Postcard — September 18, 2019, 10:30 am

Seeking Asylum

Out of sight on Leros, the island of the damned

I approached the refugee camp from above, on the back of a Harley-Davidson. Beyond loops of barbed wire, aquamarine Aegean waters lapped at a white pebble cove and goats bleated among pine trees fringing the shore. I was on the west coast of Leros, on my way to a camp housing around seven hundred asylum seekers from Syria, Afghanistan, Libya, and Sudan, waiting to be shipped to Athens.

The humid air smelled of salt and resin. As I approached the gates, an abandoned building caught my attention: a once-imposing façade, bleak and institutional, several stories high. Peeling white paint with faded, indecipherable letters ran down the huge front door. I felt a guilty curiosity, momentarily distracted from the refugee camp.

Italy occupied Greece’s Dodecanese islands from 1912 to 1943, and this building had been constructed during the 1930s as barracks for Mussolini’s soldiers. The Italians left in 1943, and in the late 1950s, the Greek government converted the barracks into a psychiatric asylum. Thousands of the country’s most unstable patients, deemed incurable, were brought here by boat. By the 1980s, British newspapers were reporting that patients were kept naked and chained to the walls by untrained locals commandeered as staff. In 1989, the BBC labelled Leros “the island of the damned.” A wave of international condemnation followed, forcing the government to close the main facility.

At the height of the refugee crisis in early 2016, boats from Turkey carrying asylum seekers arrived in Leros nearly every day. The municipal authorities built a “hot spot”—a first reception facility, not meant to be permanent accommodation—to process the arrivals quickly. On an island about the size of Manhattan, the obvious place to build the camp was on the old grounds of the asylum, out of sight of residents and tourists.

leros asylum

The facade of the asylum, built in the 1930s as barracks for Mussolini’s soldiers.

I had visited overcrowded camps like Moria, on the island of Lesbos, and was skeptical of reports that the facility on Leros was any different. The thick-necked, medallion-wearing owner of my hotel, Stavros, had offered to take me to have a look—“I know the guards, no worry”—and so I found myself on the back of his motorcycle, wary of his overfriendliness. The island’s police chief welcomed us through the double-gated entrance, waving away my press card and greeting Stavros with a huge smile. In Greek, she told the guards to take me on a guided tour, like a proud host showing off a new home.

The camp was neat and quiet, most families hidden inside individual, prefab housing units, each with an air-conditioning unit whirring outside. The sound of children’s voices came from one; peering inside, I made out a tiny classroom decorated with the letters of the Greek alphabet, children of varying ages shouting from desks. Clearly, there had been some concessions made for residents. The guards pointed out the Wi-Fi antenna on the roof of the central, administrative unit. “This is like hotel, every service you want!” they joked, laughing and stopping to light cigarettes. They had given up on the tour. The few refugees I passed were on their way to the gate to sign out on “day release”; one young Syrian man told me he was going to work. I asked him what that was. He smiled, hesitant with his English. “I help an old lady with her garden. She pay me a little.” I watched as he joined the queue at the gate—he would be back at dusk, preferring the security of the camp and the potential for a fresh start in Europe to a lifetime spent illicitly gardening on this tiny island.

The camp was worlds away from Moria, vast and squalid with its flimsy nylon tents spilling over each other, soldiers patrolling the perimeter, pregnant women and vacant-eyed men crowded together. One important difference was size—the Leros camp rarely holds more than a few hundred people, as the police chief told me, whereas Moria houses thousands. On Leros, there was less of a fight for space and food; there were funds for a school, and relatively quick processing times. There was a sense of almost disquieting order: everything was, superficially at least, under control. I sensed there was another reason for the professionalism of the place, and it had something to do with the ghostly presence of the building beyond the camp’s perimeter.

I  walked up the steps of the disused asylum with Stavros just behind me, declaring his intention to “protect me”—we had been warned by the guards at the migrant camp that ex-patients still occasionally sleep in the building, returning by force of habit and a perverse sense of home. As we entered the hall, the cicada-throbbing heat disappeared. A marble staircase stretched upward, covered in rubble and dried bird droppings. We stood still, absorbing the silence and adjusting to the gloom. An ornate iron grill separated the stairwell from the hall. On the first landing, I spotted an abandoned leather shoe and some striped trousers, crumpled and covered in dust. I walked gingerly through a corridor to my right, my shoes crunching on the debris. Stavros followed too closely behind.

leros asylum

Graffiti left by former patients.

I hurried out of his reach, passing a pile of yellowing papers covered in Greek script, old doctor’s notes. Stavros stooped to examine them. I walked purposefully into a large room with wild drawings of naked men and women sketched onto the walls and “never foget” scrawled in blue paint. I stopped to take a photo and heard a click behind me: Stavros taking a photo of me taking a photo. He grinned as I turned around, startled. I slipped through a gap in the wall, up the stairs, into another room: an old dormitory filled with the iron skeletons of wheeled beds, a stove, a pack of cigarettes on the floor. A pigeon burst from a rafter overhead.

