Twelve Vignettes of Lesvos

By Yazan al-Saadi

Lesvos is a very charming, aesthetically pleasing place. With a population of around 87,000 and covering a total area of 630 square miles, the island is a little over five kilometers away from Turkish mainland. The Aegean Sea stands in between.     

Lesvos has been one of the main landing sites in Greece for refugees and migrants for decades. The numbers have dramatically increased over the past few years. In 2015, more than 466,000 people have passed through the island, compared to 43,500 last year. On average, 4,500 people arrive per day to Lesvos and the other Greek islands. They come on rubber dinghies or dilapidated wooden boats, risking drowning or, recently, death by hypothermia from the dreadfully cold water, arriving to the shore where there are no adequate reception centers and the local infrastructures are overwhelmed. Syrians, Afghans, Iraqis are the main nationalities, followed by Pakistanis, Algerians, Lebanese, Moroccans, Iranians, and others.  

The international medical organization, Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF), has been working in Lesvos since 2008, providing medical and humanitarian assistance along landing sites and the main detention center until February 2010. In 2012 and 2013, various limited projects were implemented by the international medical organization throughout the island to cover the needs of new arrivals. By June 2015, MSF radically increased its projects, from establishing transitional camps near the town of Mantamados, mobile clinics that provide primary health care and basic mental health services in Moria, Kara Tepe, and Mitilin port, to initiating a joint search and rescue operation in partnership with Greenpeace along the northern shore to support oncoming boats that are in distress.  

Lesvos is a transitional place. People are constantly on the move. You meet them for a few moments and they are gone to the black hole that is Europe. Connections are fleeting and temporary, but it scars. I’ve chosen to present what I’ve seen as a series of vignettes. The structure is appropriate to convey the transitional nature of this place, I think.       

*****

In the span of one hour, I witnessed three boats landing on the shores near the very beautiful seaside town of Skala Sikamineas, situated at the northern-eastern part of the island of Lesvos. 

I was there at the scene by chance to facilitate a media visit. 

Three rubber boats filled to the brim with human beings. Syrians, Iraqis, Afghanis, some Iranians and Pakistanis. Many of whom are children. 

It is truly something to see volunteers, Greek and foreign, working together to help. There was an elderly Greek woman, who works for the coast guard. She stands ready on the shore, stretching her body to and fro, dressed in a black wet suit to protect her from the cold water. Her eyes are determined, gazing straight at one of the rubber boats that is taking an eternity to land on shore. She knows what she’s doing. It seems like she’s done this countless times before. 

The boat arrives. She braces herself and grabs on to it. Other hands join her, attempting to anchor the boat in place. A battle between human and nature ensues. The waves try to drag the boat back. She holds. Holds. And holds. Atlanta would be pleased. 

The boat stays. Volunteers rush to guide the people off the boat. Babies and children first. Then the elderly and women, finally the men.  

Once the last person is off, the elderly female coast guard and the other volunteers drag the rubber boat to shore. Already they get ready for the next boat. She’s in front, ready and waiting. I wonder if she will be there for all of eternity, always vigilant, preparing for the next battle with the waves. 

*****

It is also something to see the eyes of children who look in shock of the journey over the Aegean Sea. Two, three, four, five hours can haunt you. 

*****

It was a very, very windy day. The waves were very, very choppy. Many people who were on one boat tell me that they were forced onto it by smugglers, even though they did not want to go that day. They were saved thanks to one Syrian man, who knew how to navigate the water. I met him when the boat landed roughly onto the shore along the road between Efthalou and Skala Sikamineas. 

He was the first to jump off and make it to the shore, while volunteers rushed to help the others. I helped him off the cold water and gave him a thermal blanket. His hands oddly hot, face red. 

“The bastard jumped off just when he left Turkey,” he mumbled to me. “I had to drive. There was no one else.”

“You did good,” I say. 

He looks at the boat, watching the volunteers helping the women and children disembark. He gets up. “I must help them,” he says.

I hold him back. “Rest. There are others helping. You already did what you have to do.”

