In a stretch of California desert along the Sierra Nevada range, between the towns of Independence and Lone Pine, is the site of the Japanese internment camp of Manzanar. During the Second World War, it incarcerated over 100,000 Japanese Americans, but there is little evidence of the camp today. It’s just desert. The camp long dismantled, a single watchtower stands, looking over shrubs and sand, but even that is a replica of one of the original towers, which were armed with machine guns. There’s a small visitor’s center, but two summers ago my grandfather and I didn’t even stop driving for that. There was Manzanar, there was nothing—and we moved farther on to Bishop, and then to Mammoth. Over time, an ugly legacy was reduced to just the shadow of a watchtower in a wasteland and an explanatory rest stop.
I’ve been thinking of Manzanar of late, but not for the usual reasons. Last summer, I participated in a journalism seminar on the refugee crisis in Greece. For a week, my class toured Lesbos, one of the epicenters of the crisis, and it was there that we visited Moria, the refugee camp notorious for its prison-like conditions.
Of course, the Manzanar/Moria comparison cannot go unqualified—forcibly removing Japanese-Americans from their homes and forcing them to live in the desert has fundamental differences from housing refugees that illegally and willingly crossed into Europe. In terms of militarized conditions and questions of memory, however, the two have much in common—especially in considering what happened two months after we visited Moria. On September 19, 2016, Moria burned down, raising questions about what will happen to the site of a destroyed camp and, more pressingly, what will happen to the camp’s former occupants.
The major news organizations mentioned the Moria fire in passing—The New York Times only went so far to cite a radio broadcast—but overall the news was subsumed by increasing revelations about the bombings in New York and New Jersey of the previous weekend. In all this, the tale of Moria was forgotten, but it wasn’t the first time. A riot started the fire that burned Moria—people set fire to their own tents. There was, however, a prelude.
In March 2016, the EU and Turkey reached a controversial agreement—the EU would give more than $3 billion to Turkey and grant Turkish citizens visa-free access to the Schengen area, apparent steps to move Turkey closer to joining the EU. In exchange, refugees who had made it to Greece would be sent back to Turkey. The Greek government’s slow pace of immigration processing and reluctance to return refugees to Turkey effectively trapped 60,000 migrants in Greece.
It was in the aftermath of this deal that a series of riots in Moria broke out from April to June. In August, when we visited Moria, the guards wouldn’t let us inside. But it was easy to sense that something there was very, very wrong.
The Mysterious Island
From the air, Lesbos is an island with a curious shape. In Jules Verne’s novel, The Mysterious Island, the eponymous island is shaped like the “jaws of a formidable dogfish,” and while Lesbos is not shaped like a shark, its shape resembles a vertebra with arthritis. Two inlets chip away at the triangular island, lengthening the distance between the disparate peninsulas.
As the third-biggest island in Greece, Lesbos is a land of many climates. The Mediterranean, labyrinthine hills above the port of Mytilene give way to olive tree forests. Within these forests are mountain villages, such as Agiasos, a name that translates to “Jesus.” Fortified castle towns like Molybos are traditional beach vacation spots. The desert, arid region of the island is home to a petrified forest and associated “geopark,” which is what the EU calls national parks.
Millions of years ago, Lesbos was the home of a giant coniferous forest and big ugly elephant precursors known as deinotheres. Then a volcano erupted. And that, as they say, was that. Later, in the apocryphal events of the Iliad, Lesbos was one of the places sacked by Agamemnon’s fleet.
Lesbos’ relative situation to ancestral Troy has renewed importance today: nowadays, Lesbos is nestled off the coast of Turkey like a bicycle gearshaft without a chain. And that proximity has consequences.
Welcome to Mytilene
My trip to Lesbos began on the tarmac of Athens Eleutherios Venizelos International Airport. A shuttle bus took us up to the plane. My fellow passengers tended to be NGO workers and translators, headed to Lesbos for the business of volunteering. A 45-minute flight set us down in Mytilene, and in the small, empty airport we witnessed banners that announced that The World of Ouzo, a tourist distillery, was open for business.
It quickly became clear that although places in Mytilene were open for business, there were few customers. Open but frequently vacant ice cream parlors, café-bars, tourist shops, and travel agencies lined the streets immediately on the port. From the main port, the settlement of 38,000 extends up into the shoulders of the hills that rise above it. To the North, the castle of Mytilene watches over the city, though its strategic value as an Ottoman stronghold has long been obsolete. A statue of Sappho, the legendary poet known for loving women—the origin of the term Lesbian—stands guardian over the town square. Walk a little further and you can see another statue, the Statue of Liberty—this one is only 15 meters tall and bronze, but like New York’s, is also rusted green. Here, at the statue’s pedestal, weary young men—many of them refugees—smoke cigarettes in the evenings, watch the sun descend behind the horizon.
A quiet beach whose box office used to charge admission lies beyond the statue. There are young Greeks here, walking up a gnarly pier and descending into the cold, clear sea. It’s painful to walk on the pebble rock beach. Sea urchins lurk between the rocks.
