I Patrolled Greece’s Border Fence With Turkey, While Refugees Drowned In The Aegean
For four months, I patrolled the border fence that separates Europe and Turkey
In 2012 Greece built a fence on its border to Turkey to stop refugees from entering Europe, diverting their route to the Aegean Sea where thousands have drowned.
In 2014 I was called up to the army.
It was my second night as a soldier, posted to Europe’s most heavily guarded and fortified border. A 130 kilometer long strip of land running through the Balkan peninsula — Greece’s land border with Turkey. A region high with tensions and animosity as the two mediterranean countries are well known archenemies, although, strangely enough, at the same time NATO allies. For decades, Greece’s military leadership believed, rightfully so, that Evros would be the main point for an invasion in case Turkey launched an offensive.
Right away I got the “German” on the “chain”. The “German” or “German number” in the Greek Army jargon, is the guard duty from two to four o’clock at night, because it is the most strenuous, the most inhuman and because, well, Greeks hate everything German apart from German cars and kitchen appliances. Doing night watch in the Greek army means that while everyone else is asleep in the barracks, eight soldiers, divided in four shifts, need to be en guarde in groups of two, for two hours each.
The “chain” is the border crossing. Actually no chain at all, but a line. A white line on the street. Up to this point, Greece, after that Turkey. “From there on, there’s only Allah,” our captain said in his welcoming brief, pointing to the minarets on the Turkish side, which stuck out like spearheads above the trees.
Evros, the northeasternmost region of Greece where I, like hundreds of thousands of fellow Greeks before me served our military service, looks more like a central european swamp and has little of the sun-kissed coastline of Greece.
Rivers, bogs and never-ending cornfields leave their mark on the landscape of the region, called after the onymous river Evros (Turkish: Meriç) that marks the border with Turkey since 1923, which today is also the border of the European Union.
Only on a small section near the Turkish city of Edirne the river flows completely on Turkish side forming a 12 kilometer long corridor and the two neighbouring countries only real land border. There, in 2012, Greece set up a border fence to stop the flow of illegal migrants to Europe. 6,000 cubic meters of concrete, 800 tons of steel, 20,700 meters of wire mesh, 140,000 meters of barbed wire and 210,000 meters of wire unwind through 10.5 kilometers of the northern Greek landscape.
And on my second night at the border, I was assigned to guard this fence.
Before its construction in 2012, up to 400 refugees passed through this natural corridor to Greece every night. The number declined by 90 percent after the fence was erected. At the same time, the number of refugees crossing over the Aegean Sea from Turkey to Greece suddenly multiplied.
My first guard duty on the border
The two hours of my “German shift” just did not want to go by. Manically, I looked at my watch every few minutes. Behind me, the moonlight shimmered on the barbed wire rolls of the ubiquitous border fence. Finally, I saw that it was 15 minutes until the change of guard. Go back to the barracks, lock the weapon up at the camp’s arsenal, pee, take off the uniform, lay finally in bed and hope that the smell of sweat and wet socks is not that bad this time. With some luck, I would be able to sleep for another hour and a half, until the bugle wake up call would tear us out of bed at 6 o’clock.
But suddenly I heard a rustle in the grass. “Stop!” I called stridently to hide my own fear.
Below the street, less than ten meters away, stood three men on the Greek side of the fence, in wet clothes with hands raised above their heads. Silently and anxiously, they looked at me.
“You pussy,” laughed Nikos, the sergeant with whom I was standing guard. “They’re just refugees. “
“And what are we supposed to do with them?” I stuttered.
“You’re the wise ass who speaks four languages. Go talk to them. “
The three men looked at us in surprise. All aged around their 50s, with thick mustaches and round, friendly faces. In English, I asked them to take down their hands. One of them said that they were Syrians and had crossed the river and walked through the forest. The smugglers took their money and passports from them. Surprisingly enough, they did not want to go any further, just make their way back to Turkey to get their stuff.
“No chance,” Nikos said. My job was to reassure them long enough until he could inform the border police by radio. “Do not let them out of sight!” The three did not even think about running away. If they did, I do not know if and how I could have stopped them.
Our replacement watch came just a few minutes later simultaneously with the police. “Where are they taking them?” I asked anxiously as the three Syrians got into a police van. “It’s not our responsibility, kid,” Nikos replied, “but you did well. Welcome to Evros.”
Better in the army than in a call center
“Please appear on September 13, 2014 at 09.00 am at the 124th Basic Training Camp in Tripoli, Arcadia”, read the red paper handed over to me by a policeman outside my front door. Cold sweat ran down my spine. Could I not have objected? Well, objecting is still hard in Greece. But surely some excuse could have been found, in order to be deemed ineligible. Psychological problems, depression, suicidal thoughts. Old, proven tricks that had been used in the past by others and mostly worked.
I wouldn’t have been the only one who evaded military service to enjoy my life freely and at ease. Only my civilian life was really not that great at the time that I absolutely had to go ahead with it. In truth, it was crap. Law school went down the drain and I almost longed for some drastic change, some reason to drop everything and start all over.
