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The angler who does not want the smell of death in the Aegean

02 November 2015 / 16:11:55  GRReporter
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The life of Stefanos Zanikos, who is 49 years old today, has been connected with the sea for at least three decades. From the age of 14, the angler from the island of Chios has been making a living fishing in the Aegean Sea.

In recent weeks, however, he has frequently returned with no catch but with a "full heart" because he does not want the smell of death in the Aegean, as he states for the Greek edition Ethnos. Last Friday, strong wind and high waves did not stop Zanikos again and he rushed to help the boats with refugees in distress near the southeast end of Chios. He was able to rescue 80 people, including 20 babies and children, who were travelling to the island in two plastic boats.

Stefanos Zanikos is just one of the many Greek anglers who respond to the call of the coast guard to assist in the rescue of destitute refugees. With their small fishing boats and trawlers, they manage to get closer to the overloaded and unmanageable boats that are lost in the roaring waves and which the big boats of the coast guard cannot approach. Refugees encounter the cordial human attitude and helpfulness on the part of many of the inhabitants of the Greek islands, including the grandmothers of Lesvos, whose story GRReporter has recently presented.

"My heart is breaking when young mothers are kneeling in front of me, kissing my hands and feet," the angler tells the newspaper with emotion. "A pregnant woman was drenched and could not stop shivering. I covered her with a blanket but she continued to shiver. I stripped off my socks and gave them to the girl. I could stand it, while she was purple with cold."

In recent weeks, the captain of trawler "Agios Ioannis" ("St. John") has received four alerts to assist in the coast guard rescue operations, and has been able to rescue 200 people from the stormy sea.

The operation on Friday morning was the hardest one so far. Stefanos Zanikos was in the seaside region of Menites to catch mullet and squid when he received an order from the operational centre of the Greek Ministry of Merchant Shipping to proceed to the specific location, where the sea was rough and where there were people in danger, some of whom being in the sea already.

"Winds of 7-8 Beaufort were raging there. The coast guard boats could not get close. I told the seven crewmembers that today we would earn the ‘golden’ wage. We would rescue people. We gathered the fishing nets, sailed faster and went to the place in question. It was hell. The roaring waves were hitting two plastic boats and the people in them were shouting," he says, with emotions interrupting him. The boats disappeared in the waves and then appeared again as walnut shells. Stefanos approached them with the trawler and went closer to the boats. He called in English, "Children first, children first. Then the women and finally the men."

The men were throwing the babies in the trawler like basketballs as the gunwale was three metres high and the crew could not take them otherwise. They managed to save 20 babies and children. One boy was only 3 days old, he had been born on the Turkish coast. The eldest of the children was 5 years old, crying constantly until he found his parents. He calmed down only when they embraced him. The women boarded the trawler immediately afterwards, followed by the men who were in the sea and finally, by the men who were in the boats. All said they were refugees from Syria.

A wet and frightened child shortly after his arrival on the island of Lesvos, photo:

Emotional, exciting and memorable scenes occurred on the trawler afterwards. The crewmembers handed out blankets to refugees, clothes and even their own jackets and sweaters, and gave them bread, cheese, tomatoes and whatever food they had with them.

"All wanted water. They wanted to drink water. We could not catch fish and cook a hot fish soup," says Captain Stefanos, who gathered people from the sea for three hours. Having completed the operation, he informed the coast guard and obtained permission to leave. After an hour and a half and in the particularly rough sea, they arrived at the port of Chios. Those refugees who needed medical help were taken by ambulances. Doctors and volunteers provided every possible assistance to the rest.

"I went back to the trawler. I stroked the wooden hull. Once again, it had done a wonderful job. Tears came into my eyes, I did not even think about the lost wage, not for a second. I returned with empty fish boxes but with a full heart," says the captain.

Being the father of three children aged between 12 and 25, Stefanos Zanikos is still shocked when he sees small children in the sea​​. And he never hesitates before jumping into the sea to save them. "The sea is something terrible. Strong waves do not understand whom they swallow. I also fear, but I could not suffer the pangs of remorse that one life was lost because I was afraid. This is what I do not allow myself."

At the same time, and despite strong winds and high waves, the refugee flood does not stop. Yesterday, under conditions similar to those in which Captain Stefanos had rescued the 20 children near Chios, 2,530 people arrived on Lesvos and were identified. According to the Greek media, there are a total of 6,360 refugees and migrants on the island at present, who cannot leave because of the 48-hour strike of seafarers and port workers. They expect the strike to end at 06:00 am on Wednesday after which they will be able to leave for Piraeus and Kavala ports. The majority of those who are on Lesvos are sheltered in tents at the port or in the refugee camp in Kara Tepe, under quite difficult conditions, in view of the cold nights. The wealthier ones stay in hotels or rent rooms for tourists. 5,331 migrants and refugees left Lesvos yesterday alone, shortly before shipping employees announced their strike.

Earlier today, a boat carrying 200 people arrived at Zephyros beach on Rhodes from the opposite Turkish coast. Coast guard and police members and dozens of islanders were on site to help the people step on dry land smoothly. Many of them were women and children. The refugees were accommodated in rooms close to the port, which the municipality of the island has prepared for this purpose.

Tags: SocietyRefugees and migrantsPlastic boatsRescue operationsCaptain Stefanos ZanikosChiosDestitute children
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