Nenedakis, Andreas. 1964. Apagoreuetai: To Hemerologio tes Yiouras (It Is Forbidden: The Yioúra Diary). Athens: Themelio.
Chapter 5. 1946–1949: Emphýlios
“Damn wind,” I said to my mother in the summer of 2006. “I've been trying to go to Yáros for three summers now, and I can't get there.” “You were spared in the knick of time in 1973,” my mother joked. “And now you want to go of your own volition.” Unlike Makrónisos, which is easily visible from Lavrion on the mainland (where, people say, with the right—or wrong—wind one could hear the screams of the men being tortured) and from the boat that takes you to Kea (Tzia), Yáros is barely visible from the surrounding islands. On a clear day, when there is little evaporation off the sea, if one stands on a high spot on the eastern part of Syros or the western part of Tenos one can perhaps make out the shape of its mountain in the midst of the sea. It is a rock of twenty-three square kilometers, located almost on the thirty-eighth parallel, in the midst of a circle composed of the islands of Andros in the northeast, Tenos, Delos, and Renia in the southeast, Syros and Serifos in the south, Kythnos in the southwest, and Tzia and Makrónisos behind it in the northwest. The closest two islands are Tenos and Syros, about fifteen nautical miles away.
Yáros has no fresh water, only some puddles of saltwater sludge that support scorpions, snakes, rats, tumbleweed, some thyme, laurels in abundance, and the occasional fig tree, a sight of delight everywhere in Greece except on this island, where the fig tree became the instrument of one of the most feared and horrifying tortures. It has been reported that someone saw a skylark flying over Yáros in 1947 Nenedakis 1964). There is no shade on the island, no soft ground where the eye can rest, no gentle slope where one can lie down. From its peak, the mountain slopes down to the sea at a precipitous angle of 45 degrees; the ground is strewn with jagged rocks; it is riven by gullies full of poisonous laurels. A small boat can approach the island by five coves, the largest of which came to be known as the Fifth Cove.
As Yáros is totally exposed to the elements, the only things found in abundance there, other than vermin and rocks, are the sun, which scorches, and a constant wind, which uproots. Because the soil is so thin, barely four centimeters deep, the slightest wind creates a dust cloud that penetrates everything: food, clothes, mouths, ears, noses, wounds. The common joke among detainees and seamen alike is that there are two windy seasons (meltémia) on Yáros: one that starts in May and ends in October and another that starts in October and ends in May. Under these conditions, one would be hard pressed to decide which is more difficult, reaching or leaving Yáros.
Yáros was established, at the recommendation of Sir Charles Wickham, as an open-air prison in order to alleviate the asphyxiating conditions of the overcrowded prisons that had resulted from the severe persecution of Leftists during the period of the White Terror in 1945 and 1946, and it was reserved for civilians. These civilians were Leftists who had been indicted for political acts under criminal law; civilians awaiting trial for the same offenses; civilians who had been indicted and sentenced previously, had been imprisoned elsewhere, and had signed declarations of repentance; and civilians who had been indicted and had been serving sentences in other prisons for either having collaborated with the occupation powers or for having committed civil-law crimes (such as extortion, drug dealing, pimping, embezzling, black marketeering, murder, or incest).
Nenedakis mentions that on December 6, 1947, the day of St. Nicholas, when all the occupants of a tent on Yioúra were sitting outside it, listening to screams coming from the penitentiary, a small bird sat in front of them and looked them “straight in the eye. We were dumbfounded. It was the first time that we had seen such a living thing here. It was a bird. …With small wings. With little eyes that brightened up when they looked at us, and it jumped up and down in front of our tent.” Someone looked for bread crumbs to give to the bird, but none could be found because the bread had not been apportioned yet. The encounter was interrupted when one of the wardens came up to the tent, saw the bird, and started hitting with his stick everyone and everything that he could see in front of him, so that the entire scene ended in a frenzy of torture (Nenedakis 1964: 75–77).
“Yáros (commonly Yioúra). Island of the Cyclades, Northwest and approximately 9 miles from Cape Trimeso of Syros, and almost across the straights of Andros and Tenos. Its surface area is 17.2 square kilometers. In the 1951 census it counted 7,139; in the 1961 it counted 244. It belongs to the municipality of Ano Syros, province of Syros, Prefecture of Cyclades. Place of existence of political exiles during Roman and Byzantine times. Similarly place of confinement of political prisoners (1947–1961). The buildings erected precisely for this purpose were turned over to the Ministry of National Defense in 1962, to be used as storehouses. Ever since then the area surrounding the island has been characterized as off limits” (Papyros-Larousse, Greek Edition, 1964, vol. 5).
The “torture of the fig tree [to vasanisterio tes sykias]” has been memorialized in drawings by exiles on Yioúra, either during their tenure there or after their release. A prisoner's shoulders would be tied together with thick wire or rope, drawing them together in the middle of his back, and he would then be suspended from the branches of the fig tree for several days.
Tony Judt laments that “The British had originally hoped to bequeath to liberated Greece a properly non-political army and modern police force; but in the circumstances of time and place, this proved impossible” (2005: 505). One wonders, however, about two things in this statement. First would it really have been possible to produce a “properly nonpolitical army” when the army was engaged in the political reformation of the country? And second, would Sir Charles have had the opportunity to create such a nonpolitical army had he not been sidetracked by pressure to establish and oversee Yáros and Makrónisos?