Greek ““Hero of the Aegean” Who Saved Thousands of Refugees Dies

It seems to always be the case that the most heroic individuals remain obscure even at the height of their courage, let alone later in life. Of course, that speaks even more to their heroism: they do good for its own sake, not for fame, glory, or external validation.

Thus, I doubt that Captain Kyriakos Papadopoulos, who died of a heart attack this past Thursday, would mind how little-known he is outside his native Greece and the global humanitarian community.  He was too busy being one of the thousands of unsung heroes that were conducting rescue operations throughout the Mediterranean following the “migrant crisis” that began in 2015.  During the peak migration flows from the Middle East into Greece, the Hellenic Coast Guard Captain, a 44-year-old father of two, feverishly conducted rescue operations aboard patrol vessel 605, saving over 5,000 lives in the waters between the Greek island of Lesbos and Turkey.

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For his dedication and selflessness, he was dubbed “the hero of the Aegean” or “the guardian angel of refugees” in Greek media, and was made the subject of an award-winning documentary about his efforts4.1 Miles (named after the short but treacherous distance between Lesbos and Turkey). It was at the 89th Academy Awards in 2017 that Papadopoulos displayed his characteristic humility and compassion, as recounted by the English-language Greek newspaper, The National Herald:

Asked about the awards and honors, Papadopoulos noted that “the greatest honor is knowing we saved ​​a two-year-old child who was trampled in the boat, pulled unconscious, and brought back to life, and the two hundred and more unaccompanied children and the over five thousand refugees we rescued by the end of 2014 until today.”

In the documentary, Papadopoulos expresses sympathy for the refugees and being at a loss to help console them. He even alluded to the random luck of geography in explaining how his country remains relatively stable while neighbors endure bloodshed and chaos.

In a way, I panic, too. I’m scared. I can’t reassure them …When I look into their eyes, I see their memories of war. They come from war. They escape the bombs that fall on their homes. And we see these families … losing each other in the Greek sea. In the sea of a peaceful country because of the way they have to cross.

Greek Maritime Minister Fotis Kouvelis said Papadopoulos “showed Europe what the values of humanity, solidarity, equality and peace mean to Greece”, while the mayor of Lesbos tweeted that his city is poorer following the captain’s loss. All this comes amid the continuing struggles of Greece to accommodate its refugees, most of whom languish in overcrowded and dilapidated camps, or live on the streets of major cities.

Despite humanity’s failure to sort out the refugee crisis—and for that matter the conflicts and calamities that precipitate it—I can derive some solace from the many unsung heroes like Papadopoulos who are still on the ground doing all that they can to stem the tide of human misery.

 

The Judge Who Stood Up to the Nazis

KreyssigLothar Kreyssig was the only German judge to oppose the Nazi’s Action T4 euthanasia program, which targeted those with mental and physical disabilities and other “undesirables”.

Appointed a district court judge in 1928 during the Weimar Republic, Kreyssig opposed the Nazis from the start: he resisted pressure to join the Nazi Party—citing his need to maintain judicial independence—and joined the Confessing Church, which opposed Nazi-backed efforts to form a “Protestant Reich Church”. He consistently displayed contempt and insubordination toward the regime, including slipping out of a ceremony in his court when a bust of Hitler was unveiled; openly protesting the suspension of three judges who failed to enforce “Aryan laws”; and referring to Nazi church policies as “injustice masquerading in the form of law”. Continue reading

The Japanese Diplomat Who Saved Thousands of Jews

Chiune “Sempo” Sugihara was a Japanese government official who, as vice consul of Japan in Lithuania, helped over 6,000 Jews flee certain death during WWII, risking his career and his life. Hundreds of Jewish refugees arrived in Sugihara’s consulate, trying to get a visa to travel to Japan. Unsurprisingly, the Japanese Empire had very strict immigration procedures, requiring applicants to pay large fees and to have a third destination lined up to exit Japan. The dutiful Sugihara contacted the Foreign Ministry three times for instructions, being told each time that he could not issue the visas.

