In the past two weeks I have visited three very different islands. Four actually, if you count Syros. All within close proximity, yet each 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). Beneath its surface lies a hidden part of history.
Gyaros appears as 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 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 its present. Part of that drive for tourism relegates uncomfortable truths and it is easy to see why the island has just fallen into ruin and visitors are actively 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 individuals persecuted for beliefs by their own fellow countrymen.
A deep sadness remains in the echoes and ghosts. Could there be a more poignant reminder from history for the current divided times we live in?