What about freedom? Well, after almost three years working in a call center in Athens, for five euros an hour, I was not quite sure anymore what freedom feels like and what to do with it. Others go on a trip around the world or help Bolivian quinoa farmers; I joined the Greek army.
After a month in recruiting camp on the Peloponnese, where I learned to use the toilet under all kinds of discomforting conditions, and three weeks in basic training in Ioannina, a city in Northwestern Greece, where my fresh-won tolerance for the lack of hygiene reached an altogether new limit, we went on the long drive to our location of service:
Evros. A curse word in the Greek tongue. A place of “eternal banishment” for those who do not have the right connections to be stationed in a better place; whose parents do not know the right people in the army, in the church or in politics and are expelled to the edge of the country, to the border with Turkey, to serve their country and fulfil their compulsory military obligations.
Exile. That was the mood on the military bus, that took us to the camp in Evros. The 650-kilometer journey from Ioannina to the regional district of Evros began at 4 o’clock in the morning. I could only see sad, disturbed faces around me. A 19-year-old boy sobbed quietly in the last row. Another desperately tried to arrange his immediate transfer to Thessaloniki on the phone with some influential relative. Most only glared, depressed, out the window into the eternal gray of Greece’s cold north.
I was one of the few beneficiaries of this transfer, who went on this journey rather cheerfully as I hailed exactly from this “godforsaken” place. Although I had not spent more than a few summers of my life there, my parents, now pensioners after a life time in Germany, lived secluded in their hometown just there. I was lucky, in that I had been stationed near my parents’ house.
But I never got there. I was transferred directly to an outpost on the border fence. Before the small barracks lay the road that connects the Greek village of Kastanies with the Turkish city of Edirne.
Two guards on both sides and in the middle the white line. 200 meters separated us from the Turkish base. Left of the road lay a small forest on the river, which formed the natural border again. To the right the border fence; a three-meter-high steel construction with razor-sharp barbed wire rolls. For 10.5 kilometers this monster unwinds through the landscape of Thrace, equipped with infrared cameras and watchtowers; guarded by police and army patrols.
The biggest hole in Europe’s border
This narrow corridor had been called the largest hole in Europe’s border before the border fence was built. Even the EU had to send European border guards from Frontex to the region to guard it. German and French policemen patrolled the fields and bogs of Evros just as their Greek counterparts. According to the Greek police, in 2011 a total of 54,974 refugees illegally crossed the border. In July 2012 alone there were 6,914 people. Then the construction of the border fence started. In November of the same year, when the fence was finished, only 71 people crossed the border there.
Arrests of illegal migrants at the Greek land border
Apparently, the border fence had done its job. The Greek government, led by the conservative Nea Dimokratia, was able to achieve a victory in a climate of international suspicion created by the financial crisis. Nobody could now accuse the small Mediterranean country of not effectively protecting its borders. But apparently nobody had expected what would happen next.
The following year saw the opposite trend on the islands of Greece. On Lesbos, the number of refugees rose in 2013 from 1,417 to 3,793. On Samos from 1,066 to 3,233. And on Chios, the number of refugees skyrocketed from 69 to 1,560.
The fence had fulfilled its mission at the land border, but at the same time led to a dramatic shift in the refugees’ passage. They came over the sea now. More and more smugglers took the refugees on ships across the Aegean Sea, and more and more boats capsized — people drowned. More than 10,000 people have drowned in the Mediterranean since 2014 on their flight to Europe. The fence, designed as a defensive bulwark, became an offensive weapon that cost people their lives.
Anti-racist at the border
A 33-year-old city councillor from Orestiada, named Ilias Aggelakoudis, shares this opinion about the fence. He is a member of an activist organization named “Stop Evros Wall” and co-founder of the Anti-racist Festival of the Northern Greek region. While as a “loyal soldier” I guarded the border, Ilias stood with hundreds of demonstrators 800 meters away in the small border town of Kastanies and demanded the demolition of the border fence. The activists gathered there three times in 2014, each time being stopped by the police from reaching the fence.
“People in the area wanted the fence,” Ilias confides, as we meet many months after I’m released from duty.
“There were a few small criminal incidents with the perpetrators being refugees, like breaking into abandoned homes to get protection from the cold. That’s why many residents of the region had been persuaded that the border fence was a good idea”, he says with horror at his — at our — compatriots.
“This fence was a trigger and starting point for all other political fences that were later built in Europe,” he adds.
But what does he mean by “political”?
“These constructions are political, because they fulfill a political purpose, which in this case is the deterrence of refugees at any price. Even if the price is thousands of deaths in the Aegean.” But can you really blame the border fence for the humanitarian crisis in the Aegean, I ask. When it comes to Ilias, the answer is clear: “The drowned are a direct result of this fence.”
Alarm on New Year’s Eve
My weeks at the border fence went by as uneventfully as dreary. The night guard’s duty and patrols took turns with a feeling of exhaustion and a sense of hopelessness. The cold nested in our socks and our combat boots. No one was allowed to sleep during the day. Our eyelids just shut while eating or talking to one another.
