Saving lives in the Aegean Sea

Rescue missions occur daily in the waters off Lesbos, as dozens of refugee boats set out on the "death route" to Europe.

Anna Pantelia | | War & Conflict, Humanitarian crises, Human Rights, Europe, Refugees

It is about 5:30am on Saturday in the port of Mytilene in the Greek island of Lesbos. The weather is foggy and the darkness is deep.

The crew of the coastguard patrol boat, Agios Efstratios, are preparing for yet another mission in the Aegean Sea, where inflatable boats overloaded with refugees have already set out on what has become known as the "death route".

With the engines fired up, attention turns to the bright spots on the radar screen that indicate the location of the refugee boats. The crew's only mission is to save as many lives as they can.

Captain Argyris Frangoulis sets course, then says: "I see the dot on the radar and feel dread. Each time I am afraid about what I am going to see. The situation is very nasty.

"We have seen everything, from newborn babies, to disabled men and dead bodies. The image of the dead children we saw will never be forgotten.

"There are times when I cannot eat, I cannot sleep, I can't drink even my coffee. These pictures come to my mind all the time".

As the minutes tick away, dozens of inflatable boats cross into Greek waters, heading towards the northern coast of Lesbos. At around 7:30am, the radar shows that one of them has stopped. The outboard engine has cut out and the vessel is starting to fill with water. The 55 people on board begin screaming for help.

The Greek crew spring into action as Frangoulis steers towards the refugees' stricken boat.

When the Agios Efstratios is close enough, the first rope ladder is dropped and the first refugees are helped aboard. Women and children are the priority. Lying in the boat are an elderly woman who is unable to walk and an unconscious man.

After an hour, all the refugees have safely been brought aboard.

Most are wet and cold but are glad to be safe. Three hours later the refugees are transferred to the closest Greek village where locals and volunteers come to their aid as they prepare to be transferred to a transition camp. They have to register with the police before they are given the coveted ticket to Athens.

As the sun sets, the crew of the Agios Efstratios will have only a few hours of rest before they set sail again.

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