A group of hooded men are beating a German photojournalist repeatedly in broad daylight in front of a large crowd while he is trying to report on the refugee situation on the Greek island of Lesbos.
Under the cover of darkness, another group gathers around the Mare Liberum ship and pours gasoline on its deck. The boat, part of a non-governmental organisation (NGO) dedicated to monitoring human rights in the Aegean Sea, is docked in a port in Lesbos for the night. Fearing the attackers might try to set the boat alight, the terrified crew are forced to make a quick getaway from the harbour, anchoring the boat off-shore soon afterwards.
Scenes like these were the culmination of events that took place on the small Greek island of Lesbos over just a few days in March, but which had been building for months beforehand.
Such turmoil initially seemed unimaginable on the warm morning of Sunday, March 1.
‘Your only way out’
I was sitting on a patch of grass in a part of the Moria refugee camp, listening to the singing of the Congolese community, who were holding their Sunday church service, when my phone started to buzz. I ignored it. The air was filled with laughter and dancing as the women from the church sang. A few minutes’ walk would lead you to the Afghan bakeries in the camp. The smell of the warm flatbreads produced from ovens dug into the earth clung to the breeze. It was one of the moments when Moria defied its “hellish” label.
My phone buzzed again. Then again. I meekly stepped away and read one of the messages. “Armed men on the road to Moria. Where are you?” Another message quickly arrived with a map. “The road highlighted in green is your only way out, all other roads blocked.”
After a couple of hours, I finally found a local taxi driver who agreed to pass through the roadblocks to collect me. This seemed to be the safer option. Hire cars had begun to be targeted by small groups of locals who had identified them as the main mode of transport for NGO workers. I made it out unharmed but others who left the camp later that day would not be so fortunate.
That night, as I reported from an anti-fascist protest in Mytilene, the main town in Lesbos, WhatsApp messages started arriving again. This time, they detailed very serious attacks on NGO workers, refugees and journalists.
On Twitter, I saw that Michael Trammer, a German photojournalist who I had met a few days previously, had been badly beaten while reporting in a town nearby.
As I looked at the photos posted of his head wounds, I noticed that a couple of men were slowing their pace to walk alongside me and pointing their phone cameras in my direction.
As part of the reporting that I do on migration and refugees in Greece, I have been to Lesbos many times, particularly in the past couple of years. I have always felt safe on the narrow, cobbled streets of Mytilene but that night, concerned that I was being profiled, I ran home, fearful that I was now a target.
The same streets where I had once felt at ease were swiftly becoming the stage for Europe’s culture wars and, within days, there would be neo-Nazis from six countries on Lesbos, who would arrive to show their solidarity with violent vigilantes. The internet would light up with dubious hashtags exhorting people to “defend Europe” or “stand with Greece”.
Over the years, Lesbos has shown itself capable of remarkable acts of solidarity.
It was one of the Greek islands nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize in 2016 in recognition of the efforts islanders had made to save the lives of the hundreds of thousands of refugees who arrived on their shores.
The tide turns
In recent years, however, as people kept arriving and the European Union-Turkey deal was implemented (which required people to have their asylum processed on the islands), the camps have started swelling to many thousands beyond their intended capacity.
Last July, New Democracy, the centre-right political party led by Kyriakos Mitsotakis, came to power in Greece after an election which saw far-right party Golden Dawn lose all of its 18 seats. The election had seen New Democracy entice Golden Dawn voters away under commitments to get tough on immigration and clean up what it saw as the mess created by its left-wing predecessors, Syriza.
Promises were made to step up deportations and decongest the islands. But the promises of the summer proved hard to deliver as arrivals from Turkey outstripped government efforts.
In February, after months of back and forth, New Democracy announced plans to replace the open camps with closed detention centres as a precursor to deporting 10,000 refugees and migrants.
While the commitment played well on the mainland, it was badly received on the islands where it was understood it would mean more camp construction and confirm a longer-term role as Europe’s buffer zone with Turkey.
