Great tragedies have names. The Titanic, the Lusitania, Pearl Harbour. Their heroes grow taller now than when they walked on earth and their dead live forever in story.
This is not a great tragedy. This is just a boat of migrants that went down in the Aegean, another number, another regrettable spat of collateral damage in the border war of Fortress Europe.
Content warning: distressing scenes, death of a child by drowning.
I acclimate to the volunteer life on Lesvos. I acclimate to the segregation in the camps, packed tents of Syrians looking like dignity compared to the Iraqi, Afghan and miscellaneous African people left sleeping in dirt. I acclimate to screaming babies being thrown at me from dinghies and the brutality of the Greek police. I acclimate to aid workers eating in good restaurants while the children they’re here to help eat from the dustbins outside. I acclimate to the numbness that spreads right out to your fingers and toes to keep you from breaking.
My friend Ashley convinces me it’s time for a day off. We don’t work by shifts for a charity, we just do what needs doing and that shift is endless. We plan to drive from Anaxos to Molyvos for a dinner that isn’t rice and beans or eaten standing up. It’s a half hour drive down the coastline but you’d have to be a sociopath to make it in that time today.
The sky is bright but the sea is furious and the wind bites. Even so, boats approach the island endlessly. Every few hundred metres along the beach is another dinghy coming in without anyone to meet it, another boat wrecked at terrifying angles on the sand with broken windows and emergency blankets fluttering from the rails like trapped angels. We stop and stop and stop again. Freezing children bundled into cars, battles for seats on the rescue bus, phantom ambulances chased for the sick and injured.
Breakfast and lunch come and go and we’ve given all our food away, so by the time we reach Molyvos, we’re starving. We talk quietly as we each wrestle our own guilt. After weeks not really using it, our privilege of being able to step out of this cataclysm feels grotesque. The simple act of sitting down to bread and wine has become bizarre. My eyes sweep the harbour, painted late afternoon pink. The restaurants are all open, all empty. Waiters recline in patron’s chairs, smoking and chatting. Inland, hazy indigo peaks reach into the sky. It strikes me as vaguely odd that I can’t unclench my teeth.
We’re a few bites into our bread when the sirens start. Rescue workers hurl themselves out of doorways from nowhere. With a synchronicity that only comes to a place where disaster has become routine, tables and chairs are swept away in one smooth motion. Volunteers, locals, journalists and medical teams are converging on the waterfront. Ten or fifteen children come off that first rescue boat, which heads immediately back to sea. I put my arms out to receive a young boy. He can’t be more than nine years old. He is unconscious. I run for the medical team, transfixed by his face. He looks strangely peaceful, only his skin is grey and his lips are blue.
I lie him down beside one of the Red Cross doctors. The doctor is already working on a little girl. He doesn’t even look up. “I’m using both my hands already.” His tone is matter of fact, the way an adult might reassure a child with a serious injury that they have everything under control. “Can you do what I tell you?”
“Yes.” My voice sounds far away.
I get my first crash course in CPR. I am terrified of hurting him, of doing something wrong. Thirty chest compressions. Hold the nose. Two breaths until the chest rises. His lips like ice on mine. Thirty compressions. Nose. Breathe. Thirty compressions. Nose.
Breathe, breathe, breathe.
The boy’s eyes fly open and he starts coughing water. I roll him over and rub his little back. Once he’s breathing right we strip off his wet clothes to prevent hypothermia. The medics disappear. I wrap the boy up in my jacket and lift him onto my lap, covering his body with mine. I can see Ashley holding a little girl by her ankles while the medics try to get water from her chest. Every time I see a medic I have them check him. They are overwhelmed. They say he’s okay but he doesn’t look okay to me.
I’ve been an atheist all my life. This is when I start praying.
I know there is more to do but until someone appears who can take better care of this boy me, I’m not leaving him. I don’t know how long I rock back and forth with him in my arms whispering in a language he doesn’t understand.
Now and then he opens his eyes a little but they never focus.
I don’t know if he sees me.
I choose to believe he can hear my voice, feel warmth, recognise the feeling of being out of the water, being cared for. I’ve never felt love as vast and desperate as I do holding this child in my arms. Together with the horror, it engulfs me.
Before I left, a friend of mine warned me that you cannot be a volunteer and a journalist. Journalists do not get involved. I think about that as I hold this boy, who in this moment has only me in the world. Photographers circle like vultures, getting in people’s way, shoving their lenses where any decent human being must surely know they don’t belong.
