in Europe

Lesbos: Prisoners of the horror camp (story in L’Illustre Magazine)


The following is a translation of the original story "Lesbos: prisonniers du camp de l’horreur" that appeared in L’Illustré Magazine on October 22, 2018. All copyrights belong to L’Illustré/ Camille Pagella.

After having fled war or misery, thousands of people have landed on the island of Lesbos, at the Moria camp, where they still dream of Europe and freedom. Mahdi, 3 years old, and Mozhdeh, 25, tell a story of a daily routine that will drive you crazy.

Tonight, they have nothing to eat. In the last moments of daylight on this October day, Mohammad Hashemi, 30, and his wife Hamideh, 25, return empty-handed to their tent. They were the last in line in the food queue. They have no choice, they will have to improvise and pretend for Mahdi, their 3-year old son. So, they entertain him, such that he does not see that once more his parents will go to bed on an empty stomach, with three tomatoes and some bread, leftovers from yesterday. Outside, it is night time and only the bluish glow of mobile phones show on the faces of those who adventure out of their abodes. Under the little light bulb hanging from the top of their tent, Mahdi laughs, rolls around on the ground and hugs his Dad. The family arrived late to the food handout because this afternoon, Mohammad and Hamideh took Mahdi to the beach to look for shells to hide from him the fact that he, as well as 8,500 other people of whom one third are children, are prisoners in this “camp of shame.” “Welcome to Hell,” they were told when they arrived in Moria one month ago.

Mozhdeh, 25 years old, speaks fluent English but finds herself trapped. One month ago, Mozhdeh arrived in Lesbos from Afghanistan with her brother Navid. Their dream is to continue their education in England.

Barbed wire, rata and 2,500 children

“Welcome to Hell” or welcome to the Moria refugee camp in Lesbos, one of the most easterly Greek islands, a few kilometers as the crow flies from Turkey, whose landscape is visible during the day and whose lights are visible at night. Symbol and epicenter of the refugee crisis, Lesbos has seen more than a million people pass through and each day continues to welcome migrants since, despite the agreement between Turkey and Europe signed in March 2016 designed to stop the flood, arrivals have never really stopped. This year, more than 24,000 arrived in Greece, half of them in Lesbos. They are mainly Syrians, Afghans, Iraqis, Congolese or Somalis and whilst the asylum seekers are allowed to roam the island freely, they are not allowed to leave it and are trapped there for an unknown amount of time. At the entrance of the camp, which looks like an army barracks, the Greek army processes them. Here, fences and barbed wire are spread out as far as the eye can see. Here, NGOs are not welcome and visitors are asked to move on. Here, there is one toilet for every 72 people and a shower for every 84 and here, you have to keep the tents sealed to stop the rats getting in.

Without food one evening, arriving last in the food queue, Mohammad and Hamideh transform their meal, made up of leftovers, into a game for little Mahdi, their son.

One morning, Hamideh washes the few clothes which the family brought with them on their journey. Mahdi remains by her side.

9,000 people in a space for 3,000

From here, facing the official camp, a mass of shelters is spread out across a sloping olive grove. It’s because the official camp is full to bursting point. Built to accommodate 3,100 people, it has now reached 3 times its maximum capacity with fences sprawling in all directions. Mahdi’s family and the last thousand to arrive sleep outside of the enclosure. But that’s good. “At least, outside, we have space, it’s much worse inside,” explains the mother pointing to the containers in the enclosures and the tents that overlap behind the barbed wire. Like everyone here, she has learned to live in nightmarish conditions as it has been more than one month since this Afghan family arrived in Moria. After years of mistreatment in Iran where Hamideh and Mohammad grew up after fleeing the war between the West and the Taliban, they decided to leave. “For Mahdi”. For Mahdi, they crossed the mountains between Iran and Turkey by foot. The smugglers paid off the Turkish border guards “so that they did not shoot at them.” The family was taken to Izmir by bus, one of the most westerly points in Turkey. One night, with 70 other people, they took a small boat which, through lack of fuel, would drift for hours until spotted by a Greek ship. And then Moria, the waiting and the despair.

Days are long in the camp. To pass the time, Mozhdeh decided to help out her fellow countrymen . She gives English lessons every day to the other Afghan refugees.

In her tent, the young lady and her brother, Navid, prepare for their first meeting with the Greek authorities to seek asylum.

“And what shall we do in winter?”

