Borderland

Reporting from the frontlines of history in Greece

Paradise lost

By Harrison Blackman

Four months have passed since the European Union outlawed undocumented migration from Turkey, effectively trapping new arrivals from Syria, Iraq, and Afghanistan in camps in Greece. As of July, United Nations statistics show that the agreement has cut arrivals by sea from the peak of 210,000 people a month in October 2015 to a markedly smaller 1,554 over the month of June.

Yet despite the relative quiet of Lesbos today,  the migration crisis continues to shadow the Greek island at the center of the storm. Frustration stews in the remaining camps, and Lesbos’ once-vibrant tourism scene has evaporated. No place on the island of 630 square miles appears to remain untouched.

“I think the island will never be the same,” said Marios Andriotis-Konstantinos, an adviser to the mayor of Mytilene, Lesbos’ capital and port city.

“But I hope the island will never be the same in a positive way.”

The Museum of the Lesvos Petrified Forest at Sigri. (Harrison Blackman)

The Museum of the Lesvos Petrified Forest at Sigri. (Harrison Blackman)

The Land

The third-largest Greek island, Lesbos is home to many landscapes. To the west, in Sigri, arid mountains give way to the sea. Sparse vegetation is juxtaposed with impressive petrified tree trunks, borne out of a massive volcanic eruption 20 million years ago, wiping out a dense jungle that was home to a prehistoric species named deinothere, a bizarre-looking elephant precursor. Sigri’s Museum of the Lesvos Petrified Forests hosts exhibits, a lecture hall, gift shop, cafe and  a theater — in spite of few visitors this summer.

At the island’s center, a large inlet hosts a wetland environment. Its primary residents: flamingos.

To the north, dense vegetation surrounds the charming village of Molyvos, which rests beneath a Byzantine castle, its ivy-canopied alleys sheltering gift shops and tavernas. Molyvos’ charm rivals that of the Greek island tourist mecca of Santorini—but with no one to see it. The same goes for the mountain village of Agiasos, legendary for its founding during the Byzantine wars of Iconoclasm in the 9th century. There, trinket sellers perk up at the infrequent sight of a tourist.

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Empty restaurant in Molyvos, Lesbos. (Harrison Blackman)

Glykeria Kontaxaki, of the Repanis travel agency in Mytilene, said television news networks create the impression that Lesbos continues to receive large waves of refugees by replaying footage of the island from 2015.

“They say it happens now, but it’s a huge mistake,” Kontaxaki said. “They don’t have the reality.”

An attempted coup in Turkey in mid-July also led to a wave of cancellations from Istanbul-based ferry operators, said Ismini Mamouni, who works at Gardenia, a Mytilene ice cream shop.

“Of course [the refugee crisis] has had a negative impact,” Mamouni said. “We sell things that are like a luxury.”

For Andriotis-Konstantinos, it’s a persistent image problem.

“Now I think everyone knows Lesbos,” Andriotis-Konstantinos said, “We want to detach Lesbos from the image of chaos and crisis.”

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The main gate of the Moria refugee camp. (Harrison Blackman)

The Camps

But the crisis remains. “Welcome to Moria Hills, the finest refugee camp in the world,” reads a local post from the anonymous social media app YikYak. The apparently sarcastic remark belies Lesbos’ ongoing struggles hosting a refugee population–as well as the island’s long history as a border zone, a gateway to the West.

Lesbos has long been an island on the edge—the final outpost between East and West. Even as far back as the mythical events of The Iliad, Lesbos is referred to as part of Priam’s Trojan kingdom before the Achaean (Greek) invasion.

At its shortest distance, Lesbos’ coastline is six miles from Turkey’s, making it a popular way point for refugees to enter Europe. From the east coast, Turkey appears as just a small hint of Asia Minor, perhaps all of Asia, that lies behind it. The minimal distance of crossing, however, disguises its peril. After charging refugees thousands of dollars, smugglers pack them aboard inflatable rafts whose motors often don’t have enough fuel to make the crossing. Sometimes smugglers use yachts, which  are marketed as safer. But these yachts often have been marked for scrap, and are far from up to the burden of being filled to the brim with passengers wearing faulty life jackets.

“The life vests are all fake,” Andriotis-Konstantinos alleged, filled with non-buoyant materials. (A handful, he acknowledged actually do float.)

If the crossing is successful and the boats are not intercepted by the Hellenic Coast Guard, which picks up migrants and brings them into Mytilene, or the Turkish coast guard, which brings them back to Turkey, the boat might land on the coast, perhaps near Skala Sikamenias, where an NGO named Lighthouse Relief greets refugees and directs to government registration points.

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The encampment of “The Lighthouse” NGO near Skala Sikamenias. (Harrison Blackman)

If a migrant makes it that far, he may end up in the Moria camp, a haunting former military base surrounded by three layers of razor wire. Riots broke out in Moria in June, a violent outbreak against the camp’s harrowing living conditions as well as a protest against boredom. The violence of the riots was shocking, according to Ilektra Koutsoumani, an aide worker for Medecins du Monde.

“You could see it was an anger outbreak, [its goal] to burn everything,” Koutsoumani said. In describing the severity of violence after NGO workers arrived on the scene following the riot, she said, “You could see brain.”

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View of mobile cantines serving refreshments and food to refugees at Kara Tepe refugee camp. (Harrison Blackman)

In contrast, nearby is the camp of Kara Tepe, described by some as a relative “summer camp.” Open and friendly, the camp is organized into ethnic “neighborhoods.” A small set-up of food trucks sits outside the camp, offering for sale Coca-Cola and potato chips.

“We call it a village,” said the camp’s chief officer, Stavros Mirogiannis. “Before this place, it’s hell. We made the hell, normal life. We try every day to make back the normal life.”

With the end of major refugee arrivals, the romanticism of rescue and volunteer aide have vanished as well, and as interest in the island and migrants has waned, many NGOs have departed.

“It’s so different,” said Shareen Elnaschie, an aide worker for Humanitarian Support Agency in Kara Tepe, contrasting today’s calm with the chaos that came before. “When I was here in December, it was emergency mode. It was sort of a high stress environment… [but now] everything is becoming increasingly formalized.”

Even for the migrants free to leave the camps, most are barred legally from leaving the island.

“For a lot of them, they’re just waiting for appointments,” Elnaschie said, explaining that for many migrants, asylum appointments with the government won’t take place untill December.

Amid the calm after the storm, there is a sense of purgatory. Lesbos can’t move on. Not yet.

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The main gate to a cemetery for drowned refugees in Kato Tritos, Lesbos. (Harrison Blackman)

Legacies

While Lesbos has faded from view in major media, its crisis remains. The loss of the 2016 tourist season, and the continued plight of migrants, continues to haunt the island.

Near the small village of Kato Tritos, a plot of land between olive groves and farms is hidden. A barbed wire fence and gate bars the entrance to a cemetery, the site of burial for drowned migrants, established due to the lack of space in existing cemeteries. From the gate a visitor can see the bright white headstones in the distance.

As Lesbos tries to reinvent itself, tragedy lingers, though some have seen hope in recent events.

“I think we are kind of optimistic about it,” Mamouni said. “People found evidence in their heart that otherwise they could not have found.”

But for local businesses, the struggle persists.

“We have to stop this thing,” Kontaxaki said. “We have to get to normal life.”

1 Comment

  1. Great article!

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