*Five boats arrived at the lighthouse in the space of two hours this morning as I was on my way to post this… photos for post later as must stock up clothes now!*
As there is very little sense of time, days or dates here (only urgency and the present moment), I can only say that it has been for the past several days that myself and the rest of my team have been stationed at a post known as the Lighthouse. It is a small bay which is an easy landing place for boats, and it is just behind my hotel. There is a tent there (I suppose in a festive situation you might call it a marquee, but here it is very much a tent) which we run. We also look out for boats arriving in this area, assess where they might land and co-ordinate accordingly with other groups and locals. When stationed at the Lighthouse you are responsible for the stretch of the coastline from the Aphrodite Hotel, which is just next to my hotel, to Eftalou, a few kilometres further along in the other direction.
Without fail, the day starts early. The first boats arrive at first light and the day before yesterday the bang on the door came at 6.30, the earliest start yet. Yesterday was more reasonable (smugglers, how about giving a little more thought to our sleep?!) and I managed to get to the tent before the first boat came in, sometime between 7.30 and 8.00.
The tent is a rarity along these shores and is there all the time. Owned by NGO WAHA it was set up by them but the group I am working with, Norwegian NGO Drop in the Ocean, is responsible for the day-to-day running of it.
How wet the people are when they land depends very much on the type of boat they make the crossing on and how they get off the boat. People arriving on the black rubber dinghies are generally very wet, especially the women and children as they are sat inside the boat and often end up sitting in water, whilst the men are sitting on the edge of the dinghy can be dryer. Those who cross on the metal or wooden boats that sit high out of the water are usually dry, provided they can get off the boat without getting in the water, which is much easier said than done, depending on where they land. The high hull of the boats means that they run aground metres before shore. In these cases if to hand, a dinghy is brought in to pass them onto and bring ashore.
The tent, therefore, is essential to our work. It is a changing area, it is shelter from the wind, it is storage for clothing, it is a place for weak or sick people to lie down and rest. When we arrived on our first day there, it seemed a more than a little neglected and we set about cleaning it up and making it as functional as possible. A women’s changing area was rigged up in one corner with a couple of sheets and some clothes pegs. Someone brought along some big UNHCR mats for the floor. A table was sourced and set up for baby-changing. Most importantly, supplies were stocked up and organized carefully. Inside the tent you can expect to find at all times (if we’ve had time to stock up!): clothing for babies, nappies, baby wipes and cream, towels, blankets, emergency thermal blankets, children’s clothing and socks, women’s clothing and socks, bottled water and an endless supply of plastic bags. If we can’t supply dry shoes (very difficult to do) we endeavour to get people dry socks. They can then wrap their feet in plastic bags and put their wet shoes back on. Works a treat and the shoes soon dry in the sun.
If you’re lucky there will also be men’s clothing and socks, a selection of children’s and adults’ shoes, biscuits, sweets and fruit…
Most of this is stored in huge black boxes, fashioned out of the salvaged rigid bottom of the black rubber dinghies by a local man.
As the boats near shore they are waved in by locals or volunteers to the best landing spot. An orange life jacket is usually used for this purpose. Who is manning the engine? I don’t know how the nomination process goes, but generally it is one of the refugees who does it. Occasionally the smugglers themselves do it and then make a break for it with the boat. An incident occurred a couple of days ago where a smuggler was landing a boat load of people and panicked, I suppose at seeing all the helpers on the shore. They began pushing the refugees into the water and pulled a knife on one of my team members when he tried to intervene. They were caught later. (Note: I was not there, don’t panic, there is never any dangerous situation here!)