“I must help,” he repeats over and over again, but he sits down, clearly exhausted. He never stops looking at the boat.   

*****

One old man I spoke to was tired of the journey, and yet he had to keep moving. Moving to somewhere. Moving somehow. Just move. 63 years old, an Iraqi Christian, traveling by himself. No family, no friends. All on his own, moving to “Europe.” 

"You spend all your life trying to amass something, and then, in a blink of an eye, it's all gone," he said to me.
"Eh, hajji," I replied. What else can one say? "You know what I really want now?"
"Do tell."
"A cigarette. I haven't smoked one since yesterday morning."
I laugh and hand him four.
We smoke together as we slowly walk to a camp on the shore, the smoke fluttering away from the harsh, cold, cold, cold, cold wind.

*****

At a European NGO administered transition camp: 

“Why aren’t you drinking the tea? It’s hot and you’re shivering,” I ask one woman. 

“Can I be honest with you?” she says meekly.


“Of course.”


“It tastes awful, absolutely awful!”

Turns out various non-government organizations and UNHCR haven’t comprehended that the people from Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iran, and elsewhere like to have sweetened tea. 

Fortunately, MSF folks realized this quick and provide that service. Bonus point for palate sensitivity.

*****

“What’s that?!” a Greenpeace volunteer, who recently arrived to help, suddenly exclaims to me as we walk up a hill near the coast of Mylovs. 

“Where?” I ask. 

“Over there! Is that people in the water?”

“Wait…No. No. It’s just birds.”

“Birds…Are you sure?”

“Yes. Just big white birds.”

“Big birds,” he sighs, a bit relieved. It’s going to be a long night for him. 

*****

There are life jackets peppered throughout the island, usually in strange places. Bright orange lifejackets. Littered along the shore, stuck up a tree, hanging off the side of a steep mountain, embedded in a muddy road like a tree root. You can play a game of trying to spot them as you explore the island. 

Then you come across a dump in a small valley only a five minutes’ drive from Mylvos port in the north. It is likely one of many in the island. Hundreds upon hundreds, if not thousands, of lifejackets. It is a surreal sight. Hills of orange. The dump next to it is a farm. Sheep baaing and dogs barking echoes, and the wind whistles past. 

A truck comes in, the second in the span of ten minutes, dropping off more lifejackets. 

“They are all Yamaha,” my colleague notes. 

Orange Yamahas. Black and blue Yamahas. Large Yamahas and baby-sized Yamahas. 

The brand of choice for migrants, refugees, and smugglers, I think, morbidly and playfully. 

Some of them are in good quality, others are stuffed with straw. A couple of minutes in the water and you’ll sink like a stone. 

This island will be enveloped in lifejackets soon.      

*****

A child is wailing. We are at Mitilini port, next to MSF’s mobile clinic which provides primary health care for migrants and refugees waiting to take the ferry to Athens or Kavala. 

“Is your child okay?” I ask the mother, a Syrian Kurd from Hasakah.

“He lost his pacifier when we arrived last night,” she says to me softly. 

“Let me ask if we have one in the clinic,” I quickly say. What luck? We do. I give it to the child and immediately he smiles and calms down. 

“How’s his health?”

“He says his throat hurts.”

“Come with me and let’s see the doctor. Don’t worry it’s completely free.”

She comes with me. I carry the young boy in my arms. 

The doctor asks her to sit down on the soft sitting area in the mobile clinic. I am next to her, the young boy sitting on my knee, sucking gleefully away on the pacifier. 

“When did you come in?” says the doctor. 

“Last night,” the mother responds. 

“And how was the journey?”

The mother hesitates. “It…It wasn’t easy. The waves were huge. We were covered in water. A child…a child stopped breathing when we arrived. The volunteers worked hard to breathe life to him. And then he woke up, as if life erupted into him again,” she says slowly. 

I notice that her knuckles were white. She’s clinching her fists. I resist the urge to hug her child tightly. 

