We enjoyed a lovely Easter weekend in Athens, where the celebrations were shared between both the Anglican Church and the Greek Orthodox Church. We enjoyed experiencing a mixture of the two with some new events for us, most notably the lovely candle lighting service at the Orthodox Church at midnight on Easter Saturday. A truly special time as the crowd waits patiently, each with their candles, and the priest comes out and the candles are all lit. The light of Christ being spread through the crowd, signifying Jesus rising from the dead and his light spreading throughout the world. It was lovely to light our USPG candles again, which added greater significance.
Easter Sunday was lovely, with a great service at St Pauls followed by a lovely lunch shared with Father Malcolm, Olga, Paulina and Rev James. A lovely time in the sun with traditional fayre.
Early on Easter Monday we were up and out to the airport for our flight to Mytilene on Lesvos. We were going to work with Lighthouse Relief for a week on the north shore of Lesvos which is only about 5 miles from Turkey and is one of the routes used by smugglers to transport refugees across the Aegean to Greece. Lighthouse Relief is an NGO registered in both Sweden and Greece. They provide emergency relief to refugees that land on the island of Lesvos, and also long term services for residents in camps across mainland Greece in Filippida, Katsikas and Ritsona. Their mission is to provide immediate crisis response, as well as long term relief, for the most vulnerable groups , in a dignified, respectful and empowering way. In Lesvos the concentration is on emergency response, night and day watch, camp management, and ECO clean up and up cycling.
We were picked up at the airport and driven to Skala Sikamineas on the northern shore. A fairly hairy drive, but we survived and after a sit down and a few cups of tea were fine! (Quite looking forward to a bit of road traffic legislation being enforced on our return to U.K.!) We went into a team meeting and met the team of volunteers and the field officer Andrea, from Peru. We were quickly slotted into the rota of work for the week and had a really good briefing from Andrea on what to expect and how to act if we had a landing. We were each given duties as day spotters, night spotting and boat landing team standby so a busy week was planned. On top of this there were eco clean ups to do and also up cycling of the recovered boats and life jackets.
On the Tuesday we were part of the eco team and walked for about an hour and a half to a beautiful cove to the east of Skala. We spent a few hours picking up rubbish and adding it to a pile of previously collected rubbish which included refugee boats and life jackets that was awaiting collection on a fine day when a boat could access the cove. It was heartbreaking to see the old, punctured boats and the life jackets and other refugee related rubbish that had already been collected, or that we found. Items found by the group included an ID paper with Arabic script, presumably lost by a refugee at some stage.
Day spotting is carried out on the top of the cliffs at Lepetimos, where there is a good view across from the northern shores over to Turkey. You can see from Babakale in the west to Adatepe in the east depending on the weather, sometimes further. There is good equipment and good radio and phone contact with boats that also patrol this area of water. There’s the Turkish coastguard that stays on the Turkish side of the channel, and on the Greek side there are the Greek coastguard, NATO, Proactiva- a Spanish NGO who operate a rescue boat, Refugee Rescue/Mo Chara – an Irish NGO operating a rescue boat here and Frontex, the EU border and coastguard agency who also operate a boat. For such a small stretch of water it can get busy out there, particularly when the fishermen are out too. The day spotting is done in teams of two or three with the aim of spotting any refugee boats. Roger and I each carried out one day spotting duty.
Night duties were conducted from Korakas, an old, but still working, lighthouse. This is a particularly poignant landmark, as apparently smugglers load up boats with refugees, point out the lighthouse to them, and tell the refugees to head towards the light. As the lighthouse is protecting a particularly craggy headland this has resulted in many crashes and difficult landings over the years. The night shift was from midnight to 0900, so a long night. There’s good equipment and its done in teams. Again there are lots of boats to be seen, with all the potential formal boats that were out at various times and the fishermen. It was quite disorientating in the dark to discern which was which. Cruise boats also pass through which are very lit up and light everything around them. I was fortunate to see a school of dolphins in the morning as the sun was rising. A perfect moment. No refugee boats though.
I did a couple of landing call outs which necessitate staying within 5 minutes of the base for a 24 hour period in case a boat comes in. Whilst we were in Skala no refugees landed so we weren’t used. This left lots of time for me to do some up-cycling. I had some fun working with the rubber from the boats, the straps and the padding from the life jackets. I got the sewing machine out and designed and made a water bottle carrier, and also made a couple of wallets and a case for an iPad. All good fun and hopefully some of the designs can be utilised by the team and added to the standard products that are made.
We were also included in several training sessions about both first aid and also about landings. Brilliant training, very professionally delivered. Roger also did a training session with Mo Chara and Proactiva teams. He enjoyed going out with other volunteers in the boats so that they could practice transferring people from one boat to another and also recover people from the water.
As we were leaving Skala on Monday on the bus back to Mytilene to catch our flight, we heard about a refugee boat that had sunk in the middle of the Aegean and bodies were being recovered. We’ve subsequently learnt that the boat launched from Turkey at about midnight and capsized somewhere after launch. They had been about 25 people in the boat and only 2 women, 1 pregnant, were found alive. The bodies of 6 women, 2 men and 1 child were found by Greek’s coastguard, and Turkish authorities found the bodies of a further 6 men and a child in their waters. If there were 25 people in the boat then 7 people are still missing. This was such an unnecessary tragedy and will no doubt harden the resolve of the Lighthouse staff and volunteers to keep going to spot boats in order to ensure the safety of the refugees.
We were so impressed with Lighthouse Relief. They run a really professional organisation and the people in charge are passionate about why they are there and what they are there to do.
Back to Athens for one more week before we go home.