LESBOS, Greece (AFP) — A little let-down after missing out on the Nobel Peace Prize this week, the Greek islanders of Lesbos who helped rescue refugees worry that the boats will resume after a six-month lull.
“I worry that it will begin again, all these people waiting across (in Turkey), chased by bombs still falling in Syria,” says Thanassis Marmarinos, a 63-year-old fisherman.
Marmarinos is one of three residents of the coastal village of Skala Sykamias — population 150 — nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize this week.
A year ago, alongside fellow fisherman Stratis Valiamos, he set out to sea to save migrants trying to reach Lesbos on board overcrowded, barely-floating dinghies and boats.
Over 800,000 migrants and refugees crossed the Aegean last year. Hundreds died in the attempt.
“We did what we had to do when we saw people drowning: we saved them, that is all,” he told AFP this week.
“I did nothing else for five months,” he added. By his count, he helped rescue 75 boats or over 4,000 people.
Marmarinos, who later appeared before the European Parliament to tell of his experiences, said he was happy to do his “duty as a human being.”
He is still haunted by some of the images imprinted in his mind.
“The worst (memory) is the babies,” he said.
Speculation that the islanders were to be awarded the Nobel Peace Prize this week — an accolade that eventually went to the president of Colombia — revived painful memories of the height of last year’s migration crisis for Marmarinos and many fellow locals.
A Nobel win would have been “justice” for Lesbos whose residents rushed to help the migrants with clothes and food as they emerged from the choppy waters of the Aegean, says 84-year-old grandmother Emilia Kamvysi.
The island’s brisk tourism business also took a hit this year from the migration wave.
The daughter of ethnic Greek refugees from Turkey and a fisherman’s widow, Kamvysi became an instant celebrity last year when she was photographed feeding a bottle of milk to a Syrian baby whose family had just landed in her coastal village of Skala Sykamias on Lesbos.
“We are a little disappointed but there were so many candidates,” she said.
Marmarinos says he has no regrets about missing out on the Nobel Peace Prize.
“We still have our good-heartedness and satisfaction about having helped these people,” he said.
An EU-Turkey deal that took effect in late March and NATO warship patrols have drastically reduced the number of new arrivals, which at the height of the crisis last year could number up to 6,000.
The flow has dropped to a few dozen daily, but Turkey has repeatedly threatened to scuttle the agreement, accusing Europe of breaking promises over visa-free European travel.
“We did our duty, and we are now well prepared to react if the flow resumes,” said Sykamia community leader Giorgos Saroglou.
According to Greece’s migration ministry, most recent arrivals are economic migrants rather than refugees fleeing conflict.
Saroglou — a descendant of refugees himself like many on the island — said he wants to create a museum near the beach where the migrants landed, and where some died.
“We are certain that the children of these people will return to remember our warm reception,” he said.
“These people came to obtain help, not to convert us or harm us,” said Stratis Valiamos, the other Nobel-nominated fisherman. “If bombs were falling I too would jump into a boat with my wife and daughter.”
The tattooed 40-year-old still remembers a Syrian couple — a doctor and his heavily pregnant wife — who reached Lesbos with just their clothes on their back. “The last time they were in Greece was as tourists to the Athens (2004) Olympics.”