He’s not Greek because his mother is Greek though she most certainly is and Dino’s ears still ring from when she screamed and cursed at Dino and his two brothers growing up, with love mind you, but still, the screaming – he can still hear it. And even though Dino’s passport says he’s American and he used to work on Wall Street, and used to be Greek-American back home in the States, Dino’s Greek now. You can tell that when you walk through the streets of Mytilini with him, and see him gaze at the sea where he pulled refugees from boats, women, men, the old and the young and sometimes the dead – when he talks about that, it’s as if he is a man who never saw Boston, or New York, or America.
“How can you let people live like this?
Dino says this to me as we crawl through a cut in the chain link fence at Moria. When someone like Dino has been here this long and seen so much, it’s not even worth asking if he thinks it is safe or a good idea to sneak into a guarded refugee camp on the side of a hill in Greece. He long since stopped caring about things like that. We’ll sneak in. We’ll end up walking right out the front.
This was once a muddy hillside makeshift camp a mile or so from the sea where people walked to from the boats and collapsed and now it’s an official refugee camp. Actually no, now it is a refugee prison complete with armed guards, barbed wire and young NGO volunteers in matching t-shirts and shorts handing out boxes to men and women enclosed behind bars inside. Some European volunteers in matching t-shirts are playing volleyball with refugees. Dino just stares at them. He doesn’t have to say a word. Fucking volleyball. In matching t-shirts. I see it in his eyes.
“What is wrong with the governments?”
Dino asks me as he shows me the shoreline where he and Thanassis pulled refugees up the hill in the cold of winter. The two of them were wearing wet suits, which they put on at home before they came out for the night. They’d wear them till the middle of the next day when the boats would pause for few hours and the two of them would, eat, sleep and then put their wetsuits back on again.
“How does this happen in our world?
Dino asks, but not really, as he tells me about the time the boat pulled up with seventy-five people jammed in it and when they unloaded the women and children, they found two men dead in the bottom – drowned in the water that had flowed over the sides during the eight mile run from Turkey or suffocated because the smugglers piled seventy-five people in a boat built for fifteen and then set it off from Turkey on a one-way trip that netted the smugglers $75,000 or more and got two men dead. A photographer from The New York Times took a picture of Dino cradling a child in his arms. The photographer was long gone by the time the boat was completely unloaded and they found the dead men. Dino was still there of course. He has the photo on his phone.
“The engines are jammed so they only go forward.”
Dino drinks his Greek beer and peels another row of souvlaki off a skewer as Thanssis nods in agreement. We are in a small restaurant at the end of the harbor in Mytilini on Lesvos. When you eat with friends in Greece, your dinner surrounds you. Sometimes, rarely, your friends will use the plates in front of them but usually they just eat off the common plate in the middle.
The air is full of the scent of cigarettes because Greeks smoke, the ever-present smell of the grill in the restaurant and of the salt from the sea, which we are sitting feet away from.
“The smugglers jam them so they only go forward and can’t get turned off. So the first thing when we see a boat get closer to shore is I jump in the water and just as it drives up on the shore, I grab the engine, lift it up and turn it off – sometimes I just take the whole engine off. One time we were down by St. Georges where we took you the other night, and the Greek Coast Guard was out there in their big boats and they were telling people over their loud speakers, ‘shut off your engines, we will help you, shut off your engines, this is the Hellenic Coast Guard.’ But the refugees – they’re smart.”
Dino says this with a smile and taps his forefinger to the side of his head for emphasis.
“They know the Coast Guard guys will beat them and throw them in the worst camps or open their hoses on them and try and sink them so they keep going in these little boats and the Coast Guard is yelling on the megaphones ‘shut off your engines, we will help you, this is the Hellenic coast guard, shut off your engines.”
The engines driving the thirty, forty or more refugees, are thirty horsepower so at the beginning of the journey they are slow and then the boats take on water and go slower and slower – it takes five, six, seven hours or more in a jammed leaky boat with an engine that can’t be stopped and only goes forward.
“So the refugees, they don’t stop, they just keep going and we’re watching them with our glasses and they’re just puttering by and the Coast Guard is yelling and they just keep going, and we’re yelling for them to go, go and so I climb down in the water and the boat comes in and I go to the back and I lift off the engine and it’s still going and I turn it off and you know what I told myself.
“I shut the engines off here assholes, I shut the engines off here.”
Part 2 is now up. Please join me in supporting Dino and Pipka camp by sharing his story. Should you wish to do more, we have started this to support Dino’s efforts. We are also planning a trip over in June.