Athens.- By Helena Smith/The Guardian
When Antonis Deligiorgis looks back on the day he became a hero, his emotions are mixed. Even now, he admits, he has more questions than answers. “Why is it happening?” he asks of Europe’s migrant crisis. “Why can’t we stop it and where is it going to end? That is what I keep wondering because that is what we see every night on TV. A constant stream of people, desperate people, babies, children, coming in.”
Hero is not a word that the 34-year-old Greek army sergeant naturally embraces. There are, he says, so many heroes, unsung ones, who in the unfolding drama of Europe’s great refugee emergency save lives every day. And yet the image of Deligiorgis rescuing Wegasi Nebiat, an Eritrean refugee, from the wind-whipped waters off Rhodes, has been singled out as a particularly striking illustration of valour.
On the morning of 20 April when, assailed by a sudden Aegean storm, Nebiat’s boat not only capsized but disintegrated within minutes, it was Deligiorgis’s selflessness that got Europe talking. Single-handedly he rescued 20 of the 93 people the vessel disgorged. Nebiat, who was desperately clinging to a buoy – and whom he had difficulty lifting out of the water – was among the last. A pregnant woman and several children, both Syrian and Eritrean, had preceded her. “I did what I had to do,” the father of two says in a phone interview from Cyprus, where he is now stationed. “What to say? I saved her because she had to be saved.”
Struggling in the oil-filled sea, his feet made raw and bloody by the rocks, he instinctively put 24-year-old Nebiat across his shoulder. “Life is difficult for them, and it’s difficult for us but at the end of the day, we are all people, we are all human, we should all help each other,” Deligiorgis says.
In April, the full extent of the crisis had yet to reveal itself. The thousands of Europe-bound refugees amassed on Turkey’s western coast were but a fraction of the hundreds of thousands who would subsequently attempt to make the treacherous crossing to Greece. The pictures that emerged that day – of Deligiorgis and others who scrambled to rescue people from the turbulent sea – compellingly conveyed that, when tragedy struck, those on Europe’s southern shores would not stand idly by.
“If I had to do it again I would,” adds the sergeant, who has since been decorated by the Greek state. “If we were refugees others would do the same for us.”
Eight months later it is not only the sea, so stormy and cold, that Deligiorgis recalls. Rather, he says, it is the cries for help, the pleas for an outstretched arm, an extended hand, that linger. And then there are the faces. The faces of the man and the child he could not save. “I think of them a lot,” he says, sighing. “The worst was that it wasn’t only people, it was corpses we retrieved from the water.”
Deligiorgis, who had just returned from the school run, was at a local cafe with his wife, Theodora, when the tragedy occurred. It was some time before he understood what was happening. Without a second’s thought, he took off his shirt and shoes, and, using the survival skills he had learned in the army, began plucking people from the sea.
To one woman – and her son, who was unborn at the time – the soldier feels particularly bonded. “Once in a while I talk with Elizabeth who was out there, too, holding on to a piece of wood when I found her,” he says. “I can still remember saying, ‘Guys, this one’s pregnant.’”
A few days later, on the feast of St George, Elizabeth, an Eritrean who has since been granted asylum in Sweden, gave birth to a healthy baby boy at a Rhodes hospital. She called her son Antonis George after the soldier and the saint.
“The boy’s father had been killed in Eritrea,” adds Deligiorgis. “I was very moved. It’s not easy to give a foreign child your name. She calls sometimes to say, ‘You saved me, you saved my son, I cannot forget you.’ But in truth, it is me who thinks of little Antonis, who thinks of her. I won’t forget any of them. Things like this you never forget.”
Wednesday 23 December 2015