Category 2: the night of the fire
When writing about the fire in Moria on September 8, 2020, we need to keep in mind that there were several other fires in the past. When looking at them properly, we see that most of them were set by migrants as a means in their struggle for freedom but weren’t big enough to have an actual systemic impact. We can also see that all these struggles for freedom – independently of the means – were answered with repression by the police.
Especially in 2016, there were at least three bigger fires: in April, there was an uprising of people who were to be deported wherein they burned down the separated area where they were imprisoned – their prison within the prison so to say. This former deportation prison wasn’t rebuilt. In September, a huge fire destroyed more than the half of camp Moria and again, it was the aftermath of an uprising of imprisoned migrants. 18 migrants were arrested and accused of arson. In November that year, two people died because of an exploded gas bottle. Because of this incident and the unsafe environment in Moria in general, people took to the streets and again burned parts of camp Moria down. Also, in September 2019 two people died because of a fire and many migrants protested as the fire brigade took too long to come and extinguish the fire. The police reacted to this protest with tear gas, arrests and deportations. Historically, we see a pattern: fires in camp Moria were mostly a reaction of migrants to their bad living conditions and they chose arson as a tactic because their ‘peaceful’ protest was never heard. These violent demands for rights were always a welcoming excuse for the police to implement even more repression.
This pattern ws repeated in September this year. We don’t want to spread rumors and therefore won’t write that much about the outbreak of the fire. What is clear by now is that some minors started the fire as a reaction to the first corona cases, missing hygiene standards, missing possibilities for isolation and being even more controlled in the name of preventing the spread of the virus. Just like in the last years, the minors chose arson as a means in their struggle for freedom after a long time of not being heard – for more than half a year, since the virus reached Europe with a high impact in March, migrants and activists had been calling attention to the dire situation in Moria and other camps. While the olive groves were burning, the police didn’t react but when the agency that organises “voluntary deportation” was attacked, they reacted with tear gas – just like in the past. After two months we also know that the police answered with even more repression as six people have been arrested and accused of arson.
In retrospect, we can see that using arson as a tactic, in response to bad living conditions and as a justification for police repression, wasn’t anything new. What was new was the extent and the impact of the fire: nearly all of camp Moria was burned to the ground and with the agency that organises “voluntary deportation” – among others – a centerpiece of the Moria system was destroyed. In the end, with everyone leaving the camp and a slight, cautious hope in the air, the Moria system was history – at least for some days.
An experience report from Mytilini
In the very early hours of September 9 I was awake, unsettled in the late summer heat. My timeline of the night is sketchy at this point; I know that it was after midnight that someone sent a message in our group-chat saying that Moria was in flames and people were leaving, or trying to at least. The sender was already at the camp in a car, attempting to drive a few people to safety. It was suggested that some of us still in Mytilini go out and be prepared to meet people arriving in town, for at this point that is what we imagined would happen. For something like an hour, I received mixed messages, first that it was urgent that we have some people on the streets, then that we in town ought to sleep and conserve energy for what was sure to be a hectic day ahead. I attempted sleep for a short time, ears alert waiting for any report from the fire. It was not long before I received a message from another person in town; they wanted to be in the streets. Knowing that sleep was not forthcoming, I went to meet them. I estimate that by now it was about 1.30 a.m.
The streets were quiet, a few motorcyclists – some lone, some in pairs – occasionally breaking the silence. We were relieved to meet each other; it is common knowledge that fascists like to patrol on motorcycles in Lesvos, and neither of us wanted to meet any of them alone. We agreed to first go and buy as much water as we could carry, assuming that people fleeing flames would be thirsty. Little did we know that it would be such a struggle in the coming days to get enough water to people, that police would actively hinder efforts to do so. Bearing this water, we decided to patrol ourselves, trying to scope out the streets in anticipation of the arrival of countless former camp residents that we believed imminent. For about three hours we walked the streets, anxiously seizing up with every passing vehicle, crossing the street repeatedly to avoid small groups of mostly men (probably friends out late, but we were being careful!). We spoke of what we would do if threatened; tried to plan our evasion or self-defense.
