I watched the sun rise over the Turkish Izmir coast this morning. The mountain ranges cast watercolour silhouettes across the sky, the mandarin sun crept up through the horizon. It had been a quiet first night on the night shift.
We met in the deserted town square at four AM. The air was biting cold, and I had barely twenty minutes of restless sleep beforehand. This all left me extrodainarily nervous about what the morning might bring.
Within 15 minutes of being on the road we arrived at a boat landing site with the refugees already on the shore, accompanied by many different groups of volunteers from organisations and NGO’s based in the South part of the island. It was a gentle introduction to the world of meeting boats and I spent most of the time hovering around the edges attempting to figure out how to be useful.
By the end of the morning it became natural to just jump in and do what’s needed, but for most of the morning I found it a hectic and somewhat confronting environment, it was challenging figuring out how to be of help.
After the first initial rush of arriving at a boat landing, our patch of the island south of Mytilini quietened down. We retreated to our cars to cruise up and down the coastal stretch of road, listening for updates and scanning the horizon for boats. Memories of overnight ambulance shifts flooded back as we patrolled around the area waiting for some news.
It was during a moment of tranquility, watching the clear night sky give way to a gentle sunrise across the water that an SOS light signal was spotted far off in the distance by a keen eye, soon confirmed with a pair of binoculars.
This was to be the first of a string of three consecutive boat arrivals on the same stretch of beach over the next hour.
The process of guiding arriving boats to shore involves a squawking and emotional chaos of torch flashing, waving, flares and finally people wading out into the ocean in wetsuits to meet & pull the frightened and sodden humans from their terrifying excuse for a boat.
It can take close to an hour after first spotting a boat for it to arrive, and to guide it in toward a safe landing destination, as free as possible from the rocky outcrops that frequent this coastline.
Due to the landscape, poor quality rubber boats and the oppressive darkness, the risk of drowning is high.
Even once the boat has arrived to land, it is not yet safe.
People smugglers overcrowd boats, fitting as many as 50 into rubber boats designed for just a dozen. This overloading, combined with the anxiety and excitement of arriving, can often lead to boats overturning at the last minute. A situation that sounds manageable, but results in large numbers of cold wet people and a significant increase in the risks of severe hypothermia.
It is at this crucial ‘docking’ stage where volunteers and coastguards step in, jumping often knee deep into the ocean to grab hold and pull the boat into safety. Once secured, people are helped out one by one. Babies are handed out to the outstretched arms of waiting volunteers and the passengers drenched baggage is piled up on the beach.
Dazed and confused people are helped out onto the sand where they often collapse from shock, hypothermia or just emotional overwhelm.
This is the most chaotic part of arrival, yet everyone manages falls into sync. Whilst doctors attend to the serious cases and ambulances are called, we all get in and do whatever is needed. Cold wet feet are dried with towels and babies are quickly changed into warm & dry clothing. Boxes of donated items sorted by type are laid out on the beach, and the mission is to get everyone changed into dry clothes and shoes before hypothermia has a chance to take hold.
Emergency foil blankets are wrapped over-skin of the particularly wet or cold, covered by clothing and blankets. Refugees who arrive in a good state are free to take the clothes they need to change into, whilst the young, old and sick are attended to by volunteers. Items being handed out include everything ranging from sweets and chocolate to perk up the kids, bottles of water and bananas to stabilise blood sugar levels and disposable cups of warm tea to help in the relentless battle against hypothermia.
Once the UNCHR buses arrive, ready to transport the refugees to the largest camp for processing, it becomes a rush to get everyone on board as soon as possible – allowing us enough time to clean up the beach and organise our resources in time for the next arriving boat. Then, with barely a moment to catch a breath, we do it all over again.
My day ended almost 11 hours after it began. Feeling bewildered and overwhelmed, touched by so many stories and faces, I made my way groggily back to camp. There wasn’t much that needed doing, and to be honest I wasn’t much use in my present state.
So I headed back towards Myteline for some rest, walking along the coastline to clear my mind. The sticky scent of pine needles wafted from the forest on my left, and I could hear the frothy waves snapping at the shores to my right.
The orange skies of dawn had transformed to a brilliant blue, reflected in the crystal clear ocean. I picked up a smooth, polished rock and skipped it back out into the water. If it weren’t for the reflective orange catching my eye from a wayward lifejacket bobbing in the surf, or the ominous black shadows of deflated rubber boats sitting on the sea floor, I could have almost pretended this was a holiday.