On New Year’s Eve of 2014, we smuggled a bottle of whiskey into the barracks. Nobody would stop us from celebrating. We cursed at our superiors and laughed; our jokes were as obscene as they were funny. A few minutes before the new year, some of the braver ones began counting the remaining days of their service when the phone rang. It was the guard on the chain. A Turkish deserter had defected to our side. “Angeloudis, take your gun, and get down there,” the captain yelled at me. I was one of the oldest in the squad, trustful and spoke proper English, so I was ordered to go. “And be careful that it’s not a trap,” he shouted after me as I ran off.
On the way, I imagined several scenarios, diplomatic conflicts and international crisis prevention were negotiated — but instead of a Turkish deserter, I found only a young man at my age who trembled like a leaf in the winter cold. His eyes were fixed on the ground, his lips completely blue. He crossed his arms and hugged himself tightly. His wet, blue and beige college jacket dripped at the asphalt.
“Türk?” I asked him hesitantly, but he did not answer. “English?” He just shrugged. “Deutsch?” — no reaction. His nose and high cheekbones reminded me of a persian bas-relief. After a moment’s hesitation, I asked, “Farsi?” Suddenly his eyes lit up. Life returned to his face. “Farsi, Farsi, baleh,” he said wearily.
I gave him a sign that he should come with me. We walked the 50 meters to the barracks together. The captain was already waiting at the entrance: “The police are informed, but that may take some time. Until then he has to wait outside. We can not let him in.” The other soldiers had already gathered around the Iranian refugee. “The man is soaking wet. If we do not let him in, he will freeze”, one of the soldiers demanded. “I can not do anything, that’s against the rules. A refugee is not allowed to enter a military building”, the captain hissed in despair.
A 20-year-old brought the Iranian a blanket, two boys from the company gave him a scarf, a woolen hat and a pair of gloves, another one made tea. After half an hour, even the captain gave in. The Iranian was allowed in the hall to warm up there. He sat quietly and sipped his tea. He did not say a word. We gave him only a few embarrassed glances. We did not want to talk any more, not with him, not amongst us. Two hours later the police finally arrived.
Election campaign at the border fence
Although 2015 had begun rather gloomy, there was an euphoric mood in the air at the beginning of January. A constant coming and going of commanders and generals at our border post signified the upcoming election. Greece voted and we had to polish the border camp to receive the Greek Prime Minister Antonis Samaras. After greeting him on the chain, he stood in front of the proudest work of his term and proclaimed a warning:
“This is the fence that some people want to tear down, because they think that illegal migrants should be allowed to enter and, on top of that, we have to give them citizenship and access to our insurance funds and to our health care. This is something the Greek people will not allow. “
He meant Syriza, the back then, radical left-wing “immigrant-loving” opposition party. The fact that the desolate Greek health care system already counted three million uninsured during his tenure didn’t come to Samaras mind. Three weeks later, Syriza won the election. The border fence, which the new Greek government supposedly wanted to replace, stood firmly. The EU cautioned Greece to effectively protect its borders. More and more voices from Germany uttered the unthinkable: an expulsion of Greece from the Schengen Area.
Where Syriza seemed indecisive, the mighty Evros River took action. In February, the flooded stream tore holes in the bulwark. Side rivers turned into torrents. Whole tracts of land disappeared under the gray waters, and even our little border camp was threatened by the flood waters. We had to evacuate our border post and were transferred back to base.
The fence was eventually repaired, the border posts resumed their duties but my time at the fence was over.
One last time back
The extremely cold winter was followed by a softer March. The day of my release from duty approached, and although I was stationed back at the base and was only pushing papers at an office, I wanted to see the border one last time. I jumped in for a colleague and drove with a sergeant to the fence.
The watchtower laid on a small hill. Underneath, I stood alone in the warm afternoon sun. From this elevation you could see the whole valley of the Evros River. My eyes wandered for a long time over the frontier line. I looked at the birds, as they flew carelessly once here and once there. The fence in the middle was like a mirror. Watchtower left, watchtower right, fields left, fields right.
The great horizon and the sunshine had taken away the gloomy mood of the last months. Like an antibody to my joyless uniformed self, I was overcome by a sudden euphoria. I put my rifle aside and lay down in the sun. There is only one thing missing to be completely happy, I thought. From my smartphone Bob Dylan sang right across into Turkey:
… I saw a room full of men with their hammers a-bleedin’
I saw a white ladder all covered with water
I saw ten thousand talkers whose tongues were all broken
I saw guns and sharp swords in the hands of young children
And it’s a hard, and it’s a hard, it’s a hard, it’s a hard
And it’s a hard rain’s a-gonna fall …
I was released from duty at the end of March. Since I spent most of my life in Germany, I only had to do a shortened military service. Only a few months later, in the summer of 2015, the refugee crisis culminated in the Aegean. 876,232 refugees came to Greece; only 3,713 of them through the Evros. Every day I saw images of people in distress, capsized boats, corpses lying on the beaches. Often, especially at night, I asked myself how I could have taken part in such horror.
Almost two years later, I too fled, or rather: I left the hopelessness of my crisis-ridden country as a free person. I took my part of the guilt with me.
This article first appeared first in German on our partner publication krautreporter.de. It was translated into English by the author.