“We are asking local residents to understand that these closed facilities will benefit the country and their communities,” government spokesman Stelios Petsas told Greek media.
On February 24, riot police from the mainland arrived on Lesbos and Chios, another Aegean island about 90 kilometres (56 miles) away with a refugee camp similarly thousands over capacity.
The images of the riot police disembarking on Lesbos in the early hours of February 25 were shared widely on social media. Someone even included music from Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back over the ominous video of riot police, equipped with shields, helmets and gas masks, marching off the ferry.
For two days, islanders protested against the plans for construction centres. On the second day of protests, I watched as a group of police pushed back protestors near the proposed construction site in the north of Lesbos. “You will beg us to return,” one of the police officers shouted at the crowd amid the clouds of tear gas.
Lesbos went on strike in protest at its treatment by the central government in Athens and in the early hours of Thursday morning, two days after they had arrived, the riot police left the island on the orders of the government; but the anger remained.
Islanders were not the only ones who protested. The nearly 20,000 people who have been warehoused in Moria, a camp designed for just less than 3,000 inhabitants, were also deeply frustrated.
Refugees are allowed to leave the camp, but usually only to go to the town and back. On February 3, hundreds of asylum seekers living in the Moria camp began to peacefully protest, walking from the refugee camp to the town of Mytilene. Many, including young families, were heavily tear gassed by riot police with videos posted on Twitter showing children struggling to breathe.
The protest, however, led to further tensions in the small village of Moria, which lends its name to the refugee camp down the road.
It was during this time that the first unofficial roadblocks were constructed by local residents who began denying passage to refugees through the village.
On the night of February 3, a house where NGO workers were living had stones thrown through its windows by angry local residents. A car outside was vandalised.
Throughout February, many NGOs found themselves the victims of threats or actual violence. This included the medical charity, Doctors Without Borders (Medecins Sans Frontieres, or MSF), which released two statements that month expressing its concerns about threats and harassment towards its staff and refugees passing through the village of Moria.
Years of mounting tensions were distilled into violence and unrest which escalated through February and into early March. The island of Lesbos, which had been synonymous with humanitarianism, was seeing a total collapse in law and order.
The tipping point
On Thursday, February, 27, I sat in a friend’s kitchen and watched in horror a video which showed an attack on humanitarian volunteers working with refugees. Their car was surrounded by a crowd and men were smashing the windows, seemingly ready to seriously harm the people inside. Lesbos, it seemed, had reached a tipping point.
The very next day, it was reported that Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan was to “open the gates” to Europe and stop abiding by the terms of the EU-Turkey deal. Under this deal, Turkey had pledged to monitor its borders in exchange for about $3bn from the European Commission to manage and provide for the refugee population in the country.
Nobody was sure initially if Turkish threats to “open” the borders to Europe were real but the local conflict in Lesbos had now taken on the dimensions of an international crisis.
Sunday, March 1, provided the first clear patch of weather since the Turkish announcement. It was these conditions which meant people could feasibly cross in dinghies from Turkey to Lesbos; and so that morning there were hundreds of new arrivals on the island’s shores. This mobilised locals who created roadblocks in an attempt to prevent anyone from being taken into the already crowded Moria camp. The violent anger quickly became evident.
Timeline to brutality
Michael Trammer was only one of a large number of people attacked that day but his assault was among the most brutal.
Trammer, a photojournalist from Munich, was set upon by a group of local men while reporting in the port of Thermi, where locals were preventing a boat of refugees from disembarking. He was beaten so badly he required stitches.
Astrid Castelein, the head of the UNHCR mission on Lesbos, was harassed in the port of Thermi, as was freelance photographer Raphael Knipping and Der Speigel reporter Giorgos Christides, who tweetedthat he had sticks thrown at him and his car chased.
Later that night, a group of doctors travelling in a convoy of eight cars was attacked by around 50 people who tried to break the windows of their car.
Victoria Bradley, an Irish doctor who was volunteering on the island and was in one of the cars, said she had left Lesbos a few days later, telling media that she was “fearing” for her life.