We came to settle on a sea-wall at the edge of town, meeting there two other NBK members who were driving toward the camp hoping to ferry people away from the blaze. We were glad to meet them and get a direct report of what was going on, though at this point nothing was clear. We knew by now that were we to continue a few kilometers along the road out of town, we would come against an emerging police blockade. By about 4 a.m, the streets still quiet, the river of people we were expecting not yet showing any signs of flowing, we decided we’d best go home and try to catch a few hours of sleep before the hastily planned meeting at 7.
I could not estimate that night how quickly and effectively the state would respond. I did not imagine that by the morning the crowd I’d been expecting to descend on Mytilini would be stranded on the highway, blockaded on both sides by police. In Moria, an intolerable state of affairs had, over years, normalized and become status quo, and this seemed like a rupture, like an opening. The entire camp burning down and its thousands of residents marching to Mytilini seemed momentous. I spent that night in anxious anticipation, worried for everyone in the camp but also somewhat relieved (a relief that I would hear many of them express themselves: “Moria was hell and now it is gone”). I do not want to fetishize the fire: it was obviously traumatizing for an already traumatized population. But something had to give and ‘resistance’ by other means had been utterly ineffective. Years of petitioning politicians and peaceful protest had accomplished little other than demoralization, and camp structures and border violence had only become more entrenched in the meantime. My nervous relief, it would turn out, was premature, for in the coming weeks the state (aided and abetted by NGOs) would carry out what felt, to me, like effective counter-insurgency.
An experience report from Moria
On Tuesday evening I get another message that there is a fire in the camp. Instead of jumping in a car and heading directly there, this time I try to make a plan with others first. Does it make sense to drive to Moria? Do we go with many people or do we try to get many people out? Which roads are free to go, which ones are blocked by police? We decide to go in teams of two or three people to try to get families we know out of the camp but it turns out they can’t leave. One family is in an area of the camp which is surrounded by fire, the other one can’t leave the camp due to a police blockade. We try to be in teams of at least two people as these nights of chaos tend to bring fascists to the streets and and there is much potential for escalation. Retrospectively, I realize the absurdity of this notion: there’s a huge fire, 13.000 people – as many as living in some small cities – lose their place to sleep and many of them are probably injured and I’m thinking about angry locals.
Via private roads we get to the street which leads from Panagiouda to the camp – a bit behind the police blockade. While walking the last part to the camp, we can see around 200 people carrying everything they own towards Mytilini. It’s not only us who want to have an overview: we can also see some motorcyclists driving around armed with basebal bats. As we get closer to the camp, we can see a big orange cloud above. And we become aware of the extent of the fire which is far bigger than anything we’d imagined according to the messages we received this evening. As we can see it, the whole camp including the surrounding olive grows is burning down. Before long a unit of riot police is blocking the road in front of the camp. Of course, they look threatening but it seems as if they aren’t keeping people from leaving the camp. Our friends who were standing on the road in the direction of Moria village told us that people, who tried to flee in this direction, got insulted. I felt alarmed because we only saw around 200 people on our way and Iasked myself where the other 12800 could be. Probably, most of them are trying to escape towards the olive grows – against the wind.
I have already seen some fires in the past in Moria and know the smell of the burning camp; I often saw people leaving the camp with everything they own and also saw many people returning in case their living space wasn’t affected by the fire. But this time, the fire exceeds everything I have seen before. Everything we can see of the camp is burning and sometimes we hear explosions – probably of gas bottles which are still in the camp. Some fire engines pass by towards the camp or the olive grows and quickly come back to get more water. I can’t understand the idea that there’s still something that can be saved. Only after some hours the first firefighting planes arrive – which will be in action nearly the entirety of the following day.
