The phoenix that should not arise from its ashes again
While I am enjoying a belated holiday on another Greek island called Kythira, the news hits the world. On this other island, Lesvos, the largest European refugee camp burnt to the ground.
There had been tension building up this last week, even more than over the last few years. People in camps have been in a complete lockdown since May in an effort to curb the spread of the virus. This measure, reportedly designed at protecting both the locals and the refugees, was, however, not accompanied by adequate provision of extra hygiene or water within the camps. The number of volunteers allowed into the camp was reduced to a minimum, reducing to a minimum the little pleasure and comfort they used to have as well. While some Greek locals showed themselves being openly fascist extremists, vocally expressing themselves towards refugees, the local police prevented refugees from going into town in order to avoid conflicts.
A special Covid-19 clinic built by Doctors Without Borders volunteers has suddenly been taken down by the local authorities. Somehow another organization, Movement on the Ground, is able to build a clinic on the other side of the island – with other money, Dutch money, tax payers money, while the clinic on the other side had just been torn down. Politics at its worst, as you can read in this great article.
At the same time, the plan is there. Decisions are made that Moria camp will be shut down after the summer. The word was out on the street since last year, but last week we read on the social media: ‘Yesterday it was announced by the Ministry of Immigration and Asylum, that there will be built a fence around Moria, at a cost of 854.000 Euros, by a local contractor, due to be finished in only two months. Also land areas around the existing structure in Moria has been rented, to build this new closed structure, a prison for people seeking safety.’ (5 sept ’20 – Aegean Boat Report).
Being refugees seeking shelter in an overcrowded camp (holding 13000 instead of 3000), the news must have reached them they will be prisoners now. Closing down the hell as they know it, to replace it with an even worse place: a prison, run by the military. ‘… when we talk about guard towers, double fencing with a dead zone six meters wide, controlled entry-exit with cards and fingerprints, 24-hour surveillance system with cameras, baggage control systems and metal detectors, we are no longer talking about a camp, but a prison.’ (idem, Aegean Boat Report)
So now some people started a fire. ‘Rumors were already foreseeing it’, as Rouddy tells us in the Zoom call we have on Sunday, five days after the first nightly fire. ‘Something bad was going to happen.’
We can only speculate. It might have been the fascist locals, who want all of those refugees off their island. At the same time, it might have been some angry or panicking refugees. Angry and afraid they all are. Whether one of them could start a fire out of protest? 1 out of 13000, probably one could. Maybe a few. Their protest would be very understandable. Although putting all of them in some danger, this might be a good way to regain some attention to this politically completely neglected crisis. Perhaps a natural disaster could create a reason for the EU to evacuate all of them, like they would do with their own kin, or even for people in New Orleans or Bangladesh – victims of natural phenomena that drive people away from their homes. These refugees in Moria too deserve a home. Why does the disaster need to come from Mother Nature herself, for people to earn the right to be rescued?
I can understand at least one of them would try and test this. After all, they have nothing to lose.
In the Zoom call there are fifty to sixty people present. Rikko from Walk of Shame EU, the group organising these Zoom calls, is hosting it and lets three people who were in Moria last week reflect on the situation.
It is not about how it happened. It doesn’t even matter. Why would we need to point fingers? If we do point fingers, we would point at EU politics, driving the crisis over the top.
Rouddy, a musician, working with Musicians without Borders, who connect European residential artists with refugee artists, is in Moria, and he tells us: ‘That night, it was what we were waiting for, we knew this black day was coming. There have been small fires since May. But after that they locked people inside the camp. The previous days people called me: “Maybe Monday something will happen, people will demonstrate.” I tried to ask questions. There were 70 corona cases, but they put all them in quarantine.
I was a bit afraid, everybody knew something would happen. Sunday passed. Monday was quiet. Tuesday I received this call: “Something is going wrong.” Corona patients had escaped the isolation boxes. We don’t know if the fire was caused by people from the camp or locals.
We didn’t know how it could spread so quickly. Inside the camp was a prison with a few hundred people inside. I asked, where are they? The police came and opened the prison. Go out, go out. Moria was burning everywhere. I couldn’t sleep. Nobody knew where to go. It was a modern hell.’
The winds on those days, I’d been feeling them too, being here on Kythira, another one of thousand Greek islands. Here they were strong, windforce 7. While they gave us some waves in the sea, in Moria it made the whole camp burn down.
Tawab, a former refugee who used to work in Moria camp, says: ‘The fire spread quickly. In order to help each other, we always have a group chat, that’s how people told us there’s a fire. And then, another fire, then five or six…’
Matthias is the third person that we meet on the Zoom call. He’s a theatre maker, volunteering in Moria for quite some time now, staying in his own place in another village.
‘I’ve just got home when I found out through Facebook that a fire happened. This time it was different than before. I jumped on my scooter but it broke down after 5 minutes, so I walked for 1,5 hours. I found roadblocks by the police preventing people from entering Moria, but I just went off the road through the olive groves. I got there and it was just a mess, fires everywhere. 13.000 people running, screaming, being everywhere. Some people were looking for others, some asleep on the streets. I’ve never seen such a big fire. There were strong winds.
