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).
Each of the five coves accessible by sea was set up as a camp, under the jurisdiction of the general director. Dimitris Manousos, who was detained in Yioúra from 1947 to 1950 and again in 1967, gives a fairly clear account of the distribution of the prisoners and the coves (2005). The first cove contained the main camp, with five thousand prisoners, mainly political prisoners but also a small number of prisoners of common law, and the underaged. This is where the kitchens and various shops were positioned. At the same cove was the house of the director and all offices, along with the penitentiary and the infamous fig tree. The second cove contained two thousand prisoners, the bulk of the civil-law prisoners and civilians who had signed declarations of repentance prior to their arrival on Yioúra. The second cove also had the infirmary, the ill, the disabled, and the aged. Cove three, with one thousand prisoners, was the camp of the intellectuals and party cadres. The fourth cove had two thousand prisoners and was the camp where torture and forced labor primarily took place. The fifth cove was the area of solitary confinement and hardest torture, little more than an annex of the fourth, with five hundred prisoners. Manousos says that the camps also contained two tents for priests who had been assigned to the island and two tents for Jehovah's Witnesses who had refused to carry arms during the emphýlios. There was also one shipowner among the detainees (2005: 24). Eventually Yioúra acquired a cemetery for those who died under torture. There are twenty-two graves on the island marked with iron crosses with no names. There are also two graves with cement crosses, belonging to warders who died on the island. Within the conceptual space of the camp but not belonging to any one of the coves was set up a place of total abjection, which was named by the detainees Ntámpa and on Makrónisos was called Syrma (“wire”). Not solitary confinement but a space of extreme punishment, Ntámpa was an open cage surrounded by three barbed-wire fences. There incorrigibles were sent, after torture had not extracted dêlosē. The “Memorandum of Detainees to the Minister of Justice of the Plasteras Government” describes Ntámpa as:
“El-Tampa,” an open-air cage made of wire, where the patient [sic] is enclosed in order to be literally murdered by the hot spears of the sun. Given the current physical condition of the detainees, the use of this exhausting stockade indicates a clear intent of murder. Even a healthy person, if placed in it, could not avoid fainting or suffering damage from the effect of the solar rays, or at the least suffering sunstroke. One is punished and tortured inhumanly because one submitted a request to be seen by the director, or because one announced to the office the case of someone febrile and in need of immediate transport to the infirmary, or because one appeared in front of the director to complain after having been cruelly removed from the infirmary. Thousands more prisoners have been punished for other reasons. (Petris 1984: 86b )
The first boats to carry humans to the island in the early spring of 1947 were fishing boats. They had to battle waves that were sometimes six to seven meters tall and were packed with vomiting, shitting men, already wasted from previous imprisonment. Nikos Oikonomakos, one of the prisoners to have been imprisoned both in Yáros and Makrónisos, was transported in April 1949 to Yáros, after having been sent from Makrónisos to the Tzaneio Hospital in Piraeus with a fractured wrist. From the hospital he was transported, along with other prisoners, to the transport station in Syros (Tmêma Metagōgôn). The night before their transport to Yáros, they were fed garbanzo beans, and Oikonomakos reports that they ate them without realizing that they were spoiled. Diarrhea and vomiting started almost immediately and lasted through the night. The next morning, soiled and still sick, the prisoners were piled into the caïque to be transported to Yioúra.
“You never get three consecutive days of calm here,” the fisherman who had agreed to take me to the island in the summer of 2005 said, after the wind picked up on the second day of my stay on Tenos. “The bourini [bad weather] lasts a long time; you won't be able to go.” The bourini comes unexpectedly for those who are not acquainted with the ways of the sea. What to me looked like a perfectly calm sea, with just a faint breath on the water, to the captain of the boat was the beginning of the bourini.
Sure enough, in a few hours' time I saw realized before me a description by Tzavalás Karousos, who, at the age of sixty-two, had been transported there in April 1967, not on a small boat, as Oikonomakos describes, but on a navy transport ship: “Someone offered me his place to sit. I had to accept, I had no other place. Apart from the exhaustion, the boat had started moving back and forth. But where could I sit? People had already started vomiting. And everything, ánthropoi, packages, vomit, piss, all had become one” Karousos 1974: 95). Karousos had been detained on Makrónisos during the civil war, but he wrote only of this second experience, his exile to Yáros. “The bourini has come. As suddenly as that, as we were looking at the little blue and white islands on the horizon, we saw it coming from the tip of Andros. It was frothing with anger, running maniacally. The playful sea had turned leaden as it passed over her and turned her around. The waves now fought among themselves like immense rams, frantically charging against each other, trying to see which one will kill the other” (ibid.: 132).
