped in a bend of the road. A boy of no more than 6 years old was lying on the ground, crying, his father rubbing his legs to avoid freezing, the mother and a pregnant woman by their side. “We will take them, it is final” George shouted at me. Using English and a little Farsi he could remember from his adventures, and the body language we communicated with the men of the group. We would take the child, the mother, the pregnant woman and another mother with a little girl and would send two more cars to pick the remaining women and children. We got in the car; the three women in the back seat with the girl in their arms. “Could you take him in your arms?” the 6 mother of the year-old gestured to me, so she could fit in the car. I put him on my lap, in the front seat. He was still wearing his hood and his hands were colder than marble. We turned the heater on, full speed. He was so still that I checked his pulse. As the car heated up, I felt him relax, until he leaned on my arm and fell asleep. I caught his hand to heat it up and he held me tight. Amir Hussein had saved my year.

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A little later, at the camp, the volunteers welcomed the new guests, gave them dry cloths and food and had a doctor visit them. Amir was still asleep. I could not stay; we had to go back with the two cars to pick up the rest; by then, the rain was torrential.

Next day, it was sunny, the kids were playing on the playground, I was finally dry and fed, as was Amir Husayn who came to say thank you, as his mother instructed him to, with SpongeBob in his arms, given to him as a gift by the volunteers. I even won a shy hug.

Three days later the village was closed. The police evacuated the camp, speeding up the procedures required for the migrants to be sent to Athens; they were gathered in trucks and sent to the capital. This whole story was an insult for the authorities. A bunch of people had managed something that an entire state did not want to do for so many years.

“But where are they going? I brought foinikia!” shouted a well-dressed lady, who arrived at the camp when the last of the migrants were leaving. Shortly before the door of the police van was closed, she gave the carton with the sweets to the passengers ‘for the road’, the officer got in the van, the members of this paradoxical yet deeply human small community, created for a short time, said goodbye to each other. You know, the last few years we have been receiving on a daily basis the most horrible news in our lives. If you combine this with a generous portion of personal problems, you risk losing your hope forever. At that time I was very close to it. Until I met these people. This small community.

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photographs by George Moutafis

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