All this is the main entry, the eisodos, to Lesbos. At night, you can see the boats come in, bright lights glittering in the darkness. Small ferries from Turkey, large ferries from Athens, Coast Guard ships carrying refugees who have been intercepted from their dangerous, inflatable dinghies, they all come in here, to Mytilene.
The key to Lesbos is that if you look carefully, you can see the clues of what has transpired here. Along the docks are abandoned yachts, condemned by the Coast Guard. It is said that they belonged to smugglers.
As the refugee crisis has faded from public view in the United States, perhaps because of the turbulent presidential election, the pressure to preserve evidence of the crisis grows. Back in California, the lone watchtower looms over Manzanar. What will loom over Lesbos?
The Shadows of Moria
Moria casts many shadows. It’s strange that the camp shares the name with an abandoned dwarf mining operation in The Lord of the Rings, that it phonetically resembles the name for the region of the Peloponnese, the stronghold of Greek nationalism against the Turks during the War of Independence in the 1820s and 30s.
The name’s resonance makes it familiar and but also forgettable. The location is not. A short drive from Mytilene you can find where Moria was. It rose, nestled on the side of a hill covered with the shimmering, silver-green leaves of olive trees. On Lesbos the olive tree is as ubiquitous as the Joshua Tree is in its eponymous famous national park, or depending on who you talk to, wasteland. It is everywhere, even around a place where concrete walls rose high from the ground, rows of chain fences atop them, sometimes up to three, and cyclonic barbs crowning the fences’ peak. It was less like the Mines of Moria and more like the Gates of Morgoth. A Greek I met compared it to Guantanamo—I suppose, a real-life Mordor.
There’s some truth to this—but the truth, as always, is more complicated. In September 2013, Moria was built, but as a detention center. When the migration intensified in the summer of 2015, Moria was hastily converted as a transition camp—intended to process refugees for a couple of days before they would be allowed to travel to Athens and elsewhere. After the EU-Turkey deal of March 2016, the camp was no longer transitory. Refugees couldn’t leave Lesbos, much less Greece. And more were arriving every day. So Moria became a detention center again. New refugees were supposed to spend 21 days there, after which they could choose to leave the camp and make their own way on the island. Very quickly, there were 3000 to 4000 refugees in Moria without any news of progress for two months.
The situation deteriorated when many NGOs, uncomfortable with the implications of the EU-Turkey deal, decided to pull out. On April 26, 2016, the Greek migration minister Yannis Mouzalas visited the camp. Tensions were high. Many refugees had been trapped in the camp for months. A group of minors started the riot—apparently because a police officer had struck a youth. During the riot, all the remaining NGO workers fled. In a telling prelude of things to come, the angry minors lit trash on fire. When the NGO workers returned, they found the camp in disarray, and some refugees horribly injured—so badly that “you could see brain.”
We found all this out when our class visited Moria and we interviewed NGO workers in the field. We heard stories, we looked up corroborating reporting. On the ground, however, the only physical evidence we had of such an incident were the sight of clothes hanging from the top of Moria’s barbed-wire fences. We were told that these were not for drying clothes, how could they be? They were very high up on the fences. They belonged to refugees trying to escape. Presumably, they had used the clothes to blunt the barbs and jump over.
These were the only physical clues.
The Ashes of Moria
The camp burned down on September 19th. Sixty prefabricated units and 100 tents were destroyed. More than four thousand men, women and children fled the camp—many of them walking toward Mytilene, 15 miles away—some of them stopped by police. By the next day, however, Ekathimerini, one of the premier Athens daily newspapers, reported that the reconstruction of Moria would soon begin. In the meantime, some residents were sent to the nearby camp of Kara Tepe, and the merchant marine sent a ferry to provide shelter for others. As of October 17, the last article written about Moria in English from Ekathimerini was published on September 28. Without news, we are left in the dark.
When all this is said and done, when the contemporary refugee crisis in Greece is finished, what will remain of Moria? When I was there, I saw a walled complex. I saw the evidence of unrest in the form of clothes hung on barbed wire. I heard stories.
More than 70 years have passed since Manzanar closed. There are few physical clues of internment on the site of its location. Moria has been destroyed, it will be rebuilt, but ultimately, the center cannot hold. The crisis must be resolved, and Moria in all likelihood, will at some point go the way of Manzanar.
What will be left? I’m not confident that a museum or monument would be built, as in Manzanar. And if there were, would anyone visit it?
The thing is, I never stepped inside Moria. I wasn’t allowed to. I don’t know what’s going on there now. Moria is a distant memory. Just like Manzanar—there is a name and place, and I just passed by, passed through. But with Moria, the crisis continues. Life continues. We are all just passing by. One day, perhaps the ashes of Moria will be all we have left.
For more in-depth student reporting on this subject, check out the course website for JRN 465: Reporting on the Front Lines of History, Borderland, and its associated articles.