For one month I lived in this abandoned shack, surrounded by counterfeit life-vests, cast off clothes, wrecked boats, and the Aegean sea.
This is Korakas. Four weathered buildings, their roofs collapsed, on a spit of land sticking out north of the Greek island of Lesvos.
Across the narrow sea Turkey spreads its mountainous shore, lit like a Christmas tree by the glittering tinsel of small seaside towns. The distance is 5.56 nautical miles (10.34 km or 6.43 mi). Tantalizingly close. Looking across on a calm day, you might think: “I could swim that, if I really had to.”
You’d very likely be wrong. Crisscrossing currents in the center of the narrow sea make waves much higher than they appear from shore, and the water’s cold. For most of us, 6.43 miles without a boat might as well be swimming for the moon. But with a boat, it can be done. Indeed, it surely has.
Thousands of boats succeeded at the crossing in the twelve months after summer 2015, carrying more than six hundred thousand refugees and migrants from Turkey to Europe. Slashed by refugees who don’t want to get back in, deflated by volunteers needing to clear the beach for the next landing, or wrecked by tide, wind and sharp rocks, the carcasses of those boats litter the shores. But as disheartening as the wreckage may appear, in another light they’re triumphant trophies: those are the boats that made it.
Less than half of the refugees and migrants who arrived to Lesbos in the last year came by way of the rocky north. The full number is likely in the six digits, but no one has an accurate count. It’s all been too piecemeal, too disorganized, and too busy. Like the number of refugees who arrived by the north, the number who did not, who fell short by a broken engine, bad weather, or bad luck, is known only to the sea.
The name of this lighthouse, ‘Korakas,’ means ‘Raven’ and those birds may occasionally be seen lurking silently among the stones or perched in the bare ribs of the broken roofs on this isolated spit of rock. Local legend* whispers that every time a raven calls at Korakas, someone has died at sea. A grim legend, hinting about the reason the lighthouse was built there to begin with – rocks ring the shallow waters around Korakas point, hidden teeth waiting to bite an unwary keel.
Yet many refugee boats steer for Korakas. Their pilots paid a discounted price to the smuggler who arranged the boat, in exchange for the duty of steering it. There are no other prerequisites – no knowledge of the sea necessary. Many don’t know that a lighthouse shines a beacon of warning not of welcome.
So began the Korakas watch. In December of 2015 the first volunteers took station on the hill above the lighthouse day and night, sun, moon and rain. Thermal optics were loaned or donated for the night watch, spotting telescopes for the day, and a complex system of digital chat groups and VHF maritime radios developed to coordinate with search and rescue boats, coastguard, and landing assistance teams operated by a half-dozen organizations. The job was first to prevent landings at Korakas by guiding rescue boats out to help the refugees find someplace better, then, should that fail, to provide the assistance necessary to get a boat full of wet and cold people up the rocky beaches to safety and warmth.
Lighthouse Refugee Relief staffs and supplies the watch (still as of this writing). During my time there in April and May of 2016, Lighthouse volunteers partnered with EREC, an emergency firefighting and rescue team from Barcelona Spain, and relied heavily on CK Team for transportation of refugee groups from the landing points and additional personnel support. Boat Refugee Foundation supplied day-watch volunteers. Search and rescue boats were operated by Proactiva, Boat Refugee Foundation, Medicines Sans Frontieres, Seawatch and Platinos. The number of teams is as impressive as the array of origins. People from every corner of the world leave their lives behind to try to help.
Everything in Korakas is recycled boats. Six months of landings deposited an inexhaustible supply of engine housings, boat rubber, flooring, and the wooden planks the engines mount to. Benches made from boat backs, flooring made from boat floors, tables built on stacks of engine housings, a sink torn from a rare bigger wreck with a galley. Living at Korakas, you sleep surrounded by monuments to the crisis, an elephant graveyard for this mass migration.
But it’s not all foreboding and rubbish. Around Korakas, the sea and sky conversed in pastel tones, on topics of sunbeam, storm and stars. On some days you watched the sunrise feeling as though you’d been inserted into a romantic painting.
The sense of space and perspective, interspersed with urgent action, and complimented by daily routine of chores and duties, made a rhythm marching toward the transcendental. Hours, duties, days, and human faces came and went like waves on the sea.
A working fireplace in one of the three buildings equipped the space to serve as an emergency stop for the cold and water-weary. The wood fire and an electric heater were employed to warm the freezing salt of the Agean from the skins of hypothermic refugees. As the spring plodded toward summer and the need for such measures waned, the room turned to another use. Each evening volunteers at Korakas gathered there around a table made from the floor-boards and engine housings of six boats to cook dinner over the coals of the fire.
