By Karolina Tagaris
ON BOARD THE AGIOS EFSTRATIOS, Greece (Reuters) - They waved, cheered and let out sighs of relief as their rubber boat, packed with dozens of mainly Syrian and Afghan refugees, approached the Greek coast guard ship that would rescue them at open sea near the island of Lesbos.
After being pulled aboard one by one, the men, women, and children staggered, exhausted and relieved, to the boat's rear, where they huddled alongside strangers on Monday and waited quietly to be transported to the shore.
They were among more than 300 people, including scores of children and babies, rescued in under two hours from six rubber dinghies by the Greek vessel Agios Efstratios, patrolling near the Turkish border.
By early afternoon, more than 1,500 refugees and migrants reached the eastern Aegean island, a sharp rise in the rate of arrivals from Turkey after days of gale force winds and freezing temperatures.
Over a million people fleeing war, persecution and poverty in the Middle East and Africa have taken rickety boats across the Mediterranean to Europe since early last year. Over 50,000 people have arrived in Greece in 2016, the United Nations' refugee agency, UNHCR, says.
Thousands have died trying to reach Europe, and on Monday alone 27 migrants, 11 of them children, drowned off Turkey's Aegean coast as they tried to reach a Greek island, the Turkish coast guard said.
"We left from death," said 28-year-old Esma, face framed by a cream-colored headscarf, who fled fighting in Syria's biggest city of Aleppo with her two children, hoping to reunite with her husband in Germany.
Sitting nearby, young girls consoled their crying siblings, one mother breastfed her hungry infant, while another woman kissed a copy of the Koran and held it up to her forehead.
For most on board, the hardest and most dangerous part of their journey will end once they reach Greece and continue their trek through the Balkans to wealthier northern Europe.
Eighteen-year-old English student Siba, who fled the Syrian city of Deir al-Zor, said her family spent 25 days trying to cross into Turkey from different entry points and five days on the Turkish coast, unable to board their boat to Greece because of choppy seas and storms.
Asked what drove them to leave Syria, she imitated the sound of explosions and said: "Our house is finished... My uncle is dead. He died in front of my eyes. His head was cut," she said.
Others spoke with sorrow of being forced to leave their homes. Mustafa, a 24-year-old mathematics student, also from Syria, said he longed for the time that refugees would be able to return safely to their country.
"No one wants to go. All the people want is to go back to Syria. If the war (ends), everyone will go to Syria and build the country," he said.
(editing by Ralph Boulton)