Norwegian photographer Knut Bry was also pulled out of his car that night on the way back from the refugee camp and attacked along with some refugees he was travelling with.
There are other anecdotal stories I was told of attacks on refugees but these went largely unreported as, invariably, these do not make the headlines that attacks on NGO workers and journalists do. We also heard about a group of young female volunteers, working for an NGO helping refugees inside the camp, who were violently pulled from their car on the road from Moria to Mytilene by a group of local men but were saved by the intervention of other locals.
At one point, it appeared that all roads around the refugee camp were blocked and manned by locals, some of them attacking or attempting to attack anyone who got in their way. Many NGOs told their staff not to leave their homes that night.
On Monday, March 2, there were further reports of violence as the roadblocks continued, apparently unchecked by the local authorities.
Anthi Pazianou, a journalist who usually writes for local news site Sto Nisi, was attacked by a mob at one of the roadblocks.
In the evening, German journalists Franziska Grillmeier and Julian Busch were in their car when a group of armed men threw sticks at them and tried to open the doors while they were driving on the road from Moria refugee camp to Mytilene.
That was the night that Mare Liberum, a boat which monitors human rights in the Aegean, had gasoline poured on its deck and its frightened crew had to make a quick escape from the port in the middle of the night.
Making matters worse, the violence on the ground was being mirrored online.
Michael Trammer left the island shortly after his attack when he realised how the news and images of his attack were mobilising online contingents of the far right. “After I was attacked a huge online movement started against me that spread across Greek networks,” he said. “I was getting rape threats and death threats in Greek and people who said I should have been killed.
“Then, it spread to the international bubbles, starting with a Telegram channel [an encrypted messaging channel often used by the far right to broadcast messages to large audiences] in Austria, and then reached the German far-right media bubble. This message said that an NGO worker was beaten by people in Lesbos, who were resisting refugees arriving.
“What showed how far it spread was that one of the speakers at the Pegida rallies [a far-right movement founded in Germany] in Dresden actually referred to me being attacked. In a video taken at the rally, you can hear people saying: ‘Drown him!’ about me. This, for me, demonstrated how far the local actions went and how they reached this German far-right community.”
As Erdogan continued to insist that the borders between Turkey and Greece would remain open, hashtags such as #IStandWithGreece as well as #greece_under_attack began to be widely shared on Twitter.
They found mainstream traction even though their origins could be traced back, in part, to far-right subsets. Georgia Nakou, a writer on Greek politics and current affairs, says such actions show how Greece has become a staging ground for European “culture wars”.
“Often, these exchanges cross into the political mainstream,” she says. “A classic case is the #IStandWithGreece hashtag which was started by small circles of European “Identitarians” [part of the far-right movement] and US-based Trump supporters in response to the Evros crisis on the border between Turkey and Greece, weaponised by European far-right influencers and imported into Greece where it was interpreted by domestic politicians as a sign of European solidarity.”
The far-right Identitarian movement shares similarities with pockets of supporters of US President Donald Trump in their anti-immigration narratives and disposition to disinformation. Nakou, however, suggests that the #IStandWithGreece hashtag may have been shared by those who interpreted it as nothing more than a symbol of solidarity with Greece during escalating tensions with Turkey.
“Many social media users who may not have been aware of the hashtag’s origins have ended up sharing dubious content and spreading conspiracy theories,” she says.
The international interest around events on Lesbos became increasingly evident when, on March 4, in an unprecedented step, the US embassy in Greece released a travel advisory to US citizens on Lesbos which suggested avoiding crowds and demonstrations and notifying family and friends of their safety on the island.
Enter the far-right
On the Thursday evening, a group of neo-Nazis flew to the island ready to capitalise on the breakdown of law and order. This included figures such as Mario Muller and Johannes Stumpf (who also goes by the name Johannes Scharf) from Germany. Both are either members of or are affiliated with the Identitarian movement , a political far-right ideology which has been connected with violence.
Identitarians are known for their attempts to rebrand the far right across Europe, as Jacob Davey, the Senior Research Manager for far-right and hate crime at the Institute for Strategic Dialogue, a London-based think-tank, explains.
