ATHENS – Just 2.5 nautical miles from the town of Lavrio on Attica’s eastern coast, the erstwhile ‘exile’ island of Makronisos is short on people but long on history. A narrow strip that hugs Attica’s eastern shore, the island is currently Greece’s largest uninhabited island.
The first traces of human habitation date back to 2,500 BC, however, while there are signs of a settlement established in the classical era of ancient Athens. For most Greeks, however, the island is associated with the 1946-1949 civil war period, when Makronisos was notorious for its use as a prison to hold communists.
Since it was declared a ‘historic site’ in 1989, based on a decision signed by the late Melina Mercouri during her time as culture minister, the island and all the structures upon it are considered protected monuments and any alteration to them is forbidden.
The Athens-Macedonian News Agency (ANA) recently visited the island to examine some of the unauthorised new buildings erected there, in contravention to the law, and other illegal interventions to the existing structures.
“We characterise the entire island of Makronisos a historic site …because it has marked the history of modern Greece, because it is a place of memory. Not just for those that lived through the horror of the period 1946-1953 but for all Greeks, especially younger generations, because it is a symbol that condemns civil war, every form of torture and oppression, wherever it may come from, an altar for freedom of thought and ideas,” said the order signed by Mercouri, outlining the reasons for her decision.
As the ANA crew arrived on the island in a coast guard vessel, a welcoming committee comprised of some 20 goats came down to the small jetty to meet us. The more curious animals continued to follow us during a tour of the buildings where the first subtle signs of recent intervention were apparent: among the dilapidated buildings, one had been refurbished and sported a fresh coat of paint, a clear sign that it had been illegally occupied.
According to culture ministry staff that recently visited and inspected the island, many of the illegal new structures already had demolition orders posted on them but in many cases, access was difficult, with buildings tucked away in secret coves in the back of the island, without roads leading to them.
The ANA sources also reported various obvious signs that existing buildings on the island had been tampered with. One building had a new roof made of ceramic tiles and another had a photovoltaic panel in the yard, next to a pile of bricks looted from other structures on the island.
“There were various things in the pile, apart from bricks, I remember. There were also pieces of ancient pots among them,” the source said, though the Cyclades Antiquities Ephorate has declined to comment.
Authorities estimate that there are violations involving some 20-25 buildings the island, while all those that are new buildings must be demolished and those whose use has changed must return to their original uses. While the court order is final, its implementation may be delayed, however, since the Kea municipality and other local authorities have objected to the transfer of Makronisos to the municipality of Lavrio.
At present, the island simply smacks of neglect and abandonment, however, a scene filled with ruins, ramshackle huts and rubble. In the middle of nowhere, an electric cooker has been dumped, surrounded by grazing goats and bee hives. The aim of the decision taken in 1989 was surely not to leave the island in the state that we found it.
On the way back, waiting for the boat, the statue of the “Makronisos Prisoner” stands gazing across the water toward Lavrio, toward the statue of a woman that symbolised the mothers, wives, sisters and betrothed of the 60,000 men that were imprisoned there in the 40s and 50s.