4.1 miles

I know I keep harping on about the refugee crisis – most of you must be heartily sick of me by now. But it is something that I don’t feel the world as a whole can ignore – and not only in reference to the humanitarian aspect, but because it is a problem that, give the present situation, we will all have to face in the future, one way or another. And I don’t believe building fences everywhere is a solution.

4.1 miles is a short documentary made by Daphne Matziaraki, a Greek filmmaker who lives and works in the San Francisco Bay Area. ‘4.1 miles’ refers to the distance between Turkey and the island of Lesvos, where she followed a coast guard captain for three weeks as he pulled family after family, child after child, from the ocean and saved their lives. All the events in this film were shot on a single day, October 28, 2015. Two additional rescues happened that same day but were not included.

She says: ‘The Greek Coast Guard, especially when I was there, has been completely unprepared to deal with the constant flow of rescues necessary to save refugees from drowning as they attempt to cross to Europe from Turkey. When I was there filming, Lesbos had about 40 local coast guard officers, who before the refugee crisis generally spent their time conducting routine border patrols. Most didn’t have CPR training. Their vessels didn’t have thermal cameras or any equipment necessary for tremendous emergencies.

Suddenly, the crew was charged with keeping the small bit of water they patrolled from becoming a mass grave. Each day, thousands of refugees crossed the water on tiny, dangerous inflatable rafts. Most of the passengers, sometimes including whoever was operating the boat, had never seen the sea. Often a motor would stall and passengers would be stranded for hours, floating tenuously on a cold, volatile sea. Or the bottom of a dinghy would simply tear away and all the passengers would be cast into the water. The coast guard felt completely abandoned, they told me, as if the world had left them to handle a huge humanitarian crisis — or allow thousands to drown offshore.’ (Excerpt taken from a NYT article, sept 28, 2016.)

 

Kyriakos Papadopoulos, coast guard captain on the island of Lesvos, who rescued countless refugees from drowning

To watch the video, click below:

https://static01.nyt.com/video/players/offsite/index.html?videoId=100000004674545

The coast guard captain in question is Kyriakos Papadopoulos (photo above), a naval officer who, after working on freight ships for a few years, decided to come back and settle on his beloved island of Lesvos, where he dreamed of a quiet life. Little was he to imagine what was in store for him and his crew, on the by now legendary coast guard launch “602”.
The first sea rescue in Lesvos took place in September 2001, when they picked up ten Afghans off the coast. This became the talk of the island. The war in Syria changed all that. In 2014 around 50-100 people washed up on the island daily; and, by the beginning of 2015, this number had risen to thousands every day. More than half of the one million refugees who arrived in Greece that year came to Lesvos, and most of those were picked up by Kyriakos’s boat.

Usually, rescues take place in bad weather conditions. Kyriakos says: ‘We come upon boats that are half sunk – we know we need to act fast, people can drown before our eyes. We need to pull around 60 people into our boat in less than five minutes. It’s a huge responsibility.’ Psychologically, this is tough, and has taken a toll on him and his crew. Kyriakos has two daughters, aged 15 and 7,5. At sea, he sees their faces in the faces of the children who lift up their arms to be saved. ‘You can never get used to this. However, none of us has entertained the thought of giving up. Saving people gives us the strength to continue. Especially the smiles of the children, when they see us.’ (Translated from an article in Kathimerini, January 28, 2017).

Kyriakos has been given an award for his work by the Academy of Athens, and the documentary has been nominated for an Academy Award. What pleases him most, though, is the fact that through the screening of the documentary, his friends and family have seen for themselves what he and his crew are going through. Because they find it impossible to talk about this to anyone; they only discuss it amongst themselves, on the advice of psychiatrists – to exorcise the images they’ve had to witness. He also hopes the world will see the film, and offer some help.

I watched the film, and I warn you it is harrowing. An incongruous thought kept going through my mind: at least there are no killer sharks in Greek waters.