September 2015. Lesvos, Greece.
“In June there were, in one week, the number that came in the six previous months. Now there are more,” says Maria, 36. She works in a hotel on the island of Lesvos, in Greece.
“We are, all of us, wondering what makes this happen now. The Syrian war is years old. So why are they coming now? You saw it. One in four people on this island is a refugee. Ok? It is impossible. How can we help them?
”They are illegal. If a taxi takes them, and the police find out, they will take the driver‘s car and put him in jail. I cannot let them stay in the hotel. It’s impossible.
“We are in an economic crisis. So I will tell you: Some of the locals are profitting off this. That water you are holding? Ten euros. A night in a hotel? One hundred sixty euros.
”I will tell you: I want to help them. But these people came violently into my life. No one asked me. If one person comes to your door, you help him. If ten thousand come, what can you do?
“I am scared,” she said. “We will have many more problems.”
“Everyone is wondering why,” she said. “Why now?”
From the Northern coast of the island of Lesvos, Greece, Turkey is easily visible. The tiny boats can be seen coming in from the rugged bluffs that line the coast. Stretches of rocky shoreline are completely covered with discarded lifejackets, floaty tubes, and popped rubber boats known among the travelers as "ballons."
New arrivals are ecstatic. The selfie-taking, hugging and waving last for about twenty minutes. Even before the boats make it to shore, you can hear the cheers coming from the relieved travelers. They wave and shout. When a safe journey is guaranteed and the boat is guided onto the beach, they laugh and shout and climb ashore.
Twenty minutes later, confusion sets in. There are no facilities here. There is nothing but heat, dust, and a confusing stretch of country roads through tiny villages and fields. Nothing until Mytilene. No shelter. No water. No friendly face. They must walk. Their next destination is almost twelve hours away.
A girl of sixteen calls to her mother. Her little brother, seven, vomits after setting foot on Lesvos. As he stands his legs are shaking.
A woman jumps in front of a car and begs to be taken to Mytilene. “I am injured! Please! Help me!” She is begging. The car slows but doesn't stop. The driver gestures, both are pleading. The woman’s husband places his hand on her shoulder "It’s okay," he says to the driver. "I know. It’s okay."
"It’s okay," he says to his wife. She is crying. She falls on her knees. Her pleading verges on rage. "It’s okay," the man says again. He bends to help her up.
"We were expecting to find the police, that's all." Sharif is a doctor. Thirty years old, from Hama, Syria. He found a smuggler on Facebook, and after a series of clandestine meetings, he was put in a van. It was meant to hold 15 people. They were 36. The back seat, which should have held four, held eight. They were driven in a van for 8 hours to the coast of Turkey.
The smugglers made them walk down the cliffs in the dark. They didn't give out lights, because they were afraid of the police. When the people reached the bottom, they were made to wait. When Sharif got to the seaside, he saw that the smugglers had guns. When he approached one, to ask when they would be allowed to leave, the smuggler saw his watch. "I like it, it's mine," the smuggler told him. The smuggler had him at gunpoint. "My mother gave it to me," Sharif tells me, speaking about the watch. "I gave it to him to save myself."
After 24 hours, the smugglers gave the okay for the boats to depart. They gave the boat a motor, and the people got in. In Sharif’s boat, there were about forty people. Six boats left that morning.
“So we had six boats with about forty people?” I ask him.
“Yeah, but I can’t account…I didn’t account the small ones. The children,” he answers. They had no GPS, no map. They had to drive the boats themselves.
Google maps estimates that it is an 11 hour and 56 minutes walk from the main landing area to Mytilene. With children, with old people, it is longer. Along the road, many refugees signal to cars simply to see if they are walking the right way. The signs are in Greek, and there is no one to guide the walkers.
