Gyaros – an island of ghosts

Giaros

In the past two weeks I have visited three very different islands. Four actually, if you could count Syros as well. All within close proximity and all with very different personalities. A friend recently said to me that choosing your favourite Greek island is like choosing your favourite crisp flavour, I think she’s right. It’s all down to personal preference.  Each has its own story and appeal. But not all islands in the Aegean are whitewashed buildings and beaches for holiday fun. One island that many visitors pass on the Andros – Tinos – Syros ferry route in the Cyclades and probably know very little about is Gyaros (or Giaros, or Giara).

It’s a rocky and arid island, with barely any natural resources and no significant mountains or rock formations. With a size of less than 23km sq this tiny outcrop manages to house a wealth of hidden stories. Even today 45 years after its complete abandonment, many of these stories remain untold and consigned to a history that many would rather forget. Between 1948 and 1973 under different Greek administrations it held up to 22,000 political prisoners.

Greece’s past doesn’t always rest easily with it’s present drive for tourism. So it is easy to see why the island has just fallen into ruin and visitors are discouraged. The red brick structures were almost invisible on the island until we got very close on the Agios Nikolas; the magnificent boat built in 1947 and chartered from Syros to take the group. The hiking group we travelled with had special permission to visit the island; it is off-limits to everyone without a permit, including fisherman who are forbidden to  fish near the shore as there are protected species of seals and wild birds that have flourished in its exile from human presence.  Although the site is currently managed and patrolled by the WWF under the Natura 2000 programme, visitors are strictly limited. Hearing about the history of the island from guides and about the wildlife preservation from the WWF representatives was invaluable.

Giaros

In the period after WW2 in the Greek Civil War 1947-1952 the island was used to build a vast prison to house the rebel fighters and dissidents . Like Makronisos island close to the port of Lavrio, it was far from the mainland and other islands, and crucially far away from critical eyes. These were not regular prisons – they were places of torture and forced labour.  In its first years of usage the prisoners sent to the island were split into the 5 camps around the 5 bays – initially to live in tents and dry stone constructions in all weathers; the furnace heat of the summer and cold and damp conditions in the winter. Under these inhumane conditions they were forced to construct the very prison which would house them.

Giaros

We heard from keen historians in the group that that once the prison was built, it had quite a limited time in use as was closed in 1953, but then opened again between 1955-1961, and then secretly used under the Military Dictatorship of the Junta from 1967-1974 – when the island was used to house Greek political prisoners and leftist dissidents. It was described by many as a concentration camp and ‘an island of the devil’.  Only when a German journalist took aerial photographs of the island which were published widely in the press that the Junta admitted its presence as an active prison. You can see the pics here. This eventually resulted in its closure and Greece was banned from the council of Europe on humanitarian grounds.

Giaros

We heard that the guards would know when the water supplies were due to run out and maliciously feed the men salty dried fish and dry foods – knowing that it might be days before a water ship reached the island in rough seas. There are no natural resources and rumour has it that the rats there ate metal, and grew as big as cats and were able to eat through barbed wires! There are herds of wild goats still roaming the island as well as hares and rabbits. It was such a fascinating island to have the privilege to visit – walking along the pathways between bays, there were ominous clouds and even when sunshine broke it was easy to image the horror of forced labour in the heat and dry of a summer’s day. This is a far off version of an idyllic Greek island.

Giaros

We were able to walk freely around the main buildings which were in a state of dangerous decay; the amount of dead goats in some building was astounding. The bones left piled up and dried out skins left to rest where they died.   

Giaros

The walking group gathered in the hospital wing, and then out round a path constructed to connect the bays – each would have formed a smaller separate camps. Each where the prisoners ‘lived’ in rudimentary conditions with small huts made of dry stone walls and in tents. Each day they worked under forced labour in the unbearable heat of the summer or cold dampness of the winter. There is also evidence of older buildings and fortresses from earlier inhabited periods. 

