Kyriakos Papadopoulos enlisted in the Hellenic Coast Guard in 1999. Two years on the seas with the Merchant Marine had been enough for the seaman. He wanted to live on dry land and pursue a more tranquil life on his native island of Lesvos. He could not have known what tempests and wrecks the seas of the northeastern Aegean held in store for him, what his mission would one day be.
The junior lieutenant is the subject of Daphne Matziaraki’s short documentary “4.1 Miles,” which has propelled the young filmmaker to an Oscar nomination. A hero in the film and in real life, Papadopoulos is the captain of the legendary 602 patrol boat, responsible for bringing thousands of refugees and migrants safely to shore since the start of the immigration crisis in Greece. “And my crew; don’t forget my crew,” he stresses.
The first migrant rescue mission the 602 ever went on was in September 2001, when a boat carrying 10 Afghans was spotted off the coast of Lesvos. “It was the main topic of conversation for a whole year,” says Papadopoulos.
In the years that followed, a few more boats of Afghans or Africans reached the island every so often, but it was the civil war in Syria that really triggered the crisis and made averting tragedy the coast guard’s main task. “This is what exactly what it is: tragedy,” says the officer.
Toward the end of 2014, Lesvos was receiving around 50-100 arrivals a day; in early 2015, this number swelled to the thousands. Of the estimated 1 million people who reached Greece that year, the majority landed on Lesvos – many rescued by the 602.
“Most of the incidents were in adverse weather conditions. People arrived on boats that weren’t seaworthy and didn’t have proper life vests for children. These are people who are doomed, who can die in a moment, often in front of our very eyes. This is not something you can reconcile yourself with, become hardened to,” Papadopoulos says.
“The responsibility is enormous. You may have to get as many as 60 people safely onto the patrol boat in a matter of minutes. Whether one, two or more are rescued is in our hands.”
Did the pressure ever make him consider asking for a different post?
“There have been times when it’s been very tough. But when the next incident came around and we’d save one person or more, it gave me the strength to go on. I’d forget all the ugly scenes and keep going. No, I never considered leaving this post for a cushy desk job,” Papadopoulos says.
Papadopoulos has two daughters, aged 7 and 15. He can’t help seeing their faces on those of the children in the water raising their arms for help.
“Irrespective of whether you have kids or not – some of the guys on my crew don’t – you get so much satisfaction from saving children, helpless children, and when they smile at us without knowing who we are, where they are or why they’re there, the joy we get cannot be put into words.”
Papadopoulos was awarded for his contribution to saving migrants’ lives in December 2015. “Sure, the recognition of our effort was satisfying. But you know what? I got more pleasure from the documentary screening. The film allowed our friends and relatives to see exactly what is going on. You see, we don’t talk to them about what happens at sea. We [the crew] only talk about it among ourselves; we’re the only ones who can understand each other and try to exorcise the ugly images by talking. This was also the advice of professional counselors: Talk about it, again and again, to make the memories go away,” says Papadopoulos.
“Now, with the film, everyone can see the tragedy taking place in Greece. And I am very proud to be a part of it because it helps shed light on the problem. Most people have no idea how fine the line is between life and death.”