533101_10151430822115472_1457010455_nAware of the mounting danger Jews faced, Sugihara ignored his superiors and issued ten-day visas to Jews. This level of disobedience was highly unusual – and risky – within the stringent culture of the militaristic Japanese government. With the Soviet Union occupying Lithuania – though not yet at war with Japan – he persuaded Soviet officials to allow Jews to travel through the country via the Trans-Siberian Railway, which would take them to the Pacific near Japan. He reportedly spent 18-20 hours a day handwriting visas, producing a typical month’s worth of transit documents daily. These were to heads of households, which allowed entire families to leave via a single visa. The exceedingly polite diplomat had the refugees call him “Sempo”, a variation of his name that was easier for them to pronounce. Continue reading

Nobel Peace Prize 2019 Highlights Sexual Violence and Those Who Fight It

Today’s announcement of the Nobel Peace Prize winners for 2019 made my day, not only because it is extremely well deserved, but also because it brings attention to a sadly relevant problem. As the BBC reports:

The 2018 Nobel Peace Prize has gone to campaigners against rape in warfare, Nadia Murad and Denis Mukwege.

Ms Murad is an Iraqi Yazidi who was tortured and raped by Islamic State militants and later became the face of a campaign to free the Yazidi people.

Dr Mukwege is a Congolese gynaecologist who, along with his colleagues, has treated tens of thousands of victims.

Some 331 individuals and organisations were nominated for the prestigious peace award this year.

The winners announced in the Norwegian capital Oslo on Friday won the award for their “efforts to end the use of sexual violence as a weapon of war”, Berit Reiss-Andersen, the Nobel committee chair, said.

The pair both made a “crucial contribution to focusing attention on, and combating, such war crimes”, Ms Reiss-Andersen added.

I learned about Murad years ago, when Islamic State suddenly swept through Iraq and Syria, stunning the world with its rise, brutality, and genocidal aims.  However, I had not appreciated how she persevered against the unfathomable suffering she endured, using it as a source of strength to motivate her activism:

Ms Murad did not just lose her mother in the genocide. She endured three months as a sex slave at the hands of IS militants. She was bought and sold several times and subjected to sexual and physical abuse during her captivity.

After escaping, she became an activist for the Yazidi people, campaigning to help put an end to human trafficking and calling on the world to take a tougher line on rape as a weapon of war.

Ms Murad described her escape in a BBC interview in 2016, detailing how the women who were held captive were treated by IS.

She was awarded the Vaclav Havel Human Rights Prize by the Council of Europe in 2016 and called for an international court to judge crimes committed by IS in her acceptance speech in Strasbourg.

Ms Murad, the first Iraqi to win the award, was named the UN’s first goodwill ambassador for survivors of human trafficking later that year.

I am eager to learn more about this incredible woman, in particular through a documentary about her life and activism highlighted by the LA Times:

There are miles of mass graves, millions of refugees. Only some are heard. But Murad, whose power comes from a brokenness inside, will not let her people in northern Iraq be forgotten.

She is a reluctant heroine, a young woman of unflinching conviction and rustic grace. She was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize — sharing it with Denis Mukwege, a Congolese doctor — on Friday for her work to end sexual violence in war zones. Murad was kidnapped and made a sex slave when Islamic State fighters overran Yazidi villages and towns in Iraq in 2014. She escaped months later and made it to Europe.

The new documentary, “On Her Shoulders,” which opens in Los Angeles on Oct. 24, is an evocative portrait of this unwitting activist who lost family, endured rape and torture and became the eloquent if at times overwhelmed voice of 400,000 Yazidis, a religious minority, driven from their homes. Hers was the poetry of witness in a land of atrocity, a tale carried by a seamstress to the world’s capitals.

Directed by Alexandria Bombach, the film follows Murad for three months as she calls attention to her people’s plight, traveling from Berlin to New York to Canada. Her mother and brothers had been killed; at least 3,200 women and girls remained in captivity. This was her story, unfolded in weary persistence to politicians and ambassadors, many of whom praised and photographed her but could do little to stop the carnage.

The disquieting truth of “On Her Shoulders” is Murad’s gradual realization — as if layers of a bitter fruit exposed — that a village girl, even one with Amal Clooney as her lawyer, cannot quickly budge the world’s bureaucracy and cruel political designs. This point is crystallized when she is told that it will be a decade before destroyed Yazidi towns are rebuilt and refuges return home, a time when her village will be a place of no men and widows dressed in black. She cannot fathom this.

An incredible human being who is a testament to the courage and tenacity of oppressed peoples everywhere.

Dr. Mukwege is equally inspiring, prompting me to write a blog about him over four years ago, when he was still being touted as a potential prize recipient. I invite you to read more about his life and work, and to donate to his medical foundation (which now proudly displays a banner announcing his Nobel Peace Prize win).

