By Sharron Ward. Originally posted 4 April, 2016.
This is the long version of the blog I wrote of my experience covering the refugee crisis on the island of Lesvos over the summer of 2015. The shortened version appeared on Thomson Reuters Foundation.
Filmmaker Sharron Ward writes about her personal encounters filming the hundreds of refugees who washed ashore bereft and broken on the Greek island of Lesvos during the summer.
I first heard about refugees washing up on the shores of Lesvos from friends on Facebook way back in January. They told me that while on holiday in the south of the island, they had woken in the middle of the night to find a soaking wet Syrian family with a new born baby on their balcony. They had nearly drowned at sea as their flimsy boat had capsized. A large focus of my work has been documenting the plight of Syrian refugees across the Middle East, but nothing prepared me for filming the desperate mass exodus that washed ashore on Lesvos this summer.
On the first day I found myself in the village carpark of Molyvos, which was being used as a makeshift transit camp providing a brief respite for the hundreds of mainly Syrians, Afghans and Iraqis who had endured the perilous journey across the sea from Turkey in flimsy inflatable dinghies. They arrived to find themselves on an ill-equipped Greek island that had little or no infrastructure for the thousands of lost souls who had washed up on its shores.
Many who arrived thought they could get a train direct to Athens or go straight to the Police to register. I saw time and time again the horrifying look on their faces when it slowly dawned on them that there was nothing on this side of the island for them – no aid agencies, no water, no food or shelter – apart from what Eric Kempson, the ex-pat British humanitarian I was filming and other volunteers who came from around the world, could provide.
It was under the intense heat of the mid-day sun in the car park when I noticed a Syrian woman wearing stonewashed jeans and a khaki shirt. She looked worried as she held a tiny baby with elfin-like features who looked frail and limp. Samar Joukhadar explained in her broken English that her 2 and a half year old baby named Aieh had a hole in her heart and had Down’s syndrome.
After carrying her baby from Syria in a sling with her 3 other children, she arrived in Turkey in December, and had tried to come to Greece in an inflatable boat. But in Mercin, heartless smugglers had stolen all her money – her life savings of $12,000. It wasn’t until the following August in Izmir that she managed to borrow the $1,200 for herself and her kids to travel to Greece in what she called “the death boats.”
She told me her husband was the Director of a regime controlled hospital in Darriyeh, Damascus and wanted by the Syrian government, he had fled to Yemen. But Yemen too was engulfed in a terrifying war and she hadn’t heard from him since. She showed me her daughter’s medical records written in Arabic – she needed to get a specialist operation for her heart condition. But first, there was the immediate problem of what was currently afflicting baby Aieh. There were no medics in the camp and no one would help in the village. It was down to Eric Kempson and his daughter Elleni to come to the rescue.
Luckily baby Aieh started to respond after drinking some milk and getting some medication. She was desperately dehydrated. In the fading light under the Eucalyptus trees Samar told me more about her story. She wanted to go to Germany, because she said she no longer trusted Arabs and preferred Europeans. Bitter at her experiences in the Middle East, she said, “We want to feel that we’re human. We want to feel the humanity that we missed in the Arab world.” She told me she risked taking her children on the ‘death boats’ because “We are fleeing a situation in Syria worse than death.”
I later heard that Samar had to sleep on the streets of Athens for 5 days with her children before boarding a train to Macedonia. I don’t know if she finally made it to Germany.
It was nearing the end of my first chaotic day in the car park and it was now pitch black. Refugee families had no option but to bed down on filthy bits of cardboard or bone crushingly thin mattresses. Everyone was desperate to get out of there and continue their onward journey. Crouching down in the darkness I noticed a Syrian man trying to comfort his children who were sleeping on bits of cardboard. He asked me to help him get on a bus in the morning, “Please help me Madam,” he politely implored.
I tried to explain to him that I didn’t have any authority in the car park, but that I would see what I could do. His name was Leith Azobi from the village of Al-Yadudah near Daa’ra. Huddled in the darkness he quietly showed me pictures on his phone. From the faint flicker of light, I saw a picture of his daughter Louna who was wrapped in bandages – she had been hit by shrapnel from one of Assad’s barrel bombs. She was now lying next to us sleeping in the dirt. He quietly told me that the explosion had killed his wife, his baby and his mother.
Two days later, it was just after dawn and Eric and I stood on the rocky shores waiting for yet another boat. An inflatable dinghy heavily weighed down by too many people struggled to land. Young children wearing inflatable toy vests that smugglers cynically sold as “life jackets” were thrust out of the boat into waiting arms. It was a boat full of mainly Afghans.
There is something deeply moving about watching this sea of human misery come towards you as they stagger ashore bereft and broken, shaking with tears of relief.
I focussed my camera on a young boy in a bright orange toy vest his dark hair curiously matted. As I did, I heard a woman sobbing and looked up to see her kissing her other son in a spasm of relief. She broke down as she hugged her children and then, adjusting her veil she looked out to sea towards Turkey, to what she had left behind. She gave it one final longing look, wiping the tears from her face as if cleansed. She told me they were Sunni Muslim from Baghdad living in a predominantly Shia area. It was dangerous, there was no security and there were kidnappings every day. She broke down again too upset to continue.
We watch the Syrian crisis detached from afar on the TV news or as I have witnessed, in refugee camps in the Middle East, but seeing this never ending tide of humanity hits you right in the guts. Perhaps what has compounded the impact is that it’s happening right on our door step. We are confronted with it here in Europe, where it’s harder to look away.
