Category 3: blockade/LIDL-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.
Actions 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.
Actions of the NGOs
When writing about the actions of NGOs, we actually have to take a step back to the very fact that the military was in charge of providing food and water supply to the people on the street. The first two days after the fire, the military didn’t give out any goods as “it was too dangerous for them”. Let that rest: the military, armed to the teeth, really proclaimed that it would be too dangerous for them to do a food distribution. As if this weren’t enough irony, the military then asked NGOs for support in distributions. For us at NBK, there was no way we would lend support to an institution which causes so much of the misery on the island (and elsewhere) to begin with. Some of the NGOs on the other hand unfortunately dealt with this contradiction in another way and gave out the tasteless and unhealthy food of the military from the third day after the fire on.
We want to focus on our real enemies which are fascists and state institutions like the police and the military. Therefore, we won’t criticize particular NGOs and call them by their names. Also, we’ll write about NGOs and what they did in september this year in some weeks. But at this point, we want to highlight that we don’t see our work as humanitarian aid but also as a political work that tries to challenge the ruling system. Working with migrants and trying to make their situation better means (for us) fighting the system that displaces, immiserates, criminalizes and incarcerates them. As the police and the military are the executive agents of this system, we refuse to cooperate with them – and we’d like all NGOs to do the same.
Helping the military give out food and water was one thing – the other was how some NGOs treated the migrants. There were some reports about migrants being harrassed in racist ways by members of NGOs. There were also reports about members of NGOs freaking out and shouting at people as they weren’t able to get along with such overcrowded distributions – a human reaction but not the best when trying to work in emergency situations. The lowpoint of the NGOs’ work was perhaps at an overcrowded distribution when members of an NGO wanted to escape the situation by speeding around in their car throwing water and food outside the windows. As if treating migrants like animals you feed on safari wasn’t bad enough, we saw that the car drove into at least one migrant.
Solidarity Structures in/around the blockade
In the immediate aftermath of the fire, when some – especially bigger – NGOs were not able to react quickly enough, were waiting for the governmental masterplan or just had to stop to work, it was smaller self-organised groups and projects who first responded. These groups and projects were supported by many individuals, partially from NGOs who could not or did not want to continue their normal work and by locals and internationals who donated lots of different stuff. This collaboration was an owerwhelming experience which made it possible for the No Border Kitchen Crew to manage cooking and distributing so many meals every day.
There were different smaller groups who started cooking and distritbuting food and water in the early days of the blockade. Also these groups somehow mangaged to build up a small network, got connected and tried to organize bigger distributions with bigger amounts of food and water. Some of these self-organised groups also did daily distributions of clothes and basic hygenic items. Important to mention is the fact that most of these groups not only gave food, water and supplies to the huge crowd, but also tried to get in contact with more vulnerable groups and individuals. In these cases, they tried to provide extra neccesities like chargers, medication or phone cards.
Concerning the medical support, there was none at all for the first few days of the blockade. The governmental health ministry needed time to write ‘the masterplan’ of how to deal with this situation. This resulted in the unbelievable situation for all the medical NGOs of just not doing anything but waiting for this masterplan – while giving up their independence and leaving several thousand people out there in the blockade without any medical treatment. Luckily, some individuals who were working for these NGOs decided, instead of waiting any longer, to go into the blockade as individual medics and to work detached from those NGOs.
Actions of NBK
Of course NBK was also having discussions about how to get involved in supporting the people inside the blockade and we therefore mainly focussed on cooking food and distributing it in these two weeks. Even though there were difficulties managing it, it’s still suprising that it worked well so many times to do distributions while police and fascists made a lot of effort to not let this happen. This was only possible because, unlike the big NGOs, we had the independence and reflexivity to respond quickly and to try out different strategies.
The first thing was to start cooking again. At 7 o’clock in the morning after the night of the fire – when most of us had only slept for an hour – we went through our possibilities of action and decided to set up a kitchen again. The months before we got warm food for our daily distributions from another cooking collective. Unfortunately, they had to close on the second day of the blockade due to a corona case. Still we couldn’t use their kitchen, so we set up a DIY-kitchen. Many of us started the day as early as possible in the kitchen, buying loads of food like vegetables, big sacks of rice, lentils, chickpeas and pallets of bottled water, chopping vegetables for hours, cooking, packing food and cleaning – before having another meeting late that night and trying to plan the next day even though we could never predict accurately what would happen.
