Greenpeace spent four months assisting Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) carry out its humanitarian and aid work on the Greek island of Lesbos, including the rescue of refugees in distress at sea. As Greenpeace transitioned out of the collaboration, some of the Greenpeace crew reflected on the refugee crisis in the Aegean Sea.
Stan Vincent – Greenpeace operational co-ordination
I spent three stints of roughly three weeks each on the island. Starting in October-November, it was a scene of crazy mayhem of almost biblical proportions. Later, in January, it had become more orderly – call it a lower level of craziness. Now, in March it is the beginning of the end for Greenpeace's role and it has become pretty quiet.
I think it's very important to point out how good the collaboration between MSF and Greenpeace has been. As the humanitarian emergency unfolded in Europe, we had RHIBs sitting idle in warehouses and people capable and willing to use them.
We could have debated whether we were a humanitarian organisation or we could have done something real. In the end, we did something real. We should always remember we exist in the real world and sometimes you just need to do what is right.
When Greenpeace arrived on Lesbos we represented the only NGO offshore actor with boats to carry out rescue activities. The Spanish group Proactiva only had two jet skis, but nonetheless was doing amazing stuff. Gradually other organisations such as Sea-Watch, Proactiva and the Dutch Boat Refugee foundation also brought in RHIBs.
The collaboration between MSF and Greenpeace was mostly amazing. This is not the first collaboration we've entered into with MSF but is definitely the longest and closest between two similar, but very different organisations. The MSF-Greenpeace crews made a great team and this should not be underestimated.
Ries Mentink – Greenpeace boat driver
Q: How long did you spend on the island?
1 month – beginning of December till beginning of January
Q: What motivated you to join the mission?
When I first heard of the plan for Greenpeace to collaborate with MSF in Lesbos, I was immediately supportive of the idea. This is great, we can help! I too wanted to put my skills to good use. It seemed to me such an obvious contribution that Greenpeace could make. We have the boats, the expertise and well-trained boat drivers able to handle stressful situations.
This is such a big crisis and I feel that everyone and every organisation is obliged to do whatever is in their power/capacity to support these people. This was the best thing Greenpeace could have done.
Q: How well do you think you have helped the refugees? What more could be done?
I feel that in a little way we were able to make this dangerous long journey a bit safer, a bit more humane – we did the utmost best that we could with our capacity and within the limits imposed by authorities. I feel proud when I think of the amount of lives we saved, the amount of smiles we managed to evoke when people realised that we were there to help them. We gave them a humane and warm welcome.
The only thing I feel that we could have done even more is to highlight the inhumanity of our governments and the impact their decisions have had on people so desperate to flee from war and oppression that they're prepared to take such extreme risks to reach Europe.
Q: What are some of the defining memories you have?
I remember a wooden boat with approximately 150 people on board and how it ran aground just five metres from land. The people could not disembark due to the deep waters and the lifeguards tried to help, but the water was simply too deep and cold.
We had a jet-boat and were the only ones that could get close enough to help the people make it safely to shore. We were able to pick them up and transport them to shore, where groups of people were waiting to carry them from our boat.
There were lots of children on board and as we helped them onto our boat, we tried to make contact, smile and make the moment a bit more pleasant by playing with them, some of them got really excited and laughed out loud. This touched me very much.
I have been warmed, touched and inspired by the amazing coordination between all the teams on the water and with those on land who would transport the refugees to shelter, warm clothing, food and water.
Q: What do you think of the collaboration between MSF and Greenpeace?
It's been excellent, I always had a respect for MSF and their work, but that has grown so much during our collaboration. MSF is hands on; they are there in very difficult and dangerous situations. We worked very well together and it soon felt as one team and not two NGOs working together.
Christine Weiss – Greenpeace volunteer boat crew member
When I think about Lesbos, I think about the life jackets all along the coastline and how it could seem completely normal for them to be there. I also think of the boat wrecks and how they also seem to have been there forever. I think of the fishermen removing floating tyres, clothing and bags out of the water instead of fish or of locals helping to build warm shelters, providing internet and preparing food.
People have been dying every day because they are trying to cross an invisible border between two points of land. It's just 6 nautical miles … nobody has to die here. If you stand on the hill on Lesbos you can almost see the entire Turkish coastline.
I spent seven weeks on Lesbos as a volunteer with Greenpeace International and it changed me, but not in a bad way. It's made me more sensitive in several different ways. I pulled people out of the water after their boat capsized. Most of them survived. I was constantly looking for totally overcrowded boats to bring them safely to shore. I had people in my arms and sometimes they were crying.
Now I am back, back in Germany. I am back in my flat, with my bed, a heater and almost everything I need. I switch the radio on and people are talking about how ‘WE' can deal with the refugee crisis … and I am wondering who is ‘we'? They are talking about Germany not Greece. I go to the supermarket and people are talking about the refugee camp between the metro station and the way home and they are feeling unsafe, unsecured. And I am left wondering, how has this happened? How can we be afraid about people who have faced so much and are in so much need? ‘We' should deal with that!
The most frequently asked question since I have returned home is: “Did you see dead people?” That's a difficult question. I had people in my arms who died soon after and I had people in my arms who lost a husband, a child or their whole family. So yes, I saw a lot of death.
But what I also saw and what is more important is that I saw people who are alive and happy about it. After the long journey by foot, after spending everything they had for a ticket in a rotten wooden boat which later capsized, after all they had been forced to endure, after they escaped the bombing in their own country they are happy – happy to be alive!
And I am happy to have been a part of it. And thankful for the hugs and kisses I get and for all the feelings I get in return. Thank you, you beautiful people. Thank you, I will never forget you!
Stan Vincent is an Operational Co-ordinator for Greenpeace UK, Ries Mentink is boat driver for Greenpeace Nordic, and Christine Weiss is a Greenpeace volunteer boat crew member.