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Wednesday, September 22, 2021

‘I will see the ghosts of the dead forest for a long time’ – returning to Evia after the wildfires

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At the end of August, as part of my long-term work on the global climate emergency, I travelled to Evia in Greece to explore the impacts of the unprecedented fires that had devastated village communities and the ecology of the island. I chose not to chase the drama of the burning flames, but rather to seek out their aftermath. I encountered endless blackened landscapes and made these portraits of people whose lives have been destroyed by the fire they describe as a “burning hell”. I know that it was not easy for my subjects to return to their homes to be photographed, and for some this was the first time that they had stepped inside since the fire. However, I found that they embraced this moment of having their fractured situation witnessed and were keen to share their stories. I was moved by their openness to my camera after all the horrors of their recent experience. Visually I found that an eerily precise symmetry seemed to emerge from the unspeakable chaos of their ruined homes, many of which are situated in places of profound beauty. I hope that their gaze at the camera will provoke a visceral sense of the climate threat we all face.

Eleni Alexandridi, Rovies Village

Eleni Alexandridi, Rovies village, English teacher, 56

When the fires started here on Evia another fire started at Varibobi in Athens so the priority for the government was to save Athens. No airplanes came here for many hours to drop water so the fire was not stopped. The fire was spreading so fast but even on that day, I thought, they could stop it.

After two days they called on us via text to evacuate the village and it was obligatory. In the past when there was a fire in the forest, the church bell rang and the villagers went up to the mountains and tried to stop the fire. Of course these fires burnt many trees but not the houses and the villages.

After the evacuation alert some people managed to hide themselves from the police who forced us to leave the village and they managed to save their houses. As for me, I went to Limni, a nearby town, to survive. Later that day I saw on TV that my private English school was burning down and I couldn’t believe it. The next day I came here and I saw this disaster; not only the destroyed houses, but the ecological disaster with the landscape and the forests.

A lot of villagers used to live from the forest; tapping the resin from the trees, producing honey from the beehives and from tourism. It was their job. Now I am certain that many people won’t have money to feed themselves. So even if I moved to a new building you can be certain that people here won’t have the money to pay for private English lessons for their children.

I feel anger and disappointment. I am still recovering from the shock of seeing all these houses in my neighbourhood burnt. It’s a huge ecological disaster with approximately 50,000 hectares of forest burnt on our island. Now we are waiting for the floods to come with the winter rain, as the burnt forest can’t hold the water and that will be a tragedy.

Dimitra Makri, Rovies Village

Dimitra Makri, Rovies village, farmer, 32

I am originally from Rovies. I grew up here. When the fire started to threaten our village I was working and my mother was looking after my two kids. They called me to evacuate them so I came to fetch them. We went to the beach, for the ferry to transfer us to Aidipsos, a nearby village.

We had some really intense moments at the beach with the smoke all over us. I tried to be as calm as I could so as not to terrify my children, but it was a nightmare. I remember being in a crowd next to the beach with many other people waiting for the ferry boat. We were all panicking, couldn’t breathe well and really didn’t know what was going to happen. I still remember the way my kids cried at that time and I am concerned about how this experience will affect them psychologically.

The fires stopped near the sea. I remember being on the ferry and leaving a burning hell behind us. After a while they called me and they said that our houses were burning; my mother’s home and also mine.

After four days we came back to the village and we saw this spectacle. I can’t even express how I feel. I have a deep sadness for the loss of all that we had; our memories, photographs, everything. This has cost me a lot with the loss of both houses.

Fortunately a family from our village has allowed us to stay in their house. We have really received a lot of help from people here in Evia but also from many other regions. Apart from the houses, many of our animals were also burned, so even in our work as farmers we still have a lot to cope with. We lost many of our animals such as sheep, rabbits and chickens. Our farm facilities and tools were also destroyed. We have to start again from scratch.

Giannis Afedras, Kokkinomilia Village

Giannis Afedras, 70, Kokkinomilia village, retired seaman

After 38 years of working abroad I returned to my village to restart my life here, in the highest mountain village of northern Evia. This was my family home where I was born and spent my childhood.

