Greece’s Evros region is consumed by fires and hatred of migrants

As firefighters and seaplanes work day and night to put out the largest blaze ever recorded in the EU, some locals are blaming Turkey and refugees for the flames

Hibai Arbide Aza
Fire Greece
Burned trees in the Greek region of Evros this Monday.Anadolu Agency (Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

In the Greek region of Evros, bordering Turkey, the flames remained out of control a day after the European Commission spoke of the “largest wildfire ever recorded in the EU.” Authorities further reinforced firefighting forces on Thursday, 13 days after the massive blaze broke out. More than 100 extra firefighters were deployed, bringing the total to 582, backed by a fleet of 10 planes and seven helicopters from nine European countries, Greece’s fire department said.

On Wednesday, Tasos and Leftheris drive down a road that opens through a sea of ashes without passing any other cars. They are police officers, but they are wearing a green uniform that makes them look like soldiers. They are exhausted. They have been working without rest for 12 days. In that ghostly landscape, only one bunker has remained standing, which until Tuesday was camouflaged among trees, now completely charred. It is the point where the officers turn around to continue their patrol. At the end of the secondary road there is a sign that still reads: “The forest is valuable, do not light a fire.”

Tasos and Leftheris believe the fire has been extinguished. The affected area is so large that, from where they are standing, in Lefkimmi, it is not clear that the situation is far from under control. As the morning progresses the outlook becomes more difficult and they become aware that they still have a lot of work ahead of them.

There is no consensus on the real number of victims; Authorities have not provided an official number. Pro-government media outlets maintain that 20 people have died: 19 migrants and a rancher. Human rights organizations raise the number to 27, adding another group of migrants that the authorities have not confirmed.

Border zone

There is a distinctive element about the Evros fire that makes it different from those that have charred huge areas of other Greek regions this summer: paranoia. Unlike Rhodes or Corfu, this is a border area where distrust of foreigners is deeply rooted.

Soufli is a small town located less than two kilometers from the Turkish border. It smells burnt and the horizon hasn’t been seen for hours, but life goes on. A tavern is open, its interior dominated by a large badge of the AEK soccer club. On the TV, laikó songs, the most popular musical genre of the 1960s and 70s, are playing at full volume. Everyone talks about the flames when they come in. Some people’s eyes sting from the smoke.

The waiter, Panagiotis, chats calmly with one of the customers, who has stopped by for a bite to eat. The latter is Jaralavos Boizos, a 40-year-old plumber, who these days is working with the authorities by doing all kinds of jobs to help put out the flames. Today, together with other neighbors, he created a firebreak. “It breaks our hearts to see what is happening,” he says while finishing a beer. After so many days, they talk about the event with resigned familiarity. Boizos complains that the political class has abandoned this border region. “In Athens they only remember Evros when it is too late and they impose insufficient solutions on us without counting on local people.” He is talking about the fires, but also about the immigration policies that, in his opinion, do not sufficiently protect the borders.

Boizos and Panagiotis believe that these are related issues: they believe that the perpetrators are the refugees. They use the word lazrometanástes, a pejorative term that translates as “illegal immigrants.” Greece’s far right has whipped up the idea that refugees are being used as pawns by Greece’s enemies — specifically, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Islam in general — to attack the sovereignty of the country, which they see as a bastion of Christianity. The increasingly common fires would be explained as a plan to destabilize the country, and not as a consequence of climate change. And, using that logic, the refugees would be the executors of the plan.

—But why would migrants want to burn the forest?

—“I’m just a plumber, I’m practically illiterate,” Boizos responds, shrugging his shoulders.

Arguiri, the waitress, intervenes from the back of the room: “We don't understand why, but here we all think that they did it.”

The fire department reported on Wednesday that its efforts were concentrated on three hotspots: Lefkimmi, Kotroná and Tris Brises. There were also flames in Kassitera, 30 kilometers to the west. The fire has devastated an area so widespread that the fronts no longer appear to have the same origin. From the heart of the Dadia Forest National Park a huge column of smoke emerges that forms a large grey and white cloud; It then extends north for dozens of kilometers until it dissolves into a mist that covers the horizon. Approximately every 10 minutes, four seaplanes and two helicopters dump thousands of liters of water, in a dance with crossed trajectories that could be described as beautiful if it were not for the fact that it is a human, environmental, and social tragedy of incalculable dimensions.

At each intersection there is a fire vehicle. Sitting in one of the trucks are Vasilis and Thanasis, two firefighters from Alexandroupolis who claim that they had never seen anything similar to the flames they fought these last two weeks. “It was like the fires in Canada that we saw on TV,” says Vasilis. A military truck passes next to them carrying a bulldozer to open firebreaks. Although a huge area has been burned, there is still a lot of forest to save.

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