Saturday, October 8, 2016

Lesbos the Nobel


By now we know that this year’s Nobel Peace Prize went to Juan Manuel Santos, President of Columbia for his efforts to reach a peace agreement with FARC (the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Columbia) after 52 years of armed conflict, the longest running war in the Americas.

Like so many decisions of electorates these days, much of the world was shocked when a week ago Columbians rejected the agreement, but President Santos still got the award.  Congratulations.

This post, though, is about another nominee up for the Prize, one also plagued by the consequences of civil war—albeit waged far from the nominee’s homeland yet inexorably finding their way to its shores and into its daily life.

To be more precise, I’m not talking about a nominee but three nominees, and actually not them but the northeastern Aegean Greek island they call home, Lesbos—also known as Lesvos or Mytilini. At five times the size of the island nation of Malta, it stands as the third largest of Greece’s islands, behind Crete and Evia, and has a population of roughly eighty-six thousand.

The island’s quiet beauty, storied history (yes, the poet Sappho came from there), and sacred shrines have long drawn the attention of tourists, though never quite the hordes of off-islanders that descend each summer onto some of its much smaller but far more notorious Cycladic island neighbors to the southwest.

But then came the refugees, and everything on Lesbos changed. Virtually overnight it faced a daily deluge of thousands escaping from nearby Turkey across the approximately four-mile Mytilini Strait.  Immigration of that magnitude had not been experienced since the 1920s, when 1.2 million Greek Orthodox Christians were expelled from Turkey, an event to which most residents of Lesbos trace their ancestors.

At first, no one came to help, no one came to protect, no one came with a plan, then the media arrived with its cameras and a world outcry arose; but still, no one offered an organized plan of thoughtful assistance,

Actually off Rhodes, but you get the idea.

Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs) rushed in to fill the void left by the confluence of EU indifference to the plight of the refugees, and Greece’s obvious inability to bear the financial burden of caring for hundreds of thousands of new arrivals while so many of its own eleven million citizens struggled through the depths of Great Depression-like times. 

As with many such events, the effectiveness of NGOs varied broadly, and inevitably the largest continuing burden fell upon the locals. It was for their part in helping to lessen the suffering of strangers to their shores that the island received its nomination for the Nobel Peace Prize in the name of three nominees—two islanders and, though not mentioned in the story, actress Susan Sarandon as representative of thousands of off-islanders who came to assist.

Here is the islanders’ story as reported by Reuters Karolina Tagaris the day before the Award was announced:

For months Greek fisherman Stratis Valamios would steer his boat out to sea, only instead of fish, he pulled out people.

Day after day, rubber boats packed with refugees and migrants would attempt the short but dangerous crossing to Greece from Turkey, even as winter set in and the seas turned rough and winds grew violent.

“It was like a war zone,” Valamios, now a co-nominee for the Nobel Peace Prize, said of his tiny seaside village of Skala Sikamnias on Lesvos, the island where more than 800,000 people escaping war and conflict in the Middle East and beyond arrived in 2015.

“You had the wounded, the dead,” he said matter-of-factly.

“We brought in many babies out here on the concrete, on the tables, and they died in our arms.”

No one knows how many people Valamios and other locals saved from drowning, but it is believed to be in the hundreds.

Together with other islanders, Valamios has been nominated by Greek academics and the Hellenic Olympic Committee for the Nobel Peace Prize. They have been chosen symbolically to represent all Greeks and volunteers who helped refugees.

The award will be announced in Oslo on Friday.

Far to the south, Lesvos, Greece's third-biggest island and just over four miles from the Turkish coast, was the frontline of Europe's refugee crisis last year. At its peak, as many as 3,000 people were arriving on its shores a day.

The dinghies often collapsed under the weight of three times as many people as they were designed to hold, crammed in by smugglers eager to make an easy profit by charging some $1,500 per head. Hundreds drowned and many bodies are still missing.

“Imagine being here and seeing drowned children on the beach, or saving a father whose baby has drowned, or saving a baby whose mother and father have drowned,” Valamios said.