Giaros

At the outcrop of land on the furthest bay from the boat landing and main prison lies the graveyard. Given the number of prisoners housed here, it is surprising that only 16 graves are marked with rusting metal crosses and fading inscriptions of numbers. But perhaps less surprising to hear is that this was perhaps because when prisoners were ill and close to death they were taken to Syros. So for many, no record of their death on Gyaros exists. They died en-route or perhaps a few days later after they arrived  in hospital. Many would have been buried without ceremony in a mass grave. Here in the graveyard the group took a moment to remember those whose lives were taken by the island

To compare it to Alcatraz in California and other prison ‘museums’ I have visited would wrong – this was not a prison you could be granted release from once your sentence was served or even have hope of escape. Each detainee was forced through a ‘re-education programme’ of torture and starvation, and could only leave if they renounced their beliefs. Many of the people (and in the Junta period there could well have been women here as well) were leftist students, activists, writers and artists who protested against Military regime. They were often arrested in protests or turned in by the very people they knew and trusted. It was a complicated time in Greece’s history and certainly something I’d like to understand more about.

Giaros

We were allowed to see inside the main prison, which like many other prisons is laid out around open yards, and blocks containing workshops and kitchens. The roof was collapsing and everywhere debris and bricks were strewn across the corridors. Most of the captives were in dormitories in closely arranged bunk beds, only let out to work and perform labour. Here are only a few solitary cells, hidden in darkness, years of salt air blowing through corridors meant the doors have rusted open, as they were left.

Giaros

Light fittings falling from the ceilings and the remaining plaster work slowly peeling away like layers of an onion skin. Smashed window panes swung in the breeze and shutters hang from hinges. All around I felt a sense of sad dislocation – like the building itself just wanted to heave its weighted mass into the ground. To let go of the pain it has held in the walls. Each brick forcibly placed there under duress by the hands of men persecuted for belief by their own fellow country man. A deep sadness remains. Could there be a more poignant reminder from history for the current time we live in?

Giaros

Zen and the art of tomato growing

We came back from Paros on the Artemis. It chugged its way into Ermoupolis just after midnight on Sunday. I couldn’t have been happier – not because we were back in Syros, but I was just happy and thankful to be able to head off on little adventures like that. The boat was quiet and we spent the time on deck watching what must have been a fishing fleet out in a circle formation. It was spooky as we were just able to make out the mast lights, intermittent red and green flashes in the inky darkness of the sea. We just had two nights to explore Pariaka, the islands main town and felt like we crammed a lot in. It was busy and nice to be among so many tourists. We did lots of people watching and idling time in cafe’s hearing voices from around the world, including a lot of young English backpackers as well. On the recommendation of the apartment owner, we went to Pete’s Place on Krios beach on Sunday. I swam in the turquoise sea and found a wallet sinking underwater into the rocks. Luckily it didn’t take much of my detective skills to deduce it belonged to the panicked man going through his belongings on the sand. He looked bemused when I strode over to return the dripping wallet.  ut he was thankful to have it safely returned. I like Paros, it’s a nice island with lots to see, and has some great restaurants and beaches, don’t miss the Panaya of Ekatontapilian – the Byzantine church. And if you are wearing shorts like me you too get to borrow a tartan wrap skirt to preserve your modesty and respect the place of worship. Plus, it kept me nice and toasty in the 30c heat! Although don’t make the same mistake of walking out to the Asclepeion – the Sanctuary of Pythian Apollo on the other side of town, as the site is all cordoned off due to falling rocks. But we did instead get a nice swim at little beach and a tasty lunch instead. 

