When E. came to Lesvos

Even after years on the Greek Islands, migrants are still at risk of state violence and criminalization.
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Black metal gates open into the Mytilene courthouse, a two story building with tall windows.

E. is a political refugee from Turkey; he came to Greece four years ago. For years he lived and worked in the place where I grew up, an island not very far from Lesvos. He did what he does well, building houses and fixing the electrics in a village that I remember as a child being both beautiful and deserted at the same time. At some point, there was a conflict with the locals in the village and E. and the other refugees working there had to leave. E. moved to Athens, but he was telling me how much he liked the island. 

About two years ago, two of E.’s friends crossed from Turkey to Lesvos on a boat. E. together with his friend A. came to Lesvos to make sure that their two other friends would arrive safely on land and that they would be able to apply for asylum in Greece, as they were afraid that they could easily become another pushback incident. In Lesvos, E. and A. were arrested as “smugglers” while waiting for their friends on the coast and were detained pending trial.  At the first trial, they were both acquitted and released to continue their lives. However, the prosecutor appealed the acquittal and a few months ago the case was heard again in Lesvos. 

I met E. at that time, along with two other witnesses who had come to support the case. While they stayed on Lesvos we talked a lot, told stories, laughed a lot, talked about why we both loved the island where I grew up and argued about which beach was more beautiful and which was the best wine.  E. fixed a light fixture in my house that had been broken for two years now and made fun of me about how my knowledge of simple home tinkering was so bad that I always put off fixing it or dealing with it. While he was in Lesvos and waiting for the trial which was constantly postponed, I tried to spend those days with him as just what we were, as friends. I even thought about how he was on an island in the spring, he had taken time off from work, so it was like a vacation. I wanted so badly to get rid of the idea that E. was in danger. I very much wanted to dispel the idea that he might go to jail again, even though I was talking to his lawyers frequently and I knew very well that this trial was hard to be won a second time.

As the day of the trial approached, E. became more and more silent; he stopped making fun of me, of the lamps in the house and my funny attempts to speak Turkish. When I saw him packing his bag before we went to court, I felt the fear, the anxiety, and the tension that this little silent ritual concealed. The bag was closed, but no one knew in what place, in what circumstance it would be reopened. The distance between the ferry to Athens and the prison had become so much shorter. Time, the time to come, the years to come, had also been compressed and suffocated between “innocent” and “guilty.” 

The trial was excruciating until the last second and was adjourned for a long time until the verdict came out. I don’t know if the judges do this on purpose to make sure everyone understands the power, the authority they wield over the bodies they are trying, or if it’s just the way this process works. As soon as the judges returned to announce their verdict, the police officers joined in, waving the handcuffs meant for E. with such ease, as if they were baby rattles and not a tool of deprivation of liberty. 

The court said “guilty,” and the handcuffs began to ring in my head all at once, out of sync, out of tune, out of pitch. I looked at E.’s back, standing frozen and I wondered if I’d ever see him laugh again. The cops were approaching him, and I couldn’t even see his back anymore. The lawyers were arguing for mitigating circumstances and a reduced sentence. The sentence drops, it drops, and it drops, and it drops some more, with bargaining, as if we were in a farmers’ market somewhere in Istanbul. 

Three years and 11 months. Exactly what it takes to get parole. 

The afternoon of the next day, we were arguing in the yard of my house about whether the kebabs I made were better than his. Certainly, his were better, but I wanted to tease him.

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