I have a friend who walked 2 hours every day from Moria to get to Mytilini where he sat in a quiet corner of a cafe, nursed a coke or a coffee, and spent all day chatting with his family in Gambia. He couldn’t stand being in Moria and so these daily trips were his escape. He hated life on the island but was willing to wait out his asylum process rather than risk his chance for protection status by acquiring fake papers to make the trip to the mainland and beyond. Because he was given his ‘freedom papers’ which restrict his liberty of movement to the island of Lesvos, he resigned himself to spending his time like this. On Monday evening on the way home the police stopped him and asked him for his papers and he obliged. They looked them over, gave them back, and arrested him on the spot without cause.
Yesterday afternoon a former Lesvos volunteer who is now working in Athens contacted me to ask if I had seen or heard from him in the past days. I had not. When the police arrested him they also confiscated his phone so he would have no contact with friends, family, or anyone else who might be concerned about his disappearance. I went to the police station and told them I was concerned about a missing person and gave his name. “Oh, you’re looking for one of the prisoners?” the guard replied. Yes, he might be one of the prisoners. They looked up his name on a long list, four pages in landscape, 12-point font, about 150 names. His was one of them. The young police guard saw no harm in having me talk to him for 5-minutes, so he opened the window of an iron cell door and shouted his name. I heard it echo down a corridor as more people shouted it out until he was found. I have no idea how big the space is where these arbitrary detainees are being held but in my imagination there were between 100 and 150 people in 7 or 8 small holding cells. With all the time I’ve spent bouncing my voice off the walls of various rooms as a singer, I can say with certainty that the voices didn’t travel far, not more than 15 or 20 meters and the natural reverberations of the hard concrete room were absorbed by bodies.
The police man showed me to a dank closet with two chairs in it, the yellow styrofoam padding had burst through the seams on their cushioned seats a long time ago. Wait here. The glass wall behind me was so dirty and dark that I didn’t even notice it until the door clattered open on the other side and my friend lurched through the door. He was unsteady and sweat poured through his white tank top. He flung his hands in the air and tears streamed out of his eyes before he buried his head in his hands and hung it below the window sill. When he looked up, our faces were inches apart, separated by this thick glass wall that muffled our words and divided the tiny space into two worlds. He couldn’t believe I was there, I couldn’t believe he was there. We only had 5 minutes so I tried to gather as much practical information as I could in the short time we had. Full name, birthday, country. What did the police do you with your documents? He still had them but they were not worth the paper they were printed on. How many people are there with you? A lot. There is one telephone and you need a credit card to use it. One person had a credit card and they were sharing it to try to get in contact with anyone who might be able to help. I told him he had been found and that we would do our best to help him, went outside, and called the best lawyer I know on the island.
Luckily Lesvos is small and Mytilini is even smaller. Everybody knows everybody. The lawyer arrived on his scooter 15 minutes later. We had a short meeting in the shade of a palm tree so I could tell him everything I knew and he went inside to find out more. The office who dealt with refugees was closed and would not be open until the morning. If we got his detention decision, we could then appeal it, but we would need to know why he was being detained in order to appeal. Meanwhile everyone was meant to be transferred to the mainland that evening. When I went back today, a different police officer told me that “Gambia” was sent to Paranesti last night, so now we’re working with a legal NGO with a team on the ground over there. But they still haven’t been granted access to this place which is kind of like the Moria of the mainland.
This is the second time in one week where large numbers of asylum seekers have been rounded up and sent off the island. The focus is on Africans, although I know Pakistani people who have also been subject to this arbitrary arrest and imprisonment, too. After two days in the Mytilini Police Station, they are handcuffed and chained to one another and taken to the ferry. They remain in these shackles for the length of the trip. The last group of 81 was sent to Korintas, where they were offered a choice between voluntary return to their home countries with a sum of cash OR a 6-month prison sentence. None of the lawyers on the island know which law they are being arrested under but they are of the opinion that it is some sort of all-encompassing public safety measure.
There are two things I want to point out in this story, which is a tragic and outrageous example of what can happen any minute on Lesvos. First, the rules are changing constantly. The recent actions of the police are a disturbing violation of an already inappropriate status quo. I understand that a lot of refugees have been escaping, lingering around the port, maybe even committing petty crimes (though I know a lot about what people do to get by and given the amount of information I am privy to, I would be very surprised if this were the norm). Still, these people are victims of the most horrendous human rights abuses imaginable on the planet. I have met people from as far east as Nepal or Sri Lanka and as far west as the Dominican Republic. That’s a range of over 14000km. If you want a crash course in global conflict from the past ten years, this is the place to get it. And yet new laws and decisions arise constantly as though the victims who came here seeking shelter were some sort of public nuisance which needs to be swept quietly under the rug. The broom strokes impunity and cowardice, the rug is woven of fear and ignorance.
Second, the only thing which brought this particular injustice to light was the tireless resolve of volunteers who have been touched by the chaos of this unbelievable place. I found out about my missing friend from two Americans who kept in touch with him after they left and a Spaniard who moved to Athens to continue her work on the mainland. As he wept before me in that decrepit chamber, he howled disbelief. “You people really care,” were the first intelligible words he spoke. I am astonished that sporadic communications of casual acquaintances can make the difference between life and death because I come from a place where death is either rare or predictable. Aside from his name, I really know nothing about this man, but he is my friend. We greeted each other almost daily when we passed in the street. Sometimes we sat for a few minutes in his corner of the cafe and talked about football or the heat or what’s going on inside Moria. Right now there are about 3500 volunteers and asylum seekers on the island and after 3 months here together, we often know and recognize each other even if it’s nothing more than that. That connection can change everything. Our friend is in a perilous place and his fate still hangs in the balance. I cry because we cannot do more in this retrograde paradigm, I rejoice in the unwavering commitment of so many strangers turned friends.