Then I heard Stavros again, puffing on the final step. I entered another room—full of rusting kitchen equipment—almost running, more afraid of the sweaty man behind me than the deserted asylum, claustrophobia mounting. Above my head, a rusty drying rack hung from the exposed bricks of the ceiling. I looked behind me: Stavros emerged through the broken panes of glass in the door like Jack Nicholson. In front of me, a window covered by a grill. I walked toward it and looked out through the bars: the refugee camp, and beyond, the glittering sea. History repeats itself: the unwanted confined under the guise of protection. Around the camp’s perimeter I could see megaphones: the guards’ instructions bellowed out periodically, just as they would have for the patients in this building. Suddenly, there was a hand on my shoulder, then his mouth on my back. I jerked away. He shouted after me as I hurried down the stairs: “You no tell no one! I have a wife.”

leros asylum

Skeleton bed frames in the old dormitory of the abandoned asylum.

The next day, I left the hotel before breakfast and rented my own motorbike. I wanted to revisit the asylum alone. I drove cautiously through the unattended gates of the hospital compound; instead of taking the road to the refugee camp I drove left, past small buildings with verandas—the houses Mussolini had built for his officers, near the barracks. I had not anticipated that the hospital still functioned; I drove carefully past patients wandering under cypress trees. I came to what looked to be the main office and stopped. Inside, a brisk, middle-aged woman looked at me in surprise and invited me to take a seat.

Carolina Baes was appointed director of the hospital thirty years ago: her job was to shut down the main asylum and house the remaining two hundred and fifty patients in the more humane accommodations nearby. I found myself telling her about my little sister, who has borderline personality disorder and has been in several high-security institutions since the age of fifteen. I asked about the lack of security, and questioned why I could drive my motorbike in unchallenged. I was uncomfortably aware of the indignation in my own voice.

Baes was brisk, professional, unfazed by my emotion: she told me that the first thing she did when appointed was tear down the fencing surrounding the complex, an attempt to remove the stigma that patients were “untouchables.” She admitted that as a consequence several patients drowned in the sea, but she seemed oddly at peace with this collateral damage. She was less accepting of the new refugee camp next door, but speculated that the reason Leros experiences less friction than other Greek communities that have come to support refugee camps is that her island is used to housing populations it knows to be different.

Later that afternoon, I drove back to the abandoned asylum building. Without Stavros, I felt vulnerable in a different way. I climbed the marble steps again, and found myself filming a little video on my phone as I retraced my steps, glancing from the grimy walls to the screen, jokingly referencing horror films as I picked my way through the bird droppings, past the pile of doctor’s notes—a way to keep up morale.

I made myself climb the stairs, visit the same dark rooms, pause in the old dormitory to imagine the horror of sleeping there, the shrieks of other patients, the smell, the indignity. As I finally left through the main door, I tried not to break into a run, breathing the warm air as I stepped outside. Adjusting to the light again, I caught sight of a figure stumbling unsteadily toward me: an old man dressed only in shorts, muttering to himself and grinning. I slipped into the shade of a nearby tree and watched as he approached the front door: an old patient, probably living in the new building nearby. “Sometimes they try to get into the refugee camp,” Baes had told me, matter-of-factly. “They are attracted by the sound of voices and sense of community, so they ask the guards to let them in.”

Share
Single Page

Get access to 169 years of
Harper’s for only $23.99

United States Canada

CATEGORIES

THE CURRENT ISSUE

December 2019

Gimme Shelter

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Body Language

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Trash, Rock, Destroy

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Make Way for Tomorrow

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

The Red Dot

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

view Table Content

FEATURED ON HARPERS.ORG

Article
Gimme Shelter·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

I.

That year, the year of the Ghost Ship fire, I lived in a shack. I’d found the place just as September’s Indian summer was giving way to a wet October. There was no plumbing or running water to wash my hands or brush my teeth before sleep. Electricity came from an extension cord that snaked through a yard of coyote mint and monkey flower and up into a hole I’d drilled in my floorboards. The structure was smaller than a cell at San Quentin—a tiny house or a huge coffin, depending on how you looked at it—four by eight and ten feet tall, so cramped it fit little but a mattress, my suit jackets and ties, a space heater, some novels, and the mason jar I peed in.

The exterior of my hermitage was washed the color of runny egg yolk. Two redwood French doors with plexiglass windows hung cockeyed from creaky hinges at the entrance, and a combination lock provided meager security against intruders. White beadboard capped the roof, its brim shading a front porch set on cinder blocks.

