The olive presses have stopped rolling. Orange season is over.
Lesvos has not been suspended in time since I was wrenched away on New Year’s Eve.
At Skala Sykamineas seafront the scent is no longer sharp cold salt spray but gently decaying seaweed.
Poppies are everywhere, deepest velvet ruby. Also cornflowers, clover, lavender, chamomile and a particularly fine variety of stinging nettle.
The people of Lesvos were running full pelt for months, running on adrenaline, running into a surging tide of needy humanity, plucking people from the waves and holding them by force of love and determination above the waterline.
Then politics happened.
One pivotal moment was that New Year’s Eve. As I flew home from Lesvos via Brussels, rushing to be at my loved one’s hospital bedside by midnight, young women in Cologne were being groped and robbed on the streets. This was the counterpoint to the picture of little Alan Kurdi drowned on a Turkish beach; the pendulum of public opinion swung once more, this time against refugees. It’s highly unlikely that the assaults were perpetrated by recently arrived Syrians or Afghanis – by far the largest groups to be seeking protection in Europe – but you wouldn’t know that from the media furore. The right-wing pounced and we all felt the backlash.
Austria was the first northern European country to bar its gates, with a knock on effect across Eastern Europe. Scandanavian countries said they’d done their bit; Germans lost faith in Merkel’s open door policy; FYROM (Macedonia) razor-wired its border and over 50,000 refugees were trapped in Greece.
The humanitarian corridor was closed by default not design, heads of state flapped and squabbled, people from war-torn countries who’d risked everything to reach supposed safety suffered. Young refugees sewed their lips together in protest. Desperate families forded a river on the Greek-Macedonian border and were tear-gassed. Navy boats patrolled the Aegean sea, but still smugglers managed to send dangerously full dinghies to Lesvos.
Then the “EU-Turkey deal”.
No more refugee boats.
The hurtling, adrenaline-fuelled folk of Lesvos ran on, fell over, hit the dirt, collapsed. Mentally, emotionally, physically and financially exhausted.
Now they’re picking themselves up.
Locals are prepping their businesses for what they hope will be a tourist season. But many tour operators have cancelled flights and packages to Lesvos, on the assumption that an island associated with drowning and a dump full of fake life jackets won’t appeal to their clients. Never mind that Lesvos is a stunning island of lush hiking trails, abundant wildlife, endless coastline, exquisite villages, fabulous food and friendly people with huge hearts who don’t deserve to be economically crippled and abandoned.
Volunteers are scaling back rescue and support operations, furious that we had organically created a system based on solidarity, dignity and common humanity, only to have it brutally squashed by undemocratic EU power. Grassroots organisations dare not pull out completely, uncertain whether those detained in Moria’s registration centre will be released and need refuge while their asylum claims are processed. Plus, while Turkey’s Erdogan plays brinkmanship with the EU, the deal is perceived as super shaky. We’re half expecting the flimsy dinghies to be launched en masse from the Turkish coast once more before the month of May is out.
In the meantime, volunteers laboriously clean the coastline. Tourist beaches were first to be cleared, now we work on the less accessible coves. We pull dozens of torn dinghies from the rocks, slice them with diving knives into manageable sections and stack them (“lovely flat piles, like lasagne!” repeats Mexican Isabel, our team leader). Later, using a reclaimed smuggler’s dinghy towing a self-built raft of pallet wood and blue barrels, we transport the ‘lasagne’ to Skala Sykamineas, where volunteers attempt to reuse as much material as possible, making bags and fixing old chairs in weekly upcycling sessions.
We hand pick smaller rubbish: life jackets; inflatable rubber rings and water wings; pieces of polystyrene loose or packed into five litre water bottles, intended to be used as floats if (when) a dinghy’s engine died; discarded clothes stiff with salt and ripped to rags on the rocks; bubble wrap parcels used to protect mobile phones during the crossing; water-logged snacks; a doll’s head. On one small beach I fill 12 bin bags. Three days later, after a storm, more rubbish has washed up and I fill two more.
So we clean the beaches, and we sort clothes. Winter piles and summer piles; men, women, children, babies. Bagged and labelled and provisionally going to Moria, or perhaps the mainland. Somewhere is probably desperate for baby slings; we have four huge bags filled with them at Lighthouse camp, and no babies. We feel guilty because the lack of needy people here doesn’t mean there are no needy people out there. The people we came to help are just across the water in Turkey, scattered across Europe in makeshift camps, guarded by the army in mainland Greece, hiding in bushes near borders, living in squalor in Lebanon or dodging bombs and bullets in their own countries. We feel guilty and tell each other that cleaning the beaches is important and that on days when the weather is against us or our towing dinghy needs repairing, that it’s ok to rest a bit and even to enjoy ourselves.
I explore hillside villages with cobbled streets wide enough only for a donkey. In old growth forest high above the coast road I find ancient trees with 12 foot girth, hot springs and cold mountain fountains, meandering paths through waist high ferns. I startle fat fast brown snakes, frogs, lizards, huge spiders in thin black and furry grey varieties, bronze-backed beetles and a segmented centipede. There are dragonflies, butterflies large and small, there’s birdsong everywhere. A wild tortoise in an oak grove startles me.
By coralling people in detention centres and military camps, giving them too little of everything – information, clothes, food, blankets, places to sleep, human warmth – the EU instils anxiety, desperation and deprivation. European politicians make the refugees fleeing war and persecution into exactly the poor, craven, dirty, unhealthy people that it fears them to be. Which they weren’t, when they stepped off the boats on the shore of Lesvos earlier this year, shrugging off the fear of drowning as they were warmed by campfires, tea, blankets, soup and friendly welcomes courtesy of grassroots’ volunteers.
Turning courageous, determined, resourceful people into frightened beggars seems not only needlessly cruel but ridiculously counterproductive to me.
On my spring holiday I walk six trails, clean five beaches, take part in four sessions of sorting donated clothes, swim three times in the Aegean, enjoy two slap up Greek taverna meals, do one window cleaning stint and spend a morning in Piraeus port chopping vegetables to feed a thousand.
I travelled overland from the UK to Greece by bus and train; but that’s another story.
I recommend a holiday on Lesvos to anyone with a heart.
This is the situation currently in Greece, it is dire and it is unnecessary: http://www.doctorswithoutborders.org/article/refugees-greece-we-did-not-expect-live-life-europe