In the middle of the smoking jungle I saw a man and asked him: ‘Are you okay, can I do anything for you?’
He said: ‘I am good, thank you.’ But I found out it was just so valuable for him that someone gave him some attention. He was thankful, so I continued. I stayed between 1 and 5 in the morning. Most people were out at that time. The fires were burning like crazy. It was just crazy.’
‘Many people from the main camp had fled into the woods, where it was also crowded. I was just searching for this little boy, Jawad, who seemed to be lost. A few days ago, he gave a speech in a movie of the activist/artist Tinkerbell, about human rights. I called his family and said: ‘I am gonna find him!’ I managed to find him behind a huge fire.’.
So these volunteering heroes tried to help out wherever they could.
‘But the police accepted no one,’ Rouddy tells us. ‘They stopped us, while nobody had food. We tried to find a way to bring people food. The first day people didn’t eat. The second day the police finally opened the road.’
In this Zoom call there is a discussion on how many people died. Some people believe that miraculously nobody died, since there was time to flee. On Facebook I read the impression of Yousif, which speaks for itself:
‘I will never forget what I saw yesterday during the fire in Moria camp. I went through a lot of things in my life, I survived the war, fled by the sea. I was in the army when I was 16. I lived one year in the camp. But I never met a disaster like that in my life. Yousif
In front of my eyes, a disabled guy on a wheelchair died this night and I couldn’t even help him because of the flames…
Then I met another disabled guy walking with crutches staring at the fire : “Both of them died, I saw them”. I tried to calm him down but he told me “I saw my wife and my daughter dying in front of me”, but he couldn’t help them with his crutches and the flames. He stands in front of Moria gate, no movement, looking at the souls of his family in the fire.’
But even if you don’t know the number of casualties, Tawab points out something obvious: ‘Maybe there was no physical hurt. But deeper, mentally, 12.000 people are suffering.
We can refer to shelter, water, food, drink. What people need just to survive. There is none.’
Every human’s basic human rights.
‘Now they are stuck there with no food, also pregnant women.
Some unaccompanied minors, about 400, they have taken to the mainland, and they’re put in a hotel. The nights are too cold, days too hot. They don’t have many blankets. They sleep on concrete, asphalt. They literally ran for their lives, they didn’t bring all their facilities. No toiletries, no food, nothing.’
Some organisations are bringing the food they would bring to Moria to the people on the streets. It was hard to spread the food without causing fights, coming with one van in front of 10,000 people. Sometimes they gave food the way they would feed animals. Later, some organisations got people blankets.
Many things are going on. Local police is trying to prevent the refugees from entering the town of Mytileni. Somehow, they started using teargas on children. There is a video of it circling around. ‘They beat a lot of people today,’ Rouddy tells us. ‘They also don’t accept journalists inside.’
On Thursday Rethinking Refugees had a live video call, an interview with Sonia Nandzik, who’s also on the ground in Moria, sharing many updates on the situation. Among the many shocking facts, one thing that hit me the most is that in fact all the 13.000 people can be considered as highly traumatized. Being skilled to apply EMDR-therapy myself, I know how even a mild trauma can wreck a person’s life. The deeper people are hurt, the stronger they are convinced that ‘the world is dangerous’, ‘I am unwelcome’, ‘Nobody wants me’ or ‘I am alone’. It becomes their blueprint, their perspective. When I imagine all the pain these people must be carrying, tears fill my eyes.
It’s safe to say, as Sonia Nandzik explained, that all of these people were unsafe in their land of origin, experienced horrible things on their way here and then… kissed the grounds of Lesvos, when seeing the blue-white flag, assuring the safety they so longed for. But then they ended up in Moria camp, which turned out to be hell on Earth, and they were even more traumatised. Constant humiliation, tension, being entirely unwelcome. Lack of human kindness coming from the entire continent they hoped would mean their freedom. On top of all that came the fire. As Rikko put it in his speech at the Evacuate Moria protest in Amsterdam the other day: the little things they had were gone. It was a food line, a piece of canvas. Now even that was gone.
Matthias is walking around, still asking the question ‘Are you okay?’ Now he tries to provide people with what they need. ‘There are sick people, also children, when I can I bring them medicines. People are not certain of what happens next, they can’t follow the news, have no phones or no place to charge them. I bring them power banks. There is no food of course. Today I met a girl and she told me: “I was having music lessons, I am so sad all the guitars got burnt.” I know a reason for my next trip to town.’
I read online that Matthias has raised €11,000 in 24 hours. His work doesn’t come with overhead expenses. The money will go straight to ensuring the most basic human living conditions.
‘But mostly they don’t even ask for food, blankets or water,’ Tawab is telling us. ‘They shout: “Get us off the island, they shout for freedom.” They write down on cardboard.’
Matthias adds: ‘There was even a hunger strike, when food wasn’t coming. People made signs, they were peaceful, didn’t start shouting, saying: “Please don’t put us in Moria.”
‘They protest. At some point you could hear refugees on the streets hammering on bottles, they found a rythm, it was really powerful. Really peaceful too, good to see,’ says Matthias.
