The horrors in Greece…an account of Dan’s time in Lesvos:
As some of you guys know, Dan arrived home from Greece this weekend. Emotionally drained, physically exhausted and mentally pretty traumatized, it’s taken him until now to be able to put the experience into words. After taking a couple of hours to explain the journey to me in depth, he’s been left with a banging headache. No surprises really, it’s genuinely too much for one brain to carry.
He asked me to share the details, as best as I can, with you guys. It’s not easy to write about, to even think about, and he just witnessed the situation, imagine those people living through it. I expect he’ll be having nightmares for a very long time…
His first stop was the Greek/Macedonian border where he handed out donations from a small UNHCR building. He told me that he had never seen people so desperate. That he felt like the walls would collapse under the pressure of the crowds. Children were getting crushed against the fence, hands grappling through the windows, extended family groups desperately trying to push forward for the sake of a few dry biscuits, the walls moving, cracking under the burden…
Next stop was Lesvos…nothing could have prepared him for what he experienced here. The situation on this idyllic, holiday island soon became apparent as volunteers spoke of increased need for body bags and locals funding and attending the funerals of strangers or unidentified bodies, just so they were attended by someone. The surrounding Mediterranean is peppered with telltale orange – 150,000 lifejackets and floating bits of rubber boats.
That day, the thunderstorm that has made the headlines over the last week, well and truly hit. Whilst the amazing Mark made 2000 cheese rolls to take to Moria camp that evening, Dan drove through the unremitting rain, on various aid runs. He told me that anyone who goes to Lesvos to help, will undoubtedly change lives. Examples of these lives; a disabled woman, unable to walk, who had just arrived in a boat without a wheelchair. Dan drove one to meet her, lifting her, screaming in pain and panic, to the safety of the chair, then to the van. The second was a woman sitting on the roadside cradling a very quiet baby. Another volunteer ran for his stethoscope and confirmed the baby’s breathing was very irregular. The van rushed mother and baby to the Doctors without Borders tent, where many other babies were waiting. After some serious perseverance and a struggle, the baby was finally taken to the front of the queue, then rushed straight to hospital in the van, half an hour from death as his lungs were filling with fluid.
That evening, the van was then loaded with volunteers and bread rolls, ready for the drive up to the infamous Moria. Moria is the camp, up in the hills, away from anything else, where people are forced to go to get registered before they can leave the island. The mood was subdued, ominous, as they drove through the torrential rain into the unknown.
Before getting out of the van to begin the walk up the hill, the people who were going for the first time were told is was not too late to turn back. They had the option to stay by the van, reloading bags of bread rolls. The girls were told to stay with the guys, the newer members told to stay with someone who had been before. Harbouring an impending feeling of dread, the team began the climb towards the front of the application queue.
The queue for European papers is 3km long and people wait in it for days. They don’t stand, they kneel, crawl, crouch, lie in the mud, without shelter, food or water for days at a time. As you reach further to the front of the queue, the crowd gets denser, the desperation deeper. Dan says he felt he was wading through a sea of people, too weak to stand, but just strong enough to grab at his clothes, begging for food, ‘I’m hungry…please…’ They handed out the rolls, as fast as they could, fighting back their own emotion at what they were experiencing.
“Nothing could have prepared me. Never did I expect to see so many hands, reaching up at me, the hands of people slowly dying.”
Familes, children, babies, elderly, pregnant, disabled; everyone sick, coughing, fever, no shoes, their clothes soaked through, their feet rotting in the cold, wet mud. And so many people; rows and rows of people. The team stayed for hours, handing out rolls from their little bags (too many at a time would be dangerous), to people in a situation that none of us can believe is happening in 2015, in Europe. There is no police presence along the queue, just some people who have been given sticks by the police, to try and control the crowd.
Through the darkness, Dan noticed many many people, lying, motionless in the mud. “They’re just sleeping” he told himself. I asked Dan if he had any pictures. He looked at me, completely blankly. “in that moment, no one could think about anything, but the plight of the children being held limply up to you in the pouring rain.”
When the team left at about 2am, no one said a word. Unable to go and sleep, they went to try and eat together, processing the horror they had just experienced.
And the worst of it was, what the volunteers were experiencing, is nothing at all, compared to what the refugees are living. A merciless nightmare with no end in sight. These people left war, death and destruction in their own countries, with the hope of finding safety and peace. Europe, where people are happy and life is good, where things will be OK.
On Dan and Mark’s last day, as they frantically tried to make as many rolls as they could before leaving for the airport, they were delayed by the arrival of two boats full of soaking wet, freezing cold people. Dan and the team rushed to attend to the shell-shocked people, taking a baby upstairs for a change of nappy and some dry clothes, then continuing to provide warm clothing for the others. Just as everyone was a little warmer and drier, a coach arrived to take these two groups up to Moria to get their papers. Knowing what they were about to experience, Dan was hit with a feeling of dread for their fate, knowing their efforts had been wasted.
Devastated to leave but determined to return, Dan sees this as the beginning of a long road. A road we are all determined to take, together, as part of the journey towards safety and peace for the refugees across Europe.