It was clear that the food would never be enough but still it was impressive to see that it was possible to set up a kitchen and cook 1.200 meals already on the first day and to increase the amount over the next few days – all together we cooked multiple tons of food. There were logistical tasks to face: sometimes the food was already cooked but there was a lack of boxes to pack it into. Or the distribution teams tried to find a place to distribute the food for hours and couldn’t pass any police checkpoints while the food was getting cold; the time passed by and it became even harder to find places to go without checkpoints in the darkness. On some days, it was possible to go inside the blockade easily just by saying food, water and relief supplies are inside the car. On other days access was only possible via off roads that were crossing mountains, some very risky and rocky. But also, there were times when the only option was to walk to reach the people and sometimes even then groups were stopped by police, military or fascists.
During the first days, it was relatively easy to distribute in the northern part of the blockade as there was a lot of movement. People went to the burned camp looking for items that were still useable and not burned – some of which had to be left in the night of the fire. On the road between Moria and the police blockade one could see hundreds of people, carrying their belongings with them and taking care of not losing them in the crowd. Some found boxes and tied ropes on to them to not carry but pull their stuff or even constructed little wagons for transport. Others found trash bins and used them as a temporary storage option. A lot of creativity was used to find solutions without having access to proper equipment, to not lose ones belongings again and still be able to keep moving.
The distributions themselves were, it must be said, not easy. To go by car to a group of thousands of people who had gone days without adequate food and water, knowing that you have 1000-2000 meals with you, knowing that this is not nearly enough – nor this time nor next time – and knowing that this carries conflict potential. But also, not doing it was not an option.
Sometimes it was complicated to do a proper distribution. Of course, people just tried to get what they could as they hadn’t eaten in days. Sometimes within seconds the boxes full of food were emptied. Sometimes people came running to the distribution points when they realized there was food and water – understandably not waiting for a proper foodline. The expresion on their faces when they saw there was no food left was indescribable: desperation, disbelief, sadness, anger and sheer consternation. There was nothing to say but sorry. Still some said thank you for trying and for not forgetting them. People were visibly highly dehydrated and many hadn’t had water for more than two or three days.
Among the food distributions, organising, shopping and cooking it was important to stay in contact with people inside the blockade and to look out for people in the nearby area. Therefore it was also necessary to, for example, exchange fully-charged for empty powerbanks for phones everyday to keep in touch, to also get information about the situation inside and the state of people. These contacts made it possible at least to have a bit of a clue about what was needed inside and to fullfill these needs. If it was known early, it was possible to save extra food or water for people whose need was particularly acute, although it’s difficult and problematic to speak of ‘vulnerable people’ as everyone in- and outside the blockade was and is vulnerable. With all the effort, it was still not possible to get to everyone nor to offer well-planned support besides the food and water – especially when dealing with active repression from police and fascist forces.
From the blockade to the new camp
The police blockade, in which thousands of migrants had to hold out, lasted for ten days. Every day new information reached us about the (in)-actions of the Greek government, which was disproven a few hours later. The lack of transparency and the spread of deliberate misinformation made the migrants very insecure. What became clear very quickly, however, was that the military quickly began – with the help of UNHCR – to build up a so-called new camp on the third day after the fire in Moria. Almost instantly they had found a place to settle the new “camp”: a former military area directly alongside the coast. Every hour we saw roaring helicopters flying over Lesvos, bringing hundreds of tents for the new construction. We should keep in mind: neither food nor medical first aid was provided at this time. This was of course political calculation and was highly cynical as the minister for migration and asylum said in an interview that the priority during the blockade was that “food, water and medical supply will not be interrupted”.
On September 12th, the same ministry sent an even more cynical message to the people by declaring the establishment of the new camp with the words “Your accommodation in Lesvos is ready”. The pictures of the so-called new accommodation are well known: overcrowded tents, no running water, bad and inappropriate supply of electricity and toilets. At the same time, videos were uploaded by the ministry painting an inviting picture of new white tents in a brilliant light. As a reminder: winter is cold on Lesvos and the thin walls of the tents don´t mean shit against the wind or rain – especially not when you are placed directly on the coast.
In the same announcement of the ministry, it was declared that “If you don`t come to the camp you won’t be able to leave Lesvos. The asylum procedures will only take place in the camp”. The migrants coerced to enter the new camp. Out of justified fear of the repressive announcements of the Ministry, some migrants decided to go to the new camp. Yet most of them stayed at the blockade for almost 10 days. As we have seen, they organized big and powerful demonstrations fighting against racist policies such as the construction of Moria 2.0, and above all for freedom of movement.
The words of the ministry that migrants are “invited to go to the new camp” looked quite different and harsh in reality. After more police reinforcement were brought in from Athens, coupled with the police units and water cannons that were already on Lesbos, the police started on September 17th to physically force people into the new camp. The police strategy at that time was to ban the distribution of food under penalty of fines. So the goal was to get the people physically and mentally exhausted by the lack of water and food, in order that they return more willingly into another camp. The second eviction started on September 18th. Forcefully they pushed the people into the camp and by the end of day the streets were emptied.