Guest Post from Anton Willemann:
Hi! My name is Anton Willemann. I’m 27 years old, I was born and raised in Copenhagen and I work full time as a Communication Consultant at the Faculty of Medical Sciences at The University of Copenhagen. In the middle of July this year I boarded an airplane with the destination on the picture perfect island of Lesbos in Greece. It was going to be a trip that I will not forget. Even though I sometimes would like to.
I was there for 7 days with a friend. Our main task was to help out the refugees. In the morning and in the night we would report about our experiences to the Danish radio station Radio 24syv. We were from the first hour on the island busy from 5.30 in the morning and until we could not stand on our legs in the middle of the night. We handed out food and water when refugee boats came on to the shore. We drove women and children across the island so they did not have to walk the infamous 60 kilometers to the nearest registration center. We arranged busses when possible. I feel that we did everything we were able to do. Worst thing is that it was just a drop in the ocean.
I took a lot of photos while working on the beaches and in the refugee camps. I would like to go through some of the challenges that we met during our brief, but busy stay. There were the psychical challenges and the mental ones. Some of the pictures can be fairly gross to look at. But, it’s the reality, and it’s important.
Early morning, first day of work. This is my friend Loui and in the background Eric Kempson, a very active local Englishman who spends all his time helping out. We got out of bed a bit past 5 am and spend every morning on this hill top where we could spot any activity on the shore between Lesbos and Turkey. No mornings were quiet. Often, it would just be me, Loui and Eric. Red Cross? UNHCR? Forget about it. We never saw them. If anything happened, if a boat when down near the shore, it would be me, Loui and Eric. I still do not get this. I would lie awake in the night thinking about this.
This is the first family we met, three sweet people from Kabul in Afghanistan. They still had around 50 kilometers to walk. They had already been walking for 24 hours, they told us. You could tell by the smell and the dust in their hair. There is a lot of debate going on whether it is legal or not to drive the refugees across the island. After giving this family a lift we decided that we did not want to give a shit about those rules. It was simply not possible for us not to pick them up from the dusty mountain roads. Anything else than helping this struggling souls would be inhumane, we agreed. Call me a trafficker, it’s fine.
It was a great challenge to get people into the car. Most of these people are wealthy people coming especially from Damaskus and Kabul. They were too proud to say yes to us. The father told me, ”we are waiting for a taxi, don’t worry”. It was devastating to tell him that they weren’t allowed to go in a taxi. They are refugees. They have no rights. Secondly, when we opened the doors to the car people were flocking around us. Suddenly, everybody wanted a seat. Often, we would have to drag men out of the car. ”We only drive women and children”, we would tell them again and again. One women asked if she could put her baby boy into the back of the car. I did not answer her question.
I really don’t like this picture. It makes me upset. But it happens all the time, and that’s why I took it. Small babies and their parents arriving on small, fragile dinghies. How old is this baby? A couple of months or less? We got them into our car and drove them to the nearest check point where a bus would pick them up. We had a small car and did not have space for much food or water or even pampers. This is a huge need. The basic needs like soap, water, pampers.
This is the main refugee camp on Lesbos called Kara Tepe. A couple of thousands stay here all the time. I hope I will never see anything like it again. It’s an old parking lot, but it’s not big enough, so many refugees stay on the hills around the parking lot. There is human shit everywhere. Litter everywhere. No organised food. No cleaning. Couple of showers. Couple of toilets.
And the toilets looks like this. That’s why no one use them, instead people use the surroundings. You want a good shower when you leave this place. We tried to hand out food and water in the camp, but it ended up being really difficult, because (again) people would be flocking around us. Suddenly, everybody wants our food and water.
We found these and guys around 50 other Syrians and Afghanis hours away from the main road. They were dehydrated and many said that they had not been sleeping for two or three days. My friend drove women and children to the main road and I started walking with the rest of the group. It was around 35 degrees and we were running short of water. One small boy decided to go for water at a goat farm. These are the moments where reality hits you. This is serious. This is happening. Some of the guys were exchausted and would sit down to have a rest every fifth minute. I would keep telling them to keep walking.
I was walking on a road in a European EU country telling people not to sit down, otherwise they would never make it. How can this happen?
The guy in the middle of this picture used to be a father. They had been at a checkpoint with their bus in Turkey three days before we met them. The bus stopped for a short break. Everyone got out of the bus. The guy’s son went out as well to play with another child. It was pitch black darkness. A car came towards the two children. It did not see them and the father couldn’t stop them. The two children were hit by the car and fell down a steep cliff. Both children died. They turned around the bus and went back to Izmir to burry the two children. That’s the kind of stories you hear when you meet these people.
We got these people a bus from Doctors Without Borders. There was one bus on the island driving refugees. Everyday, around 500-1000 would be arriving on dinghies. It was heartbreaking to see these people drive away. You become friends with these women, men and children really quickly in these extreme situations. You play with the kids. You carry them when they are too tired. You cheer up the parents, you explain the situation. You share water, food and cigarettes.
You act of humane instinct in these situations. But, when you sit down at night things starts to come together. You start reflecting on the situation.
I really did not want to leave the island on our last day. I thought about all the boats on the water. Who will be there to help them? I wanted to keep working, keep helping. It’s a humane instinct, I believe.
In the end of July this year the situation heated up. More refugees started arriving, the horrible pictures of the dead babies swarmed the news. The brutal scenes from Hungary, the truck full of dead bodies in Austria. I had a hard time watching the news. I would break down from time to time. A month after getting back I still could not get a grasp on what we had seen and witnessed. I would drift away to the dusty Greek roads when I was sitting in meetings at work.
But, I believe it’s important to share these stories. I hope this introduction shows some of the challenges we met during our stay.
All credit to Anton Willemann for sharing his story and photos with us.