Everyone says today is eerily quiet. “Sinister” one other volunteer says. I wouldn’t know: this is my first visit to Moria – a refugee camp on the Greek island of Lesvos. Filled with thousands of refugees just days before, almost all of them have moved on. What’s more, the incoming boats have paused (update: I just got a message saying four boats arrived tonight so maybe this pause was very short indeed).
Today the camp was all but empty. Rumours abound: Greek officials have sped up the refugee registration process (which allows refugees to move on) in preparation for a visit by the Greek Minister for Immigration and/or bad weather (windy, and very choppy on the Aegean) and/or smugglers are short on boats and/or (most likely) something is up with the authorities on the Turkish side. People hear things, speculate out loud, attempt to verify…wait to hear.
I hear things and I speculate…but mostly I pick up rubbish. The hiatus, however long it is, has called for a big clean up. Volunteers like myself have been mobilised (via Whatsapp, Facebook, word of mouth) to make the most of this breather to clean up the beaches and the camps before the next round of arrivals.
The camp sprawls throughout the olive groves – it sounds kind of whimsical when I put it that way…but it isn’t. The olive trees have been torn apart, branches desperately and clumsily lopped off by refugees seeking firewood. My fellow (and more coordinated) volunteers have been urged by the long-suffering owner of the olive plantation to prune the trees so they have some chance of growing back (such an awesome gesture of hospitality and optimism on this old Greek olive farmer’s part!).
There is rubbish everywhere – the detritus of thousands of people stuck on their way to somewhere else. Some of the rubbish is heaped in piles for burning and it smoulders on and on. The smell of burning plastic and the sight of black, chemical smoke gives the scene a kind of post-apocalyptic feel. But that could just be my burning-plastic high talking.
Today, there are only a a handful of people camping on the hillside that has come to be known as ‘Afghan Hill’ – as opposed to thousands just days before. As Syrians get expedited treatment, other nationalities are left to wait and, as many of these people are Afghani, the name makes sense. The hill is high enough for great views: in the distance, my tourist-eyes see idyllic Greek towns clambering up a Mediterranean shoreline, a murky blue ocean and the elegant bulk of the mountains of western Turkey. Refugee-eyes see something entirely different I suppose: the route of a really arduous and dangerous journey…and just a small portion of it at that.
I start at the bottom of the hill. “You do realise this is the shit field?” a polite volunteer warns me. Ummmm no. But it wouldn’t have taken me long. Portable toilets were only installed a couple of days ago i.e. after most of the camp residents had gone. So, toilet paper, disposable wipes and ummmm yeah…shit field.
Further up the hill, there are rubbish categories I start to identify. General campers’ food-related rubbish: empty cans, half-empty plastic eating containers, bottles. Toilet bag stuff: used toothbrushes, creams, sanitary pads nappies and pills (for motion sickness and allergies and antibiotics). Clothes: everything imaginable. Shelter: bits of tarp, plastic bags and blankets – I imagine people struggling to stay warm on this exposed hill. Paper stuff: sim card instructions, information booklets. Miscellaneous: a passport photo, a broken doll leg, both of which – as I’d been in a mechanical clean-up zone all day – kind of jolt me into feeling.
But this isn’t just casually tossed litter. Some people lived here for a long time and some of this rubbish has been here for ages – used and reused. It’s filthy, stamped into the ground and caught in amongst the scrub. With so little effort to claim responsibility for this group of refugees, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that no one is keeping Afghan Hill clean. And yet I’m still surprised. Nope, scratch that, I’m shocked: this situation is disgusting in every way.
Many thanks to Oriol Bäbler Mata for the photos.