“Identitarians are a key component of the recent European and Greek narratives around migration,” he says. “[The movement] focuses on ‘ethnonationalism’, a form of nationalism where the nation is defined in terms of ethnicity. Central to ethnonationalism is the belief that nations are tied together by a shared heritage and culture that is based on ethnicity.”
The Identitarian movement’s concern with Lesbos – the Greek island receiving the greatest number of refugee arrivals – fits into its doggedly anti-immigration agenda. Local news on Lesbos reported that Muller, Scharf and Jurtiz had spoken to people on the island claiming to be journalists and that they were there to tell the “Greek side of the story”. The “news” outlets they contribute to, such as Tumult and Compact, are, however, well known in Germany for their far right and often unreliable content.
“Compact magazine was founded in 2010 and is a very aggressive and racist magazine which always talk about threats, apocalyptic scenarios and conspiracy theories,” Robert Andreasch, a journalist and author who focuses on German right-wing politics says. “Tumult started as a magazine of the left but started to turn right and, since 2015, it’s a magazine of the extreme right. It still has a focus on art and features, essays and poems but it is racist and nationalistic, however it does have an ‘intellectual’ image.”
This group only stayed a few days on the island, during which time they got into a fight with some locals in Mytilene while walking around with cameras and attempting to interview people. Sto Nisi, a Lesbos news site, also reported that during this fight they said: “We will do to you what we did in Kalavryta,” referring to the near-extermination of the male population and entire town of Kalavryta in Greece by the Nazis on December 13, 1943.
After a brief visit to the hospital and then the police station, they were photographed on a plane voluntarily leaving the island on March 8.
Far-right vloggers and YouTubers Oliver Flesch and Stefan Bauer also arrived on Lesbos on March 6.
Bauer is based in Germany and Flesch in Mallorca. Flesch and Bauer, while affiliated or friendly with those in the Identitarian movement, are not part of it; but in a video Flesch shot on Lesbos and posted on a Telegram channel, he mentions Identitarian activists in Evros.
While he was on Lesbos, Bauer went to the port of Mytilene where a group of new arrivals was being held. Videos published on Bauer’s YouTube channel show him interviewing groups of asylum seekers who were being held at the port in Mytilene.
The trend of far-right actors presenting themselves as journalists is an attempt to legitimise themselves, explains Jacob Davey. “[They] claim to offer the unfiltered “truth”, but more often disseminate disinformation and hate content,” he says. “By deliberately presenting themselves as outsiders, they can claim that they are presenting the ‘news’ which traditional media is too scared to air. This essentially gives them licence to distort and manipulate events to fit into their narratives, further generating hatred against refugees and minorities under the veneer of journalism.”
Maik Fielitz, an expert on the far right in Greece and a researcher at the Institute for Democracy and Civil Society, an organisation based in Jena, Germany, says Lesbos had become “a central battlefield for the international far right”, by this time.
“The far right is purposefully seeking conflicts around migration to reinforce its narrative of a clash of civilizations,” he says. “They want to play the ‘true defenders’ of Europe in contrast to a national and European government not able or not willing to defend its borders.”
Fielitz also notes that: “The far right is frantically constructing a state of exception to stage themselves as saviours in terrible situations.”
The long list of far-right actors who arrived on Lesbos in the first three weeks of March underlines this.
Jeremie Piano and Clement Martin, both affiliated with the far right French group Generation Identitaire, arrived on Lesbos from France on March 6. Martin posted a picture of himself on Facebook in front of the Moria camp and claimed to be doing a “report” on the situation, which they described as making life “hell” for the islanders.
On March 11, the group Piano was part of was reportedly back in Paris to face trial alongside other Generation Identitaire members for occupying the headquarters of the Caisse d’Allocations Familiales (CAF) last March and holding banners which read “Money for the French, not the foreigners”. The CAF is part of the French social security system responsible for family benefits.