*****

An old woman, head covered in white cloth, black sweater and a light-colored dress, staggers onto the shore from a recently landed boat. I head to her to see how she is. She looks to me and starts speaking. Her face is wrinkled like my grandmother’s and dark circles lie beneath her brown-colored eyes. I don’t understand her. She’s speaking in a language I don’t know. I respond in English and Arabic trying to communicate. She continues to speak, quickly as if pouring out her whole soul to me. It doesn’t matter that I don’t understand. She needs to talk. And then she bursts into tears. I feel ashamed I can’t console her. I try to convey a look of sympathy and understanding as I lead her to get checked by medics on the shore. 

*****

It’s cold outside. I’m at a hotel room by Mylvos port with the joint Greenpeace/MSF search and rescue team as they prepare for the night. A piping hot cup of tea is in my head. Next to me is an MSF nurse who will be on one of the three rescue boats. She’s from France. “Why are you here?” I ask, in a haphazard way of making conversation. 

She ponders for a beat, mulling over the question, and then says, “I just want to show them [the migrants and refugees] a human face from Europe for once. It will not be easy after they land here. There will be many in Europe that will make their lives hard. I just want to show them humanity. A smile. A hug. Anything.”

“How do you feel about the sentiments in European countries?”

“Angry. What else can one feel?”

*****

A group of young men come to us. It is midday and the sun shines bright. I’m torn about the weather. When it’s good, that means many will attempt the journey across the sea. Alternatively when it’s bad, people will still cross, the risk intensified. So I am torn. 

We are outside Moria camp, where the registration and processing occurs for the refugees and migrants before they can leave the island. Ten young men come to us, mainly from Morocco and three from Algeria. 

“We’ve been here for a while,” one of them says to me. “We can’t go anywhere. We’re trapped.”

“Why did you leave Morocco?” I ask. 

“Why? Because over there is bitterness. There is bitterness in all our region, whether it is war or something else. There is no future. I love Morocco. I love its people. But I could not stay.”

“Do you regret leaving?”

“I don’t know. I’m here now, and we’ll see. Anywhere, somewhere would be good. Maybe I’ll go back. I don’t know. But we are all here. Lebanese, Somali, Moroccan, Syrian, Afghani. Running and trapped together.”

*****

“Hello!” I see a family standing near a travel agency in Mitilin. It is evening and 4 degrees Celsius. Winter is here after all. A father, a mother rocking a baby to sleep. Next to them are their other two children, a young boy and young girl, running in circles, playing and trying to keep warm. 

“Hello,” says the father, smiling as well.

“Where are you from?”

“Raqqa.”

“Ah! I’m Syrian as well, good to have you here. When did you come in?”

“Today at dawn. Did you come in on the boats as well?”

“Oh no, no.”

“How was the journey?” I brace myself, expecting a hard story. There’s been many hard stories here. 

“It was actually quite pleasant, thank God,” he chuckles.  

I relax. Sometimes it is nice to hear a mundane story once in a while.  


*****

I wake up suddenly one night. It’s been a long day, and I’ve had some trouble sleeping, more so when I’m tired. I look for cigarettes, but alas the pack I bought earlier in the day is done. I quickly dress warmly to venture out. It’s three in the morning, and I hope a convenient store is open. I walk the streets of Mitilini. I’m alone, everyone seems to either be sleeping indoors, or those who cannot afford to stay in a hotel are sleeping outside in the cold. 

Suddenly I hear waves and the wailing of children in the distance. 

Wait. No. It’s nothing. Merely the wind. 

I’m tried and my mind is playing a devil’s trick on me. It has been a long day. My search is a success, a place is open. I get water and a pack, and head back. As I change back into my sleeping clothes, I look at the calendar. I’ve only been here less than half the time I’m expected to stay in Greece. My goodness, I think, it feels like I’ve been here a lifetime. I hope the stories and realities on the ground here don’t drown me. 

Tomorrow is a new day. The boats still come. Masses of people move onwards. Always onwards. They have no other choices or options.

*

Yazan al-Saadi is currently one of MSF’s field communications officers in Greece. He is usually based in Beirut, Lebanon as a regional communication officer for the MENA communications team.