Egonne Roth



Refugees in Lesbos Day 1

Posted by Egonne Roth on September 21, 2015 at 2:50 PM


“The world’s gone crazy. Totally schizophrenic!” I tell Yehudit as we drive next to the sea from a point south of Eftalou to Molyvos, our car heavy with two women and four children who have just landed safely on the coast. The children belong to the family of the older woman; the other is a younger woman travelling on her own: she later tells me her name is Seba Gnead. All from Syria. All have just crossed the eight kilometres from the Turkish coast to northern Lesbos in a rubber duck designed to take maximum eight people – they were probably between thirty and forty. We are driving past a group of north European tourists lounging next to the sea, the women in bikinis, the men round with affluence. They glance up at the refugees walking past with little interest.

“What must these young men coming from radical Muslim countries think? Their world has really turned upside-down.”


Two days previously we collected our car and as we drove out of Mytilini to our guest farm among the olive groves we had seen groups of young refugee men walking towards the capital of the island.

“Where are the women and children?” we asked ourselves, but soon we turned off the main route and there were other things to be seen. We put on the radio and all we could find was music from Turkey. The reception from Radio Izmir was very strong. “One forgets Turkey is so much closer than the Greek mainland,” Yehudit commented and we thought no more of it. Yet we could not get those young men walking along the road out of our minds, neither the news reports we saw on the computer. The next day we drove north and arrived in Petra late – just time for supper and bed.


In the morning we headed towards Molyvos. As we entered there were hundreds of refugees laying sitting standing next to the road. I got out of the car to take photos and ended up talking with the head of one of the volunteer groups working there – volunteers are recognizable because they either wore bright orange jackets or t-shirts announcing which of the organizations they are working with. Rowan, a focussed young woman told me that at least 400 had arrived during the night and more boats were coming in. A young Australian man told me he was a lawyer but from the way he spoke I had the feeling he had not ever practised law – “No,” he told me, “I only graduated in July and have been travelling in Europe since then but I have been involved in human rights organizations for three years.” He was now helping full time in Molyvos. Everyone, refugees and volunteers alike look exhausted. Rowan also tells me that the young men get impatient and chose to try and walk to Mytilene – families get priority treatment on the busses and so it is better for them to just walk the nearly seventy kilometres through very mountainous terrain to the capital where the only registration point is. “The authorities here in Molyvos don’t allow us to open another registration point here or in Kalloni,” she says frustration clearly marked on her face. The refugees may not use public transport or taxis until they are registered, so her volunteer organisation have organised busses – it was unclear who carries the cost.


Yehudit and I decided to drive towards the little port and see what was happening there and to find some breakfast. All was quiet and we sat down to enjoy a delicious breakfast next to the water. We got into conversation with the waiter and he told us more about the situation. “There are little boats arriving all the time but not here, at Eftalou and along the eastern coastline, wherever the boats wash up. Few have proper engines and many disintegrate along the way. The refugees have to pay the smugglers at least $1500 to get onto the boat and then extra for the life jackets. We’re trying to do what we can but we have so many problems of our own. Still, you cannot let people die in the water and Europe and the world don’t care. No-one wants them. It is a human tragedy and a political disaster. Of course ISIS is using it to smuggle people into Europe. You will see within a year the bombs will begin to explode in cities all over Europe!”


We drive out to Eftalou – all along the route we see people walking, some exhausted, others triumphant – they are in Europe - safe, they believe the worst is behind them. Little do they know the worst since they left home is about to come. Where the tar road ends we find the help station where they are brought once they are out of the water or their boats. Here they are given sandwiches and water and whatever basic medical treatment they need. Many get hurt trying to survive in the boats, most of which are of the poorest quality. We talk to Rieke, a Dutch volunteer with Stichting Bootvluchteling and get told that there are more boats coming in further along the coast. If we want to help transport people, we can follow her and bring the worst cases back to this point. We follow her in our rented car and are horrified at how bad the ground road is. Vehicles with Greek and Swedish and Dutch registration plates drive like crazy, one direction empty and back overloaded. We follow them more slowly, more carefully. All along the route are people walking, whole families. We stop at a point some 5 km further where we see the other vehicles parked and look down – men woman and children, some holding tiny babies wade out to dry land, their boat seems in shreds. Later we hear from one of the refugees, “The smugglers tell us to cut the boat as soon as we are really close to land so that the Greek coast guard won’t send us back.” The Greek coast guard are not sending anyone back, only saving those from the water that they can. Up from where we are watching, we can see only volunteers helping at the shore. A young blonde man is handling a drone and soon he sends one of the volunteer boats to try and tow in a rubber duck that has run out of fuel – a common occurrence – to safety.We watch holding our breath: the boat is seriously overloaded; one wrong move and it will capsize. A German couple is standing watching with us, “While the leaders of the Europe debate what to do, people are dying in the water. And the Americans? They wash their hands of the whole Syrian disaster because there is no oil or something they need in Syria!” he says bitterly. “How will Europe cope with so many refugees? And of course ISIS uses this – you will see what happens!”



