On Monday, 66-year-old is to be honoured in Athens for his actions on night both tragic and awe-inspiring
Michalis Protopsaltis does not see himself as a hero. When the news of the shipwreck came through, he did, he says, what any man in his position would do. The construction company owner dispatched a crane to the Kythira clifftop and, one by one, began saving the 80 Afghan immigrants scrambling for dear life in the waters below.
Three hours elapsed before the last refugee – originally bound for Italy on a yacht that had set sail from the Turkish town of İzmir – was winched to the top.
When he appeared, sodden and shell-shocked in the sand bag attached to the crane, Protopsaltis felt a pang of relief but also nausea at what he had seen: the men, women and children who had not been saved, who had flailed about in the sea, screaming and shouting as they tried to scale the jagged rocksthat had shipwrecked the boat.
On Monday, almost three weeks after the dramatic scenes unfolded on the island, the 66-year-old will be honoured in a ceremony at Athens’ ministry of maritime affairs. The events of that night, both tragic and awe-inspiring, are still reverberating. The Greek prime minister, Kyriakos Mitsotakis, has telephoned to thank him personally.
“What we witnessed that night was hellish, absolutely frightful, something I never thought I would ever see,” Protopsaltis told the Guardian. The sea was howling, the wind was howling, the waves were just so big and all these people down there in that rocky cove, trying to keep steady, trying somehow to get into the bag, sometimes two at a time but mostly one at a time, so the crane could lift them to the top.”
“Neither I, nor anyone else who was there, and there must have been around 100 of us, thought twice,” he said, adding that with the aid of ropes at least 20 had also survived. “Nobody forced us to help. All this talk about Greeks letting migrants die in the sea has infuriated me because it’s not true.”
The Greek media has also gone to town hailing the heroism of a man who could easily have chosen not to act when the yacht – a vessel with a maximum passenger capacity of 15 but carrying 95 people – ran aground off Diakofti, Kythira’s main port. Even his sisters in Sydney – for no Greek isle 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, hit home. “All this talk about heroism is overblown. What we did was only human. In Kythira we always help people in need. From America and Argentina to South Africa and Australia there are Kytherians and, so, all of us have lived the experience of migration. I don’t know what has been happening further afield [in Greece] but we’d never let people drown.”
Located off the south-east tip of the Peloponnese, between the Greek peninsula and Crete, Kythira (population 3,600) lies about 250 miles west of Turkey. The island is now on a route increasingly used by smugglers trying to avoid reinforced patrols in the east Aegean and travelling directly to Italy. Since August there have been five landings of boats on Kythira.
Further east on the day of the shipwreck, the bodies of 16 young African women were found floating off Lesbos. The two incidents, followed by the discovery of 92 naked people on Greece’s land border with Turkey, have further strained already tense ties between the two countries, with Athens accusing Ankara of deliberately ignoring people smugglers working along the Turkish coastline. Turkey’s president, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, has countered that Greece’s “oppressive policies” towards asylum seekers, including forcible evictions or pushbacks, has turned the Aegean into “a graveyard”.
The allegations of pushbacks – which are being facilitated by the EU border agency, Frontex, according to rights groups – has put a stain on Greece’s human rights record and embarrassed officials in Brussels where the bloc’s external border management policies, more generally, have come under criticism.
Sign up to This is Europe
The most pivotal stories and debates for Europeans – from identity to economics to the environment
Athens’ centre-right government has repeatedly denied indulging in summary deportations, claiming Turkey is deliberately “pushing forward” people across the land and sea frontiers that separate the two countries. Greece’s migration minister, Notis Mitarachi, has vowed to put what he has denounced as Turkey’s “weaponisation of migration” at the top of the agenda when he meets the UN general assembly president, 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 talk of pushbacks is either ignored by a media machine that is heavily pro-government or politicised by an opposition desperate to score points.
But for Protopsaltis politics played no part in the rescue even if he readily admits he is a government supporter. “There were people in danger, whose lives were at risk, all anyone thought about was how they could be saved,” he said.
“The truth is that civilised people want to behave in a civilised way. It was only when I got home that it occurred that while they accuse us of doing all these things, here we are, a group of people on a little island in Greece who saved 80 souls tonight because it was the right thing to do.”