This was August 2008 at Koraka’s Cape beach in Lesvos. A local farmer told me that he saw a prosthetic leg on the beach. He said that the leg belonged to a boy, around 13 years old, who arrived on a rubber boat with his family. The coastguard were just behind the boat as it was approaching the beach. It was early morning and the coastguard shouted something through a megaphone in Greek – the farmer couldn’t hear exactly what. The people jumped in the water and started climbing the cliffs.
The boy lost his prosthetic leg in the water and was stranded. His father ran back, picked him up in his arms and started climbing. The farmer then gave me directions to where the leg was. And I found it. It was a real shock, because I didn’t believe him at first. At the time, I had just started documenting the migrants coming to Lesvos. This picture for me is symbolic. It really captures the desperation to run away, to escape.
2009, Samos island. I joined the Greek coastguard night patrol looking for boats. The patrol spotted a boat inside Greek territorial waters: it was about a mile away. They stormed towards it in full speed. The captain shouted to the people to put their hands up and not touch the boat. Sometimes the migrants try to destroy their own boats so that they can’t be pushed back.
He asked who on the boat could speak English – there were no interpreters with the coastguard – and he asked where they were from. The people on the boat said they were from Afghanistan, Somalia and Palestine. I think there were around 16 of them. The coastguard took them to Samos island, then to hospital and then to the detention centre. I wonder why they didn’t push back this boat. There were a lot of reports of push-backs at the time in that area.
This was April 2009, a day before Easter. I was with the coastguard on night patrol off the coast of Agathonisi island. Around 3am, the patrol got information about a speedboat approaching. The captain told the crew to prepare the guns and they gave me a bulletproof jacket. The coastguard sneaked up behind the speedboat in the pitch dark and then turned the lights on the people in the boat. The coastguard captain was shouting “Stop the boat! Stop the boat!”.
The coastguard chased them and the two boats collided twice. Then the deputy captain pointed his gun at the engine of the speedboat and shot it twice. The coastguard started loading the people to their boat. One guard was pointing his gun at them. Another used a fire extinguisher on the engine. It was like a battlefield. But the people on the boat were silent. Except for the guy in the middle of the picture; he was begging, saying, “Please no, mister, please no”. They reminded me of animals trying to escape a forest fire: wide-eyed, terrified.
That day I read online that a boat sank off the shore of Lesvos and around 30 people were missing. I got on a plane and was on the island by 2pm. I walked along the beach and looked for survivors or hints of what had happened. I was out for 6 or 7 hours and couldn’t find anything. I got back there at 6 am the next day. Then I saw three soldiers and the body in the water.
The waves kept pushing the body into the rock. I remember thinking: “This man has finally arrived to Europe”. I was thinking about his family. Most of the people on that boat were from Afghanistan, the coastguard saved one 16-year-old boy, who was the sole survivor. This was the first time I asked myself why I was doing this, taking pictures of dead bodies in the water. I still don’t know the answer.
I took this picture on Ferogia beach in Lesvos. I spent days walking along that beach, trying to understand where exactly boats were arriving. Then I saw this document in the water. It was issued by the Turkish authorities. It belonged to a young Somali girl. My first thought was, “Where is she now?”. I took it out of the water. Later I stopped by a tree next to a local church. In Lesvos, people hang trinkets on this tree for good luck. I tied the document to a branch with my shoe lace. I was wishing the girl luck.
Reposted from Amnesty: All images © Giorgos Moutafis