By YIANNIS PAPADOPOULOS, Photos: GIORGOS MOUTAFIS
Savvas Kourepinis cannot bear to see any more death and the smallest blip on his radar sets him racing off into the central Mediterranean. There's not a moment to spare. The nearest landing point on European territory is more than 100 nautical miles away. There are no islets or rocks for shipwrecked passengers to cling on to. They are surrounded by water, as far as the eye can see.
“You have to be fast,” Kourepinis tells Kathimerini. “To reach the target you have to save, you head off at full throttle. The inflatable boat can jump two meters into the air; the engine is stressed to near-breaking point. If you don't reach them and their boat capsizes, then it's ‘goodnight world.’”
Savvas Kourepinis steers one of the two inflatable Proactiva rescue boats off the coast of Libya.
The 32-year-old fisherman from the Greek island of Leros is describing his experiences as a rescuer of refugees and migrants off the coast of Libya with the Spanish nongovernmental organization Proactiva Open Arms, which started operating in September 2015, sending volunteer lifeguards to the Aegean island of Lesvos.
Kourepinis is a member of the crew of Astral, a three-masted, 30-meter sailboat belonging to the organization. His job is to have the boat prepared for action, to coordinate all the tasks on board and to man one of Proactiva's inflatable speedboats in rescue operations.
Migrant flows to the Greek islands may have eased since the sealing of the so-called Balkan Corridor and a deal in spring between the European Union and Turkey for refugee returns, but overladen inflatable boats and rickety wooden craft continue to cross the central Mediterranean daily. According to the International Organization for Migration (IOM), more than 100,000 refugees and migrants have reached Italy's shores by sea so far in 2016 – and nearly 3,000 deaths have been recorded on the same route.
“I hope we don't have any more losses,” says Kourepinis, speaking by phone from Tunisia where the Astral is moored until the weather in the area improves. “On my maiden journey, we rescued 17 boatloads from sunup to sundown.”
Kourepinis comes from a family of fishermen and has been working with his father and brother since he was a child. He first saw people perishing at sea in 2004, while standing guard at a sentry post during his military service on the island of Farmakonisi.
“There have been countless deaths at Farmakonisi and countless people landing there. I became interested in the subject when I saw kids drowning at sea. It burned me inside,” he says. “I witnessed two very bad wrecks, one with 30 drowned. I saw it go under 10 meters away from me and there was nothing I could do.”
The number of people trying to reach Europe by sea was much lower then and the tactics of smugglers very different to what they are today. Today, smugglers don't travel in the boats with their passengers, choosing instead to name one of them captain, giving them a few rudimentary tips on steering and ordering them to head for the lights in the distance. A similar tactic is being applied in Libya, too, says Kourepinis.
“The smugglers train one of the migrants and let him ride in the boat for free. About 12-13 miles off Libya, you can see the lights of oil rigs and the smugglers tell the ‘captain’ that those are the lights of [the Italian island of] Lampedusa. The boats usually run out of petrol halfway across,” says Kourepinis.
“The vessels most commonly used are 12-meter inflatables. Women and children are stowed in the front and middle, with the men sitting along the sides, even on the fenders, as though riding a horse,” says the rescuer.
The wooden boats used on the same journey usually carry a lot more people, sometimes even in excess of 500, and are the rescuers' biggest nightmare as they are certain to suffer multiple casualties if they run into any trouble.
More than 100,000 refugees and migrants have reached Italy by sea so far this year.
“Their engines are 40 hp. There's no way to reach Italy with them so if you don't reach them within a few hours after they set sail, they are dead,” says Kourepinis. “The wooden boats have a hole about 50x50 centimeters that leads to the engine room, where dozens of people may be stowed. Imagine their agony, traveling for so many hours without seeing what's going on. If the boat capsizes, they will all drown.”
Even those traveling on the decks of these dangerous boats have no idea how far away Europe is. The rescuers use maps and GPS to show them after they have saved them, and explain that the journey the refugees and migrants had embarked on takes three days at least.
“They think we're lying. They believe what the smugglers told them: that the Mediterranean is like a lake and they can cross it in five hours,” explains Kourepinis.
When a Proactiva crew approaches a boat with refugees and migrants off Libya, the first task is to distribute life vests as it is common for none of the passengers to be wearing one.
“You may find as few as 10 life vests among 150 passengers,” says Kourepinis. “They're not like the Syrians in Greece who land carrying bags and money. Here they're just in trousers and a T-shirt. They are robbed at the coast, stripped of their money and cell phones and forcibly packed onto the boats.”
Libya is the last stop before Europe for migrants and refugees from sub-Saharan Africa. The hundreds of thousands to set off on the perilous journey are mainly from Somalia, Sudan, Ethiopia and Senegal. The cost of boarding a boat in Libya is around 1,000 to 2,000 euros. As in the Aegean, the smugglers don't charge for babies.
The Astral set sail to patrol the central Mediterranean from Badalona in Spain. Every fortnight, it ties up in Malta to get fresh supplies and switch crews. Kourepinis is among the key crew members, along with the captain, cook and engineer. The lifeguards who join them on their missions are all volunteers. During the day, they sail at just over 12 nautical miles from Libya to help any distressed boats; safety concerns push them further out to the sea at night. Every so often, Libyan fishermen alert them to the presence of a migrant boat, in exchange for the vessel after the rescue.
Kourepinis often leaps into the distressed boats to restart the engine and steer the passengers closer to a rescue vessel or NATO warships sailing in the vicinity. Photographer Giorgos Motafis has captured many of the 32-year-old's daring feats.
“On one occasion, I put a life vest on a 12-year-old boy and his father said: ‘My son is very young, but he will never forget you.’ In that moment, in the 20 minutes that you're helping them, they will kiss and hug you. You're saving them moments before they drown. How can they forget that?” says the Greek rescuer. “Our priority is to save lives. You have to do what is needed to help everyone, otherwise you're not worthy for this job.”
Two children receive first aid after being rescued.
Back when he was still a fisherman on Leros, Kourepinis would often assist the coast guard in migrant rescue operations. When the flows to Greece started to grow last year, he initially worked on a boat belonging to the Doctors Without Borders NGO in the Aegean, until he was offered his current job by Proactiva. He will stay in the central Mediterranean until October and may then be sent to Lesvos, where the Spanish organization has a permanent presence, covering 17 kilometers of the island's coastline. Back in Leros, he has a wife and 3-year-old child waiting for him.
“I think they're proud of me,” he says of his family, adding that if the need arises he may return to the central Mediterranean after this stint is over.
“I have experienced so much death and grief that, if I'm given the chance, I'll come back. I'll go where I'm needed,” he says.