I dread the next days – not because of the work or the chaos that we and the people now living on the streets will have to face – but because I expect there to be countless victims of this night. At this point, I can’t imagine everyone will make it out of this inferno alive. But watching the camp burn, I can’t resist the idea that it’s been a long time coming, that this fire was bound happen as the people exhausted all other means in opposing the injustice they faced for too long. I am surprised that it has taken this long. Of course, it is not a night of joy but when we heard about the police opening the prison in Moria and all the prisoners escaping, I was happy for a moment. Happy about the end of the prison and the asylum agency that caused so much politically motivated, man-made suffering.
As we’re leaving the place, we see way more people getting back on the streets. Probably, they only tried to bypass the police barricade as it wasn’t clear if the police would let them pass in the beginning. This mistrust feels absurd in this situation – but also appropriate. There’s probably not a single person in camp Moria that had not had some bad experience with the police. Not a single person who wasn’t shouted at, beaten or humiliated. I’m driving with a friend to Moria village where some of our friends have ended up. In the past, especially this year and especially in times of chaos, the inhabitants of Moria village have been known for harrassing and attacking migrants. ‘Moria village’ – the name of this place became menacing. We want to get the people out as fast as possible but as Moria village has a lot of streets full of nooks and crannies, we could also face a blockade that we won’t be able to escape.
We reach Moria village and drive towards the camp not finding our friends. At the town exit some people are gathered – so called ‘family fascists’: many men but also women and children. They’re obviously here to stop migrants entering the village although the village is the only way out in this situation. On the roadside, there’s already a car with smashed windows. As we pass by the crowd, there are immediately people coming with sticks and flashlights towards us. I don’t really remember what I was doing but as they start shouting, I switched to second gear driving through the crowd at full-speed. Driving towards the camp, we can smell the smoke again. We can see people resting on the streets as they probably can’t pass the blockade. Finally, we find the two friends we were looking for. While driving further, the smoke is getting thicker. It’s like driving through fog with headlights blinding, having a view only for some metres while there’s ashfall. It’s getting more and more difficult to breath and I’m very happy that our windows didn’t get smashed. Due to the near fire it’s also getting hotter in the car and I’m concerned that we need to turn around – getting deeply into the blockade this time. But finally, we reach the crossroads and can leave camp and village behind us. We can still see quite a few people and it feels weird passing them. We probably won’t be able to come back as the road won’t be traversable within the next fifteen minutes.
We’re bringing our two friends to safety and twill ry to get back to pick up the friends we had to pass earlier. Actually, there was something good about it as we wouldn’t have been able to pass the blockade with six more people as the cars’ speedup wouldn’t have been enough. The road towards Moria village is closed and already at the town exit of Mytilini, no cars are allowed to leave towards Moria. As we knew by now from other people, the police had already set up a blockade at Kara Tepe trying to prevent the migrants from getting to Mytilini. Also the cars which are already outside of Mytilini can’t get to the migrants and have to take a detour lasting one and a half hours to get back to the city.
Some friend tells us that all people are forced to stay near Kara Tepe. Nearly no one made it to the city and we can only pick up some friends who scratched along the olive grows. Finally, at 6 o’clock I’m collapsing into bed – knowing that we’ll do a meeting in one hour planing the next day and building up a kitchen spontaneously. Anyway, I can’t sleep. This night, everything just happened and passed by so quickly and as I’m in the bed now, the pictures reoccur. The pictures of the burning camp, the fascist blockade, the people standing in the smoke who we had to leave behind, the policemen – partly armed with machine guns. It comes to my mind that I didn’t see any ambulance. Everyone knew that this day would come and if it hadn’t been today, it would have been another.