As we watch they struggle up the steep mountain side to where we are standing and then begin to walk towards the official help point. A man asks us to take his wife who is older with the three children and another asks for a young woman who looks near collapse. The car is full but I take her rucksack onto my lap and she manages to squeeze in next to the children. As we drive now extra slowly back I try and get them to drink water. In the heat dehydration is one of the biggest threats they now face. We get to the beginning of the tar road and everyone gets out of the car leaving behind the smell of fear, sweat and urine. The young woman clings to me and makes me understand she is totally alone – both parents died in Syria. I give her my contact details via Facebook and she promises to get in touch with me as soon as she can. She smiles a big smile when I tell her we come from Israel.


“We can’t risk that dirt road again with this car,” Yehudit says and so we decide to transport those in most need the 4 km from this point to the place in Molyvos where they wait for the busses. A man approaches us, “My mother,” he says pointing to an old woman in a wheelchair. Yehudit nods, “Yes!” and he quickly lifts her into the car and two of his sisters and some children also squash in. We explain to the men exactly where they will find the women and leave. As I look back I see the men loading their luggage into the wheelchair and start walking– at least they do not need to carry and push. We drop the women off exactly as promised under a canopy that offers solid shade against the sun as the temperatures are rising into the thirties. We go back and find the rest of the extended family – one small child stayed with them as his mother has been killed and he would not leave his father. Now we load the other two sisters, the man with his child and the entire luggage into the car and again explain exactly where they will all be reunited. Back in Molyvos we drop off our load and one can see the relief on the old mother’s face. We go back, passing the men with the remaining child who is about ten, now riding in the wheelchair – they happily wave at us. When we get back to Rieke we are told there is a family where the younger child urgently needs to get to the hospital in Mytilini. Yehudit nods and they explain to the family we are taking them to the hospital – it seems the child has a dislocated shoulder or broken arm. The mother demonstrates that someone pushed the child and she fell hurting herself. Every time the father who is holding her very gently moves ever so slightly she whimpers with pain. The mother keeps asking how they will get back to the other Syrians – fear is etched into her young face and she does not speak or understand any English. All communication is by guessing. It is 67 km to Mytilini and the road zigzags up the mountain till we get to a plain and then it is easy driving. All along the route are young men walking or resting where they can find shade. Still it is more than an hour later that we eventually find the hospital, locate ER – everything is written in Greek – and find a doctor who is willing to help. They are very busy. She takes Rowan’s number and promises to see the family get reunited with the other refugees. The mother still looks terrified and communication is difficult. Thanks to Google Translate on our Smartphone we can answer some of her questions and are horrified to discover that they have no clue where they are. Yehudit buys them food from the cafeteria and offers them money. “No!” she shakes her head. They will not take money.


It is late afternoon when we head back to Skala Eresos, more than an hour’s drive away. We are exhausted as we have also not eaten or drunk anything. We have seen so much sorrow. I feel such anger at the double standards of the world. I think back at how I have been attacked repeatedly in South Africa and elsewhere about the Israeli treatment of the Palestinians – even if the worst of those stories were true and we know many are not - it would in no way compare to the stories we have heard today. The courage with which the Syrians have made their treacherous journey and the determined optimism with which they face their very unsure future is moving. Every person we have spoken to and helped knows we were from Israel because we have told them so and all smiled happily, “So you understand,” those who speak enough English say each time. Yes, we do.


“We can’t help thousands and for sure not millions,” Yehudit says, “but all I asked for this morning was to help someone. I think we did.”

“All I can see is Seba’s face as we left her. What will become of her, a young woman alone? Will we ever see her again?” I say feeling close to tears with the frustration of knowing how little we can do.



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