As every account of the island written by prisoners there mentions, Yáros was briefly inhabited during Roman times, but its inhabitants were driven away by rats and scorpions. After it was abandoned, it became a place of exile, although so abject a place that already the Romans considered exile there to be the cruelest of all punishments. They reserved it for the most dangerous of the “enemies of the empire.” Around 80 b.c. the Roman general Sculla opened Yáros again as a place of exile for eighty thousand of his political adversaries . They were left on the island with seeds to sow and some agricultural implements, but the soil was so sterile that the exiles died within a very short time of hunger, disease, and the bites of rats and scorpions. Remnants of attempts at cultivation are still visible as terraces on the hillside above the First Cove.
During the reign of Tiberius (14–37 a.d.), Yáros was still being considered as a place of exile, until finally the emperor vetoed its use. Tacitus mentions in 109 a.d. that Tiberius was present at the trial of Vibius Serenus, who had been accused by his son (also named Vibius Serenus, who served as both prosecutor and witness against his father) of having plotted against the life of the emperor and of inciting rebellion. Despite the fact that Serenus's guilt could not be proven, even when his servants were tortured, Tiberius brought up old charges of misconduct against him. The Senate decided that he should be punished more maiorum (according to the ancient mores), but Tiberius vetoed the vote. Gallus Asinius suggested that Serenus be exiled to Gyaro aut Donusa (Yáros or Donusa), but Tiberius interceded again, stating, “both of these islands were deficient of water, and that he whose life was spared, ought to be allowed the necessities of life” (Tacitus, Bk. 4 ). Serenus was finally sent back to exile on the island of Amorgos, from which he had been brought, briefly, to attend his trial.
Because of its lack of water and vegetation, and its proliferation of vermin, Yáros remained uninhabited between the time of Tiberius and 1947, when it was set up as a camp, initially for twelve thousand political prisoners who had been indicted for infractions of the criminal law or who had been suspected of being dangerous, and thus possibly having committed such infractions. The notion of the criminal law, however, takes on many more meanings in reference to Yioúra and the Greek Left. First of all, within the context of the authoritarian governments from 1945 on, “criminal law” was primarily distinguished from military law, a distinction that concerned only the particular legal body that would manage specific persons and the place of internment that would be decided for them. Yioúra was reserved for those whose actions fell under criminal law, in opposition to those whose actions fell under military law, who were sent to Makrónisos. The beginnings of the history of Yáros, however, not only locate it on a painful continuum of abjection but, even more disturbingly, locate that continuum within the context of internal strife, civil war, and fratricidal histories. Yáros has never been anything but the space of political abjection. And precisely the total abjection carried on in this wretched place has made the history of it so palpable and so relevant for the prisoners telling its story.
1984. Yioúra: Hypomnema Kratoumenon Pros ton Hypourgo Dikaiosynes tes Kyverneseos Plastera. (Yioúra: Memorandum of the Detainees to the Minister of Justice of the Plasteras Government)., ed. Yiorgos Petris Athens: Ekdoseis Gnosi.
Karousos, Tzavalá.s. 1974. Yáros: He Prosopike Empeiria Enos Exoristou (Yaros: The Personal Experience of an Exile). Athens: Pleias.
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?
Approaching the island. The prison building. Note the precipice. To the left of the building is a watch tower. Photograph and caption by Apostolos Papageorgiou; reproduced with permission.
A ferryboat with visitors approaching the Fourth Cove for disembarkment. The prison building was designed by the engineer Metaxas and built by the prisoners between 1948 and 1951. To the left is the Fifth Cove. An old prisoner is looking at the dry island with obvious emotion. Photograph and caption by Apostolos Papageorgiou; reproduced with permission.
Giorgos Christodoulakis, the baker of the Fourth Cove, shows the base where his tent was, fifty years ago. Photograph and caption by Apostolos Papageorgiou; reproduced with permission.
The southern slope of the Fifth Cove. The watchtower guards the southern flank of the prison. Terraces are visible on the slope, which has some soil on top of the rock. They are probably remnants from the time of Sulla's Roman exiles, when the exiles were left without any help from the outside. They had to cultivate both for themselves and for the garrisons. Photograph and caption by Apostolos Papageorgiou; reproduced with permission.