The headless body of a baby washed ashore on a nearby beach earlier this year. One mother lost two of her children, he said.

One washed up in Greece, the other in Turkey.

Some days, Valamios would fit 20 people in his 3-metre (less than 10 foot) long motorboat. Its railing is still broken and wobbly from when one Syrian man tried to desperately cling onto it, he said.

'Did the right thing'

Those days are gone, and since March, when the European Union and Turkey agreed a deal to close off that route, only a handful of refugees arrive each week.

So life in the picturesque harbor has resumed its sleepy pace. Its cobbled square, once heaving with Greek and foreign volunteers, is filled only with just the sound of seagulls squawking and waves crashing on the rocks.

The shoreline was once bright orange from hundreds of discarded life jackets, but they have since been cleared, as have the dozens of deflated dinghies which littered it.

Even so, each time Valamios and other fishermen head out to see, they can't help but be on the look out for vessels in distress, he said.

“The island deserves it,” said 63-year-old Thanasis Marmarinos, referring to the prize, as he repaired his fishing nets in the port. But on a personal level, it wasn't so important. “I am morally satisfied with what I did, that I helped these people. Everything else, including the Nobel, is not important.”

Down the road, fellow Nobel nominee Emilia Kamvisi, an 86-year-old grandmother and the daughter of Greek refugees who fled Turkey in 1922, said she never expected tragedy to hit home but felt compelled to help, having heard stories of her own family.

“In this old age I will die with a clear conscience,” she said.

If they win, the $930,000 prize will go towards struggling Greek island hospitals, the nominating committee has said.

For Valamios, Kamvisi and Marmarinos and others in the village, little will change.

“On Friday, when they give the Nobel, bombs will still fall and people will still get killed,” Valamios said, referring to Syria, torn apart by five years of war.

“I will feel neither happy nor sad. I just know I did the right thing,” he said.

The people of Lesbos continue to persevere in the face of a crisis looming every day as more likely to re-engage.  They serve as an example to the civilized world of how we should treat our must vulnerable and preyed upon brethren; something far too many among us, far too often fail to do.

With or without winning, Lesbos embodies the best of what the Nobel Peace Prize represents. Bravo, Lesbos!



  1. I think what you meant to say was,"Μπράβο, Λέσβος!" And I couldn't agree more, Jeff.

  2. A very moving story. I'm sure Lesvos would have been the popular winner.

    1. Though perhaps more popular with the Judges if those proposing Lesvos hadn't added Susan Sarandon as a nominee. I understand the gesture, but adding her name likely put-off the Nobel committee as potential celebrity fawning.

  3. So, finally regular people following the ethics that all human beings should have,are recognized. This is good.
    Would wish that everyone in Europe was this welcoming and kind to desperate refugees. And the wars go on,and its victims have nowhere to go.

    I don't mind that Susan Sarandon was nominated because she returned to the U.S.and appeared on TV and in a very sympathetic and moving way, told about the plight of the refugees. Their story would not have been known to the millions of viewers without her telling it.
    She's very sincere in her activism and there was no self-promotion involved. She was appealing to the audience to send support.

    1. Kathy, I did not in any way mean to suggest criticism of Susan Sarandon's commitment, dedication, contribution or effectiveness. My point was that I sense the Nobel Committee may have been put off by seeing a film celebrity entered as a candidate for a nomination meant to symbolically honor "regular people," no matter how genuine her contribution.

  4. In my mind, they have won the prize. And they've taught us all about how we should be living our lives. . .a bit more giving and a lot less taking.

    1. and a lot less talking and more action by the EU would also do wonders.

  5. Yup. And a lot less right-wing nationalism and immigrant bashing would be of great help, too.

    People with nowhere to go caught in wars not of their making. The response should be as moral, ethical human beings, to help other people in need. Just basic human kindness.

    These people should get prizes, yes, and recognition so that their actions would be held up as examples of how people should treat people in disastrous situations.