Lesbos – It’s a holy mountain, that Moria

It’s a holy mountain, that Moria. A mountain where temples were built during biblical times and whose waters reflected the magical beauty of the movie stars from the Lord of the Rings. But on Moria on Lesbos, not much of that can be found.

Yes it is a mountain, but that’s where the comparison ends. Children play amongst the trash. Tents and other makeshift shelters are built all over the place. It smells everywhere and it is uncomfortably hot. Even before entering the camp we feel the urge to turn around and leave. This Moria has nothing magical. This is not Moria. This is Mordor, or hell.

A young man is wandering through the chaos, searching for something. He had gotten lost from his friends during the journey and is hoping to find them here at the camp. But he doesn’t know where to search. He joins us as we’re equally lost, horrified and astonished. There are people lying around everywhere: lots of Afghans, but also Pakistanis, Somalis, and Eritreans. Some of them have a dark, gauzy cloth hung up above them for a bit of shade, others lay unprotected under a tree. They tell us that theft is a huge problem, especially at night. When the scarce food supplies are handed out, fights almost always break out. All those nationalities together, how will this work peacefully?

Somewhere in a corner some boys have invented a game using the embers from extinguished fires. We walk along a ridge and slide down some loose gravel. A boy of maybe 8 years old shows us how he can turn a stick on his fingers. A mother retreats into her tent to breastfeed her baby. A group of children gets into an argument and some older boys try to calm things down. Another group runs past us and retreats into the toilets. When we go look in there, all sorts of insects and vermin can be seen. The air pungent and clearly unhealthy.

We walk up a steep concrete path. A bus from Doctors of the World comes down. It moves very slowly and carefully inches past the tents which have been set up on the concrete. Our young companion lets out a cry, “there are my friends!” And there they are, under a tree: a man, a woman, and two small children. They look very tidy, as if they don’t belong there, like they’re resting at a stop along their journey with their bags still on their backs.

We join them. How was your trip? Did you have a long walk or was there a bus to take you? Do you have a tent already? Where do you want to go? The young woman answers our questions in perfect English. We compliment her and her sons, who snuggle up closer to their mother. She puts her arm around them. “Do you have food?” we ask. The answer she gives stuns us, “the money is gone.”

This Mordor, this hell, is unforgiving. “The money is gone.” It means no tent, no food, no ticket to leave the island, no dreams, no life. “The money is gone” means “staying prisoner in this hell”. As she says it, she turns her head away and wipes at her eyes. Her sons clutch onto her. We want to help, but realize how much we stand out and are being watched by all these people who also have nothing. Giving something could be dangerous, even more so for them. We sit with them in silence for a while. Then René briefly pats her on her hand. It is against all cultural rules, but it felt right, as if it was the only thing we could offer in this situation. When we’re in the car I ask him, “Did you give her something?” He nods. I didn’t see it. I hope no one else did either…

(By Alfard Menninga | Translation by Selma Rooseboom)