Upon learning we'd be spending time in Lesvos, a woman asks if I will be visiting the Life Jacket Graveyard. I don't know what it is, and so she shows me photos on her phone. She speaks gravely of thousands of abandoned life jackets worn by refugees who crossed the sea and landed on Lesvos.
In the past three years, over 500,000 refugees came in rubber boats, in rickety wooden rafts, in boats made for 15 passengers but often carried 50. At the height of the crossings, six to seven thousand people landed on Lesvos Island. The consequent stories are mildly tragic to heartbreaking. The intercepting Greek villages did all they could to help: boat patrols, immediate medical care, feeding, housing. In the aftermath, life jackets, water bottles, boats were abandoned on the island shores and when Tony and I emerged from a rocky sea-edge trail, we came upon one of these tragedies.
In the distance was a stack of color on the weathered volcanic rock. At first, it looked like a squatter's village, but as we drew closer, it was the leftovers from a rubber dinghy wreck. It was a rocky shoreline, so I imagine the boat was shredded when it hit. Perhaps it happened in winter when the seas were rough and the waves would have smashed it into the island.
There is an organization who trolls the island to clean-up the spoils of the refugee crisis. They had been here and had gathered what was quickly left behind, but the place was remote, found only after a short hike through rough terrain. It will probably remain where it is until it all disintegrates or becomes an archaeological or anthropological study sight. At some point in the future, it will be illegal to remove the artifacts. It will become valuable in what will only be looked back upon as history, as the remains of a Middle East diaspora.
For now the landing sight is very recent history. It shows a desperation few of us can relate to. Yet, even now, things have changed. Boat patrols manned by the Greek coast guard and volunteers who come from European countries, will find the refugee boats and intercept. Will bring them to shore. They will be brought by bus to be processed by Greek authorities and volunteers who speak the languages of these people.
There was a day, when refugees had to walk 60km to the camps. It was illegal for islanders to participate in the transportation of of illegal immigrants and they faced arrest. Since the crisis, the law was changed.
This is how the organization we are helping came to be. Three Dutch woman brought 3000 donated baby carriers to Lesvos. After the rough sea journey, at least they could strap their babies on their backs or around their waists.
After the initial shock of finding the pile of life jackets, water bottles, shredded rubber, we stepped away to process the hard evidence of what we had only understood through story. Here was the real life remains of hardship. When I dared to look closer, the artifacts seemed to tell a different story.
In this landing, there was turbulence and tragedy. Life's necessities were left behind or were lost at sea only to surface after the tide had washed the rest ashore. For people who had left their lands with so little, many of the objects wouldn't have been intentionally discarded: shoes, jackets, bags with personal objects. The pile became a sacred testament to human suffering and loss.
The little sandal at the edge of the pile made it all too real.