As there are no international aid agencies helping at the point of arrival on the northern shores of Lesvos, Journalists and tourists have inevitably ended up filling the void. I put down my camera to pick up soaking wet babies and ferry little kids and their mums in my car. If I didn’t, they would have to walk in the intense heat for around 15 kilometres just to get to the transit camp.
As I was driving my car packed full of kids, I talked to the Syrian woman sat beside me. Her name was Samah Ayas. She was anxious because she had become separated from her daughter who had walked ahead on the dusty dirt track. We passed by dozens of bedraggled men women and children searching for her. Finally she saw her 20 year old daughter Dima. As she climbed into the car she burst into tears. Hot words were exchanged in Arabic and she suddenly leapt out again and walked away. It turned out that her daughter thought she had lost her mum forever and would never see her again. In a fit of tearful despair she had thrown away her bag and her life’s belongings having lost all hope. Her life, she thought, was now over. Seeing her mother again she went off to search for the missing bag.
Back at the car park Samah told me her story. She was a teacher and lived in a very nice house in Damascus. But her house had been bombed and was completely destroyed. Her husband had died from a heart attack brought on by the stress of the bombings. No wonder Dima was so distraught at the thought of losing her mother. She had already lost her Father.
Looking around the car park Samah’s family were shocked to find there was no toilet, no food and no water there. They told me that they had asked a local shopkeeper if they could use their toilet and had been refused. “We can’t stay here,” Samah said looking aghast at their filthy surroundings. After all they’d been through a simple basic human need was denied them.
Many refugees I met were from Damascus, a telling sign of how far the war had reached the inner suburbs of one of Assad’s strongholds. Only affluent Syrians or those who’d desperately scraped together their life savings could afford the extortionate rates charged by the boat smugglers in Turkey.
An average of around 4,000 refugees and migrants arrived by boat each day during August in Lesvos. Together these arrivals form the biggest mass migration in Europe since World War II. But each single refugee story represents a personal human tragedy.
And so I found myself back with Eric on the dusty dirt track high above the coves and inlets looking out for more boats. I met a beautiful 4 year old Syrian girl named Afrizan. Crowding around Eric’s car desperate for water, her dad told me they were from Halab near Aleppo. Their house had been bombed and they were fleeing ISIS who were increasingly gaining ground in the area. He told me they had $3,300 stolen from bandits in Deir Al Zour and had then fled to Turkey. He paid $1,200 each to smugglers to flee to Europe in a boat with his wife and daughter.
One of the most disturbing experiences was watching pregnant women, the disabled, and young children forced to walk for miles in the searing heat. Then after resting in the transit camp car park, there was a gruelling 65 kilometre walk over steep terrain for 3 days across the island in order to register with the police. If they were lucky there were some buses put on by the UN Refugee Agency and Doctors without Borders – but there were never enough. Sometimes buses didn’t turn up for days and so everyone had to walk.
Despite everything these people had endured I was struck by how grateful and polite they were.
Coming back from another filming trip with Eric along the bumpy dirt track, I watched in dismay as a young Afghan man hunched over in a body brace right up to his neck, clung on to his two friends as they helped him walk the painful 7 kilometres to the car park. Every step in the blazing sun must have been agony, but we couldn’t stop as our car was already full of wet babies and young children. I rushed back and found them struggling at the half-way mark. As he clambered into my car constrained by his neck brace he looked at me – sweat dripping down his face, “thank you thank you,” he gasped with exhaustion nearly in tears, his relief was palpable. I’ll never forget the look on his face.
Many journalists and photographers I know have been shaken and angered by what they’ve seen in Lesvos. It is difficult not to be moved when confronted by those fleeing war and chaos as you stand on the frontlines of this humanitarian crisis. So-called “impartiality” and objectivity has been transplanted by common decency and a sense of shared humanity.
There are too many stories of suffering etched in my mind – the heart breaking family I filmed from Damascus who arrived traumatised at dawn on a boat; seven month’s pregnant Hasana who was forced to sleep the night in the dirt on the side of the road; or Roula and her husband who were rescued from 5 hours adrift in the sea in the middle of the night with their 4 year old son Hassan; to the young Syrian boy I saw frozen with fear sitting on the shore having survived a trip on the ‘death boat.’
Who knows what they have endured and what ordeals they have yet to face on their journey through Europe. Their strength, resilience and courage is truly humbling.
What I do know is this: that by not providing safe passage, we that is Europe, have forced these people to risk their lives. We have forced them to take the ‘death boats’ and we have forced them into becoming “refugees.” We are complicit in their death. Too many Syrians I met fleeing war told me they had applied for Visas in many European countries but were denied asylum. These people could have bought a plane ticket straight to whichever country had accepted them but instead, they were forced risk their lives at sea and pay millions of dollars to smugglers throughout Europe.
Since I have left the island, hundreds of refugees have drowned in the seas off Lesvos, many of them babies. This is exactly what Eric Kempson and his family told me they feared. Many are also dying from hypothermia due to the lack of heated shelters on the northern shores of the island. These deaths are preventable.
As we watch Hungary put up razor wire fences and Macedonian security forces tear-gas children fleeing war, I wonder if the tide will ever turn for the sea of human misery I found washed ashore on the Greek island of Lesvos. If not, that will forever be Europe’s collective shame.
You can watch Sharron Ward’s short film on the refugee boat crisis for Channel 4 News here. Please note the views expressed here are those of the author and not of anyone else who may employ or commission the author.