Surreal Calm

Cats wander among the tables ringing the moored boats and calm waters of Skala Sikamineas harbor. The cats come in every variety of mange, scruff, scar and distemper, and a great many of them crowd around anyone eating at an outdoor table. They’re the only thing unkempt. The carefully cobbled stones of the harbor, the elegant, ancient taverns and cafes lining it, the pastel puff coats and leathers of the patrons, worn to ward off the last murmurs of spring chill loosed as the sun sets behind a curtain of too brilliant stars, all of these things would fit correctly into a Hollywood romance set. The only things out of place are the Frontex police with sidearms and the table of Spanish rescue boat operators in stylish red uniforms. Only those guns and red coats whisper a word amiss.

Skala Sikamineas Harbor at Night

Yet something is amiss.

Last night at about 3:50 AM a small boat with it’s lights out made a run toward Skala Sikamineas harbor. Running dark, at a good clip, and headed for Greece, it looked like a refugee boat. The Korakas watch spooked. As I arrived for my shift at 4 AM, a Spanish organization called Proactiva had been called to launch one of their rescue boats to investigate the sighting. No sooner were they in the water then the suspicious vessel stopped cold and turned around to head back out to sea (something refugee boats never do). She came a little closer to Karakas on the way out than she had on the way in. I got a good look at her through our night vision binoculars. The suspicious boat looked an awful lot like Belgian Frontex (European border police). Sometimes they run with their lights off, so the refugee boats won’t avoid them. It can be hard to tell the difference through the night vision unless you get a clean look at a silhouette. The presence or absence of lights is a critical detail, as is the movement of the boat. Refugee boats seldom sit still, and never in Turkish waters. But as last night shows, it can be hard to tell.

One way or the other, it was a false alarm. No refugee boat landed this morning on the north coast.


There still haven’t been any landings on the north coast since I arrived.

Yet landings do continue. Usually between 100 and 200 refugees arrive each day, usually in the south near Mitilini. Once they arrive they’re given tea and blankets, and any emergency medical attention, then shipped off to Moria for asylum processing. There are so many now that Moria overflows.

A second camp, Kara Tempe, originally for especially vulnerable cases, now also serves some lucky few who have been moved there from overcrowded Moria – by rumor, those whose applications for asylum have been submitted for consideration.

A cat can roam freely through the barbed wire at Moria, where three thousand migrants and refugees wait for adjudication on their pleas for asylum.

But I don’t pay much attention to all of the politics. I have boat silhouettes to memorize, fishing spots to learn and Frontex patrol patterns to understand. Not to mention beaches to clean.

This evening I’ve come to town for a business call, made late in the evening by time zone differences. I must spend the night at a hotel so I can use the internet. While I wait, I sit at a cafe and enjoy extremely fresh fish. It makes a strange change from the routine of the past week. Up the beach at Korakas my tent accrues an ever replenishing layer of fine silt as the winds blow endlessly from off the sea. Some of the rescue team stationed there salvaged a sink from one of the wrecked ships, so we have something cosmetically like running water. We still have to drive the water in from town. There are no cats. Only the wind and the endless parade of ships to be watched carefully, day and night.

Why do we stay in that place? Why not go to Idomeni or any of the dozen other hot-spots. It seems more and more likely that this blockade has worked. This particular chapter of the crises is closed.

But what if it isn’t? If the absence of boats turns out to be temporary, isn’t the watch all the more important? This wouldn’t be the first time a temporary border guard surge resulted in a temporary reduction of refugee arrivals. So we continue the watch. As resources redeploy, and those available in the north become more spread out, the importance of early detection grows. If they do start coming in numbers, we’ll need to notice in time to get people to landing sites and camps that would otherwise be empty.

But not tonight. Tonight, secure in the knowledge my shift has been covered, I sit at a cafe that might be a Disneyland designer’s fantasy, eating fish, surrounded by hungry cats.

It’s a strange dream.

At a table nearby, Scandinavians in designer leathers discuss the Pope. He’s coming to Lesvos this weekend.

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