by Vassilis Mathioudakis
“The name of the boat? What boat? The escape boat? The boat full of refugees? The boat of death? But first of all is the boat of hope. Maybe this was a “salto mortale” (leap of death). Because in my country there’s no hope but death, only death. Ι got in the ship because Ι wanted to live like a human. To claim my human rights that my children will go to school, they will have medical care, future. These days in Africa everybody has a gun and he believes that he is Master Death, but the only thing he does is kill Mama Africa.”
Every Easter I try to escape from Athens to the small island of Gavdos in the Libyan sea. The weather was very bad and the small ship only just managed to reach the island. After two days the storm decided to create my story or rather the story of 158 refugees whose boat the waves pushed to our island. The mayor notified me that was is a red alert from a ship, that a small ship was maybe crushed somewhere off the island. So I decided to go to south to Tripiti beach. It was about one hour on foot from the nearest village Vatsiana. I saw them from Metohi area. I looked down at Tripiti beach and they were laying there with their belongings. I ran down alone, for a moment I thought, what I will do with the smugglers, but I just continued on my way.
MAN I:“Oh you’re a journalist…
VM: Yes I’m a journalist. Where is your ship? Is this it?
MAN I: Yes.
VM: Are you from Sudan?
VM: How many days did it take you get here?
A: Six days.
VM: In this boat?
A: Yes. From Sudan.
VM: What country did you go to next?
A: Sudan, Egypt… Sudan and then Libya.
VM: And from Libya you took a boat?
A: From there we got into the boat and came here.
VM: From Libya to Italy?
A: Yes but this is Greece, not Italy, OK?
OK, it’s Greece. When we saw the beach we thought that we are in Italy. The problem is that our boat was damaged. Yes, I saw. Exactly as you saw. Because there were big waves? There were big waves and we were many more than the boat could fit. That was the problem.
VM: Ok, I want you all to come with me.
After talking with them, I had to notify the Mayor about bringing them up to the village and tending to their needs, providing medical care and food. We started walking from Tripiti beach and took the path to Vatsiana village.
It was midday on Maundy Thursday 2015. They carried the children on their backs, 41 of which were without a parent or an escort. They were alone on this journey of death and hope. We were walking and the road seemed endless to them, exhausted as they were. They were taking courage from the fact that they had arrived at a place far away from war and death. We reached Metohi, the spot where I had first seen them. I could get reception on my phone there and I notified the Mayor to organise their transportation and meals.
The solidarity of the locals was obvious from the beginning. After the phone call, about 40 Gavdians and a few tourists started the preparations to receive 158 refugees from mother Africa. They shared what they had. They kneaded bread, slaughtered goats, cooked traditional Cretan pilaf.
We organised many food hand-outs: at the school, the Citizen Service Center, taverns, even homes. Our first concern was to feed people who hadn’t eaten for six days. They were malnourished and still dizzy and sea-sick from the storm. Plates, glasses, supplies, anything we had on the island we got out of the shelves and fridges for these, who had fled their homes to escape death and live like human beings. Easter Day’s feast was offered to the refugees wholeheartedly.
They gathered at the Gavdos Medical Center. Some were strained, some were injured. The Cretan doctor Voula Nikolidaki and the Gavdian nursing student Roula Labakis examined them tirelessly. Some of the refugees simply collapsed out of exhaustion. Gavdos is cut-off from Crete for five days already, due to the weather. We are waiting for the super puma (helicopter) to bring nurses and doctors, medicine and other supplies. Winds of Beaufort force 9 have blocked the sea roads. The only boat that arrived was the refugees’ boat. We all wandered how it managed.
Woman from Eritrea
“In my country, Eritrea, I had two choices. Either join the army by violence, and disappear like my friends and neighbors, οr be kidnapped and be raped again and again as a girl…We left Eritrea at night. Ten days trip to Libya. We stayed four and a half months there, at the hell of Libya. My brothers were kidnapped with a gun stuck to their head. Thankfully they didn’t kill them, we found them again. United again we bought tickets to Europe. Each ticket cost as much as a house back home.
Suddenly one night they informed us that we’ll get in a boat. We were travelling for five days and nights towards Italy and on the sixth night the weather got bad, big waves started hitting the boat. An iron boat, full of people like us, approached us. They had talked over the radio, they were in danger. Scared people were jumping on our boat. One wave pushed us on the other ship and our bow broke, water started getting in. With a broken bow and us getting the water out in any way we could, we were pushed here by the waves. We didn’t know where we were. When the journalist found us, he told us we were in Greece, in Gavdos.”
They told me that to go to the toilet they had to crawl on top of each other like snakes, grabbing at what they could out of fear of falling into the sea. Six days, 160 people on this boat, some were eating, some survived only on a little sugar water. They had some food, but the pitta bread got moldy and the rest was drenched in petrol. For six days they survived on sugar water and the hope for a new life. As soon as they stepped ashore, they lit a fire under the cedar trees to get warm, dry up, and cook some rice to eat.
Gelly Callinikou, Gavdos Mayor
“We operated as a team, we came together and got to know each other better. We intended to celebrate Easter collectively, but didn’t. So let’s do it today with these people. They asked to see a photograph from the Epitaph; we didn’t attend the Epitaph but actually we all did, because both the Epitaph and the Resurrection literally happen wherever there is need, to whomever needs it. The traffickers were arrested. There was an amazing co-operation with the police, the coast guard, the authorities, who followed the example we gave them and continued what we were able to offer to these people”
Maria, Kandurou, teacher
“The respect we showed to these people from the beginning, because we felt it, made them feel safe. And we got that respect back. That was very important for everyone and it made things flow without fear between us.”
On the morning of Holy Saturday, the wind started to calm down. The regular boat from Sfakia (Crete), made its way to Gavdos to bring supplies for the locals and take the refugees to Crete. Odysseus’ journey never stops. Next destination: Chania, Athens, maybe Berlin, maybe Dublin, or maybe another country where a friend or a relative might be waiting for them, if the European institutions will allow mobility for them within Europe, in order to reunite with their families.
When I returned to Athens I found Taha a teacher from Soudan, he was living in a basement with other refuges. He felt safe and told me the whole truth. He took the boat from Egypt not from Libya. Many small boats that are coming from different parts of Africa give an uncertain appointment in the national waters with a bigger ship that will take them to Italy. We don’t know how many boats still beginning their journey from Africa, we don’t know how many of them sunk in the Libyan sea, we don’t know how many people were drowned. We just know that they are numbers that Europe doesn’t want.
Taha went to Eidomenim, he jumped on a train and crossed FYROM when he went to Serbia he was robbed and I lost contact. Finally he managed to reach France and the last year he is in the hospital seriously ill. I bearly have news from him meanwhile his wife and his children are still in Sudan, I hope safe. Will he see them again?
Gavdos is the southernmost point of both Greece and Europe, located in the Libyan Sea, underneath the island of Crete. Its trademark are the ancient cedar trees. Its area is just 29 km2 and its permanent residents are less than 50. In ancient times it was called Ogygia and was the home of Calypso, who hosted Odysseus there. From 1929 and throughout the 30s, Gavdos became an exile site, under Venizelos’ Special Crimes Law. It was one of the toughest exile places and was called the Island of Death. By contrast, today Gavdos is an inviting place of exceptional beauty with sandy beaches. Calypso hosts at Gavdos every Odysseus of every era, whether he is a political prisoner in exile, or an asylum seeker from Africa.