It’s been a funny few days this week. It isn’t all stand up paddleboarding, gardening and dream making here –  in between work and play, there has been a lot of thinking. It seems to be that worry befriends you in moments of weakness and makes a mockery of each silly and happy thought. I was struggling this morning so I went swimming. I ended up swimming a full length of the bay in front crawl. That doesn’t sound like much but it was to me. Front crawl is my arch-nemesis, I have struggled to master it for years. The trick is in breathing and matching your strokes, with a head turn to ‘sight’ the shore. Today I followed the curved lines mapped out in the sand underwater by waves and the rituals of ocean floor creatures. Through shoals of small silvery fish. Each breath expelling tiny bubbles. My arms gathering strength as they ploughed through the waves.  I felt much better. If everyone went for a swim everyday, I am convinced we’d all be happier, healthier and in harmony.

I think my anti-waste mentality has exaggerated recently – ‘must not let things go uneaten’ I repeated like a mantra baking plum cakes and apricot loaves. Boiling up jars of apricot preserve will last for months. And if life (or a kind landlord) gives you courgettes; roast them, grate them, stuff them and even make cakes with them! Although not all is rosy in the garden plot; the tomatoes are proving tricky – blossom end rot has hit some of my crops, possibly water related or perhaps a fungus? Either way there might be a sad struggle to get some decent fruits this year. I walked back from the field my heart and head were full of doom about the tomatoes. Then I stopped.  

It was early, a morning like any other with the sun just peeking over the hills in the East and started inching its rays through the valley. Soon it would be hot. But now there was a cool damp stillness in the air. I listened to the breeze blowing through olive tree branches and traced the hum of a motorcycle passing a curve on the road miles away.

My fixation on the tomatoes unjust fate was unworthy of such attention. So what if each tomato rotted from the inside, slowly turning from green to brown and withering on the vine. It was something I couldn’t control or change, or worry about. I don’t need the tomatoes to feed me, I don’t sell them for income.  If I was simply annoyed that my energy and patience was being wasted on something frivolous and unfruitful. Yet, it only took a moment to look upwards and take in where I was to remind myself that this was it all. Under a blue sky sits mountains and rocks which will outlive me and all my worries. If this is the worst thing that can happen to me today, I am the luckiest person alive. Acceptance that harvests will fail, change will happen and not everything can be saved and stored away. It isn’t the simple fact of life but a way of giving into a life of simplicity.  

Like anyone I keep googling and looking at my phone for answers – brains turning to mush as we flit from one distraction to the next. There lies a tale of tragic modernity. There is no greater waste than looking for purpose or meaning where none exists. I don’t want notifications and gratification of my worth –  I scroll through Linkedin or instagram it makes me feel lost – not connected. I don’t know what my next step is (guess what, that’s okay!) and feel a need to return to the surface of things. Sometimes the surface of things begins where you least expect it.

In thinking about this I was reminded of a free verse poem penned by Jack Kerouac in one of his letters to his ex-wife. It took me a few readings to get it -I have time, it is #freelancefriday after all;

The world you see is just a movie in your mind.
Rocks don’t see it.
Bless and sit down.
Forgive and forget.
Practice kindness all day to everybody
and you will realize you’re already

in heaven now.
That’s the story.
That’s the message.
Nobody understands it,
nobody listens, they’re

all running around like chickens with heads cut
off. I will try to teach it but it will
be in vain, s’why I’ll
end up in a shack
praying and being
cool and singing
by my woodstove
making pancakes.

I’m not a massive fan of pancakes – but maybe you’ll find me singing in my kitchen baking cakes.

At dusk the tzitzikas will start singing- their presence marks the high heat of the months ahead. It is just a week before midsummer stretches out the daylight hours into evening’s orange glow. In the midst of every day is life. It is not just in adventures and wild ambition. It is nestled between the door that slams in an unexpected gust and the fridges that hum and click. The cockerels that wake up and commence crowing at 2am.  It is in the clocks that tick and the angry silent face of time passing us by. Life is in as much of these daily rituals as it is in the moments of joy and wondrous awe we seek. It is also in the hours we let ourselves get drawn into worry and pain. I’m learning to let each one go.