That night was horrific. I have seen many fires before but this was terrifying. It was very noisy and windy and started at midnight. I was the last person to leave the village, when the fire was really close. The state didn’t do anything to help; they didn’t provide us with either firefighters or any other help. We didn’t have access to electricity and water. I tried so hard to save my village and my own home but I was helpless.

I am angry with my fellow villagers that evacuated our place earlier. I believe that if we had stayed to defend our property, as they did in other villages, the damage would be less. On the other side you couldn’t demand from others to risk their lives. Northern Evia has always been a high-risk fire area; however, in recent years there was no proper care for the forests. The wider area didn’t have the appropriate fire protection infrastructure.

I believe the fire was started on purpose and the unusually extreme high temperatures made it into this disaster. The majority of people here believe the same. The loss of my home emotionally affects me and I feel broken. The walls can be rebuilt but what happens with all my memories of the place? That is unfortunately what I lost. However, the ecological disaster for the forest and landscape saddens me more. I was trying to live a life closer to nature here and every morning I would drink my coffee on the balcony watching the forest. Even if we rebuild the house I will have to see the ghosts of the dead forest for a long time to come.

Kiriaki Karava, Kokinomilia Village

Kiriaki Karava, 50, Kokinomilia village, mayor and ecclesiastical commissioner of the Agion Taxiarchon Church

It was midnight and the fire was coming with great intensity from afar. First we tried to save the people who could not leave on their own and then ourselves. Unfortunately, we didn’t manage to save many of the houses. I supervised the evacuation of our village and, literally, I was the last one to leave.

When we returned early the next morning we saw the destruction done to the houses, the church and the warehouses. It was like hell! None of us witnessed the disaster. Our village is surrounded by forest, so there was a moment when for our safety we had to abandon it.

What I regret the most is that when I left the village I didn’t think to take with me some of our old, precious holy icons of our church. This is something that hurts me deeply. I am a religious person and this is something I am not able to overcome easily. When I saw our church after the fire I almost fainted. I felt that a very important part of my existence, of my life, was destroyed.

We are deeply saddened by this but have also been encouraged by all the support we have received from so many people, both psychologically and materially. Greeks from all over the world call us daily and give us courage and hope. We are strong people. We will raise our heads that we bent at the time of the fire and we will rebuild everything again from the beginning no matter how difficult it is.

This church was built in 1900 and had many beautiful and classic examples of plaster iconostasis decorating the walls. It is a huge cultural heritage loss. We hope to find the financial support to rebuild it. It’s such a characteristic part of our village. In fact, this church is the protector of our village.

On Evia there is the species of Aleppo pine, which is resin bearing. Across the island around 840 families made their living from tapping the resin which is used in retsina, our local wine. These people lived off the woods and know them in a unique way. Experts have told us that the forest will be green again in 10 years but the resin collection process will not be viable again for at least 25 years. So all these families will be deprived of their income, although their homes might still be standing. That is a deep, long-term impact of the fire. This is also a skill that is passed down the generations in families and this heritage might be lost. Even the mayor of the nearest village is a resin tapper.

Dimitris Efstathio, Achladi Village, Fragkaki beach

Dimitris Efstathio, 49, Achladi village, farmer, builder and DJ

The last time we experienced a major fire on this island was in 1977 but it was nothing like the hell we have just been through. In the last 10 years I have been worried about a possible fire in the forest. This year we had a 45C temperature, which we have never before experienced. The forest was so thick and I was living with anxiety because of this heat and wind. I couldn’t sleep. That fear of a fire coming was so strong.

When this fire started it came at a very high speed and we didn’t expect that. All that I managed to take were a few clothes, my dog and the car. I spent the night on the sand of the beach. It was such a difficult night for those of us who were there as we watched the unstoppable fire. These moments are hard to discuss. I was with all these terrified people at the beach. Some of them left the island on little boats. All these moments are so hard to discuss. This fire was unstoppable.