When they arrive in Mytilene, they are confronted by an even more horrible reality: There is no one here to register them either. The town is chaos. There are people sleeping everywhere. New arrivals ask where the registration point is, and quickly fall into confusion, grief, and anger, when they learn that even the people who have been here for over a week are unsure of exactly how one is supposed to register. Instead, they are living rough on the streets, by the thousands. Men, women and children, sleeping in desperate circumstances, many with only cardboard to serve as bedding. There is no water, no bathrooms. No food. Camps set up a few kilometers up the road from Mytilene are segregated by nationality. Syrians and Iraqis here, Afghans there. Beyond that, there is seemingly nothing for them. Estimates for the number of refugees went as high as 20,000.
Sharif went to get a sandwich after he arrived in Mytilene. He said he was already low on money. He went into the sandwich shop, and asked the lady working there what kind of meat was in the sandwich. He says she wouldn’t tell him. He could eat a chicken sandwich, but not pork.
“She said: If you like, make an order. If you not like: Go away,” he tells me.
“And she wouldn’t answer what kind of meat?” I ask.
“No,” he says.
But there are some people who are helping I tell him. There’s a man who gave up his café and his land for tents.
Sharif says he understands. “But It’s a simple equation,” he says. “Just to know what to order. You know? Is this a chicken or is it another kind of meat? Why you are so aggressive with me just to say, ‘If you want: order. If you are not: just go away. We are sitting, we are spending our money here, we are giving you money! Not just asking you to give me [something] to eat. Or give me something to drink. I’m paying you money,” he says. “I am not begging you, ‘please give me food.’”
Small conflicts like these happen thousands of times a day in Mytilene, a town that seems as if it would ordinarily be, at its most hectic, a subdued touristic town.
Ordinary tasks cause tension to rise. Where to copy transit papers? Where to repair a phone? With each tiny problem, the big problem grows a little bigger.
Over night, news spread that two teenagers were arrested for throwing Molotov cocktails into a group of sleeping Syrians. In the morning, more fighting with the police, this time with a man being knocked unconscious after a hit to the head with a billy club.
Sharif offered his services as a doctor. "The first day when I [came] here I asked the police: I am a doctor, I want to help. If you want, I can go to the pharmacy. I can go to the hospital.” He explained that he was a doctor in Hama. That he spoke five languages. If they needed, he said, he was willing to translate.
“She said we don’t know who are you and where you’re from,” Sharif said, “so just fuck off from here! She said that. Like, just fuck off from here.”
“I’m really afraid about the infections here,” he says. “It’s a very bad health situation….I’m afraid about the sea here. The people are swimming. Taking showers. You know? Throwing food. Throwing everything. It’s very bad. You can see. Is it the sea? It’s not. It’s really bad.” He says his first concern is that children will get infections. He wonders aloud about pregnant women, who have lowered immunity. He says the conditions are bad. “There are no medications. There are no antibiotics.” As we speak, numerous people bathe in the sea several meters away. Children frolic in the surf, amidst a lingering smell of sewage.
Just that day, Sharif said, a man came to him with heat stroke. His blood pressure was dropping, his temperature was spiking. The patient was about 45 years old, sitting in the sun all day. “All the [medication] I had is finished. I told him just go and sit in the shadow.” Sharif said he knew what he would do if he had supplies. But everything he brought with him was gone.
“Why now?” I put the question to Sharif and a group of Syrian men. Among them are a journalist, a teacher, and a fire fighter. “Why are all these people coming here now?”
The situation in Syria is much worse now, they tell me. Before, it was just a war. Now, every ethnic group has a militia. Sherif described being locked inside a hospital by a line of soldiers with their guns pointed at the door. Critically injured people would be brought in, and as soon as they were stable, the soldiers would take them again.
“I would say, ‘Where are you taking him? He needs care!’,” Sharif says. “But they wouldn’t answer. They took these injured people out and they disappeared. No law. No humanity. It’s not even political anymore.”
“The young men are being taken as well,” the journalist, who fled from Aleppo, tells me. “When they become teenagers they are taken to fight, according to their group. Many of these young men are fleeing because if they don’t, they will be forced to kill their friends.”
The escalation in senseless, ubiquitous violence is recent, they told me. That’s why. That’s why so many people are coming now.