Dr. Mukwege founded Panzi Hospital in his native town of Bukavu in 1999, just one year after the start of the Second Congo War, Africa’s deadliest conflict, and one in which the incidence of gang rape was systemic. Located near the heart of the conflict zone, the hospital was strained by increased demand for both general medical services and gynecological surgery; Dr. Mukwege remains the facility’s only gynecologist, and one of only two doctors in all of eastern Congo specializing in reconstructive surgery.

Over the past 16 years, the hospital has treated over 30,000 women, many of them repeat visitors; many patients arrive right after being gang-raped, “sometimes naked, usually bleeding and leaking urine and faeces from torn vaginas” according to Dr. Mukwege’s own horrific testimony. Due to the still-high demand for his service, he often performs up to 10 surgeries a day during his 18-hour shifts (though the war ended in 2003, lingering and related conflicts continue).

His diligent and desperately needed work would be more than enough, but he has also used his firsthand experience to bring attention to this crisis and call for an end to the rampant rape that persists, often to dehumanize victims and traumatize families. According to the BBC, he saw the award as an opportunity to show rape survivors that “they are not alone”.

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Whenever I find myself losing faith in humanity, I will just think of these two and the millions of others like them.

Khassan Baiev

d091d0b0d0b8d0b5d0b22c_d0a5d0b0d181d0b0d0bd_d096d183d0bdd0b8d0b4d0bed0b2d0b8d187Some years ago, as an  undergrad at FIU, I had chance meeting with one of the greatest heroes I’ve ever known, a man I hadn’t even heard of until that day. It has stayed with me to this day as an enduring reminder of the many unsung and unknown heroes around us who go about their lives without praise, notice, or popular knowledge.

Khassan Baiev is a Russian-born doctor, now living in the U.S., who risked his life to indiscriminately help those in need in the midst of a bloody warzone. As a sickly and frail Chechen youth growing up in the Soviet Union, he spent years building up his mind and body, eventually becoming both a pro athlete and a surgeon (at around fifty years old, I recall him looking more fit than some people my age). He held strongly to the ideals of humanism, altruism, and the Hippocratic oath. As a Muslim and non-Russian, he faced discrimination along the way, but ultimately made a promising career in Moscow.

In 1994, when Chechnya attempted to break from the Russian Federation, the response was horrific. The Russian Army leveled almost every building in the capital, Grozny, and was virtually indiscriminate about the places it bombed and shelled. Perhaps 200,000 were killed in the course of the conflict, and many more psychologically and physically disabled. Dr. Baiev left the safety of distant Russian capital and went where he was needed; he was perhaps the only surgeon in the entire region. At great risk to his life, he adhered to his duty as a doctor and treated everyone and anyone he could, including Chechen militants and Russian soldiers. He explained how his Hippocratic oath, as a doctor, adhered him to helping whoever needed it, regardless of their allegiances.

It was enough dealing with hundreds of patients in the middle of a war zone, but given the circumstances, Dr. Baiev was soon forced to make due with few resources. When his hospital in Grozny was destroyed by Russian shelling, he moved his operations to an abandoned clinic in his hometown of Alkan Kala, restoring it with the help of locals and his own funds. Anesthesia was handmade; running water, electricity, and gas were typically unavailable. Wounds had to be dressed with sour cream or egg yolks. Baiev relied on household tools for his procedures, including a power drill for brain surgery and a hacksaw for amputations; he did 67 amputations and eight brain procedures in the span of just three days. He and his nurses, some of whom were killed, even donated their own blood for patients. This went on for six years of almost constant warfare.

Given the overwhelming demand for his services, Baiev would go days without sleeping, taking in an average of 40 to 50 patients. He never asked questions of those in need — he simply did his job and moved on to the next patient. He and the village elders kept the peace between the soldiers on both sides, who were sometimes in the same hospital, giving them equal medical treatment. But his willingness to help anyone put him on bad terms with both sides of the war, each of whom regarded him as a traitor. Bounties and arrests were put on his head. He was kidnapped several times and almost killed several more. He remained to do his job anyway, and only after an official warrant for his arrest did he reluctantly leave to America for the sake of his family.

He has returned to Chechnya several times since the war, even organizing a group dedicated to providing affordable medical care and to raising awareness of the brutality of the conflict. He had all his procedures recorded as evidence of Russian atrocities, which the Russian government denied (allegedly going so far as to kill some of his patients as a cover up). I saw some of the horrific footage myself; I still can’t imagine how someone could take all that trauma daily for several years.

