New Year’s eve in Scala Sycamnias, a small fisherman’s village in the north of Lesvos Island. In the coffee shop on the port, an unusual crowd is gathered around the fireplace. People wearing divers suits, ski jackets, gloves and wool hats, foreigners with dreadlocks, clean shaved sportsmen and middle-aged fishermen all of them having coffee, tea and local ouzo.
Scala Sycamnias has become a hub for rescue teams and activists from all around the world, some of them paid by an NGO and some come from citizen initiatives to help refugees arriving by hundreds from the coast of Turkey, 7.5 miles away.
Amongst all these people with flashy life-guard jackets and equipment, a small group is working with the other rescue initiatives: a self-organized structure, issue of the solidarity movement that acted in Athens in the summer, when hundreds of refugee families settled in a central square of Athens. Back then in August, different anarchist groups and assemblies organized a collective kitchen and fed 400 to 600 people twice a day for a whole two month period. They also provided basic medical help, assisted by solidarity clinics that exist since 2011, due to the crisis.
In October ten of these people, mainly doctors came to the northern coast of Lesvos and settled one tent on the beach. The next day they settle a second tent with clothes gathered from people all around Greece for the refugees and on the third day a tent for food grew. As the refugee flow was growing, the three tents became an occupation of land in the outskirts of the small village of Scala called Platanos from the big maple tree that dominates the camp.
As for most of the self-organising structures in Greece, Platanos doesn’t accept directly money, decisions are taken by the assembly and people do not accept the terms of volunteering or humanitarian help. They insist talking about solidarity and social engagement between people regardless where they come from.
Later on in the night of New Years Eve in a taverna, near the coffee shop of the port, the team of Platanos is celebrating, people preferred being there for the change of the year in a frozen port restaurant in the north of Lesvos, than being with their families and the comfort of their houses.
“I remembered how it was to feel belonging in a community” remembers Vasilis, a 40 year old man that works in the private sector. “I had already felt that way in the Syntagma occupation in 2011 where we occupied the central square of Athens for almost three months. Here in Platanos, as in Syntagma four years ago, we had to organize different teams in charge of food, cleaning, information, storage etc. There is no boss, everything is horizontal”, he continues. “That’s why it takes us so much time to take a decision”,replies Abdoul, a Syrian living in Greece since 10 years, teasing Vassilis. “It is true that having to approve every decision from the assembly, without voting it takes really a lot of time” nods Vasilis.
The discussion is interrupted from the count down for the New Year. The night continues with party, as it is one of the coldest nights with strong winds so no boats with immigrants arrive tonight.
The shifts start early in the morning as the wind stops. “Usually the boats come at dawn” says Apostolis, a 58 year old farmer from a village in southern Lesvos. “These criminals, the traffickers force them to embark by forty or more in these useless boats with small engines. Some times the level of the boat is so low that people are actually sitting on the waves. In the summer it wasn’t so hard, but now people are getting out of the boat soaked and frozen. My heart hurts when I see women with babies and small children having blue feet and hands”.
Apostolis has three grandchildren. He was involved in the solidarity movement before the refugees flow started to grow. He got into social activism with the economic crisis in 2011. “Immigrants have been arriving for the last seven years in Lesvos”, he continues “but it is since this summer that the flow became gigantic. In the summer it was less dramatic, now the waves are big and the water ice cold.”
“Once I saw a woman’s jaw trembling for forty minutes as I escorted the boat to shore” continues Jason, a 31 year old, engineer that has brought his boat and has been operating rescue mission since three months.
The people from Platanos are angry. They are angry at Europe, at Frontex, at their “leftist” Government. Sometimes they burst to tears for seeing people arriving in a state of shock. They panic when they see wet babies with hypothermia, mothers with nothing with them to change their children. “Solidarity is the only reaction to what they put us through” says Jason, “but it is not a solution, Europe should open the borders and not let the sea here and elsewhere become the graveyard of people that cross to save their lives.”