Michalis Protopsaltis does not consider himself a hero. When news of the sinking came, he did, he said, what any man in his position would do. The owner of the construction company dispatched a crane to the top of the Kythira cliff and, one by one, began rescuing the 80 Afghan immigrants who were searching for life in the waters below.
Three hours passed before the last refugee – initially bound for Italy on a yacht from the Turkish city of Izmir – was hoisted to the top.
When he appeared, drenched and shocked in the sandbag attached to the crane, Protopsaltis felt a twinge of relief but also nausea at what he had seen: the men, women and children who had not rescued, who had been tossing about in the sea, screaming and screaming as they tried to scale the jagged rocks that had wrecked the boat.
On Monday, nearly three weeks after the dramatic scenes unfolded on the island, the 66-year-old will be honored at a ceremony at the Athens Ministry of Maritime Affairs. The events of that night, both tragic and awe-inspiring, still reverberate. Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis called to thank him personally.
“What we saw that night was hellish, absolutely scary, something I never thought I would see,” Protopsaltis told The Guardian. The sea was howling, the wind was howling, the waves were so big and all those people out there in that rocky cove, trying to hold their own, somehow trying to get into the bag, sometimes two to at a time but especially one at a time, so that the crane can lift them upwards.
“Neither I nor anyone else who was there, and there must have been a hundred of us, thought twice,” he said, adding that with the help of ropes, at least 20 had also survived. “Nobody forced us to help. All this talk about Greeks leaving migrants to die in the sea pisses me off because it’s not true.
Greek media also came to town to hail the heroism of a man who could easily have chosen not to act when the yacht – a vessel with a maximum capacity of 15 passengers but carrying 95 people – ran aground off Diakofti, the main port of Kythira. Even his sisters in Sydney – as no Greek island has seen more of its community migrate to Australia than Kythira – have been in touch to say they have seen him on CNN.
Only now, Protopsaltis concedes, has the “significance and value” of what he and his fellow Kythirians achieved achieved. “All this talk of heroism is overblown. What we did was only human. At Kythira, we always help people in need. From America and Argentina to South Africa and in Australia there are Kytherians and therefore we all had the experience of migration I don’t know what happened further [in Greece] but we would never let people drown.
Located off the southeastern tip of the Peloponnese, between the Greek peninsula and Crete, Kythira (population 3,600) is about 250 miles west of Turkey. The island now finds itself on a route increasingly taken by smugglers trying to avoid increased patrols in the eastern Aegean and head straight for Italy. Since August, there have been five boat landings in Kythera.
Further east, on the day of the sinking, the bodies of 16 young African women were found floating off Lesvos. The two incidents, followed by the discovery of 92 naked people on Greece’s land border with Turkey, have further strained already strained ties between the two countries, with Athens accusing Ankara of deliberately ignoring smugglers working along the Turkish coastline. . Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has countered that Greece’s “oppressive policies” towards asylum seekers, including forced expulsions or pushbacks, have turned the Aegean Sea into “a graveyard”.
Allegations of pushbacks – which are facilitated by the European border agency, Frontex, according to rights groups – have tarnished Greece’s human rights record and embarrassed officials in Brussels where politicians management of the bloc’s external borders, more generally, have come under criticism.
Athens’ centre-right government has repeatedly denied engaging in summary expulsions, saying Turkey is deliberately “pushing” people across the land and sea borders that separate the two countries. Greek Migration Minister Notis Mitarachi has pledged to put what he denounced as Turkey’s “weaponisation of migration” at the top of the agenda when he meets the President of the United Nations General Assembly, Csaba Kőrösi, in New York this week.
In a country that saw large numbers of refugees arrive at the height of Syria’s civil war, and initially greeted with extraordinary compassion, the rhetoric of pushbacks is either ignored by a heavily pro-government media machine or politicized by an opposition desperate to score runs.
But for Protopsaltis, politics played no part in the rescue, although he readily admits he is a government supporter. “There were people in danger, whose lives were in danger, everyone was thinking only of how they could be saved,” he said.
“The truth is that civilized people want to behave in a civilized way. It wasn’t until I got home that it happened that while they were accusing us of doing all these things, here we are, a group of people on a small island in Greece who saved 80 souls tonight because it was the right thing to do.