Ever since I arrived in Mytilini, there has been a prominent presence in the harbour – HMS Valiant, a Royal Navy warship (apologies if I am misusing a technical description) with Border Force painted on the hull. When I mentioned this some time ago, a friend commented that it was a long way from the border, but of course, while we remain a member of the EU, this is our European border. And if/when we leave, HMS Valiant will return to the UK.
Every time I walk past the ship, I have been hoping that there might be someone on deck to whom I might put a few questions. And today, as Val and I were on our way to Mytilini’s Statue of Liberty to go for a swim, there was. I called across, and asked him if he was allowed to talk to me. “Of course,” he said, and came over to the side.
He told us that HMS Valiant had been based there for two years, and when I asked him its purpose, he was unequivocal: search and rescue. Did they ever send boats back? No. What happened in Turkish territorial waters might be another matter, but they didn’t go there. They do night patrols, two weeks on, two weeks off, and when they came across a rubber boat, they invited the occupants aboard, and brought them to shore, to a reception centre at the harbour entrance. He had been in Mytilini, on and off, throughout its deployment. Was it regarded as an easy gig? No, a tough one, because of the other aspect of the job, fishing bodies out of the water. It was necessary, he said, to harden his heart to such things, so far as he could, when it came to adults, for the sake of his mental well-being, but that was impossible when it came to children.
I have to say I was impressed with his relatively well-balanced view. He acknowledged that in many cases the boats might not be in immediate danger, but even so liked to think that he and his colleagues were saving lives. For my part, I assured him that this was undoubtedly true, what with leaky boats, inadequate life-jackets, and a dangerous landing to come.
He concluded, however, with an unsettling anecdote. The previous night they had picked up two boats, one filled with Afghans, the other with Syrians, but when they were both on board, a fight broke out between them. He expressed his disappointment that two groups who were literally and metaphorically in the same boat should still find conflict between them. It is dangerous to draw a general conclusion from a specific example – who knows what provoked it – but it was depressing all the same. Dangerous too to rely too much on a single testimony, but I’ve always been a credulous soul, and I liked him.