A fire ripped through Samos Refugee Camp in Greece on the evening of Monday, October 14, reportedly killing at least two refugees. Thousands of people have been left homeless, and have fled to nearby woods to seek some kind of shelter — most of them without tents, since so many were destroyed in the fire.
The blaze followed violent and racially-charged arguments between refugees, which had apparently started that morning in the line for breakfast. “A few Afghan [refugees] climbed down the hill and stabbed two Syrian refugees to death,” a refugee who had been staying in the camp told me during a telephone interview. “When other refugees heard the news, there were shouts of ‘Allah Akbar’ everywhere — [and people] calling other Arabs to take revenge. First, there were 10, but as they climbed down the hill there were more than 500. They destroyed the tents with pieces of wood and stone and burned them down with handmade grenades. The tents were mostly populated by Afghan residents. Propane gas containers exploded and then even the forest caught on fire. The tents and shelters of under-aged refugees burned down and some of the children got injured and are now in the hospital.”
Vathy Camp on the Greek island of Samos island has capacity for 650 refugees. But at the time the fire broke out, there were 7,000 refugees living there, and Greek officials say the number of refugees arriving on the island is increasing. The camp has 30 shelters, with hundreds of people living in each. Thousands of refugees live outside the shelters in tents. Those who can afford wood and gunny sacks have built themselves shelters. But those who cannot afford it have no choice but to stay in tents, which are not safe or warm enough during the winter.
“As soon as the fire started, I took my child and called my wife and other family members to move away from the fire and the conflict,” Ali, an Iranian refugee who has been living at the camp with his family for the last two months, told me. “As we were about to enter our tents, a group of Arabs came up and wanted to attack us. Syrians who knew us picked up wood sticks and defended us, saying that we are family.”
Although reports say two people lost their lives, there has been no official confirmation of the deaths, and the rumor among refugees is that up to 10 people died in the fire and during the fight.
IranWire and other media received videos that appear to show the two dead, their bodies off to the side of the camp and covered in blood. A group of refugees surround them.
The Iranian refugee who sent IranWire the clip says the refugees who were killed played no role in the conflict. “They were two passersby, and there was a brawl between 150 to 200 people. They were probably asked if they were Iraqi or Syrian and they said yes and were killed by Afghans.”
Some Iranian refugees from the camp say that Syrian refugees had threatened to carry on the conflict into the next day, and that they would destroy more tents. When people heard this, they reported it to the police, prompting the camp’s security guards to inspect tents and shelters. Usually, under such circumstances, security guards will take any weapons they find away from the refugees.
Other refugees who witnessed the Monday evening tragedy say Arab people involved in the fight numbered 500, and fought against 250 Afghan refugees. “As the conflict began, security guards closed the doors on refugees; even as the camp caught on fire they didn’t open the doors,” one person told me. “Finally, refugees were able to break the doors open and leave the camp. They have now scattered in the forests nearby.”
Ali told me there were thousands of children in the camp. “Currently 2,000 under-age refugees are living in this camp, and most of them are Afghans. There are about 150 or 200 Iranians. Iranians can’t tolerate the camp’s circumstances and try to leave at any price, so we are always lesser in numbers than other nationalities. I am here with my family and my single brother and we can’t leave the camp because of him, because Greece doesn’t let single [people] live outside of the camps. If they go to Athens, they’ll send them back to the island."
When Ali and his family arrived at the camp, people registering them told them not to expect any facilities. “From the first day, they told us they have no free space and they were at full capacity. And if anything happens to you and your family, it is your own responsibility. They said they can’t do anything in cases of illness. Some kids already have infected wounds on their bodies because of insect bites, but they don’t care and say we should avoid insects.”
And now the smell of burnt wood and ash will be part of their daily life.
Thousands of under-aged refugees from the camp have now lost their only refuge. First they were in danger traveling on the shoddy boats human traffickers had supplied for them, and now they are at risk in the camps European officials have provided for them. Thousands of people arrived in the camp with packs on their backs, ending a long journey in a place where violence occurs right before their children’s eyes, where squalor is rife, and where there is little hope that the politicians who are tasked with determining their fate will take sufficient action.
“Police forces raided the shelters,” another person I spoke to during my telephone conversation told me. “We should leave. They walked on our belongings wearing their boots. They broke in and said they were investigating the incident. They knew another brawl is planned for tonight...I should go. We will stay in contact...We will stay in touch...I’ll update you on the camp situation and the brawl.”
The phone call was finished, and before I put down the phone, I could hear loud noises in the background, the sound of refugees voicing their grievances, anxieties and uncertainties.