A few tents down live Mozhdeh, 25, and her brother Navid Zarif, 22. These young Afghans arrived 2 months ago. They too lived in Iran “where everything cost 10 times more for Afghans, where it was impossible to find work, get insurance, buy a house and live in decent conditions” explains the young woman to us in perfect English. Mozhdeh cried all night when we arrived. That night, she slept outside on the ground with all the others who had just arrived with just a simple blanket to keep her warm. She contacts her mother, who stayed in Iran, every day via Whatsapp, but does not dare to tell her that things are going badly, that “it’s a nightmare” here.  The young woman suffers from rheumatism but cannot get treatment. “Since I arrived, I have only been able to see a doctor once who told me that I should just drink water to feel better.”

And so Mozhdeh tries to rest during the day. But here the overcrowding is unbearable and there is no privacy at all. Children crying wake her up at 5am every morning and interrupt her short nights of sleep. The days are long and Mozhdeh occupies herself as best as she can. For the first time, this afternoon, she is giving an English lesson to other Afghans in a community centre run by a Bernese NGO, One Happy Family, 45 minutes’ walk from the camp. When she comes back, she wants to describe the atmosphere in the class. “I asked the students to stand up when they answer my questions since they have to learn to look people in the eye and be proud of themselves. That’s one of the most important things.” Navid would have liked to be there, but he cannot. Somebody has to stay at the camp to queue for food. “I could spend up to 9 hours a day there. The last ones will get nothing to eat, so people come two or three hours in advance and even soil themselves so as not to lose their place in the queue and be sure of getting something to eat.” As a football fan, he dreams of Germany, England or Switzerland. “Xherdan Shaqiri was a refugee like me and got to the World Cup,” laughs Navid remembering the furor about the two headed eagle sign made by three of the Swiss players during one of the World Cup matches. We are interrupted, someone ‘knocks’ on the tent door. New students are rushing to join Mozhdeh’s English class, which is a resounding success. “The worst is not having anything to do, but having no idea what the future will hold and not knowing when we will get out of here. So, in order to not go crazy, people try to find all sorts of activities to not get depressed,” explains the young woman between coughing fits which has become epidemic among almost all members of the camp. This morning, Mozhdeh managed to take a hot shower, one of the first since she arrived. A few kilometers away, a NGO provides a place for women to take a shower far away from the hell of the rare showers at the camp. As for Navid, he washes once per week with cold water. “And in winter? What shall we do?” they wonder.

There is only one access point for water in the makeshift camp built in an olive field opposite the main camp. It is known as “the jungle” by the 1,200 people, mainly Afghan families, who live there.

Child suicide attempts

The worst thing is the waiting, the unknown. Everyone should have an appointment with the authorities to claim asylum. But when? The procedure is extremely long and it can be months, even years before a decision is made. The NGOs in Greece report an unprecedented medical crisis, most of all among the children in the camp. Melina Spathari, from Lesbos and legal adviser from Terre des hommes, no longer recognizes her island, nor its welcoming reputation. “The lack of decent living conditions and the trauma suffered make for some extremely vulnerable cases. We have seen 10 year old children self-harm and attempt suicide. The overcrowding has turned this camp into a hell on Earth. But the worst thing of all is that there is no will to improve things. The authorities managing the camp want to keep it as a deterrent, symbolizing that “You are not welcome here.” It is not just what Greece wants but what all European governments want. But unfortunately, in acting this way, they are violating all the major principles of the Conventions on human rights and the rights of the child.”

The camp is on the brink of a health catastrophe. The showers above (1 for every 84 people), have no hot water and are shut off at 9pm.

A closed “street” in the camp. The tents are so tightly packed together that no privacy for families is possible.

And with good reason. Daily life has become a battle for the Sadek family who live inside the camp. Their son Fida, 7 years old, has developed obsessive compulsion disorders since they arrived from Idlib in Syria three months ago. He is now on anti-depressants. His mother, Iman, is suffering. 7 months pregnant, she slipped on some water leaking from the toilets. Since then, the family have only wished for one thing: to be on the next convoy transferred to the mainland where the conditions are much better.

Two weeks ago, nearly 1,500 people were transferred to the north of Greece by Ferry. But since then, nearly as many people have arrived on the island and joined the camp. Moria has become the Hydra fighting Hercules. As soon as one of its heads is cut off, another grows back. It is relentless.

In this photo taken by Mozhdeh’s brother (taking photos is not allowed in the main camp) is the queue for food. The routine is unbearable. The refugees in Moria have to queue 3 times a day just to get something to eat.