Nevertheless, the government is building a new camp. It is all over the news. Somehow suddenly the government is able to build it in two days time: a neat new camp to host 3000 people. Something they neglected to do when Moria was growing and growing. We can see UNHCR tents and army trucks. They take the vulnerable first. However, at the entrance, rumors say, people are being deprived of their stuff. It is very likely that this new facility will be exactly like the promised prison. Before constructing a water system in the new camp, the fences were there. Apparently, that’s the priority.
So what’s next?
Matthias: ‘What I saw was that people were not only sad and scared. I also saw relief. It was also hope. They’re thinking: “Now they will get us off the island.” The moment they will be put in a new camp all hope will be gone.’
Rikko says: ‘One thing is clear: they want freedom, a future, no more camps.’
We discuss this in the Zoom call: ‘Rebuilding the camp is a bad thing, but leaving people without food and water and shelter is also a bad scenario.’
So what should we do? Matthias’ point wraps it up: ‘We need to find a balance between what’s really needed to keep them safe and, on the other hand: the more facilities are here, the longer they will stay here.’
There are very different opinions about what to do now. Rebuilding the camp might slow down the political process, but leaving people without food, sanitation, water, shelter etc. is also a very bad scenario. What is the wisest thing to do?
Every volunteer says that it makes no sense to start shipping your own blankets from Poland towards Moria. It will take weeks and costs much more money and energy than if you let organisations do it, who are already there. There’s a story of German aid planes that didn’t get a landing permission, a large convoy that was stopped due to ‘political problems’. Consequently, support the NGO’s or volunteers you know, send them emails with ideas and questions, donate stuff or money, but let it be organised in a sensible manner. Get in touch with local NGOs because they know what’s needed. For example, the medical ones. Also, please do not donate your money to organisations that are rebuilding Moria.
Paradoxical enough, even NGOs often say: we don’t want to continue this, we want to finish and solve the problem.
That’s why in the meantime, Irene adds: ‘Political pressure and awareness is needed! For all the people that are not in Lesvos. Please keep doing that,apart from donating. Start writing letters, keep sharing online.’ Someone says: ‘Organising pressure in one’s own circle. Organising protest meetings from time to time and inviting your increasing circle. Start it and carry on, carry on. Don’t give up!’.
As the main objective of Walk of Shame has been to rehumanise Europe, we should work on the re-humanisation of the people on the move. Somehow, in our European mindset, we seem to have a blind spot for them, neglecting them. At the same time, we hope to rehumanise politics which reflects the attitude we have towards people.
Now more than ever, in this humanitarian crisis, we need to rehumanise politics. It’s gone too far already. European politics caused this fire.
Rouddy: ‘You know, this can be our last chance of doing something. If nothing will change, I expect people will die. People are really angry. They don’t want to be told to wait. Presumably, in the new camp, we should expect problems to come again. I expect the situation can go wrong. It could explode.’
Tawab agrees with him: ‘Yes, there is a possibility of an explosion is there. But Greek politics stated they are not gonna move them out, so everyone should go into camps. Otherwise they are not proceeding with their asylum application. They are gonna build the new camp and the refugees are gonna be forced to go there. They have to go through that procedure.’
Somehow in my mind, the comparison to WWII pops up, more often than I want. Of course, the situation now isn’t 100% the same as in 1940-45. There are differences in how, who and what exactly, and there is another big difference: while in the war it might have been easy to pretend you didn’t know Jews were being sent to camps, it was okay to keep living your life.
Today it’s also very easy to keep living your life, but we can’t pretend we don’t know about it.
We, the people, the bystanders, have an important role to play here. Will we scroll down on our phones, will we turn on Netflix? Will we turn a blind eye and let them starve? Or, as some do, even shoot them metaphorically in their backs, betray them, by expressing xenophibic opinions?
Tawab is pointing out that it’s only realistic that the government is building the new camp and will force everyone there. But do we need to accept this?
Rikko has hope: ‘We’ve been electing them, the politicians. So, there must be some power with us. To create a change.’
That’s why Rikko blew new life into the project of two years ago: Let’s get them here. (Dutch: We gaan ze halen.) How? You can sponsor a seat for a refugee on a plane. This is an action to raise awareness, to put pressure on politics, and who knows, maybe to save a plane full of people. A seat for one refugee to fly to Holland. We’ll organise their welcome once they are on the plane. The Netherlands have many people who are happy to invite refugees to stay in their homes.
I’ve been on an airplane to Greece and will return on one. I cannot look at myself in the mirror ignoring this request. I decide I am not buying that expensive raincoat I wanted, but instead book a place in Rikko’s airplane.
Meanwhile in Europe, many NGOs working with refugees agree that something is going terribly wrong and they’ve joined forces to call for an immediate evacuation off the islands and relocatation across Europe. You can sign the petition HERE on change.org.
The question might not be ‘What will the politicians do?’ but more like: ‘What will the masses, the voters, the people, including YOU, have them do?’
Walk of Shame organises videocalls with refugees regularly, also in Moria. Get in touch here.
This article was published on the Walk of Shame website.