Friday, 22 July 2011

Fire risks

(Fire close to Petra)

One of Europe’s biggest catastrophes in the last century unfolded not too far from Lesvos: the destruction of Smyrna (today Izmir). This city used to be the richest town of the Ottoman Empire and was the home to Turks, Greeks, Armenians, Jews, English, French, Italians, Americans and so on. After World War I, Kemal Atatürk saw it as his duty to free Turkey from the plans of West-Europe and America to reduce the mighty Ottoman Empire to the size of Anatolia. There was also the question of who would become master of Smyrna. This political bickering turned out to be disastrous for the inhabitants of Smyrna. For years, there had already been fighting in Turkey, but the people of Smyrna thought they were too powerful to be touched. Only when the defeated Greek army started to pour into their city, followed by tens of thousands of refugees and finally the army of Atatürk, did they realize that they also were in danger. On September 13th1922 the final catastrophe, that would end the easy living at Smyrna, started when houses were set on fire and flames slowly made their way through the various quarters, on to the quay, where half a million refugees got trapped between a hell of fire and Turkish soldiers eager to kill.

As it happens, a fleet of ships from international powers was moored just outside the city in the Bay of Smyrna. But they were only there to save their own nationals and, not wanting to get involved in the Turkish conflict, they did nothing to prevent this humanitarian disaster. It was due to the American Asa Jennings, a clerk at the YMCA in Smyrna, that hundreds of thousands of people were able to escape the hell. He personally made a deal with Atatürk, the Americans and the Greeks that under the American flag, a fleet of Greek ships moored in Mytilini’s harbour were allowed to evacuate the people.

The book Paradise Lost by Giles Milton reports the tales of witnesses and diaries from that time. It tells about the tolerant city, its beauty, the rich dynasties that lived as though in paradise, as well as the ongoing wars and political chaos, but especially about this incredible hell that ended everything.

Lesvos in this history was just a springboard to Smyrna, for the Greek army and later for the evacuations. Of course the island in that time became engulfed with refugees (not only from Smyrna) who lost everything. Many people here on Lesvos have their roots ‘at the other side’, in what once was the Ottoman Empire.

Lesvos too has also lost places to fires. During the building of the big church in Agiasos in 1812 the church went on fire as did a part of the village. And maybe God was not so happy, because sixty-five years later the newly rebuilt church and the entire village got destroyed by another fire.

Megalochori, the big village above Plomari, was destroyed three times by fire in the 19th century and has earned the name Kameno Chori (burned village). One or two of the fires had been set by the pirates. When the pirates had finally been chased away from the Aegean Sea, the inhabitants left their fire-prone village to found a new city at the seaside: Plomari. And that is why Mechalochori is sometimes called Old Plomari.

Petra has also not been lucky. When, in 1912, the island was freed, the withdrawing Ottoman army plundered the houses, murdered civilians and set fire to the village.

Nearly a century later the danger of fire is again high on the island. It is not that cities and villages are in danger, but, for about four years, there seem to be an arsonist active in the region of Molyvos. He causes sleepless nights to many inhabitants; he starts his work when the children’s summer holidays start and the fires stop when the children go back to school. He attacks only the region between the Molyvos-Vavios road and Petra. So far this summer there have been six fires.

The third fire was alarmingly big and started near the Hotel Molyvos Castle, on the Molyvos–Petra road and raged quickly over the mountains to Petra in the direction of Stipsi. Thanks to a changing wind and its swimming pool the hotel was spared. As was Hotel Panorama in Petra where the fire was miraculously stopped by the walls that enclose the hotel. There was huge panic but the flames were kept outside of the hotel. The three last fires were all in the same afternoon, seemingly the pyromaniac is playing with the firefighters.

In Washington D.C. it took thirty years to catch the arsonist Thomas Sweat who set fire to hundreds of houses, just to trigger his sexual fantasies. The best known arsonist of America is John Orr, who was an arson investigator himself. He published a book about pyromania, but lit ten thousand fires in the region of San Francisco (also it seems to stimulate his sexual fantasies).

It is not certain that the region here has a pyromaniac. He has not yet been caught— if it is a ‘he’ (female arsonists are very rare). Nor indeed do we know if there is not more than one person involved. He probably does not aim to cause a humanitarian disaster like in Smyrna, as he has avoided the villages. Until now, he has only caused black charred landscapes; but his fires are coming closer to hotels and houses. Civilians and firefighters are extremely alert these days — so let’s hope he get caught before worse things happen.

(With thanks to Mary Staples)

@ Smitaki 2011

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