Wednesday, March 23, 2016

Heartbreak on Lesvos

I was already exhausted when I heard the news. There had been a couple of days of awful weather--rain and high winds that shifted my tent under me and soaked my suitcase. And the situation with the Pakistanis was getting worse. The police started coming to the camp, wanting to deport them. When they came into the area of small tents above the fence line at Better Days for Moria, and arrested three Pakistanis, I decided it wasn't wise to camp there anymore. When I got to camp after a night away, somebody told me my suitcase was in the info tent. Except for that, my tent and everything in it was gone.

What really sucked for me was not losing the tent or the food in it, or even my eye drops and Tums...what really sucked was that many of my absolute favorite clothes were out of the suitcase drying. My grey Norma Kamali coat that I've worn nearly every day for 10 years now. My HowellDevine t-shirt, my kaleidoscope free speech zone sweatshirt that was my first ever start to finish screen-print and splattered with kaleidoscope paint, my Al Awda sweatshirt from an April 2000 protest in NYC, and other band/protest shirts. All gone. Along with all my socks and underwear and my only other pair of jeans. The halfway decent ones. Broke my heart.

But there was worse heartbreak to come.

After shift on Friday I went to the beaches for boat watch. About 10 o'clock the next morning, I headed in to town with one of the beach leaders and a brand new volunteer who had walked down to campfire from the airport close by. The lifeguard that heads the beach watch every other night gave me some pamphlets on how to greet boats. She wanted them put out at BDFM. I took the new volunteer to the bus station to buy her ticket to Molyvos, then we went to have breakfast and wait for the protest scheduled for the square and the port. I had been up over 24 hours and was feeling kind of rough.

A drenching rain--it had rained on the beach all night and I was already pretty wet, my coat soaked through--delayed the protest, so the new volunteer didn't get to take part. She had to catch her bus, but I joined in and we marched around the small labyrinthine streets of Mytilini before heading to the port. At the port, I was called over to hear a woman from Pikpa--the camp for especially vulnerable people.

She was distraught. She had just come from the mayor's office where the phone call had come in while she was there. The phone call telling the mayor that due to the EU-Turkey agreement due to start implementation the next day, all refugee camps on Lesvos were going to be cleared in the next 24 hours.

All sleepiness disappeared and I went into high gear. I joined a photographer friend and another journalist and spent two furious hours alerting people and trying to verify the information. I couldn't believe that all of it was ending, just like that.

A lot of other people didn't believe it either. It was surreal. I went to my evening shift, and we began telling people. The EU agreement was supposed to start on Sunday, but it seemed as though even those there before the agreement were to be deported. Evening shift was long, and we had drinks after because so many of we volunteers were leaving this week too, as I am in a couple of days. We never dreamed our leaving would coincide with the end of days. That's what it feels like. The end of days.

Imagine living in a tiny town of 1,000 people on less than an acre of land, and suddenly finding out that about 900 of them are being sent to prison, just for being from the wrong place.

We were all horrified. Camp that night was sober. Lots of the Pakistanis who made up the bulk of our camp recently, sat in the info tent, trying to reach loved ones on their phones. We volunteers tried to find out more information. Rumors were flying. Everybody was going to be sent to Kevalla in the north of mainland Greece. It was going to be a lockdown camp. It was an open camp. Refugees were going to receive 180 Euros a month for personal expenses. Could that be part of the EU deal? After all, these people were here before the cut-off date of March 20. Surely something would be done for them, and refugees said friends had called from Kevalla telling them that. But we also heard everybody would be deported to Turkey. That was in direct contravention of international laws on refugees and the just signed agreement. And the horrible one-for-one human trade would happen, but not as we had thought--Pakistanis for Syrians. Instead, it was going to be Syrians for Syrians, which doesn't even make any sense.

On Monday--having not slept in 45 hours--I found out that Moria had become an official detention center. UNHCR pulled out on principle, DRC was gone, all volunteers were in the process of being kicked out. I-58, a religious based volunteer group from the US who did great work were taken out of the dorms which were now detention dorms rather than the family compound and moved down to the tea tent. I don't know if they're still there, but MSF pulled out last night. So all the big NGOs are gone and Moria is a prison again. A doctor from Better Days told me they seemed to only be getting one meal a day, shoved under the bars at 3 pm. Another volunteer has reported that when asked for water cops are responding "Wait for the rain."

We still don't know for sure what's going to happen to people. Some reports say that all the Pakistanis are being handcuffed for transport. Some of our friends among the refugees have contacted us, so we have some first hand reports, but they are confusing. The ferry the Iraqi tattoo artist I wrote about was put on went to Athens instead of Kevalla. There is some speculation Kevalla was a ruse to misdirect volunteers who might show up to protest.

But from there, it seems that some were taken to a bleak looking camp at Volos where there is reportedly no running water. I saw a picture. Just tents--row after row of tents. Volos is on the mainland between Athens and the northern border. But then I heard that some of the refugees were allowed to board a bus for Athens, that the bus driver required them to pay 20 Euros for the trip and they refused, saying let the EU pay it. The story goes that the bus driver threatened to kill them and eventually dropped them off in the middle of nowhere, but since some of our friends have made their way to Athens, who knows? And apparently it wasn't straight from the ferry, but I can't quite get the story. Anyway, good to know they're safe for now.

My young traumatized friend went with the Urdu speaking doctor to be put in UNHCR protective care as an unaccompanied minor. I got to say goodbye, but yesterday I stood outside the so-called Syrian gate, the main gate to Moria camp, and waved at the small barred metal building in which he was being held. I didn't see him, though.

Tonight I didn't go to camp. The shift leader told me there are only about 10 people left. My young friend whose arm and neck were cut up by the Taliban left on the ferry for Athens tonight where a protection specialist will meet him tomorrow. I hope he will be okay.

Another friend, a Pakistani man, I ran into on a bench in Mytilini. I was pretty confused by that because the Pakistanis are particularly at risk. Yet there he was, with another Pakistani man, taking the sun by the sea. He gave me his phone number and asked me to contact a lawyer for him. I think he might have a good asylum case. I hope so. I hope he gets to use his right to apply for asylum. We're hearing conflicting reports about that too.

And now it's time for me to leave Lesvos so I don't overstay my visa. It's a particularly unsatisfactory way of leaving, but it would be pointless to stay anyway. The refugees are gone. Some 50,000 people--including the 900 or so from our camp--have been disappeared.

At least BDFM did our own registration in these last days. We'll be able to say they WERE here. Here are their pictures, their names. They do exist. Where are they?