The prisoners' cemetery on Yáros, with the Aegean and Tenos in the distance. Photograph and caption by Apostolos Papageorgiou; reproduced with permission.??The cemetery was created by the prisoners themselves. After intense torture, to which the prisoners did not give in, the administration allowed them to create the cemetery so that they could bury their comrades who had been tortured to death.
The small cemetery, with twenty graves. The relatives and friends or fellow prisoners of the interred tend the graves and try to find which one belongs to whom. The salty air of the Aegean has eaten away the iron, and the crosses have been destroyed. It is difficult to identify the graves now. The pieces are all mixed up (also by visitors, who have moved them out of curiosity). Only two or three graves have been positively identified. Photograph and caption by Apostolos Papageorgiou; reproduced with permission.
The fig tree of Glastras. One of the first directors of the camp on Yáros, named Glastras (which, curiously, means “flowerpot”), introduced this particular torture. He would hang prisoners from the tree by their shoulders and subject them to beatings. He would let them hang there for days, adding the insult that they could come down only after they had ripened (they had signed ). The tree does not really exist any longer, as most of it has been destroyed by the rain runoff during the winter. This and the following drawings from Yáros are from . They were done by artists who had been interned at Yioúra. In those that follow, the captions were given by the artists.
Humiliation at the stone torture.
Solar discipline—the “El-Tampa.”
El-Ntampa,” the solar discipline of Yioúra. In the most horrific ravine of the island, the sun burns you all day long and the cold cuts through you at night. Hundreds are giving their lives still locked up in “El-Ntampa.”
Lucius Sulla was a Roman general from 95 b.c. until 78 b.c. He was born in 138 b.c. and died in 75 b.c. In 82 b.c. he was appointed dictator (rei publicae constituendae causa) by the Senate, later approved by the Assembly. There was no set limit on time in office. This was a high honor for Sculla, since he was reintroducing an institution that had existed over a century earlier, when a dictator had been appointed in times of extreme political danger to the city, but only for a six-month period and only with the approval of the Senate and the Assembly. Sulla instituted a practice of exterminating his political opponents and banishing their relatives and anyone who would defend them in public or be found to have sheltered them in private. Their children would be banished for thirty years if they declared their relationship to their parents. Sulla passed an act granting him immunity for all his past and future acts and giving him the power of life and death, confiscation, colonization, founding or demolishing cities, and taking away or bestowing cities at his pleasure, according to Plutarch (1916: 433). The reference to Sulla's banishment of eighty thousand of his political enemies to Yáros comes from Anonymous 1950: 85, which is a survey of the conditions of the exiles on Yioúra and a historical account of the island. I have not been able to confirm the information in any of the published biographies of Sulla that I have consulted. This does not mean that the information is necessarily inaccurate, though the number of eighty thousand remains highly questionable. Yáros is a large island, but on only a small portion of it can one actually stand, as it is mountainous and precipitous. That would seem to preclude the possibility of such a large concentration of people under normal circumstances. Circumstances at Yáros have never been normal, however, and it is not inconceivable that Sulla might have sent his political prisoners there for specific periods of time, so that this seemingly improbable number does not refer to simultaneous coexistence.
We can find the category of the “suspicious” both in totalitarianism and in liberal democracies. In the Third Reich we see it first institutionalized in the 1936 “A List” of suspicious persons to be arrested in case of situation “A,” which Gestapo chief Reinhard Heydrich composed and which, in 1937, included 46,000 names (Marcuse 2001: 32). The case of the Greek liberal governments of the early twentieth century is not much different; neither are the FBI lists of dangerous individuals of the McCarthy and post-McCarthy eras. The first use of the category of the “suspicious” not directed at the political and ideological convictions of those involved was in the Internment Camps for Persons of Japanese Descent in place from 1942 to 1946 throughout the western, southwestern, and Pacific Coast states of the United States (NARA). The British used the term suspicious to refer to Kikuyu suspected of having taken the Mau Mau oath against the colonial government, and they interned every Kikuyu suspected of such an act in specially established camps from 1950 to 1958. The narratives of survivors from the British, Yugoslav, and Greek camps are uncannily similar, including their accounts of torture, although neither group of inmates could have known of the existence of the others. On the Kikuyu, see Chege 2004, Ogot 2005, Anderson 2005, Elkins 2005, and Mamdani 2006. On Goli Otok and Sveti Grgur, see Djilas 1985, Markovski 1984, Banac 1989, Jambresic Kirin 2004, and Lukic 2007.