There the watch volunteers laughed and sang their songs, surrounded by stone walls that kept the light of the fire from reaching out to sea – stone walls that wouldn’t let the sound of laughter spread a welcoming lie across the water. Despite the presence of the volunteers, it remained much safer to land elsewhere.
Each evening around the fire the events of the day were reviewed, the work of tomorrow laid out. Every landing discussed, whether on Lesvos or elsewhere. Every political shift considered. The opinions of foreign leaders scrutinized. How will this affect our work? More boats or fewer? A safer crossing here or a more dangerous one elsewhere? Courage or fear? Welcome or harm among the people of the world?
In a shifting world of politics, police, rubber boats and bad weather, the team at Korakas knew where they stood. Waves of brutality and desperation rose and fell around us, crashing against the rocks of the shore.
On the evening of the 18th April, 2016, I retired from the evening meal around 8:30. My watch shift was to run from 4AM 6Am and I’d been with the beach cleaning crew that day, so I knew if I didn’t get a good night’s sleep my mental acuity would be compromised. I slept as I’d been instructed: fully clothed, with my headlamp around my neck. Ready for a landing. That meant laying on my back on a mat and sleeping bag, with a gentle westerly breeze rustling the red fabric of the tent. At home in Iowa, I seldom fall asleep in less than an hour. At Korakas, it never took more then a few seconds.
I woke five minutes before my alarm at 3:30 AM, put on my boots, and made myself a cup of coffee over the gas burner in our little kitchen.
While waiting for the water to boil, I reviewed the beach names from the map on the wall. Anywhere you choose to sit you’ll find a similar map not far from reach. You have to know all the names. It’s no good trying to give directions to a search and rescue team if you don’t offer landmarks to steer by. As the coffee brewed, I checked the comm center for spare AA batteries for the thermal imaging unit, and USB power cells for the alarm phones.
Then came the sixty meter walk up the slope above the lighthouse to where the watch point perches. I spilled about half my coffee on a patch of dewy grass. The ragged breath of my protesting body drowned the whisper of waves and wind, the only other sounds.
When you show up to take over the watch, you do a hand-off in which the person finishing their shift points out every boat on the water and tells you what it is and how long it’s been out there, if there’s anything suspicious going on, and which rescue teams are on the water and where. There are a lot of things that can look suspicious – a fisherman you didn’t know was there turning on his engine to head home, a frontex boat with it’s lights off following an erratic patrol pattern. You get jumpy at four am, alone on a windy hilltop with your binoculars and a dark sea. It’s nice to know that engine you’re hearing from behind the rocks to the east is probably Stratis the fisherman coming home from the next bay over, and you can only know that if the watch before you paid attention and marked Stratis’ departure.
On that morning I don’t remember who was on watch. I don’t remember if they were half asleep and grateful to be relieved, or wide awake and lingering to look up at the stars or out at the water, but the hand-off went uneventfully. No activity to report. No boats on a still and silent sea.
For two hours I sat on a pillow taken from a wrecked boat, shivering despite a wool blanket and scanning the sea every five minutes with the thermal vision goggles. It looked like this:
But that night, there were no boats. The only movement came from the waves against the shore, the rustle of the breeze and the occasional shooting star.
Minutes expanded to fill hours, and the heavens moved above to a rhythm marked by the metronome of the flashing lighthouse. I saw not NATO warship, nor Turkish patrol boat, nor Greek coastguard, nor fisherman of any country. Even the seagulls slept. No ravens spoke.
As the first blue of a still distant dawn touched the eastern horizon, the alarm phone chirped with a message from the Seawatch SAR boat, stationed at Tsonia, a little village around the coast to the south-east.
Forty minutes later Martin Humphreys, a graphic designer originally from Ireland and the senior-most member of the watch at the time, arrived to relieve my shift. With a big grin and a characteristic shrug, he took the alarmphones (we had two for redundancy), the VHF radios, the log book and my seat, and sent me off.
But I’d watched the sun lift its face half over the horizon and I wasn’t happy to leave the job unfinished, so I poked around on the rocks near the lighthouse, watching the waves as the light grew.
You don’t really get used to how great the sunrises are, which is good. There was plenty to stress out about on Lesbos, even then, with far fewer boats coming than had in the months previously. A beautiful sunrise salves those worries.
I finally crawled into my tent around 6:50 am, with the sun in the sky and the morning chill slinking away into the shadows. Still restless, I poked about on my phone, checking facebook both for connections to home and new developments from the other fronts of the crisis.