An experience report from the future blockade area
I was totally confused when my flatmate entered my room at around one in morning – she was kind of nervous and all I remember was her saying something about “fire and Moria.” Without any idea of what to expect I jumepd out of my bed – still more in my dreams than awake. The plan was, as I was told two minutes later, to fill the car with water bottles and go to an area close to Moria and see if people need water. This is what we did – as I was still sleepy I don’t remember a lot of this part of the night. But I remember it being one of those really warm and really windy Lesvos nights – perfect for spreading a fire. I also remember that you could already smell the smoke and that the smoke made the air dusty.
As we knew from other NBK people that it was hard to reach the camp area, we therefore decided to stay down at the coastal road – somewhere between Kara Tepe and Panagiouda. First of all without any further plan because we couldn’t see any people. But what we could see was this massive fire just one or two kilometres away. And there were already these thoughts like “Wow, this is the end of this fucking prison”, but also “Whats gonna be next?“ and “What will happen to all the people?“. All together a wild mix of questions, worries, excitement, hope, emotions, fear and – not to forget – adrenaline!
While we were waiting, there were hardly any firefighters passing but instead at one moment many police cars and buses. And they were heading from Panagouida in the direction of Mytilini. This was the first moment when this idea of the police blocking the road in order not to let people pass to Mytilini popped into my mind. So we went with the car to check this out and I was right – the road was blocked. From this point on, we knew that there would be people coming soon. Those people who flee from the fire. Those people who just escaped prison. Those people who will find themselves in front of a police blockade. Trapped again.
When we tried to unload the water some hunderd meters away from the blockade, we were sent away by quite aggressive poilcemen who shouted at us to leave immediatly and not to come back while throwing the water bottles nearly on our heads. If we would come back, they would arrest us – he also said when he took a picture of our car. So we drove in the direction of Panagiouda where there were the first people arriving from Moria. Mostly groups, every age – from sleeping babies carried by their parents up to elderly people. All of them walking and carrying a lot of stuff – probably all the stuff they could grab in this moment of emergency. They were all rushing in the direction of Mytiline and it was hard to tell them that there was a blockade and that they had to be careful because of the riot cops. This is what we we did – we warned the people and gave water. Of course nobody had any water or food with them. While at the beginning there were only groups of people every now and then, after a while there was a flowing river…a river of people. My mind really couldn’t get what was happening here: “There are sooo many people on the street; there is this blockade…they’re not able to make the people stay here on the street”. How wrong I was.
There were also a lot of motorbikes and some cars on the road and as they were all heading in the blockade direction we knew that they were not going to help the migrants. They were angry locals or fascists who wanted to make sure that the migrants couldn’t pass to the city. And there were quite a lot. For sure, we didn’t feel safe in this situation. As we already knew from before, but also from friends who where closer to the camp that night, greek fascists dont like people like us at all – those people who support migrants. Just being around can already be a reason for being attacked.
At one point we met a friend with a car, a car full of people. Some of them jumped in our car. The plan was to bring these people – they were the family and friends of our friend and just got out of Moria – to a safer place. But this wasn’t that easy as all the roads we knew where either blocked by the police or full of fascists. So we drove around for a while to see where we could go now. But instead of finding a way out we were chased by a big van. That made us drive up and down in a loop – without any success but feelings of scariness knowing that they were watching us. All we could do in the end was telling this family that we didn’t know any safe way out. When they got out of the car and joined the “river of people“ walking towards the blockade, all of us were totally down. Fuck – nothing we can do here!
Our water was gone and after talking and waiting for a while not having an idea about how we could help here, we decided to leave…somehow. Luckily, my friends knew a bit more about this area and found some small streets which would eventually – after driving more than one hour – bring us back to Mytilini. Still with the risk of meeting some angry fascists in the middle of nowhere. But also still better than sleeping in the cars. So when we left this area at around 5:00 in the morning there were still people coming from the camp, also a lot of motorbikes on the street.
We left the place which turned out to be the hot spot for the next two weeks. Where homeless migrants were trapped in a blockade of police. In the next text, we’ll try to have a look at this blockade area – looking at the actions of refugees, counter-actions of the police and thing we and NGOs did.