tragedy & apocalyptic Mytilene

Today, Moria burned, fatally, again, killing at least one child, though rumours suggest more. This comes after weeks of horror stories, volunteer evacuations, cries – pleas – for help. Fallen on deaf ears for the millionth time.

Here’s my not-so-little account of the last few weeks on Lesvos and Samos, in some kind of chronological order, containing everything I can remember and probably missing lots of important things, but there’s been so unbelievably many horrible things happening that it’s a challenge to remember them all…

I left Lesvos 5 weeks ago, just after a peaceful protest was met with tear gas for the first time in what would become the first in a series of violent attacks. As I left, I naively thought that would be it – the police had flexed their muscles, the angry locals had displayed their displeasure by attacking a volunteer house and threatening some volunteers and refugees. Things calmed down a little after, and I assumed it had just been a bad couple of days, and that it would all blow over.

While I was on Samos giving clothes, baby food and nappies to the residents of the smaller but arguably equally awful Vathy camp, things on Lesvos escalated beyond anyone’s imagination. The night I was originally due to return (but had already changed my plans due to personal reasons) was the night 200 refugees walked from Moria to the ferry terminal, after a rumour spread that the borders to the rest of Europe had opened. My heart broke as I thought of people dismantling their “homes” to start this new life – only to be aggressively pushed back on the two-hour walk to the camp.

Hundreds of riot police descended on the island and were attacked by locals. More and more volunteers and refugees were attacked, until eventually almost all volunteers were evacuated from the island. They were flown or ferried to Athens or Samos, with the option of working with NGOs there or just continuing their journeys home. Exhausted and broken, many chose the latter option. Some Lesvos volunteers came to join us on Samos, with stories of the trauma they had gone through. I remember the first meeting we had with them as they spoke about the state of Lesvos – myself and Julia, who I went to Samos from Lesvos with, broke down in tears. How could our beautiful Lesvos have become this way? How could we live with ourselves knowing all the people we loved there had been left to fend for themselves? It wasn’t news to us, of course, but there was something about hearing it first-hand that we couldn’t quite handle. I wanted to go back, but at that time there were blockades everywhere, especially at the port and airport. Anyone who was clearly a visitor – be it a volunteer, a photographer, journalist, doctor – was at risk.

Turkey opened its border, encouraging anyone who wanted to go to Europe to go, while people on Lesvos gathered by the sea to push the refugees back. Any volunteer found on the shore was arrested, so people trying to find safety were left with no help. The Hellenic coastguard was filmed tormenting migrant boats, and refugees were left floating for hours, watched but not helped. Greece announced it would accept no new asylum claims for a month. News reached us that hundreds of people were being held at the port in Samos with next to nothing, and on Lesvos anyone who managed to make it to the shore was being placed on a ship and held there with hundreds of others.

Samos then started to show signs that the tension was spreading. It was the night that I couldn’t help but go to bed super early. There were about 16 of us staying in the weirdest house you can imagine, but it was a happy place, filled with laughter, dancing and endless hugs and support. I left the rest of them playing guitar and singing in the kitchen. I crawled to bed straight after dinner at 9pm and immediately fell asleep. I woke up to Julia’s eyes wider than I’d ever seen – she was screaming at me to get up. I didn’t understand. Why was everyone running everywhere? It sounded like we were in a war zone. What’s happening? I asked her. She said she didn’t know but I needed to go and hide in the kitchen. Suddenly I knew, and it seemed likely that we were going to need to run – so I grabbed my bag, which I knew contained my passport and purse, I grabbed a jacket and slipped on my flipflops (not fantastic escape shoes but easy to put on in a hurry).

Hold on, I’ll explain the layout of the house a little… It’s on a hill, so by the front door, which went out onto the street, was our bedroom, then two floors down is the kitchen where the backdoor is, leading you out into the back garden.

I walked out of the bedroom with banging echoing through the house, the doors shaking. I ran down the first set of stairs, my legs shaking. I realised I had forgotten my phone – I couldn’t leave it. By this point, I had realised that people were trying to break through the door and as I ran past it again I wondered if it would happen at that moment. It didn’t. I grabbed my phone and made my way to the kitchen. We sat there in the dark for what felt like hours – it could only have been minutes. We weren’t all there and I didn’t know where the others were or what was happening upstairs, but I was frozen in this sleepy-adrenaline-filled state. I could hear people coming down the stairs – don’t be them – and I’ve never been so happy to see the beautiful face of our volunteer coordinator. She fell straight into my arms, and it will forever be the nicest hug I’ve ever received. It turned out the neighbours had seen the people – whoever they were – throwing rocks at our house and had called the police. Spooked, they ran away. They had managed to hit one volunteer in the head with a rock that went through the one window that didn’t have the shutters closed, but he was okay. The thing is, now, I don’t think they really wanted to hurt us, just scare us; just let us know that they didn’t want us there. It worked.

That night, at about midnight, we were evacuated and sent to different houses all over the island. I spent the night in a small double bed with my two best Samos friends, restless, tearful, knowing we were safe then but wondering what could happen next, having constant dreams of running. We never went back to stay in that house. We went back to get our stuff a few days later and the noises of the stairs rattling as I walked took me back to that night, and as my heartrate quickened, although I missed the comradery that the eclectic space had encouraged, I couldn’t help but be grateful not to spend another night there.

From then on, we changed a little as people, I think, all a little more frayed around the edges, but things didn’t escalate. We got a stern “you need to go home because we don’t want you here” from a lady one morning, and I found myself looking down more and more as I passed people on the street, instead of smiling, but other than that, things were fine. Samos hasn’t had the massive influx of refugees that Lesvos has, nor has it had the media attention nor the deployment of hundreds of riot police – things are tense but less-so.