I don’t want to be a journalist anymore.
Finally, the ambulances come. The paramedic has to pry my arms straight out from under the boy. I don’t want to let him go. I’ll never know what happens to him. A second siren announces the return of the coastguard. Somehow, my legs carry me over. I put my arms out to an Afghan woman who grips them like she’s still drowning.
“My mother, my brother!” she shouts in English. I try not to think of my own mother drowning.
“Boats are still coming,” I tell her. She does not respond. “We have to care for you now. If you don’t get dry, you’ll get sick.”
At first she won’t let me, so I just blanket her shaking body, speaking softly and waiting with dry clothes until she’s ready to be touched.
“Please, please, my mother is a good woman.”
A flare of fury that in this moment of all moments, she feels the need to assure me that her mother deserves to be rescued. Her name is Sultana. She is alone now, she keeps saying. I help her change, shaking and crying. Feeding her water feels like the most important thing I have ever done.
The priest opens the church to provide shelter, so I help her inside and encourage her into the recovery position as she coughs up the last of the sea water. I take her name and promise I’ll look for her family and come back. She kisses me and kisses me and kisses me. Twenty minutes later when I return with more supplies, she’s gone.
There is one more boat after that and fewer people this time. The coastguard has given up the search. The tavernas have reopened to offer shelter and tea. Elderly local women rock motherless babies. One catches my eye. She cocoons a little girl in a blanket as expertly as if she were her own. Her dark eyes brim with an angry love. I want to reach out to her but she seems far away and I don’t want to be the one to bring her back here.
People weep on the floor, staggering from group to group, crying out for their loved ones; women call for their children, men ask after their wives. I work with a multilingual Syrian man to compile a list of names. The mothers are relieved just to have someone asking after their children. They stay calm while they spell each name and give the age of each child with any distinguishing features. Then when the helplessness sets in, they break down. I hold some as they cry. I am useless, wooden. A softly spoken woman called Named Shorooq who I’d helped from the rescue boat has lost her husband and all three children.
When the translator has to leave, I hide in an alleyway to cry. Five or six hours in and it’s dark. I haven’t stopped for food or water or breath and I have no idea where Ashley is. A low, alien sound rises up from the back of my throat. There is a unique kind of crying for when you’ve seen a dead child for the first time; a child who, without the right passport, died to make a journey that you could make whenever you like for about ten euros.
I sway, wordless.
Another volunteer finds me, asking for help with a young mother. She is sitting in a doorway soaking wet, refusing all help until we find her baby. Unblinking, she watches the sea for a boat we know isn’t coming.
“How do we get her to drink?” asks the young American.
“She told us,” I reply. “We find the baby.”
I don’t know what the best use of my time is at this point but doing almost anything seems less futile than allowing myself to feel this grief that isn’t mine but which nonetheless threatens to swallow me. Once she recognises me as ‘the person on the phone about the baby’, her eyes start to follow wherever I go. Every time I take a call, there is hope. I start gesturing ‘no news’ as quickly as possible because I can’t bear it.
Eventually, a local doctor reports two infants had been rushed from the first rescue boat straight into hospital. It doesn’t look like they are going to make it and we can’t bring the mother to the hospital because the police aren’t letting anyone leave. It is the first moment I become aware that the police are even here because they aren’t running around like the rest of us, just standing in clusters on the edge of chaos.
I make a beeline for the nearest officer. I explain that she’s at risk of hypothermia but won’t accept care until she sees her baby. I beg him to help me find a way to get her to the hospital. The officer towers above me in his riot gear – like anyone here has the energy to start a riot.
“Like I told the doctor, she was rescued at sea.” He won’t even look at me. “That means she is formally detained until she gets her registration papers. No papers, no hospital.”
“It takes days to get papers. Her baby could be gone by then, can’t you just escort her?”
“No papers, no hospital, you get it?” he repeats.
I am haunted by the notion that the presence of its mother might make the difference between life or death for that baby. At the least, she is being robbed of her chance to say goodbye. The rage is unspeakable.
Like an alien from another planet, good news: ‘Shorooq family found.’ I grab a translator and head straight to where I’d left Named. She starts crying again, kissing my hands, clinging. I wait with her, as much for my sake as for hers. I need to know I am still living in a world where good things can happen.
We hold each other as we wait and I listen to her pray. Every time a van passes, her nose is pressed against the window. From the third van steps her husband. She calls his name, yanking me with her through the door. In his arms, he cradles their youngest child, two year old Razan. I recognise his name from the list we made. There are no other children.
