I’ve just come back from covering the fires in Western Thrace for Al Jazeera, and people are asking me what it was like. I have a few different answers. Regarding the fires themselves, I was reminded of the terrifying speed with which they can move. Outside the village of Koila, about 30km northeast of Alexandroupolis, firefighters set up a defensive line on a wooded ridge, on the understanding, perhaps, that a fire is more easily fought on high, narrow ground. It can climb up one side of the mountain, but less easily climb down the other.
Two fire engines engaged the fire, each deploying three hoses.
The firemen on the other end of those hoses were out of sight, just over the crest of the ridge. Occasional flames appeared, but all seemed under control.
Then, suddenly, from the far side of the ridge, came a gust of strong wind, the flames leapt to the ridgeline and immediately enveloped two oaks that until now had been silhouetted against them, and for which we onlookers held out slender hopes. They were devoured in seconds.
There was a shout from the firefighters, “We’re pulling back!” and we saw those that had been holding hoses coming down our side of the ridge. But the wind persisted, and the flames began now to climb down the hillside towards us like an army in pursuit, reaping as they went, sparing nothing. Their success fuelled their height, and they grew to thirty metres, leaning menacingly towards us.
The brown smoke they exhaled covered the sun, and whereas moments before we had been standing in broad daylight watching a distant firefight, we suddenly found ourselves in an eclipse, with hot wind blowing towards us and the enemy imminent.
My cameraman and I fought a slow rearguard, pausing to film as we fell back, astonished at the bravery of four of the village’s young men who, having been placed in a rear defensive position, now picked up a hefty hose and engaged the enemy.
A forest fire is akin to a war. You can kill it or it can kill you. It separates men from their families. The economic devastation is wreaks can be felt for decades. And like war, it strikes indiscriminately. There is no rhyme or reason to what lives or dies. I saw what seemed like entirely arbitrary paths of destruction, as if the fire, not knowing what the wind bid it to search for, took a bite out of an olive grove, singed the edges of a vineyard, and plunged headlong across a field.
Rumours were that irregular migrants who cross from Turkey had lit the fires. These were re-ignited by an Albanian man who famously posted a video in which he reveals he is carrying migrants in his trailer, and claims he rounded them up while they were lighting fires.
He and his two Greek accomplices have now been indicted for incitement to racist violence, but local sources told me police believe he was himself a smuggler who was forced to detour from his intended destination, the port of Igoumenitsa, when the Egnatia highway was closed due to approaching fire.
According to this theory he betrayed his clients either because he thought police would search his vehicle, or because he feared recriminations from angry farmers who knew his business was to smuggle those they blamed for the fire.
The incitement to racist violence had results. In Koila, I had seen a group of about 20 migrants huddled against a building on the village square, clearly being guarded by the locals. As my cameraman and I approached to talk to them, the locals stopped us and asked what we were doing. “We want to talk to the migrants,” I said. “We’re reporters.”
As so often happens in villages, one man set the tone. Dressed in full camouflage, he wheeled on us and said, “Why are you here reporting? This is no place for reporting! Leave immediately!” A tall, skinny man who moments before had directed us to park our car in someone’s yard so as to leave the square free for fire engines now joined in and told us to get out. A third man in crutches hobbled over and started shouting at us. “Why are you shouting?” I asked him.
In response, he lifted a crutch as if to strike me, and said, “Get out or I’ll hit you!” I told my cameraman to go back to the car and walked back myself.
Clearly, whatever the villagers intended to do to these migrants wasn’t good. If they had wanted to make public the migrants’ presence as evidence of their lighting fires, here was their opportunity. Worried for them, I called the police and gave them the migrants location. Later, we ran into a woman from the village who said it was she who first found the migrants and nearly ran over them. “It’s not worth calling the authorities,” she said. “You’ll just get into trouble. The thing to do is pull out a gun and shoot them there and then.”
Here, as in Trump’s America, the rise of right-wing politicians who embrace and encourage hate speech against economic migrants or asylum seekers legitimises the ugliest of sentiments. In the June 25 general election, 12 per cent of the vote went to far-right parties. New Democracy has pursued a hard border policy since 2020, partly to demonstrate that it is protecting Europe from lax Turkish border policies designed to blackmail the EU for economic concessions, and partly to protect its right flank. Former migration minister Notis Mitarakis often said that the vast majority of these purported refugees “do not have a refugee profile,” meaning they do not come from war zones, which they do not, if we consider Syria and Afghanistan safe, which informed people do not, and if we discount the fact that the Geneva Convention on the Status of Refugees seeks to protect those who are persecuted for their political, religious or sexual persuasion regardless of whether they are at war.
New Democracy has cultivated paranoia but hasn’t succeeded in protecting itself from the far right. On the contrary, it has encouraged it. As to whether it disarmed Turkey of the tool of blackmail, that remains to be seen.
*John T Psaropoulos is an independent journalist who has reported from Greece since the fall of communism. This piece first appeared in Hellenica, his subscriber-supported newsletter. It is reprinted here with permission from Hellenica, johntpsaropoulos.substack.com