Tuesday, 7 November 2006


You turn your back on the island for 10 days and you find it back in a totally different season. When we left Lesvos it was marvellous warm autumn weather, when we came back it looked like winter. It could have been worse, if we'd come back a day earlier and lived on the neighbouring island of Limnos. There they had the first layer of snow, while Mytilini only saw a few snowflakes.

So we missed the two days of heavy rain and storms and the early cold spell, because after a nights sleep the temperature was rising and after two nights, the island became like we left it, except that a lot of plants had finished their season, because of a frosty night.

It really feels good to be back on the island, after all the bustle of Holland. That low country is not only full of people, those people are also so incredibly busy. And even though the country seems very well organized, they cannot solve their traffic problems, nor their fully booked agendas.

We fled that busy life, although we are not refugees. Those are coming more and more to the island. Before we left the island, Angelos (the owner of the still open Anatoli restaurant) and his wife Petra, were woken in the middle of the night by some men who were thoroughly soaked by the sea and came to ask for help. One of the refugees, from Pakistan or Afghanistan, nearly didn't make the trip over the stormy sea that night.

Angelos tried to revive the man by rubbing his whole body with alcohol (ouzo). He made tea and something to eat for all of them and got them into dry clothes. He only called the police and a doctor after he'd sorted them out. The refugees told Angelos that they each had to pay €2,000 for the dangerous trip over the sea from Turkey to Lesvos. At the Greek maritime border they were put in a rubber dingy, with the bottom slashed open, so they had to try and reach the Greek coast as quickly as possible.

Now that the tourists have gone, these groups of people attract a lot of attention on the roads. Nearly every day you see groups of refugees walking towards Molyvos and Mandamados. Some are 'helped' - this in inverted commas, because people make a good business out of refugees - with boat tickets or plane tickets. Some of them may pay their way by smuggling drugs, or they are just plain drug smugglers. Last year a group of refugees was arrested because they were wearing shoes with suspiciously large soles. There was heroin hidden in them. It is also rumoured that some refugees might be terrorists. So it is maybe not only asylum seekers these days.

The security checks at the airports are very strict these days. Especially regarding luggage. But you cannot say the same for passport control. In October, when the passengers (amongst them Jan) for a flight from Athens to Amsterdam were waiting to board, a group of men tried to force entry onto to the plane after they were found to have false passports. Armed police had to get them off the ramp. Last Sunday, when we saw the plane from Athens arriving at Amsterdam Airport, there was also a police team waiting for the plane, in order to arrest a group of passengers that were travelling with false passports.

It makes you wonder how these people get so far into the airport or planes and also wonder how many people get through without being stopped. I'm not saying that all these people intend to do harm, but times have changed, as has the composition of the groups of refugees.

On Lesvos no boats arrive with hundreds of refugees like on the Spanish island of Tenerife. Here they come by dozens in little leaky dinghys. Some refugees get a lift to a nearby town where they are picked up by the police and taken to a refugee centre. Taxi drivers are not allowed to drive them anywhere, but in Molyvos they just get the bus to Mytilini. And then there are the dramatic stories of those who do not make it to the island. These stories do not always appear in the papers.

Last week a storm cleaned the beaches. All the rubber dinghys that are the silent witnesses of the arrivals of the refugees are gone (although, following this, the beaches are filled up again with new ones). In the winter, not too many refugees will dare to cross the sea, although the most desperate do not care how cold or stormy the sea will be.

I know what dramas are hidden by the waves, but I'm still glad to be back to my view of the blue Aegean. You may think that Lesvos is a small forgotten island, but a new history of the world is being written here as well. Refugees or not, I can stare out over the sea where for centuries Gods, Greek heroes, pirates and refugees travelled and found the way to a new life.

Copyright © Julie Smit 2006

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