People tend to disappear on this island. They’re here one day and gone the next. Sometimes it’s because they’ve quietly boarded the ferry the evening before and sometimes it’s because they’ve been taken to prison. With volunteers and locals, it’s different, obviously. But for the refugees, if you can’t locate someone that you’re used to seeing, it could be for a variety of reasons. Sometimes, they’ve snuck onto the ferry and are illegally making their way to Athens, sometimes they’ve been granted asylum and their travel restrictions have been lifted so they leave the island right away, and sometimes, most horribly, they’ve been arrested.
Arrests are a unique thing on this island. There is no prison here, just a holding cell at the police station on the other side of the island. The closest prison is on the island of Kos, which is a few hours away by ferry. So, a lot of time when someone seems to vanish, they’re just being held in a cell on the other side of the island. In my first three month stint on Leros, I wasn’t aware of anyone being put in the jail, but when I left, some of the people I knew the best were arrested and I didn’t hear from them for the duration of their time there. One friend spent more than a month in the jail before he was released.
This time around, it’s one of the residence who happily greets me every time I see him, who hugs me whenever he can, who has been thrown in jail.
The question: WHY?
The answer: I don’t know. I just really, really do not know.
In an effort to get asylum in Greece, many refugees go through the entire process, often for more than a year. Their cases are accepted or denied, they can get lawyers and appeal their decisions, etc. The process really seems to stretch on and on, but there almost always seems to be something else that can be done other than getting deported back to their home country or to Turkey. Things happen, but the system is so slow that the effect of the cause tends to take time. So, even if someone’s case is over and they need to be deported, the slow Greek system may not actually have them sent back to their country for a month or two after the decision is made. This is partly why things can appear to happen so suddenly.
So, my buddy is in jail right now. He might need to be transferred to Kos at some point, but for now he’s still on Leros. I went to visit him yesterday. I was told the visiting hours were from 6 to 7, so I went to the store, bought some food, and headed over to the other side of the island. Fortunately, I was able to borrow one of the vehicles I have for work, otherwise I would have had to make the walk over which would have taken about an hour or so. When I parked the car next to the marina, the sunset was bursting in golden rays. The entire island seemed to be glowing, with the sun bouncing off of the white buildings of the hilly town and the mountain behind me. I’m again reminded that the stark beauty of this island means nothing when it comes to the secrets this place can hold. I quickly snapped a photo with my phone out of irony as I climbed from the car. This place is utterly stunning, but haunting as well, as I made my way to the police station to see my captive friend.
When I arrived with another volunteer, it was about 5 minutes after 6:00. The police at the station seemed surprised to see us. When I said we were there to visit our friend, they looked at me confused but complied. One of the officers said that he would only allow one of us to go see him, so I took the bag of things I had purchased for him at the store and then followed the man out of the office and into a dark hallway. At the end of the hall, there was an old fashioned metal door, which looked exactly how every jail cell in the movies looks, only dingier and scarier. There was hardly any light. The officer painted to the bars and said flatly, “call him.”
Confused, I looked through the metal bars and called out my friends name, but, so not to let the officer be aware of what I was saying, I called out a few words in Farsi. I thought by doing this, I’d be taking a little of the power from the police officer. I heard my words echo off of the bare walls of the cell I was calling into. A moment of nothing, then my friend appeared around the corner. He was dressed how he always is, in his jeans and a jacket, with a lit cigarette in hand.
The police officer rifled through the bag I brought as I greeted my friend at the gate. You’re not suppose to touch the prisoners, but I did anyway. I’m used to hugging him whenever I see him, so touching his hand through the bars seemed like nothing. Item by item, the officer passed everything I brought through the bars to my friend. Some peanuts for protein, some dried fruit for vitamins, a can of Coke for comfort because it was still cold, and some potato chips for a snack. 5 sudoku books, something I thought would be useful in keeping his brain active while sitting in the endless boredom, but the pen I brought was not allowed. I hoped I had my basis covered. Other visitors had told me that they had already brought him snacks and hygiene products, because the cell is notorious for its lack-of-care. Prisoners get put in the cell and ignored, they aren’t given items to bathe themselves or fed three times a day.
When the officer was finished handing everything through the bars, he took a single step back and said, “you have one minute.” He hovered over my shoulder the entire time, so I was actually happy to only have one minute because I realized I didn’t have anything to say to my friend if someone else was going to be eavesdropping on the conversation the entire time. Had we been alone, I would have been fine to continue speaking, but not while being watched so closely. It seemed, that after two days in the jail cell, my friend seemed to be doing fine, but it was obvious that the situation could quickly become mentally dire. I hope his lawyer figures something out for him soon.
Now I’ve seen one more piece of this experience. Now I know a little bit more of the story. Slowly, slowly this whole tale is told.
Babe, you’re glowing gold, but I can see you’ve got a secret.