Magazine article Geographical

The Kindness of Strangers: Despite Political Wrangling, Refugees Continue to Arrive in Greece Following Perilous Sea Crossings. with Little Official Help, It's Often Left to Local Volunteers to Help Pull Them Ashore. Jane Labous Reports from the Complicated Heart of the Migrant Crisis

Magazine article Geographical

The Kindness of Strangers: Despite Political Wrangling, Refugees Continue to Arrive in Greece Following Perilous Sea Crossings. with Little Official Help, It's Often Left to Local Volunteers to Help Pull Them Ashore. Jane Labous Reports from the Complicated Heart of the Migrant Crisis

Article excerpt

When Greek farmer Panagiotis Konstantaras first went out on his fishing boat to rescue refugees, he mostly picked up dead bodies; women, children and tiny babies who'd been trapped in cabins when the boats went down.

'Once,' he remembers, 'in September 2015, they called us for a capsized boat. We pick up a three month-old baby girl, dead. That was the worst.'

This sunny Wednesday morning, Konstantaras is diving for an abandoned refugee boat sunk in Mytilini harbour. A burly, bear-like 32-year-old Greek, he exudes a quiet fire beneath a thick black beard glistening with sea water. He gives the impression of being the kind of man you know you could rely on in a crisis. He makes a living tending olive groves and apple trees, chickens and vegetables on various plots across this sun-swept Aegean island, but his passion is volunteering for Lesvos' Hellenic Rescue Team (HRT). 'Every day the same!' he chuckles. 'I wake up, I go to my farm, my work, and if my phone rings, I leave my job and become a volunteer. A lot of times, I stop my work, and help.'

THE HUMAN ANGLE

A volunteer organisation, HRT had been the island's main emergency response outfit for years, pulling people off the mountains in the winter; providing first aid at football matches; retrieving fishermen whose engines cut out. Then, during the spring and summer of 2015, refugees and migrants began crossing the sea from Turkey in their thousands; islanders recount with wonder that on some single days that year, 3,000 people arrived.

Of course, the refugees who made it were the lucky ones - many thousands more drowned or otherwise perished on the journey, either from carbon monoxide poisoning or in the panicked crush. As far as Konstantaras and the other HRT rescuers were concerned, they couldn't stand by and do nothing, so they headed out and picked up bodies - and survivors. 'We used our own RIBs or plastic boats,' says Konstantaras. 'I remember a rainy day, we went to search in normal clothes, but we couldn't operate because we had no protection.'

Konstantaras is the human side of a humanitarian and political tragedy that's been unfolding here on Lesvos for almost two years. The island is both blessed and, one might argue, cursed by its accidental geography, positioned just five kilometres at its narrowest point across the sea from the Turkish coast. The sparkling, seemingly benign stretch of Aegean ocean known as the Eastern Mediterranean route is treacherous to cross, says Konstantaras. 'It's ten miles, maybe five miles at the nearest point, but it's open sea, the weather is very bad, it's very dangerous, the current is very strong.'

Konstantaras looks beyond the danger though. 'It's a human life,' he says. 'When I see a person who has problems, in a difficult situation, I must help. I don't care if they're Christian, I don't care if they're Muslim, I don't care who they are. They're a human life. So, I help.'

NO OPTION

Smugglers have reaped the rewards of this perceived passageway to Europe, herding terrified, desperate people across the Turkish border from Syria, driving them to the coasts, charging for tickets and fake lifejackets that, in some cases, are filled with straw.

In 2016,173,450 people entered Greece via sea, according to the UN, travelling on leaking, wooden boats and old rubber RIBs with defective engines, boats designed to carry ten people carrying a hundred, where the slightest movement capsizes the vessel and its passengers into the freezing sea. They are Syrians and Iraqis, Africans and Afghans, mainly; men, women and children fleeing conflict, the war in Syria or the Taliban, or young men from West Africa simply seeking a better life, washing up scared and soaked and desperate on the rocky shores of Lesvos.

'I prayed to God,' says Wessam in broken English, a 31-year-old Syrian shopkeeper who paid [euro]1,200 to a smuggler to cross from Turkey in March 2016 on a small rubber dinghy. …

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