And that was what I wanted- to be where the boats came ashore. I wanted to be able to help people as they struggled out of the dark water. Lacking a car, the best I could manage was to walk to the Quay for the Midnight shift to help those who had already landed and made the trek into town.
There was only one thing to do. I was desperate to get into one of those cars.
I immediately set about convincing Charmaine and Carrie that I was their new BFF.
Lucky for me they were both generous women, happy to have me along.
Because they had both been on Kos for a while, they knew that the boats with families and children were most likely to arrive at dawn. So they got up while it was still dark and drove along the coast to the likely spots. In a pathetic attempt to ingratiate myself, I offered to be the one who set the alarm, at 4a.m. to get everyone up. It felt like the middle of the night.
Once I'd moved to the other hotel it made sense that I go with Carrie. My job was to wake her. Sounds easy, doesn't it? Ha! This woman had sleeping down to a fine art. But when she did finally open a bleary eye, she was like the wind and I had to get out of her way as she shot out of bed, shoved herself into her clothes and rocketed out the door grabbing her ciggies and dragging her fingers through her short hair as she went. She didn't mess around.
|World's Best Emergency Nurse Carrie Davies|
Once in the car, the speed limit was ignored (please don't worry, the roads were empty) until we skidded to a halt outside the only coffee bar open that early. Carrie would wait in the car, parked firmly in the no parking zone, and puffing on her first cigarette of the day while I would buy as many cups of coffee as I could carry. Then we'd race out of town on the empty roads to meet Charmaine at a spot where the boats would sometimes come ashore, or at least we could see them and drive to where they were headed. We had to be there before the sun came up or we would never be able to spot the boats in time.
Sometimes there were no boats, but those days were rare. One of the most memorable landings was on a day when the wind was strong and the currents had changed. As the day dawned we could see the by now familiar lozenge shape of a boat emerging from the fading night. But as we watched it get closer we realised it was being blown way off course. We knew the people in the boat were helpless to stop the drift. Although the boats left Turkey equipped with a motor, too often the motor was so small it would only be effective on a dinghy and certainly not a packed boat and against a strong current. And as I found out later, the unscrupulous smugglers would sometimes fill a motor designed to run on 50-50 petrol and oil, with only petrol, because petrol is cheaper. So the motor conked out half way across. Then the boats were at the mercy of the sea.
Carrie had powerful binoculars and as she tracked them our anxiety levels steadily rose. It became increasingly obvious that they weren't going to make the shore, but were instead being blown way down the coast and possibly away from Kos to the hundreds of islands beyond. Some of those islands where uninhabited. It was shaping up to be a disaster.
Carrie phoned the Greek coastguard and told them what was happening, but the currents that day were wild, they were already involved with two other boats and they couldn't help.
By this time the rubber boat was close enough that we could see it was packed. We could see individuals. They were so close- and so far. We jumped in the cars and drove further along the coast trying to keep up with it. But everywhere we stopped they just drifted on by.
Eventually we reached the end of the road and could see no sign of them.
We looked anxiously for a long time, until we sadly realised there was nothing we could do. So we slowly started driving back, pulling into coves and beaches to see if we could find anyone.
And finally, some 10 kilometres from Kos Town, we saw people struggling up the bank to the road. We had found them. There were 56 of people, about half of them children.
It was such a happy moment for everyone. The refugee women hugged us and a few tears were shed, theirs and ours.
Both Carrie and Charmaine had packed their cars with dry clothing, snacks and drinks. We handed everything out and I noticed that the men resolutely refused everything until all the women and children had been fed.
Next we had to decide how to get everyone into Kos so they could register. By this time another car had pulled in and the drivers offered to help. But even so, it was obvious it would be several trips to get everyone into town.
|With only 3 cars and 56 people, it took a bit of organising to get the Syrian families into Kos, 10 kilometresaway.|
We knew they had a long way to go and tried to deter them. Finally I came up with a solution that was acceptable. Some of us volunteers would stay with the people on the road, so they were reassured the drivers wouldn't abandon the ones left behind. Each car would then take a man and some women and children so that at no point either end of the journey was anyone left alone.
This was important. The refugee journey is perilous and everyone involved in it knows. And while we meant them no harm, they were not to know if we were to be trusted. So while this method of getting everyone into town took a couple of hours, it worked- and it was a pleasant enough wait. We had blankets on the ground and finally these exhausted people were able to rest.
There were boats landing every day. On another day there was one with a badly crippled man whose friends carried him. Sometimes it was just men and sometimes families. All of them were exhausted and haggard looking, always. I learned later that before they left Turkey they were not allowed any food or water, for at least 24 hours. That went for the children too. And before they got into the boats, they had to scramble up a mountain and hide in the undergrowth all day while they waited for whatever flimsy thing they were travelling in. Most of them could not swim. I can only imagine the nightmare of that journey and be so thankful that I have never had to do anything like it.
I will never forget those early mornings in Kos. The memory will stay with me for life.
|Watching the horizon, looking for boats and waiting for dawn.|
In the pastel stillness, as we waited, it was as if we were the only people in the world. The strange combination of circumstances -
The life and death nature of the journey those brave souls were making as they silently slipped over the water towards us.
The isolation of the empty beach.
The knowledge that before this crystal pure dawning day was over, we might witness something terrible.
All these factors created a strange intimacy.
It became so easy and natural to share things we would normally only tell a trusted friend known for years.
The sun would slowly come up and the dark shoreline turn to fire. And we would wait and watch the horizon and drink coffee.
And so it was that Carrie and Charmaine became two of the dearest friends I have.