ATHENS – While Greece’s New Democracy has been accused of pushing back refugees and migrants on the seas – which it denied – a Greek islander who, with the help of many of his fellow residents saved refugees from drowning will be celebrated.
Michalis Protopsaltis, who owns a construction company on Kythira, off the easternmost southern tip of the Peloponnese, sent a crane to a clifftop there to help pull up refugees stranded on rocks when their boat crashed onto them.
The rescuers, in the dead of night, plucked 80 people out of harm’s way and into safety, caught by photographers in a scene that looked right out of a disaster movie except that it was real and people were saved.
In a feature, the British newspaper The Guardian’s Athens correspondent Helena Smith told the tale of the dramatic turn-of-events that came as the European Union’s border patrol agency, Frontex, was also accused of helping the government cover up alleged pushbacks, staining Greece’s image.
It took three hours to get everyone up from the narrow strip of rocks as the waves crashed around and they were hauled up against a cliffside where they found themselves en route to Italy from Turkey.
Human traffickers are allowed by Turkey to keep sending them, in violation of an essentially suspended 2016 swap deal with the EU, and has gone unpunished for it while joining the chorus of critics blaming Greece for pushbacks.
When he got to the scene, Protopsaltis said he was shocked at what he saw, including those who couldn’t be saved and others trying to stay afloat in the water to get to the rocks that tore the yacht they were on apart.
For his heroism, he and others involved in the heroic operation were honored in a ceremony at Athens’ Ministry of Maritime Affairs and Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis, facing criticism over alleged pushback, called him to thank him.
“What we witnessed that night was hellish, absolutely frightful, something I never thought I would ever see,” Protopsaltis told the Guardian.
“The sea was howling, the wind was howling, the waves were just so big and all these people down there in that rocky cove, trying to keep steady, trying somehow to get into the bag, sometimes two at a time but mostly one at a time, so the crane could lift them to the top.”
DON’T THINK TWICE, IT’S ALRIGHT
“Neither I, nor anyone else who was there, and there must have been around 100 of us, thought twice,” he said, adding that with the aid of ropes at least 20 had also survived. “Nobody forced us to help. All this talk about Greeks letting migrants die in the sea has infuriated me because it’s not true.”
It wasn’t said if a human trafficker was piloting the vessel or who was, but media reports said there were 95 people on a boat designed for 15, the overload so that more money could be made, and not all were rescued that night.
Protopsaltis’ sisters in Sydney – a favorite destination of residents from the island who moved there – said they saw him on CNN, as did anyone who watched the real-life heroics of the residents who dashed to the scene.
“All this talk about heroism is overblown. What we did was only human. In Kythira we always help people in need. From America and Argentina to South Africa and Australia there are Kytherians and, so, all of us have lived the experience of migration. I don’t know what has been happening further afield (in Greece) but we’d never let people drown.”
It happened the same time as another vessel carrying refugees and migrants went under off the island of Lesbos, near Turkey’s coast and some 250 miles from Kythira. Lesbos is so close to Turkey it’s a favored spot for refugees and migrants.
The bodies of 16 young African women were found floating off Lesbos, adding to the grim toll of hundreds who have drowned trying to reach Greece and seek asylum after the EU closed its borders to them.
Protopsaltis said he couldn’t care less about politics although he is a supporter of the conservative government that is frantically trying to keep out refugees who had been welcomed when they began arriving in 2015.
“There were people in danger, whose lives were at risk, all anyone thought about was how they could be saved,” he said.
“The truth is that civilized people want to behave in a civilized way. It was only when I got home that it occurred that while they accuse us of doing all these things, here we are, a group of people on a little island in Greece who saved 80 souls tonight because it was the right thing to do.”