“Will more come?” I ask them.
They all agree.
There was a policeman who glared at me and made a "slit your throat" gesture. He did this gesture when he thought I was photographing him. He waved his fist in my face and began questioning me. He became increasingly irate and aggresive, nearly taking my camera, before his colleague called him back and I could leave. The next day, the photo of a different officer was posted on the Twitter feed of an activist, with a caption personally accusing him of beating refugees.
For young men who, like the travellers, have not experienced anything like this before, it is a huge task to maintain composure and professionalism in the face of these circumstances. Behind the aggression there is real fear. The fear comes from standing in front of a crowd of 3000 angry, increasingly desperate foreigners in a uniform that suggests you have power, listening to them shout at you in a language you dont understand about problems you have no power to fix.
The police are young too. They too, are victims of these times. It is easy to forget that.
Amidst the chaos at the ferry harbor, a 16 year old girl crouches to clean her orthdontic retainer using a cup of dirty water. There are lines of backpacks going evey which way. Once in a while, someone comes and shifts all the packs, as if the lines are moving. They are lines to no where. There are no papers being handed out today. The day before, there was a riot. The precise cause of the riot is unclear, but the objective was papers.
“You know what is happening here?” says a sixteen year old Syrian, a boy who taps me on the shoulder.
“You see that box? Thats where we get the paper. Until you have a paper, you arent human.” He points to a trailer, where the registration is happening, one traveler at a time.
"There are 3000 people here. There is one box."
“So what should they do?” I say.
Another boy grabs me, he drags me to the edge of the area we are standing, a raised area above the crowd.
He points. “The police are beating someone,” he says.
“More boxes,” says the first boy. “They need more boxes.”
In the Kara Tepe camp several kilometers outside Mytilene, conditions are atrocious. Numerous people pull me aside, begging for help, though it is unclear what they expect or what should happen. They show me their children, some physically disabled, others mentally disabled or disturbed by war. One father brings me to his tent, dragging me by the wrist, insisting to show me a paper. He takes out a bundle of plastic, which he cuts with a knife, explaining that he wrapped it to keep it dry in case he fell out of the boat. It is a medical report written in longhand Arabic, with an official English translation. It describes a 16 year old girl, who due to war, has lost her mind. The Arabic version contained three phrases in English: “Psychotic Disturbance,” “Delusions” and “Major Depression.”
There are many children. Tents that are designed to hold two people are holding six or seven. The children wander, sometimes finding playground equipment, sometimes inventing their own games. It is 37 degrees celcius, and cicadas hum as a little boy, dressed with a cardboard sword and shield chases a bird.
“There are too many children here,” a mother tells me. She gestures to the tents, which stretch off to the distance. “Geziret al atfal.”
Local people are overwhelmed. A shopkeeper paces outside his shop which sells chips, soda, and water.
Crowds of refugees come up, some speaking no English. The shopkeeper and his colleagues also speak little to no English. He throws his hands in the air. "It’s game over!" he says. “Game over!”
A volunteer in a blue vest is rushing from one group of refugees to the next , telling them not to gather in groups, and selecting the worst off for basic medical attention.
“This is war,” she says. “It is a different kind of war.”
I stand with Sharif and the group of Syrian men as two ferries board passengers for Athens. The sun is going down.
“Do you have any idea what are they going to do?” Sharif says.
“I just read online there are supposed to be more boats coming,” I say.
“More boats coming, ok that’s good,” he smiles. “But we are not allowed to go inside.
We don’t have these papers. And they are not going to open the registration.”
We talk for a moment, trying to figure out when registration will open again. The next day is a holiday. It’s unclear about the day after that. Sharif translates what I am saying into Arabic. The men sigh.
“I don’t know. We need to take a shower,” he says. He laughs.
We don’t discuss the other things that one can read online, such as the likely the fate of the migrants who now stand and wave on from the ferry. Again setting off on an ocean journey, again seemingly unaware of the situation that awaits them when they next step foot on shore.
At least, for now, they are in motion. At least, for now, there is hope.