Jean-Eudes Gannat, a former member of the French Front National (now known as the National Rally), a far-right political party with a strong anti-immigration narrative, posted on Facebook that he was in Lesbos on March 10, and said he went to the Moria refugee camp in the morning and then visited the surrounding villages.
Gannat, who often writes under the pen name Jean Palinakis, has published content in places such as Breizh-Info, a website with far-right connections which claims to be focussed on local news in the region of Brittany in France.
Its editorial staff lists people such as Thierry Monvoisin, a former candidate for the Front National in Nantes, and Yann Vallerie, a former president of the “Young Brittany” identity movement.
An article in Le Monde in 2016 noted the trend for sites such as Breizh-Info to disguise themselves as local news providers while engaging in far-right narratives about topics such as immigration.
Gannat’s trip to Lesbos also reveals the nuance in how local networks connect with the international far-right community.
Photos he used to illustrate his content published on Briezh-Info from his visit to Lesbos, were seemingly taken from the Facebook posts of a local resident in the village of Moria, who regularly publishes unverifiable or inaccurate claims about refugees on the island.
Some of these posts, which frequently include unverifiable photos of damaged churches for which he blames refugees, garner thousands of likes and shares and have subsequently been picked up by right-wing German and Austrian news sites.
Social media also helps us understand the story of how different far-right actors connect. Jeremie Piano is friends with Mario Muller on Facebook, for example.
Edwin Wagensveld, head of far-right group Pegida in the Netherlands, who was on Lesbos between March 16 and 20, and similarly posted reports about the “real” situation in Greece, is friends on Facebook with Johannes Scharf.
An unlikely platform
Lesbos makes an unlikely stage for the rag-tag of white supremacists, Nazis and Islamophobes intent on feeding Europe’s nightmares of what they call the “great replacement”.
Mytilene, the headquarters for the University of the Aegean, has been a cosmopolitan and sophisticated city for much of its modern history with the people who have lived here closer to representing a mosaic of different nationalities and backgrounds than a monoculture.
“There are so many people here who are students, academics, teachers and artists who have come to live here,” says Naya Tselepi, a human geography specialist with a PhD from the University of the Aegean, who lived in Lesbos from 2009 to 2016 and who regularly visits. “We have this mosaic of people and populations from different origins and cultures and this makes the island really interesting.
“At the same time, we cannot speak for the population of Lesbos as if it was one coherent thing: There are multiple variations among them, and this has to do with the rich geomorphology of the island and the great number of villages lying on it,” she says.
On Thursday, February 28, just before Turkey announced it would open the “gates”, I met two elderly Greek men sitting on a log outside the planned construction site for the detention centre in the north of Lesbos. One holding a walking stick and the other a frappe, they introduced themselves as Mr Strados, 79, a grocery shop owner, and Mr Michalis, 77, a pensioner.
They told me of their anger and deep sense of betrayal by their government for the use of force and tear gas against the locals by the riot police sent from Athens. “We will stay here until we win or until they kill us,” they said.
In the same breath, however, they insisted they were not simply anti-immigrant. “I was there,” one told me. “I pulled people out of the boats and I supported refugees a lot when they were in need.”
A friend of mine, born and raised on Lesbos, points to the island’s architecture and the buildings constructed by merchants who traded from the Black Sea, to the Middle East and down to North Africa. This history, he says, shows how the island was never small-minded or regional, as many narratives would have people believe.
It is also clear that strong pockets of solidarity for refugees still remain, as evidenced by a statement released by a collective of villages in the north of Lesbos, which decried the violence in March.
“[Our villages] gave lessons of dignity with our solidarity with the suffering of fellow human beings during the great ordeal of 2015 to 2016,” it said. “No act of intolerance, blind fanaticism and violence can tarnish this honourable legacy.”
The far-right activists, who came only for a matter of days in March, used their platforms to mischaracterise and misrepresent local sentiment as largely hostile towards refugees.
The reality on the ground and the nuanced views of the diverse community who live here, however, is invariably far more complicated and often more empathetic than they would have their audience believe.
This story was supported by the Borders Newsroom at Lighthouse Reports.