Written by Cullen McHael
For one month I lived in this abandoned shack, surrounded by counterfeit life-vests, cast off clothes, wrecked boats, and the Aegean sea.
This is Korakas. Four weathered buildings, their roofs collapsed, on a spit of land sticking out north of the Greek island of Lesvos.
Across the narrow sea Turkey spreads its mountainous shore, lit like a Christmas tree by the glittering tinsel of small seaside towns. The distance is 5.56 nautical miles (10.34 km or 6.43 mi). Tantalizingly close. Looking across on a calm day, you might think: “I could swim that, if I really had to.”
You’d very likely be wrong. Crisscrossing currents in the center of the narrow sea make waves much higher than they appear from shore, and the water’s cold. For most of us, 6.43 miles without a boat might as well be swimming for the moon. But with a boat, it can be done. Indeed, it surely has.
Thousands of boats succeeded at the crossing in the twelve months after summer 2015, carrying more than six hundred thousand refugees and migrants from Turkey to Europe. Slashed by refugees who don’t want to get back in, deflated by volunteers needing to clear the beach for the next landing, or wrecked by tide, wind and sharp rocks, the carcasses of those boats litter the shores. But as disheartening as the wreckage may appear, in another light they’re triumphant trophies: those are the boats that made it.
Less than half of the refugees and migrants who arrived to Lesbos in the last year came by way of the rocky north. The full number is likely in the six digits, but no one has an accurate count. It’s all been too piecemeal, too disorganized, and too busy. Like the number of refugees who arrived by the north, the number who did not, who fell short by a broken engine, bad weather, or bad luck, is known only to the sea.
The name of this lighthouse, ‘Korakas,’ means ‘Raven’ and those birds may occasionally be seen lurking silently among the stones or perched in the bare ribs of the broken roofs on this isolated spit of rock. Local legend* whispers that every time a raven calls at Korakas, someone has died at sea. A grim legend, hinting about the reason the lighthouse was built there to begin with – rocks ring the shallow waters around Korakas point, hidden teeth waiting to bite an unwary keel.
Yet many refugee boats steer for Korakas. Their pilots paid a discounted price to the smuggler who arranged the boat, in exchange for the duty of steering it. There are no other prerequisites – no knowledge of the sea necessary. Many don’t know that a lighthouse shines a beacon of warning not of welcome.
So began the Korakas watch. In December of 2015 the first volunteers took station on the hill above the lighthouse day and night, sun, moon and rain. Thermal optics were loaned or donated for the night watch, spotting telescopes for the day, and a complex system of digital chat groups and VHF maritime radios developed to coordinate with search and rescue boats, coastguard, and landing assistance teams operated by a half-dozen organizations. The job was first to prevent landings at Korakas by guiding rescue boats out to help the refugees find someplace better, then, should that fail, to provide the assistance necessary to get a boat full of wet and cold people up the rocky beaches to safety and warmth.
Lighthouse Refugee Relief staffs and supplies the watch (still as of this writing). During my time there in April and May of 2016, Lighthouse volunteers partnered with EREC, an emergency firefighting and rescue team from Barcelona Spain, and relied heavily on CK Teamfor transportation of refugee groups from the landing points and additional personnel support. Boat Refugee Foundation supplied day-watch volunteers. Search and rescue boats were operated by Proactiva, Boat Refugee Foundation, Medicines Sans Frontieres, Seawatch and Platinos. The number of teams is as impressive as the array of origins. People from every corner of the world leave their lives behind to try to help.
Everything in Korakas is recycled boats. Six months of landings deposited an inexhaustible supply of engine housings, boat rubber, flooring, and the wooden planks the engines mount to. Benches made from boat backs, flooring made from boat floors, tables built on stacks of engine housings, a sink torn from a rare bigger wreck with a galley. Living at Korakas, you sleep surrounded by monuments to the crisis, an elephant graveyard for this mass migration.
But it’s not all foreboding and rubbish. Around Korakas, the sea and sky conversed in pastel tones, on topics of sunbeam, storm and stars. On some days you watched the sunrise feeling as though you’d been inserted into a romantic painting.
The sense of space and perspective, interspersed with urgent action, and complimented by daily routine of chores and duties, made a rhythm marching toward the transcendental. Hours, duties, days, and human faces came and went like waves on the sea.
A working fireplace in one of the three buildings equipped the space to serve as an emergency stop for the cold and water-weary. The wood fire and an electric heater were employed to warm the freezing salt of the Agean from the skins of hypothermic refugees. As the spring plodded toward summer and the need for such measures waned, the room turned to another use. Each evening volunteers at Korakas gathered there around a table made from the floor-boards and engine housings of six boats to cook dinner over the coals of the fire.
There the watch volunteers laughed and sang their songs, surrounded by stone walls that kept the light of the fire from reaching out to sea – stone walls that wouldn’t let the sound of laughter spread a welcoming lie across the water. Despite the presence of the volunteers, it remained much safer to land elsewhere.
Each evening around the fire the events of the day were reviewed, the work of tomorrow laid out. Every landing discussed, whether on Lesvos or elsewhere. Every political shift considered. The opinions of foreign leaders scrutinized. How will this affect our work? More boats or fewer? A safer crossing here or a more dangerous one elsewhere? Courage or fear? Welcome or harm among the people of the world?
In a shifting world of politics, police, rubber boats and bad weather, the team at Korakas knew where they stood. Waves of brutality and desperation rose and fell around us, crashing against the rocks of the shore.
Written by Cullen McHael