Lesvos. Greece. More then two months ago, the open air prison Moria burned to the ground. The new camp, which is worse than Moria, quickly became the ‘new normality’ and only few people remember and analyse the situation on Lesvos in September 2020. This is the second part (actually part 3, because we have made one part out of the first and second part) of a retrospect of Lesvos after the fire in the Moria Camp on Lesvos.
Originally published by No Border Kitchen Lesvos Facebook page. Here: facebook.com/NBKLesvos/posts/1911369615669485. Image by Dunya Collective.
In the coming weeks, we from No Border Kitchen will publish texts detailing our view of this situation. There will be a mix of facts and figures, personal experiences, histories and newspaper articles from this period of time.
As we not only want to keep the memory alive but also criticize the actions of the police, military and other actors, we don’t want to depict the fire in Moria as a singular, spontaneous event but as a predictable incident on which unaltered actions followed. For us, the situation on Lesvos in September is part of a continuous history of migration policies and oppression that we need to think of when trying to develop possibilities of change.
Category 3: the blockade area
As we wrote in the last post, already during the night of the fire in Moria the Greek state showed once more the ugliest face of their inhumane and racist politics. This night, the police – hand in hand with angry local citizens and fascists – made a concerted effort to block the road making it impossible for the 12.000+ migrants fleeing towards Mytilini. Escaping a burning hell, they were met with teargas and violence. From this night on, thousands were stuck on the road, hemmed in by police barricades. They were left with nothing: no food, no water, no tents, only the burning sky and an uncertain future. At this moment, we couldn’t imagine that this catastrophic state, in which people had to sleep on the streets without receiving food or water, would be the status quo for the next days. In the following sections we will try to summarize the incidents of the days during the blockade. As these incidents are so complex and as one action followed the other at such a speed, we will seperate the time of the blockade into the individual actions – or oftentime non-actions – of different actors.
Status description of the first days of the blockade
As the thousands of migrants were blocked on all sides by the police, many had to take longer and more complicated escape routes – through olive groves and along small roads. Most of them made it to the main road that runs along the coast between the village of Panagiuda and the Kara Tepe camp. Many of them had to spend the next days near the supermarket Lidl where they hoped to get access to water and food. However, this shred of hope was shattered into pieces. Thousands of exhausted, frightened people were forced to gather on the streets again. Only a few were able to rescue belongings from the flames, but most of them lost nearly everything. Thousands were once again without shelter, because – contrary to cynical assertions – Moria was never a home. Moria was and the new camp still is an open-air prison. Therefore, the thousands who fled that night, already homeless, were now shelterless, too.
The tragedy that took place in the next few days is symptomatic of the racism that has always been central to the European project. Instead of immediately ensuring water and food distributions and access to medical care, more effort was made to keep people in the blockade and to build up a new camp. It’s hardly imaginable, but even three days after the fire, there were no UNHCR or other greek authorities to be seen. Until this point, there was no official water or food distribution – during the hottest summer days at more than 30 degrees celcius. People were dehydrated for days and many collapsed. Only small self-organized groups and solidarians distributed food and water that could only cover a fraction of the needs of all those people.
For these self-organized groups and solidarians, it got more and more difficult to support the people on the street. At least from September 11th – the third day after the fire – on, there was a complete and closed blockade. In the beginning – although there was already a blockade made of police busses – you could still get in- and outside the blockade relatively easily. But step by step, the police allowed less people to get inside the blockade to support migrants and less migrants to leave the blockade to get necessary food and water. Once again, what we saw was an intended failure on all levels.
Action of the migrants during the blockade
After their former prison ‘camp Moria’ burned down, migrants felt (amongst many things) empowered and revitalized in their struggle for freedom. They answered the police blockades, although they have been without food and water for days, with demonstrations. Thousands took to the streets in full force. The first demonstration on the third day after the fire (September 11th) was self-confident and loud, with demands concerning not only the supply of food and water that was urgently needed. Most of all, the migrants protested against their immiseration by the European Union and the inhuman migration and asylum policy on Lesvos. Loudly they shouted and demanded unconditional freedom – especially freedom of movement.