Unfortunately, there is still much for him to do, as rates of birth defects, psychological trauma, and cancer remain high from the effects of the war. As I speak he still goes to his native republic to help despite occasional threats on his life.

I subsequently purchased his book, The Oath: A Surgeon Under Fire, and had the honor of having him autograph it. When I saw him up close, I was struck by how large and strong he looked; the man was in damn good shape. Yet he had a really somber and weathered look to him, and I could feel that presence as well. He had a firm handshake and a force of personality, but at the same time maintained a quiet and humble demeanor, fitting for a man who risked certain death for simply doing his job without any want of attention or money. He is exactly the kind of man I hope to be, and exactly the sort of person who stays with you years later, inspiring you to be the best damn person you can be.

Volunteer Rescuers of Migrants Acquitted of Criminal Charges

The sheer humanity of people in the face of suffering and injustice will never cease to captivate and inspire me. A couple of days ago, five individuals — three Spaniards and two Danes — were acquitted of charges in Greece of facilitating illegal immigration into they country when they volunteered to save migrants during the height of the crisis last year. According to the New York Times:

“This is a strong signal to other NGOs and just people working for humanity,” said one of the Danish defendants, Salam Aldeen, the founder of Team Humanity, speaking by telephone after the verdict. “Saving lives is not a crime, rescuing people is not a crime.”

Mr. Aldeen said he was now eager to return home after nearly two years in Greece — his pretrial conditions included being barred from leaving the country. He continued working as a rescuer during that time, he said.

“I lost everything but I did not lose my humanity,” he said.

Along with Mr. Aldeen and another Dane, Mohammed el-Abassi, who also worked for Team Humanity, three Spanish firefighters who volunteered for the Spanish group Proem-Aid faced as many as 15 years in prison.

The five were arrested on Jan. 14, 2016, just a few hours after successfully rescuing 51 migrants, according to Mr. Aldeen, the owner of the boat on which the five were working.

Not long after their operation, the men said, they had alerted the Greek authorities to another migrant boat in trouble, without approaching it. They were arrested soon after. “We didn’t even see the boat,” Mr. Aldeen had contended.

Continue reading

The Cop Who Threw Himself at a Suicide Bomber

Afghanistan’s reputation as a lawless, war-torn place is perhaps surpassed only by its reputation for rampant corruption (which doubtless accounts for the intractability of many of its other problems). Yet millions of Afghans risk their lives everyday in the hopes of creating a better society for themselves and their children, and tens of thousands more have died toward that noble and seemingly distant end.

One of them was 25-year-old Afghan Police Lieutenant Sayed Basam Pacha. He was a hardworking and ambitious cop who despised corruption and the widespread distrust of the country’s security services. He even dreamed of being a high ranking police officer or government minister so as to do more good for his country. He ultimately gave his life in accordance with his noble and virtuous goals.  Continue reading

The Little-Known Russian Soldier Who Saved the World

stanislaw-jewgrafowitsch-petrow-2016Despite helping the world avert a nuclear holocaust over forty years ago, Stanislav Petrov is still little known even in his native Russia, let alone in the United States, which he saved from mistaken nuclear retaliation.

In fact, he died this past May at age 77 in his home near Moscow with little fanfare or media attention; only through the efforts of an intrepid German activist, who sought to contact him this month to wish him a happy birthday, did this fact make it to major media outlets.

USA Today recounts the fateful night that the fate of the world rested on the shoulders of a Soviet lieutenant colonel:

Stanislav Petrov was the duty officer monitoring an early warning system from a bunker outside Moscow on Sept. 26, 1983, when the radar screen suddenly appeared to depict a missile inbound from the United States.

“All my subordinates were confused, so I started shouting orders at them to avoid panic,” Petrov told the Russian news agency RT in 2010. “I knew my decision would have a lot of consequences.”

The alert siren wailed. A message on the bunker’s main screen reported that four more missiles had been launched, he said. Petrov had 15 minutes to determine whether the threat was real and report to his commanders.

“My cozy armchair felt like a red-hot frying pan and my legs went limp,” he told RT. “I felt like I couldn’t even stand up. That’s how nervous I was.”

Even on a good day in U.S.-Soviet relations, such an incident would have been believable. But to top it off, this was a period of increased tensions, as less than a month before, the Russians had shot down a Korean civilian airline that had accidentally drifted into Soviet airspace, killing all 269 passengers, including a U.S. congressman. Both sides had subsequently exchanged warnings and threats, so what Petrov and his troops saw on the radar was perfectly believable.