Named falls to her knees before her husband, howling. She thumps his legs with one fist, still gripping my hand with the other. This isn’t what we’ve been waiting for. It’s almost worse than nothing, as though in the presence of this little boy all she can see is the absence of the other two.
Her husband stands like a statue, holding his son. His eyes brim with shame as he accepts her blows in silence. I tell her there are children in the hospital. It’s possible they are alive. I don’t really believe it and she knows it. Her daughter, Maram, is six. Her other son, Malak, aged three. Eventually, Named takes her baby in her arms like she will never let go.
I leave them grieving together and return to give the other mother some answers. Her brother translates as I explain there are two babies at the hospital receiving intensive care. We don’t know if one is hers. We cannot take her to them. I find myself quoting the police. “You are being detained. You cannot leave until you get your papers.”
I tell her I am deeply sorry and the words taste loathsome.
She looks at me with an expression of absolute incomprehension. I have a human right to seek asylum from war. The whole world knows what is happening in Syria. I am not a criminal, so why am I a prisoner? Even a criminal deserves to hold their baby before they die.
Her brother’s heartfelt thanks make me feel even worse. At the very least, I resolve to try and get her into the Syrians-only camp where she can be fast-tracked for her registration papers. The only place to go for that is the man with the clipboard and a cap that informs the world he works for the UN High Commission for Refugees. I argued with him earlier about getting access to the hospital and he doesn’t look pleased to see me again. Bitterly, I concede there is nothing to be done for her tonight but please could we just talk about what will happen tomorrow.
“Registration is the police’s responsibility.” I ask him exactly what his responsibility is. He ignores me.
“You know the police won’t do anything,” I argue. “Please, can we just try to figure out how to do our best for her?”
He walks away. I wonder if at some point, just to keep doing his job, he’s had to reach deep inside himself and smother something essential. Eventually, I find someone else to have the woman and her brother collected in the morning and fast-tracked together, so she doesn’t have to go to the hospital alone to identify her baby’s body. Their gratitude is jarring.
Ashley finds me smoking with my legs dangling over the water, staring down at the debris. Emergency blankets gleam like buried treasure from beneath the bobbing water bottles and a cluster of empty life jackets that cling to each other.
“You ok?” I ask, absurdly. She sits down heavily next to me. My voice still sounds far away.
“I don’t think I can take much more of this.” Her voice breaks. “It’s time to go home soon or we’re really going to fuck ourselves up.”
“We’re already fucked up.” I drop my cigarette butt into the Aegean because nothing seems beautiful or salvageable at this point. “We were fucked up before we came, we just didn’t know how badly.”
Ashley is silent.
In a waterfront café, I get a few people fed while Ashley uses her phone to help them contact home. Across the table, a Norwegian volunteer comforts a teenage girl named Sara whose entire family is presumed drowned.
When the survivors start talking and we learn that three hundred people had been packed onto a rotten little two-storey tour boat, the kind that started appearing on the beaches after last week’s storm. It’s the families with babies, disabled and elderly relatives who pay extra for the wooden boats because they’re meant to be safer. The boat’s top floor crashed onto the bottom and it sank in less than a minute, leaving a pool of orange life preservers shining in a great expanse of blue.
From the ceiling, a television screen shines down a basketball game, adverts for cosmetics and gambling apps and cleaning products that kill 99.9 percent of bacteria. The local news comes on and we blankly watch images of ourselves from the hours before.
Ashley is in no condition to drive so we stay in an empty hotel nearby. We talk a little, just to hear each other’s voices. Once she’s sleeping, I go up to the roof to watch the sunrise with my back to the sea.
The next day, I scan the media coverage for names I recognise, but there are no names. That’s why the makeshift headstones in Greece’s mass graves just have numbers on them.
When we go back to the harbour, it is calm. The debris is gone and the tavernas are serving again. A new batch of fresh faced volunteers dish out rice and beans from the back of a van. We meet one of the doctors we’d worked with the night before, a stoic south Londoner called Zakia. I ask about the children and she tells me that after so long in the water, they never really had much of a chance.
“Island hospitals just aren’t equipped to deal with this kind of catastrophe,” she explains. “When they’ve taken in that much water, even if you can get the heart beating, often the best thing you can do is just hold them.”
I did that, I think. It means something but not enough.
On the road that snakes from the harbour up past the olive groves, a procession of newly-arrived refugees is setting out on the twenty-four mile walk to the camps.