The Worst Phone Call
The mood around the bonfire when on night boat patrol is usually jovial as volunteers chat with each other in the warm of a cackling fire while keeping an eye on the horizon for a speck that turns into a boat. Usually. But not tonight. Tonight I made the worst phone call I've ever had to make.
Earlier in the evening, my friend and I started chatting with some of the other people on watch as volunteers normally do. What's your name? Where are you from? How long have you been here? How long are you here until? What have you been up to? We saw a few friends we had made on previous boat patrols, we met some new friends, and we did a few 'I've seen you before but I don't know if we've been introduced...' as well. One of the new faces I met tonight played a voice note that he just received. I don't think I will ever be able to forget it; it was in Arabic but at the end there was the undeniable voice of a child yelling, "Mama! Mama!" over the sound of waves. He told us the part in Arabic was, "We are going into the water. The boat is going down." This was a message from a sinking boat.
The voice note, along with coordinates, was sent from someone on the boat to a family member abroad who sent it to someone who is associated with volunteering in the refugee crisis who sent it to the new face tonight. It's basically a long game of virtual telephone. Given the short distance between Turkey and Greece, people on the boats still have service during the crossing, making their smartphone invaluable. As soon as the new face got the message, he desperately called the Greek Coast Guard, asking the group for help in writing things down as his cellphone was dying. Instantly a power bank appeared and people whipped their phones out, ready to scribe.
He called the Greek Coast Guard, but since the boat was in Turkish waters, they gave him a different emergency number to call. We were all in Greece, on Lesvos, so the three digit emergency number they gave us didn't work. It became a race of fast fingers and service as those of us with working phones looked up the number for the Turkish Coast Guard. A webpage has never loaded so slowly in my life. But I got it. I tried to not let my voice show my shakiness as I read it aloud for someone to dial (my SIM doesn't allow for me to make international calls). Ring, ring, ring, ring. No answer. NO ANSWER.
My heart sank. Now what? While some of us looked up alternative numbers, the new face (he has been here for 5 months so knows a few things about water rescues) started giving different solutions that might work. Keep calling, call the Greek Coast Guard and get a different number, call the Greek Coast Guard and ask them to connect you directly. He asked me to try the last option—they might be nicer to a woman. I dialed, I crossed my fingers, and I waited. When they picked up, I explained that we were in Greece, we had a message from a boat in distress and according to the coordinates, it was in Turkey. My phone wasn't allowing me to call the three digit emergency line for the Turkish Coast Guard and they weren't answering the number online either—could you please, please, connect me directly to them?
Yes, one minute.
Longest minute ever. And they played a popular Jason Derulo/Bruno Mars song while I was on hold that I've now, fortunately, blocked out. Then the Turkish Coast Guard answered.
"Hello. I have received a message from a boat that is sinking that needs help immediately. The boat is headed to Greece where I am but it's started to sink and people are in the water. I have the coordinates. Could you please send help immediately?!?! There are many women and children on the boat. Please."
I read him the coordinates as clearly and slowly, but urgently, as I could. I reiterated the urgency. And the people aboard. He said they would go and we hung up. Then, we waited.
Hearts were heavy. You could sense people on edge, feeling helpless, as we waited to hear back. For a moment, we thought we saw a boat coming in to shore (a different boat, obviously) and that distracted us for a moment. Somehow while scanning the horizon for the boat we thought we heard, I missed a call back from the Turkish Coast Guard. This was 12 minutes after I made the first call.
Over the course of the next hour and a half, there were several conversations with the Turkish Coast Guard and the new face. He would talk to them, hang up, call his connection and get clarify on some info, and call the Turkish Coast Guard back. His phone was still dying and people's phones were running out of credit so it was almost a different number we would use to call every time. And the time between each phone call varied from 2-15 minutes. Questions about the coordinates. They had received a similar call from a different number, was it the number from the boat? Where was the boat headed (to give an idea of search and rescue area)? Did they find the boat? Any luck? How about now? They found one! Was this the one? How many people were on board? Fifty, which was then clarified to 15. How many people did they find? Okay, we'll call back in 15 minutes for more information. Okay, we'll call back in another 15 minutes for more information.
So we waited. And waited. And waited. Tears came but didn't fall. I felt sick like I might throw up. I prayed. I stared aimlessly at the fire. I half-heartedly joined in conversation that was taking place to fill the empty silence. This was definitely the lowest and toughest part of the trip.
Somehow, time passed and while waiting we heard of another boat that had come in down the road. After helping out at the rescue site, exhaustion creeped in and it was time to head home. But I couldn't call it a night. I needed to know. I left my phone number with a guy who stayed behind who promised to Whatsapp me updates as he got them.
5:21am: They found 14/16 people. Looking for a woman and a child still.
My heart is happy for the ones who were found safe but at the same time aches for the missing woman and child. I hope I wake up to good news and they're found safe and sound. Inshallah. This is why we need safe passage.
As tough as tonight was, it's why I'm here.