It would also need to be addressed quickly, as the presumed missiles would strike the country in just twenty minutes. NPR recounts how Petrov somehow managed to keep a cool head and get a handle on the situation:

“There was no rule about how long we were allowed to think before we reported a strike,” Petrov told the BBC. “But we knew that every second of procrastination took away valuable time, that the Soviet Union’s military and political leadership needed to be informed without delay. All I had to do was to reach for the phone; to raise the direct line to our top commanders — but I couldn’t move. I felt like I was sitting on a hot frying pan.”

Petrov sensed something wasn’t adding up.

He had been trained to expect an all-out nuclear assault from the U.S., so it seemed strange that the satellite system was detecting only a few missiles being launched. And the system itself was fairly new. He didn’t completely trust it.

After several nerve-jangling minutes, Petrov didn’t send the computer warning to his superiors. He checked to see if there had been a computer malfunction.

He had guessed correctly.

“Twenty-three minutes later I realized that nothing had happened,” he said in 2013. “If there had been a real strike, then I would already know about it. It was such a relief.”

Imagine being tasked with defending your country and having only a split second to make the call. Strategically, he would have been within his right to alert his superiors so they could retaliate accordingly, as per both Soviet and U.S. protocols. Instead, he relied on his cool reasoning and training to make the right call, despite the obvious risks.

It was later revealed that the false positive was due to Russian satellites mistaking sunlight reflecting off of clouds for nuclear missiles; the simplicity of such an error makes one wonder how more such near-misses haven’t happened — provided they do not remained classified or went unreported.

Indeed, the incident remained under wraps for fifteen years, until a Russian official mentioned the incident well after the fall of the USSR, and a German magazine picked up the story, making Petrov a minor celebrity.

In all the time before the story emerged, Petrov’s heroism was officially neither rewarded nor even acknowledged; in fact, he was formally reprimanded for “failing to provide property paperwork”, which was no doubt due to his superior’s embarrassment of such a potentially catastrophic error.

In 2013, Petrov was awarded the Dresden International Peace Prize, and 2014 saw the release of The Man Who Saved the World, a Danish documentary about the incident. Otherwise, Petrov remained little known until his belatedly-reported death attracted some attention from Western and Russian media — a seemingly surprising fate for a man who saved the world, but perhaps an indication of how much we take nuclear security for granted, given how many other potentially-disastrous incidents, errors, and accidents have occurred or been narrowly averted (and those are just the ones we know about).

While it is sad that a man who saved the world should die largely-forgotten, perhaps it is a fitting death for someone as evidently humble and magnanimous as Petrov was. He once told RT in 2010:

At first when people started telling me that these TV reports had started calling me a hero, I was surprised. I never thought of myself as one. After all, I was literally just doing my job.

Something tells me he was more than happy to have simply saved the world and live into old age, with or without any credit or fanfare. It is a good thing there was someone like Petrov around that night, and hopefully there are more people like him in these delicate and potentially earth-shattering positions.

(As it happens, Stanislav Petrov is not the only Russian soldier to have helped the world avert nuclear disaster during a tense time — look up the story of Vasili Arkhipov, another soft-spoken and humble officer who made the correct call not to launch a nuclear strike that could very well have initiated all-out war.)

My Serendipitous Garden

I decided at the last minute to pop into Home Depot to get some plants for the garden. It just so happens the distributor had just arrived with a fresh batch, which the delivery men were kind enough to assist me with. We struck up a nice conversation and I left with gratitude to their thoughtfulness and my lucky timing.

As if that were not enough, as I was on the way out, one of the guys calls me back and starts giving me all these plants that they were going to take back for composting (since they were on the shelf so long, despite being otherwise health). Needless to say, I was left touched and grateful.

Now I have an even bigger and more fun project to look forward to. Most importantly, this casual display of kindness really put me in a good mood

Turkish Couple Spends Wedding Feeding Refugees

Speaking of moral exemplars (in reference to my previous post), CBC has reported that a newly couple in Turkey has used their wedding banquet, and all the money given to them for the occasion, to personally feed over 4,000 Syrian refugees. The groom’s father pitched the idea, which the couple and their guests more than happy to make it happen.

You can see a video in the hyperlink above, or catch some of it from Al Jazeera’s video below.

What a way to kick of a loving union.