Our volunteer, Rosie Haliwell, at Lesvos reports
On Sunday the 22nd of April a peaceful demonstration of around 200, mainly Afghan, refugees, which had maintained a calm and united presence in Sappho Square since the previous Tuesday, was subjected to an unprovoked, brutal and racist attack.
By: Rosie Haliwell, volunteer, Lesvos
Refugees had gathered in the square, and were supported by activists and volunteers, to protest the inhumane living conditions which they are forced to remain in and the agreements and slow asylum application process which prevents them from leaving the island and travelling to the mainland. The protest began only days after the announcement that a Greek court had ruled in favour of allowing new arrivals to the island to travel to the mainland, it was made very clear that, if implemented, this new rule would not apply to existing refugees living on Greek islands. This new rule has since been revoked and Moria camp remains a dangerous and distressing place to live with the 6885 residents more than twice over it’s 3000 person capacity.
Mytilene Patriotic Movement II had used Facebook to organise a rally on the island to coincide with a regular military parade and flag ceremony outside the town hall. It is thought that around 50 people travelled to Mytilene from the mainland, the remainder residing here on the Island.
Riot police had gathered in the square around 6pm, a full hour before the mob arrived, and began to form a barrier in the centre of the square dividing the migrants from the rest of the square where the horde of attackers would gather. At this point the attackers were not prevented from entering the square nor were the refugees participating in the demonstration evacuated to safety. The men who were part of the demonstration stood and formed a strong humanchain around the women and children sitting on the floor.
Once the crowd of aggressors had entered the square then began the verbal attacks and intimidation. The police line was pushed and shouts of “Burn them alive” and “Throw them in the sea” were directed at the refugees, one man was heard saying that he was willing to die in order to get to the protestors and harm them. Leaders within the peaceful demonstration were quick to calm anyone provoked by the verbal attack and maintained peace and dignity inside the protest, admirable restraint was shown on the victim’s side at this point and throughout the night
Shortly after rocks, bottles, lit flares and other debris was thrown over the police line and into the centre of the protest where the women and children were being protected.
Volunteers and refugees cooperated to stretch blankets out over them forming a protective roof to soften the impact of the larger projectiles. There were abatements in the assault but it seemed as though these were calculated, at around midnight there was an coordinated strike, all at once more rocks, bottles, firecrackers and lit flares were thrown over the police line, mainly aimed at the women and children in the centre. Victims were using boxes and crates as shields to rebound the projectiles but as the police were only on one side of the demonstration, attackers moved around to all sides and it was impossible to predict where
the next rock would come from. Bins were lit on fire and the fire brigade was called to extinguish it. A Molotov cocktail was thrown toward the protestors and hit a police bus. All of these actions were met with restraint from the protestors and also, strangely, from the police. The police solution was to throw tear gas which engulfed the square and so the women and children being sheltered.
Injuries were sustained by refugees, political activists and volunteers, a nearby café was opened to the demonstrators and a first-aid area was set up inside, victims were brought inside and treated but as the attackers dispersed somewhat from the square they also began roaming the streets. A smaller mob headed toward the temporary clinic using a side street and so the café was evacuated and people were carried to another restaurant further from danger. People remained inside all night sleeping and being treated. Calls for ambulances by volunteers and activists were unsuccessful, the phone line rang out or was engaged and when finally contacted they were told the ambulance could only reach the end of Erimou street, much more than walking distance for an injured person and unsafe when assailants were patrolling the streets.
Throughout the night the crowd of assailants grew steadily, what had begun as a small mob increased to an estimated 250 people. It is unclear where the people forming the crowd kept coming from and whether they were involved in the military parade and flag ceremony but it was clear that they all had the same agenda, a racist and thuggish campaign against what was a peaceful demand for more humane treatment.
The attack had subsided by 4am and the square was calm, protestors remained quietly in a state of shock. At 5:20am the police began to forcibly and brutally remove the refugees from the square and into a nearby bus. The refugees were beaten and doused in pepper spray, people were dragged by their hair in threes and men trying to protect the women and children from this were also beaten. Following the violent attack 120 of the protestors were arrested, charges being brought against them include, Illegal Occupation of Public Property, Revolt With the use of Force and Resistance. None of the assailants were arrested on the night, later 17 of the assailants were arrested, and nine of them were not residents of the island. Volunteers and activists now initiating their own legal action in order to charge more members of the attack mob, there are talks of a separate case to deal with the mismanagement and brutality employed by the police. A volunteer who was one of the first to respond when reports came in that there would be trouble and who remained there through the night told of the horrific experience, being struck in the chest by a large piece of the base of the statue which stands in the square, children crying and people bleeding. When the tear gas cloud spread to under the blankets protecting the women and children it was terrifying having to go under and try to get people out and the size of the concrete and rocks being thrown were big enough to kill a person. What these people are fleeing is much worse, otherwise they wouldn’t be here, but if they are not safe here then where are they safe and who is wiling to protect them?