The Pope went there in a sheltered motorcade, and, to his everlasting credit, returned to Rome as a savior of some, bringing them with him back to the Vatican.
Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras went there but didn’t get out of limousine to help as he drove past and saw people floundering in the waters: but he had a good excuse – he didn’t want to get his suit wet or put on a wet suit.
Greece’s Migration Minister Yiannis Mouzalas went there and apparently missed the thousands of people living in freezing tents as he said none of them were going cold before he returned to a warm bed in Athens to watch photos and videos of them shivering.
Europe’s migration chief Dimitris Avramopoulos went there – a couple of time – a Greek who very well knows the horrible conditions under which thousands of people are living. But he pulled a Pontius Pilate, washed his hands of it (not with the same cold Aegean water which is the burial place of many of them) and said the problem was Europe’s to deal with but that he wouldn’t press other countries to help.
Celebrities like Susan Sarandon went there to try to bring the attention of a world distracted by terrorism, political and business greed on a problem that was killing people. But the focus was short-lived because, well, there’s only so much compassion you can have before you turn off, roll over and watch Game of Thrones where the horror seems less than this real life.
Volunteers from around the world, kind and decent and caring men and women went there with no fanfare, donned wet suits, jumped in boats, jumped into the water to pull frightened people out of rubber dinghies.
Greeks who are living there, fishermen and ordinary people, were already there and offered their boats and homes and hearts, so much so that they were up for a Pulitzer Prize for Peace, which instead went to the President of Colombia for brokering a failed peace treaty with rebels. He didn’t have to jump into the water to save anyone.
Daphne Matziaraki, a Greek woman who went to the University of California at Berkeley to study, returned to her homeland and went there with a camera and a crew.
She got onto a Greek Coast Guard boat with an heroic captain and finally showed what was happening to the refugees on Lesbos, and trying to get there, even if avoiding the real horror of graphic depictions of the dead: a scene of a naked baby pulled from the water and held upside down and being resuscitated was enough.
Her short film, under 22 minutes and called 4.1 Miles – the distance from Turkey where human smugglers get rich shipping people to Greece – is an Academy Award nominee and deservedly so, but it’s uncomfortable to watch so those who don’t like to squirm and would step over the dead and on the living may vote for something without as much conscience.
“The turquoise sea that surrounds the beautiful Greek island of Lesbos, just 4.1 miles from the Turkish coast, is these days a deadly gantlet, choked with terrified adults and small children on flimsy, dangerous boats,
“I had never seen people escaping war before, and neither had the island’s residents. I couldn’t believe there was no support for these families to safely escape whatever conflict had caused them to flee. The scene was haunting,” she said.
She didn’t flinch and showed Hellenic Coast Guard Captain Kyriakos Papadopoulos going out onto the seas time after time. It’s his home island and he knows the waters well.
He and his crew on Patrol Boat 602 saved hundreds of lives while politicians in Athens and Ankara and Brussels were going out to dinner, perhaps for some sea food.
In the last couple of years, Turkey let a million refugees and migrants try to reach more prosperous countries through Greece before the European Union, home to millions of them after World War II, closed its borders and dumped the problem on Greece during a crushing economic crisis, piling on the shame on them.
“People arrived on boats that weren’t seaworthy and didn’t have proper life vests for children. These are people who are doomed, who can die in a moment, often in front of our very eyes. This is not something you can reconcile yourself with, become hardened to,” Papadopoulos told the Greek newspaper Kathimerini.
“The responsibility is enormous. You may have to get as many as 60 people safely onto the patrol boat in a matter of minutes. Whether one, two or more are rescued is in our hands.” With daughters, aged 7 and 15, the horror got to him, he saw their faces on those of children in the water beseeching him.
They got it from him, and his crew, and Greek fishermen and volunteers – and from Matziaraki who was there with a camera but knew what to do when life or death mattered. It wasn’t a hard choice.
“When you are caught between life and death I think there is no other option. When the captain told me put the camera down I didn’t think about it at all… I completely forgot that I was filming,” she told KALW radio in San Francisco. You won’t