After living on the East Coast for eight years, I’d recently left New York City to take a job at an investigative reporting magazine in San Francisco. If it seems odd that I was a fully employed editor who lived in a thirty-two-square-foot shack, that’s precisely the point: my situation was evidence of how distorted the Bay Area housing market had become, the brutality inflicted upon the poor now trickling up to everyone but the super-rich. The problem was nationwide, although, as Californians tend to do, they’d taken this trend to an extreme. Across the state, a quarter of all apartment dwellers spent half of their incomes on rent. Nearly half of the country’s unsheltered homeless population lived in California, even while the state had the highest concentration of billionaires in the nation. In the Bay Area, including West Oakland, where my shack was located, the crisis was most acute. Tent cities had sprung up along the sidewalks, swarming with capitalism’s refugees. Telegraph, Mission, Market, Grant: every bridge and overpass had become someone’s roof.

Post
Perhaps the World Ends Here·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Climate disaster at Wounded Knee

Article
Body Language·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

I am eight years old, sitting in my childhood kitchen, ready to watch one of the home videos my father has made. The videotape still exists somewhere, so somewhere she still is, that girl on the screen: hair that tangles, freckles across her nose that in time will spread across one side of her forehead. A body that can throw a baseball the way her father has shown her. A body in which bones and hormones lie in wait, ready to bloom into the wide hips her mother has given her. A body that has scars: the scars over her lungs and heart from the scalpel that saved her when she was a baby, the invisible scars left by a man who touched her when she was young. A body is a record or a body is freedom or a body is a battleground. Already, at eight, she knows it to be all three.

But somebody has slipped. The school is putting on the musical South Pacific, and there are not enough roles for the girls, and she is as tall as or taller than the boys, and so they have done what is unthinkable in this striving 1980s town, in this place where the men do the driving and the women make their mouths into perfect Os to apply lipstick in the rearview. For the musical, they have made her a boy.

No, she thinks. They have allowed her to be a boy.

Article
Trash, Rock, Destroy·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

The writer and filmmaker Virginie Despentes lives in a nondescript modern building in the Belleville neighborhood of Paris. I know it well: it has a Bricorama—like a French Home Depot—on the ground floor, where we sometimes had cause to shop back when we lived in the neighborhood. The people who work there seemed to hate their jobs more than most; they were often absent from the sales floor. In the elevator to Despentes’s apartment, I marvel that while I was trying to get someone to help me find bathroom grout she was right upstairs, with her partner, Tania, a Spanish tattoo artist who goes by the name La Rata, like someone out of one of Despentes’s novels.

In an email before our meeting, Despentes asked that we not do a photo shoot. “There are so many images available already,” she explained. Much had been written about her, too. A Google search yielded page after page: profiles, interviews, reviews, bits and bobs—she read from Pasolini at a concert with Béatrice Dalle; someone accused her of plagiarizing a translation; a teacher in Switzerland was fired for teaching her work. The week I met her, she appeared in the culture magazine Les Inrockuptibles in conversation with the rapper-turned-actor JoeyStarr. The woman is simply always in the news.

Article
The Red Dot·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

That night at the window, looking out at the street full of snow, big flakes falling through the streetlight, I listened to what Anna was saying. She was speaking of a man named Karl. We both knew him as a casual acquaintance—thin and lanky like Ichabod Crane, with long hair—operating a restaurant down in the village whimsically called the Gist Mill, with wood paneling, a large painting of an old gristmill on a river on one wall, tin ceilings, and a row of teller cages from its previous life as a bank. Karl used to run along the river, starting at his apartment in town and turning back about two miles down the path. He had been going through the divorce—this was a couple of years ago, of course, Anna said—and was trying to run through his pain.

Cost of renting a giant panda from the Chinese government, per day:

$1,500

A recent earthquake in Chile was found to have shifted the city of Concepción ten feet to the west, shortened Earth’s days by 1.26 microseconds, and shifted the planet’s axis by nearly three inches.

An eight-foot minke whale washed ashore on the Thames, the third beaching of a dead whale on the river in two months.

Subscribe to the Weekly Review newsletter. Don’t worry, we won’t sell your email address!

HARPER’S FINEST

Jesus Plus Nothing

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

By

At Ivanwald, men learn to be leaders by loving their leaders. “They’re so busy loving us,” a brother once explained to me, “but who’s loving them?” We were. The brothers each paid $400 per month for room and board, but we were also the caretakers of The Cedars, cleaning its gutters, mowing its lawns, whacking weeds and blowing leaves and sanding. And we were called to serve on Tuesday mornings, when The Cedars hosted a regular prayer breakfast typically presided over by Ed Meese, the former attorney general. Each week the breakfast brought together a rotating group of ambassadors, businessmen, and American politicians. Three of Ivanwald’s brothers also attended, wearing crisp shirts starched just for the occasion; one would sit at the table while the other two poured coffee. 

Subscribe Today