And then there’s corona. We had already had what seemed like a really premature warning of what could happen if things with corona escalated – we were told 2 or 3 weeks ago that if we wanted to leave, we could and should do it then, to avoid getting stuck. The thing is that any health system will be pushed to the point of breaking, but here it is already stretched. But still it seemed mad at the time – there was just one case in Greece at that point, and I was still in the ‘avoiding thinking about it’ phase. There’s already so much to think about here that I just don’t let myself think about anything much outside of this bubble. But some people left, including a statistician who was convinced the whole thing was about to explode and he didn’t want to get trapped here – I’m sorry, man, that I rolled my eyes at you thinking you were a bit crazy. Of course, in the last week, it’s been impossible not to think about our dear Covid-19.

Friday night was my last night on Samos before returning to Lesvos, and it also was, it turned out, the last night for a while that I would spend in a tavern as all bars, restaurants, cafes…anything that encourages people to gather, have been closed.

The port was intense as I arrived in Mytilene. Ushered along by men in black wearing masks, whilst looking towards the edge of the pier where I could see that refugees had been let off the ship they’re currently being held on  – just for a break to get some food and water. It was hot and loud and a bit of an attack on the senses.

If you’ve never been to Mytilene, you should go one day. Not now, but one day. It’s by far my favourite city. Within weeks of living here, it felt like home. It has a population of 30,000 people, a long street of shops and an array of bars, taverns and take-aways. It is always buzzing. Drinking and eating are such huge parts of Greek life that the cafes and bars always have people sitting inside and out. There’s chatter and cars and people walking; there’s coffee and cigarettes everywhere, all times of day and night. The sky is almost always blue, the sun shining down on the port. You can walk alone just smiling to yourself, it’s so pretty, and warm in every way. I returned on Saturday morning to a ghost town. All tables and chairs in every café were piled up so as to display the fact that the establishment was following the new rules. I kept thinking of a quote from the Sex and the City movie “Our pre-war apartment looked a lot different post-war.” I don’t like the word war being used so flippantly but that’s how it felt: post-war Mytilene, although physically unchanged, seemed so completely different.

As soon as I had dropped my stuff at my new temporary home, I made my way to One Happy Family, or at least, what is left (read my previous post about the night OHF went on fire). It took my breath away. I had accepted that the school had gone, it was clear from the photos, but the damage to the main centre was so much worse than it seemed in the pictures. My eyes welled as I remember all the happy days spent there – and they really were all happy days. People look at me perplexed when I say I left OHF for a bit because I was too happy. “I’m sorry?” Well, I didn’t come here to be happy, I came to help. If I’m having a good time – then surely I’m not doing enough. I went to Samos to do some hard graft because that’s surely what I should be doing. But I realised I’d left my whole heart behind in OHF and had to go back and get it. I had been waiting to hear when it would reopen so that I could return, when I got the news that it had burned down. Now there’s certainly some hard graft to be done, and I have no idea where we begin, but it won’t happen now. We planted a couple of almond trees and said goodbye to old OHF and hello to the future, trying to focus on the positives as is always the way in OHF. It was hard and it will continue to be hard for everyone for as long as OHF is closed, but the trees represent hope, and as the sun beamed down on us, the hottest it’s been this year, things felt more optimistic.

That night, however, we were told of rumours that suggested it was best to stay inside. So, I locked my doors, closed my shutters and curled up in bed watching Friends – forever my go-to in times of stress. I heard noises outside, banging, and I froze. There’s no way anyone could know I was there, but my paranoid mind took me back in time. The banging continued for a long time and I realised it was someone doing – for some unknown reason – some night-time DIY in the garden near to mine. I do think that it’s more or less safe here now, and we’re well supported, both by the NGOs and our landlords, but it will take a while for everyone to shake this feeling. Most volunteers have gone for now, at the advice of the NGOs given that they could at that point no longer guarantee their safety, and now due to corona it will be a while before anyone new can or should come.

Today, we were just outside Moria for an hour or two greeting some of the OHF helpers. I hadn’t seen them in 5 weeks, and it was so nice to see them again, and to see them see us, still here. I cannot stand the thought of them thinking we’d all gone, even though many people had no choice – the refugees really have no choice but to stay, no matter how dangerous or dire the situation is. It was a true moment of solidarity. Everyone seemed so chilled, so happy. We left, a little chilly from the cold wind (yesterday was summer but today is winter) but happy to have seen them. Then we saw the fire engine pass us. I knew it was going to Moria, but assumed or hoped it was just small fire gone a little wrong. Then we saw the videos. Flames towering over the camp and smoke billowing. I still don’t know how many people have died, but I know one child has. I don’t even have words for this anymore. The camp was made for 3,000 and now has 20,000 and absolutely no evacuation plan. This is I think the third fatal fire in a Lesvos camp since I arrived, and now corona is chapping at the gate, but still Europe refuses to act. Still these people are left with beyond insufficient support.

It’s such a bizarre time for the whole world, when we really don’t know what we’re going to wake up to – another 5,000 corona cases and hundreds of deaths? Another border closed? Further clamp-downs, lockdowns, shutdowns? For now, in Greece, we’re being advised to stay in, avoid gatherings, queues aren’t allowed to contain more than 5 people inside, but so far we’re still pretty free. As for tomorrow, who the fuck knows. And for the refugees it’s a whole other level of uncertainty that we can’t even begin to imagine.

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