Whoever it is at the rudder, they are not usually familiar with the sea, let alone steering a boat, which makes for some interesting twists and turns, which is probably due too to the fact that there are so many people on board the man steering can’t see anything and must listen to all the others jumbled directions as they follow our signals from the shore! Anyway, the point is to get the boat as close into shore as possible without assistance, so signalling to the people to stay calm and to stay sitting, and to keep coming to us. We should not wade out into the sea, as they then cut the engine and need help to get in. We should only go in the sea if needed and always will once the boat is stopped. Children are carried off, everyone helped ashore and out of their lifejackets. It is generally quite chaotic even if we try to keep a calm atmosphere – the refugees are so relieved to have landed. We encourage them to leave their lifejackets in a pile and as best we can, direct the men to behind the tent where they can change and help the children (always with a family member, always letting the parents know) to the tent to begin changing their clothes.
It can get very chaotic inside the tent, depending on the number of people, how wet they are, how scared they are and where they are from (Syrians very calm, Afghans and some Iraqis less so!). We try to keep things ordered and control the distribution of clothes where possible, for the main reason being that if we don’t a lot of clean clothes and shoes end up getting wet and dirty in the process and we also end up not being able to find anything which slows everything down. I am learning to accept chaos and let go of control. We are all learning to find a balance of firm and kind and this is the hardest part – the last thing we want to do when people are in shock and traumatised is to be strict but we have to. The hardest aspect of all of this is the language barriers. Everything is done in sign language if we can’t find an English speaker in the group (although about 50% of the time we can). Languages that pass through are mainly Farsi, Arabic and Kurdish. This is where we learn our random vocabulary: beeshee means sit down in Farsi, maee water in Arabic, jorob socks in Arabic or Farsi. Boussa or boussi in Farsi? Kiss!
We must also hurry people on through the tent as there is often another boat following, so we need to get people moving to the next stage. This too is hard to do because we don’t want to, and because of the language barrier. But it must be done. A large bus is ordered to take them to Oxy camp. From the beach they need to walk ten minutes to my hotel, which is the bus stop for them. We drive families and disabled people, often directly to the camp if we have time. The van that you have all contributed to is used all the time for this purpose and without it we would be up the creek- two locals use their mini bus and pick-up too but it is not always enough and they have jobs and other commitments. Yesterday an old Syrian woman in a wheelchair came off a boat. She was a large heavy woman and very weak, and how they got her off, I don’t know, I was busy changing children in the tent. When I think of what she has endured to get her I feel deep anger and shame. She was a woman of great dignity who has lived a long life with her family and is travelling with them now, in a wheelchair, across Europe, to a strange land that will never be home for her, no matter how safe. She had lost her headscarf. I managed to find her a beautiful pink one that would be warm too, which restored some dignity for her but she was clearly suffering a great deal. Her and her family would most likely have spent the night in woods in Turkey, where they are forced by the smugglers to wait to board the boat. There they would have slept outside with no food or water and most likely no idea of how long they would be waiting. Then there was the boat journey for her. Then she was sitting on the shore, her family nearby, clearly disorientated. She was helped into the van and we drove straight to Oxy where I found an Arabic speaking doctor from La Chaine D’espoir, a French NGO. I left them there knowing that there was nothing more I could do for her and wondering what the next stage of the journey would be like- more time spent sleeping outside? Would she be able to use a toilet anywhere if needed? Would she be a priority along the way? How will they get to their final destination – they can’t push her all the way in a wheelchair?
The rest of yesterday was calm. The tent was cleaned up, organised and restocked. I stocked up the back of the van with teddy bears, blankets, towels, socks, and women and children’s clothes in case we have to go to a boat that doesn’t arrive at the tent.
I tried to take some time out, but wondered all the time if I was needed somewhere, if the van was needed, if my team needed help. I went back down to the Lighthouse around 8 to be told that men had been seen walking on the road and could I come and drive them to Oxy. We found them on the road and they jumped into the van quickly. A group of Syrian men whose boat had come ashore nearby and were soaking wet. They had sent the women and children on ahead to the camp. They spoke excellent English and thanked us profusely for the lift. They were so humble, so polite, so grateful. We would have liked to stay chatting with them and get their stories but they told us two more boats were on the way and we thought it best to get moving.
The boats came in late at night, I was sleeping. It is 7.30am here now and boats will no doubt be arriving so it is time to get going.
Photos of camp to follow.