Volunteers are not the only people who can be found standing on the shoreline of northern Lesbos, looking out at the Aegean Sea, waiting for refugees to arrive.
A hodgepodge of local men, and sometimes women, often gather next to volunteers as the rubber dinghies or large wooden boats come ashore, waiting to salvage what they can from the boats once they’re abandoned.
It was a group of such men, busily sifting through washed-up debri about 30 to 50 metres left of us on what volunteers loosely call ‘White Boat Beach’, who called out to us early Friday morning, saying they believed they had found a dead body.
As they were calling us to join them, a dinghy full of refugees was already quickly approaching. It wasn’t until everyone was off the boat safely and starting to walk up the the beach towards the dirt road, between Eftalou and Skala Sykaminia, that a number of volunteers, including myself, went to inspect what the local men believed they had found.
As we neared them, they started to walk in the opposite direction, certain of what they had found but, seemingly, disinclined to get involved.
They were right; there was a dead body.
I could see two blue denim jean-clad legs, topped with black shoes, jutting out from under a mangled, deflated dinghy on the pebbled edge of the shore. As I stared, dumbstruck, the legs lifted and dropped gently with the ebb and the flow of the weak morning waves.
A bright orange life-jacket was sticking up, somewhat entwined with the dinghy, shielding the person’s face from view.
Gaia Giletta, a 25-year-old nurse from Turin, Italy – and a volunteer with Norwegian group Dråpen i Havet [A Drop In The Ocean] – took a closer look.
“He’s been dead a few days,” she said before calling the Greek Coastguard.
Within 30 or so minutes, coastguard officers arrived in a pick-up truck, followed by a tired-looking coroner.
The coroner pulled the dead man by his life-jacket, out from under the dinghy, and laid him out horizontal on the stony beach.
Although the coroner didn’t have much English, he communicated with photographer Gabriel Green, who was with the volunteers, that he wanted to make sure Mr Green had taken all the pictures he needed to take, as if to say he wanted the world to see what’s happening on his island.
“Afghan, Afghan,” he said looking at the body.
After checking for documents, of which there were none, the body was placed in a white bag before it was placed in the back of the pick-up truck and taken away. The coroner sat in the back of the truck with the body.
As Ms Giletta had initially called in the discovery of the body, she later received a phone call from the coastguard, asking her to make a statement at their offices in nearby Molyvos Harbour.
Ms Giletta knew exactly where to go, as she was already very familiar with Molyvos Harbour, having been there just several nights before when the bodes of three drowned children, among others, were brought to the harbour.
She went to make her statement and was in the middle of giving it, when a number of volunteers came running in to the office, asking her to follow them as they had found a man face down in the water on the other side of the harbour wall.
Dropping what she was doing, Ms Giletta ran with the other volunteers, and found the man laid out. The volunteers who had initially found him wrapped him in a blanket to “warm him”.
But he was already dead.
Ms Giletta said: “They were asking me to resuscitate him but when I looked at his face, I could see he had been dead for a long time.”
The volunteers begged Ms Giletta to do something. To appease the distressed volunteers, Ms Giletta used her stethoscope and checked his eyes but she knew it was too late.
“It was horrible. There were a lot of people, including refugees, walking up and down the harbour and one of his [the dead man’s] eyes was open,” recalled Ms Giletta.
After a doctor officially declared the man dead, the doctor asked for a volunteer to stay with the body until the coroner arrived.
Ms Giletta and photographer Gabriel Green offered to wait.
Almost two hours later, the coroner arrived – the very same coroner they met earlier that morning.
“He seemed to be really angry with the situation,” said Ms Giletta who understands he’s the only coroner in the north of the island.
Asked why she thinks it’s important for people to see pictures of the bodies of refugees, who didn’t make the journey from Turkey to Greece, washing up on the shores of Lesbos, Ms Giletta said: “If people don’t know what’s going on here, there won’t be any more help.”