This morning Nicky and I arrived at the tea tent at 6am to have tea on the go at first light. Our dear helpers and tent guards, Mohammed Ali, Mohammed and Hameed were still sleeping, wrapped up cosily in their grey UNHCR blankets, sleeping on a huge UNHCR tarp and some foam mats we found them. We didn’t like to wake them up, wondering what time they had finally gone to bed. When we left last night, their numbers had come up and they were waiting in line to register.
We knew they and their families would be anxious to continue their journey into onwards now that they had their documents and so as soon as everything was under control I drove Mohammed Ali and Hameed into Mytilini to buy their boat tickets to Athens. Tickets cost 45 euros 50 cents and they must show their registration papers. With tickets bought for all 13 family members for the 8 o’clock evening ferry, we headed back to the camp and the tea tent.
It has been a whirlwind of activity all day. Constant tea preparation, handing out of fruit, water, biscuits, bread and sandwiches. Rain ponchos too. Sourcing and buying of supplies. Orientating volunteers and coordinating requests and deliveries. All caught up in the emotion of having to say goodbye to the three men who have so dutifully helped us non-stop for the last three days and with whom we have inevitably formed a very close bond.
On top of the routine preparation and distribution we were desperately searching for a new tent to replace our garden party one, which has so far withstood the storms but we don’t want to take any more risks. A chance encounter with a volunteer I met when I first arrived has led us to a new, heavy duty marquee. We are over the moon about this! It should be going up tomorrow. At some points during my stay I have wondered if I made a mistake staying for such a long time. Now I know it was a good decision – the contacts I have made and the lay of the land I have after 6 weeks are really paying off.
It took ages to get our families ready and into the van and car to drive them to the port. We encouraged them to stock up now on food and water for the 12 hour boat journey and warm clothes and sleeping bags for the long onward journey through Europe. They were very sad to be leaving behind what had become, for those three short days and two nights, a safe place to call home. They were visibly apprehensive about the unknowns ahead. We thought they had literally left a family member in the camp when they told us ” we think we are leaving behind family in the camp”. No, they meant that for them, we had become family.
Parked in the port we unloaded and just like that, I found myself in my first confrontation with Greek officials. And I am choosing to write about it here because it was deeply unpleasant and wholly unacceptable and this is partly a way of denouncing it in addition to making official reports to an NGO monitoring such abuses of power by the authorities, as well as to the police.
I had left the driver’s door open which is ordinarily nothing to worry about. As I was taking the bags out the boot I happened to notice a man wearing a hooded sweatshirt leaning into the car as if looking for something. Surprised and taken aback I stepped in to ask him what he was doing and to please get out, he had no business there. The first and only possibility that crossed my mind was that he was a thief. He responded defensively and aggressively that he was a member of the police and had to search the car. He also made it immediately clear that he was not going to be calm, understanding or professional in any way. As he was not wearing anything on his top half that identified him as police, we were having a hard time believing this or understanding why he had not informed us first of his duty to search all cars arriving at the port. Given his attitude and aggression, Nicky and I demanded to see his ID (a perfectly reasonable and legal request here in Greece), pointing out that he was in absolutely no way identifiable as a police officer. He refused flatly, over and over again and the hostility towards us only escalated. For the second time today I was glad for the length of my stay: two Greek girls from Pikpa Village of All Together pulled up right next to us completely by chance and I asked them to step in and try to make this man see sense. Not wanting to upset our friends and their families waiting nearby with this, I kept calm, tried to calm him down and took out my head torch (surely if the police really wanted to do a thorough job of searching the car at night, they would have a torch) to comply, showing him that all I was carrying in the back was a load of children’s teddy bears and toys. For the moment, I let it drop. Now wasn’t the time, the boat was leaving soon.
After a group photo, we said an emotional goodbye to our beautiful friends from Afghanistan and watched as they walked up the walkway onto the boat, carrying their bundles of blankets and clothes. They have promised to keep in touch and let us know where they get to each day. Two of them are hoping to get to the UK, as one has family in London. We have begged them not to try and get in through the Channel Tunnel and tried to make them understand how dangerous it is.
To the Greek port police officer I am grateful because I had no time for tears then. We were not leaving without making him understand that his abuse of power was unacceptable and that there would be consequences. It took a long time, and the help of our local friends from Pikpa and the stubborn determination of Nicky. After about 30 minutes, I could see the message had got through. He was repentant and scared of being reported. But he will be. Both the Greek people and the refugees are all too frequently victims of police brutality and this a very, very small way we can support them in their struggle against it.