I often feel overwhelmed by sadness, anger and loss. As a DJ I played rock‘n’ roll from the 1960s and 1970s and I had more than 2,000 vinyl albums. All were destroyed. So many families, even whole villages, have been destroyed. The future will show how much strength everyone has to stay in the place and start over. Normally the soil of the forests absorbs the water from the winter rains, but with so much of the forest destroyed I fear that in winter floods are coming. With the economic damage, unemployment is coming too. Floods and fires are the future for us now.

Areti Tsirozoglou, and Kostas Marengelis, Forest Village

Areti Tsirozoglou, 24, and Kostas Marengelis, 31. Together they own and run the Forest Village Resort in the Papades region

Kostas: We moved here from Athens hoping for a better lifestyle living close to nature. We set up this business at the Forest Village Resort with goals and dreams. People came here for forest activities like hiking, mountaineering and relaxing. We had run this business only for nine months before this happened and we were doing well. The fires were burning for three days before they reached us. We saw it gradually approaching.

At 11pm after the call from the state for evacuation we left the place with the rest of the families. Although we do have many firefighting facilities here such as water tanks and pumps, when they give you an evacuation order, it is difficult to refuse that and be left alone to defend 25 acres of forest. We went to the central square of the nearby Papades village where people were coming together. At 2am the fire was around the village and we could hear the loud roar of the fire. After a few minutes we evacuated the village so as not to be blocked on the road.

Here we run a forest village so without the forest I don’t know how it can work.It is inconceivable to us to understand the magnitude of the devastation. I am sure that all the young people will be forced to abandon their villages and move to cities just to survive.

Areti: Here in the Forest Village Resort if we had had just a little help from firefighters the disaster could have been prevented. If there had been just one fire truck all the houses of Papades village would have been saved. Fortunately, most were saved as the residents stayed to defend their property. These people put out the fire on their own even though the authorities had forbidden us to do so. We still do not properly comprehend how great this catastrophe is and with winter coming, I fear for the future.

Panagiotis Chatzis, Agia Anna Village

Panagiotis Chatzis, 48, Agia Anna village, restaurant worker,

We think we have control and power but after a point we are really powerless in the face of natural disasters. I don’t feel anger with anyone, not even with my neighbour who had placed some plastic objects on the roof of my home that were the very first things that burnt and passed the fire to the entire house.

The engineers told us that the house is repairable and I would like to rebuild it as now in any other place I live, even in my brother’s house I feel like I am drowning. We all have traumatic memories from the moment that we saw the flames right above us. I think I did the right thing by evacuating the village.

I have this sense of grief and I try to get better. I do this mainly by leaving, by going to the sea. I first saw this disaster on TV and when I returned and saw it with my own eyes for the first time I burst into tears. Fortunately, there is psychological support. Psychotherapy and acceptance, I think, is the way to overcome it.

George Bloukidis Amalia Bloukidi, Limni town

George Bloukidis, 55, and Amalia Bloukidi, 52, siblings who own and run the Vaterii Guest House & Agritourism Unit near Limni

After almost a month we still struggle to comprehend what has happened. We are in the midst of a depression and can’t stop thinking about it. On 3 August we were fully booked and we had many people staying with us as the fire started to threaten our guesthouse. We tried to protect our guests. I remember chasing the last Belgian couple away as they wanted to help us fight the fire.

We tried alone without electricity and water, just with fire extinguishers. We saw the trees and the branches near us burning and realised that there was nothing more we could do. What each of us felt can only be described in the words of the heart.

George Garyfallou, Limni town

George Garyfallou, 65, Limni town, plumber

I remember that day we were watching from far below, from the lake, and could see the flames approach our family homes. We saw the house where I grew up being engulfed by fire. It was like seeing the life of our family burning. It is such a traumatising memory.

Both my mother’s home and my brother’s home and business were destroyed by the fire. This is his workshop where he repaired motorbikes. All of his equipment and many motorbikes were destroyed. We worked together here many times as we share the same passion for motorbikes. I feel so sad about my brother’s double loss of both his business and his home. He has nothing left to restart his life.

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