Although the police reacted – as we all can anticipate – with tear gas, violence and repression, further powerful demonstrations followed. On September 14th, hundreds of women and children took to the streets to protest against the inhuman and racist policy. A few of them gained access to the roof of a warehouse. From above all people were supposed to read their messages: “It’s better to die for freedom than to spend a whole life in prison.”
These demonstrations were one part of the migrants trying actively to change their situation for the better. Contrary to most of the media reports, the migrants weren’t victims passively waiting for someone to make their situation better but active actors: many joined the big demonstrations, some built up an infrastructure very fast, some sneaked into the city to buy eggs, water, bread or cigarettes and sold them to other migrants, some just played football and tried to get some moments of joy. Most of them adjusted immediately to this new situation trying to make the best out of it. It’s important to correct the media coverage that implies the migrants needing help and not being able to live for themselves.
Actions of the government during the blockade
Actually, when having a closer look at European and Greek migration politics, we can see that state actions during the blockade weren’t a failure at all – at least for the government. As we already wrote in our text about Moria camp, one big part of this border strategy is to make migrants and their demands invisible by keeping them away – away from the external borders of europe, away from central europe or at least away from the city centres where they and their demands could be heard by the public. Having this intention in mind, there was no other option for the government but to construct the blockade.
Afterwards, we can also see another strategy of the government that was applied in these days: after their former prison ‘camp Moria’ burned down, migrants felt empowered and revitalized in their struggle for freedom. It would have been difficult for the government – and the police as their executive agents – to control all these people again and to get them back into the rigid structures that the government thinks are necessary for migration politics. Letting people suffer, getting them dehydrated and not providing them any food or medical support, demoralized, exhausted, and demobilized them.
At this point, we must also regard the military as an actor: like before in Moria, the military was responsible for the food and water supply for the migrants on the streets and – also like in Moria – this supply wasn’t sufficient at all. When the military finally started providing food and water, we got in touch with many people who asked us for food after getting some of military’s. Dear military, when your food gets thrown away by people who had nearly nothing to eat for days, you should notice that your food is shit. But we should recognize this as the more passive part of the state’s strategy to lessen the migrants’ will to take action. This passitivity – not providing absolutely necessary goods and services – was complemented by active actions of the police.
Actions of the police during the blockade
The reaction to the thousands of protesters was once again violence and repression. As we wrote about the former fires in camp Moria, the police always responded to empowerment and struggles for freedom with tear gas, violence, arrests and repression. This time, the response was the same: displayed viscerally in videos from the LIDL area that spread explosively online. Dunya collective for example captured some scenes in which protesters – no matter the age, the gender or the health – got tear gas shot directly in the face. The same tear gas which is by the way forbidden in war.
We also saw videos of some policemen of MAT, a heavily armed riot cop unit, beating up a women that was only shouting something at them. Therefore, we should see the actions – and the institution – of the police as racist but also as a farce concerning the freedom of expression which is a much-heralded value in this so called democracy. In addition to this violence actively carried out, the police also implemented a kind of passive, indirect violence by stationing water cannons close to the blockade. Although they weren’t used as far as we know, it was a huge threatening gesture taking five of the seven water cannons that exist in Greece to Lesvos.
As we already wrote, the police also prevented support step by step as they were securing the blockade more and more and didn’t let people get in or out. Not letting people out meant making it impossible for migrants to get things they needed while not letting people in meant making active solidarity and supprt near impossible. At this point the police became a political actor with decisive power over who to let pass and who not – attempting to disallow all but a number of big NGOs whose approach is firmly one of charity, not solidarity.
By now, it’s clear that the actions of the police followed a pattern which had the aim of lessening the migrants’ capacity to take action while the military built up the next prison in the background: Moria 2, new Kara Tepe, new camp or however you may call it. There are of course many more things to criticize concerning the police but at this point, we want to reflect on our own actions and those of some of the NGOs as we’ll write more about the actions of the police and the government in the next two weeks.
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