I had not yet taken off my boots when Martin’s bellow sounded down the hill:
“Boat! Boat you lazy bastards!”
I may have given a false accounting of my readiness in how quickly I got out of my tent, ready to go. I just had to stand up. But as I cleared my tent flap, I saw four half-naked firemen already flying to their rescue vehicle, wetsuits and helmets in hand, bare feet a blur.
I turned up the hill and called to Martin: “Where?”
“Theodoras!” he shouted, cupping his hands before his mouth, then buried his face to the alarmphone to get the message out to those who needed it.
But the firemen seemed to already know where to go.
Theodoras is the bay east of Korakas, a secluded area where we can’t see, and where no-one but the seagulls keep watch. It’s about a two kilometer drive on very rugged dirt roads, winding up and back down the Greek mountainside through olive groves and goat pastures. The EREC team vanished up that road before I’d finished fetching my high-vis vest and lights from the medical station.
For a landing at Korakas my job was to try to guide the boat into the safest beach, the one on the east. Whether that succeeded or failed, the next job would be to support the EREC team in steadying the boat and helping its passengers out and over the rocky terrain up to the safety of the driveway, where our nurse would look them over. It’s hard to believe just how rough the terrain is under the shallow waves of the Korakas beaches. It doesn’t look so bad, but even in a wetsuit and as a well rested and reasonably fit thirty-year-old, it’s rough. It’s not fun. You slip and fall. After six hours in a boat, exhausted and cold, it’s downright dangerous.
But this boat wasn’t at Korakas, it was at Theodoras, and I wasn’t sure what to do. Halfway up the hill to the watch point I met Dagmar Leibham, another Lighthouse volunteer and the other person with the same job as me. I passed her a high-vis and signal light. We both looked away to the east toward Theodoras. No easy path exists between Korakas and Theodoras, though the distance isn’t much more than a kilometer or so – the terrain is all brambles and steep drops. But we both wanted to go.
Martin looked up from the alarmphones. “One of you should stay.”
We looked at each-other, Dagmar and I.
She said: “You go.”
I said: “Thanks.”
And I went.
The events of that landing are chronicled in another post. The short version is simple: the Seawatch patrol I’d made contact with in the early morning rendezvoused with the boat and guided them in. The EREC team helped those aboard disembark and then walked with the up to the road. There CK Team volunteers arranged for transportation on up the mountain to a quick meeting with the MSF legal team, who gave them an orientation on their rights and obligations as refugees. Then the coastguard corralled the group to Moria. There they joined thousands of other refugees and migrants for months or years of bureaucracy and a life waiting at the mercy of strangers for the gears of governance to decide how to grind. There were no injuries that day, no hypothermia, only relief a the end of a difficult and dangerous chapter, and worry about an uncertain future. Even the boat survived.
What aid we provided may have been minor: a friendly smile, a shoulder to lean on, a welcoming handshake, a few words of comfort and advice and a bottle of water. But it was a difference I think. Volunteering is like that. Each part of the work may be small. Many things you do may not make much difference in the long run. Some days, nothing happens at all. In some cases, you exhaust yourself with weeks or months of seemingly unending desperate labor.
But in the end, volunteers will not solve this problem. They, we, cannot fix the war in Syria, or economic disparity, or military conscription, or ethnic violence, or any of the many human errors which shape this crisis, and so many others. That will be done, if it is done at all, by governments and armies.
Perhaps the act of compassion is itself a solution. In the big picture, maybe it matters that we are kind to one-another, welcoming, when we might be hard. Maybe kindness can save us from ourselves – be the tonic which turns the acts of government from violence to care. But not today.
Refugees continue to arrive by new routs, bringing a seemingly endless supply of optimism about the better life awaiting them. The camps they’re consigned to continue to offend every sensibility of human kindness and compassion – poor food, never enough water, never enough beds or roofs, and a shifting assurance of months or years of bureaucracy with no promise of a good outcome. The authorities continue to spend more effort silencing them than helping. The volunteers continue to seek ways to remedy, and in some cases, make a difference.
A week after the landing I described here refugees in Moria set fire to their tents. Accounts differ as to why. Police entered the camp with teargas and riot sticks. Volunteers came later with blankets and bandages.
Meanwhile at Korakas, the sun rose a little higher, the waves moved the wreckage about on the shore, and the ravens perched watching the sea, for the moment silent.
*Regarding “every time a raven speaks at korakas someone has died at sea,” I was unable to source this legend, or confirm it from secondary sources. It’s possible this particular little bit of poetics had it’s origin from among the volunteers, and not from locals. I don’t know for sure.