The ghosts of Lesbos

Lesbos -- Lesbos has returned to its sleepy self, but wherever I look on this lovely Greek island I see ghosts of the past.

I drive along the coastal road on the island’s northern shore, toward the town of Molyvos. The beaches along the way are empty and they look pristine. But when I look out onto them, I see the thousands of frightened, shivering people stepping onto European soil for the first time after a perilous sea crossing, hopeful for a better future in a new land. I see the beaches strewn with life jackets and emergency blankets.

Refugees and migrants arrive on Lesbos after crossing the Aegean Sea from Turkey on November 2, 2015. (AFP / Aris Messinis)
Refugees and migrants try to reach the shore of Lesbos in rough seas, October 30, 2015, after crossing the Aegean Sea from Turkey. (AFP / Aris Messinis)


I have been to Lesbos 21 times during the past year and a half. The road that I am driving on was the epicenter of the migration crisis, when literally hundreds of people fleeing war and misery would land on these shores after crossing the Aegean Sea in rubber dinghies from Turkey. A deal between Ankara and the EU a year ago halted the traffic. My latest mission is to record the difference between Lesbos then, at the peak of the migration crisis in the fall of 2015, and now.

My first stop is Skala Sikamias, a picture perfect seaside village that with Molyvos had been one of the two hubs for the refugees who had reached the island. Today it is serene and quiet, the way it was before the migrant crisis, the way a seaside village is meant to be.

Hardly anyone comes out here anymore. Back in the day, as soon as a boat was spotted out at sea -- and there were days when you would look out and there would be a dozen of them on the horizon -- a caravan of vehicles full of aid workers, volunteers and media would rush to the site where the boat would make landing. A few minutes of chaos would follow and then the wet and shivering refugees would be led to their next stop.

Dinghies filled with boats and refugees dot the sea as they approach Lesbos after crossing the Aegean Sea from Turkey, October 4, 2015. (AFP / Aris Messinis)

Today there are a few people from Frontex, the EU border agency, patrolling the coast, a few volunteers, and staff from the Spanish NGO Proactiva Open Arms,  who are still around to facilitate the very few boats attempting the crossing today.

A member of the Proactiva Open Arms rescue team looks at the empty sea on Lesbos, March 15, 2017. (AFP / Louisa Gouliamaki)

When I look out on the shores leading to Molyvos, all I can see are the mounds of life vests, rubber dinghies and other debris left behind from the perilous crossings. No picture or video can do justice to the magnitude of the misery, the desperation, the anguish, the suffering that those who had been there witnessed. The fear that you saw in those people’s eyes and sometimes that joy and relief of having made it safely across.

Back then Molyvos, Skala Sykiamias and everything in between was packed with people. The landscape was filled with color any painter of impressionism would have found inspirational -- glowing orange lifejackets worn by the migrants, an array of colorful vests worn by aid workers, the dark and black worn by camera operators and photographers, the crystal blue sea. The place was filled with sounds. Screams and cries, laughs and cheers, languages from all over the world. Today all the hustle and bustle is gone, replaced with the gentle lapping of the waves against the shore.

Wherever I look, I get deja vus. Most of the time it's of horrific images that come rushing back to my mind, but not always. Some of it was good. The strong bonds I formed with colleagues, the inspiration of watching families holding it together in such tough times, the spirit of ordinary citizens helping, and of course some gifted refugees I met along the way one of whom, now in Germany, I am proud to call a friend.

I make a quick stop at the garbage lot where authorities have dumped the debris left behind from the crossings. The last time I was here, in September 2015, there was a hill of lifejackets. Today it has turned into a hill of decaying life jackets and rubber dinghies, a remnant of the terrifying crossings.

The dump with thousands of discarded lifejackets and boats used by migrants, Lesbos, March 28, 2017. (AFP / Louisa Gouliamaki)

These beaches and this coastal road have become witnesses to an unprecedented human drama and each rock, each pebble, each grain of sand has a story to tell. Now that it is peaceful and tranquil, there is an eerie feeling to it.

Tranquility may have returned to the island, but that’s not to say that the migration issue has gone away. Inland, around the main town of Mytiline, there are still camps where thousands of refugees are now stranded as they wait for their asylum papers to be processed. Every person you speak to is tired of the long wait and you get a feeling that there is a ticking time bomb on the island.

Police stand guard near asylum seekers at the Moria migrant camp on Lesbos, March 16, 2017. (AFP / Louisa Gouliamaki)

Lesbos may have returned to its quiet self, but the feeling on the northern part of the island is that the calm may be temporary. Conventional wisdom around here is that Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan holds the key to whether the calm will last -- the Turks have put a stop to the boats leaving their territory, but if they for whatever reason decide to loosen the screws, the boats will come again. The feeling around here is that all depends on EU-Turkey relations, which are at a worryingly low level these days.

I leave the island after this latest assignment, but I know that I will be back. Every time I have to book a ticket to Lesbos, my heart skips a beat. What’s going on there? What’s new to cover? Has something terrible happened? It’s an uncomfortable feeling that I am now accustomed to. I am fine with feeling uncomfortable because at the end of the day it just feels right being there covering this story, especially now that it has faded from the spotlight. Now it is more important than ever. I guess the island has become a part of me.

This blog was written with Yana Dlugy in Paris.

Lesbos, February, 2016. (AFP / Aris Messinis)


Will Vassilopoulos