I started my day out at 12:00 am, was not thoroughly excited about the schedule because I was scheduled to work a double. The coordinator making the schedule has about 60 volunteers here. Since the majority of them are only here for a week or two it can be quite hectic to make a new schedule every day. Making a bi-weekly schedule for 15 people at a prior job was a headache, so I do empathize. Nonetheless 16 hours is not very desirable, but the job must be done.
I worked with two other volunteers who I cannot pronounce one of their names for she is also a Norwegian. The other volunteer, Tony, is a biology teacher from the UK. Working with different volunteers on these shifts help make the shifts bearable. It allows us to talk about where we are from, what we do in the “real” world, future plans, what led us to coming to Lesvos, and if we run out of topics we play the “would you rather” game.
It was about 330 in the morning that we started seeing motion on the Turkish coast. We could faintly make out headlights driving to a spot on the coast where there was no reason for people to be at. By 530 we had seen about 20 vehicles drive to the same location, yet no one had left. At 6 am every car left and we knew that the boats had launched. At 7am we spotted our first three boats, but they were still 6 kilometers out.
These boats are equipped with 30hp Yamisaki outboards, which would be equivilant to a trolling motor back in the states. Each boat has 40-50 refugees so they do not move very fast at all. For a boat to cross at the shortest distance between nations it takes about 3-4 hours to go the 4 kilometers. Once we spotted the boats we were ready, so ready to help them come ashore, but we had to play the waiting game.
It was about 10 am the first boat came in. The refugees were paddling the boat with their hands as the Spanish Life Guards were towing them. The boat was so loaded that it was taking on water and it was a time race. Luckily everyone made it on that boat. At the point I was working we took in 6 boats, and many more were landing at other locations throughout the island.
When you see a boat land and you were the one who spotted it, and called it in, the 16 hour shift all the sudden becomes very rewarding. The most rewarding part though was just welcoming the refugees when I was handing out socks to them. They were so happy to be here, so happy that they had lived. One man said that he was 100% sure they were going to die trying to cross, but it was better than being treated worse than animals by the Turks. The smiles and thumbs up from the kids, who were shaking from being wet and cold were so amazing. Albeit they were wet, cold, and hungry, they were overjoyed. Hugs were given, smiles, and utterances of “welcome” were being given left and right. This was the first time someone had smiled at them in a month or more.
We also had one of our biggest boats since I’ve been here land at Lighthouse beach. 300+ humans had made it to the EU. Simply amazing, we had been so used to seeing the inflatables boats/zodiacs. Working with 50 people vs. working with 300 people is quite challenging, but definitely rewarding. Just knowing that we were part of saving 300 people in one boat was a huge victory for the volunteers here, it helped offset the catastrophe of the day.
On the south part of the island a boat went down. One that we know of, but we think that there were 2. 35 bodies have washed ashore now, but if each boat holds 40-60 people and there were two boats, there are approximately 80 bodies out there that have not been found. This really killed me. I spent 2 hours crying and puking from the anxiety. It still brings tears to my eyes thinking about it. Every volunteer knew and is hurting from it.
I feel it hit me so directly, for I knew where the boats had launched from, but no one had any idea how many boats or people had launched. It is something that could easily have been avoided. I’ve been contemplating going to Turkey to report every boat that launches from the spot I was observing this morning. I would only have to hide from 2am-8am near the spot that the boats were being launched. If I were to do that I could accurately notify the volunteers on Lesvos how many boats were leaving and how many people were on them. Using my military training I could find a position that would not compromise myself, and using that position I could report the exact location and azimuths the boats are heading. In couth I could talk directly with the Coast Guard and give them their bearings in relation to the refugees, while also working speed. This would mitigate the number of humans lost at least on the north side of the island. Over 3500 refugees died last year trying to cross, and I know if I prevent one from sinking that’s at least 50 lives saved.
The risk is somewhat high, but two months ago I was supposed to be back in Iraq fighting with the Peshmerga against the Daesh/ISIS. If these refugees are willing to die to try to escape, then I can risk sitting in a Turkish cell. I have a few things going for me that most of the other volunteers who want to do this do not have. I am an American citizen. I am an American veteran. I can pretend to be an ignorant, arrogant American if the Turkish Police and government find me. I really would need nothing besides a compass and phone, perhaps some binoculars. For all they would know I am a stupid American bird watching, which is what they think of us anyways. There is a risk factor but it is pretty small compared to the risk I was going to take in Iraq. When I deployed with the US military I had one bullet for myself, no Marine has been captured since Vietnam, for everyone we fight do not follow the Geneva convention. When I was planning to fight with the Peshmerga I was going to keep one grenade for myself and as many of them that I could take with me. The risk of me doing this is minimal in comparison, my head weighs heavy trying to make a decision of morality vs. my personal security. This would also allow me to extend the time of aid I can remain here since Turkey is not part of the EU. This is partially due to the human rights violations as well as if the EU keeps the refugees in Turkey then the EU will not add Turkey to them since the rest of Europe does not want the refugees. Since I do not have a work visa I can only stay in Lesvos 90 of every 180 days, but if I’m in Turkey I could stay longer.
I went to supper with a few friends, we all needed to recalibrate and get our bearings. A few were independents, some were “Drops,” and there was the British camera crew who was there as well. Two lifeguards joined us, one a Norwegian Special Forces, and the other a US Navy veteran. I was enthralled to find another veteran. Most veterans forgot what we went into Iraq for and our mission. It had became a little hazy because the people of America had turned their backs on us and gave up on our mission, and we had seen our government sell weapons to the very enemy that had killed our brothers. For most it was easier to forget the most real part of 10 years of our lives, then to remember that we had been sold out by both our government and the people of America. Finding another veteran out here gave me hope that not every veteran had given up.
The rest of the evening we talked over our supper. There were four of us who were military and we talked about the Turkey plan. The camera crew was the same that I had mentioned before who had been beaten, thrown in prison, followed the migration path, etc. They are planning a trip to Kenya to document the veterans and humans hunting down the poachers. I was offered a position to go with them, they would cover my weapons, gear, flight, etc. Everyone here have realized that their/our life mission is to take care of this world.