Leros psychiatric hospital in Greece in September 1989

Eric BOUVET/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Image

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The Island of the Damned

Fascism and madness in Leros

Verdiana Garau
August 13, 2023
Leros psychiatric hospital in Greece in September 1989

Eric BOUVET/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Image

As an allegory of the eternal wandering of the human mind, considered both as a construct and as a co-developer of the society to which it belongs, here is a story within stories, which takes place on an island and all around its bay. Those shores are a perfect stage for events that were able to change both the vertical profile and depth of the above-mentioned cove, in a continuous exercise of extroversion and introspection, which can be guessed and observed from this natural harbor. Everything emerging along the coastline refers at every turn to the inescapable destiny of an island, a ghetto, a mental and physical ghetto, in its etymological sense, a place beyond, with the open sea as a line of separation.

Ktima es aei,” history is a possession for eternity: it was Thucydides, a Greek historian, who in the fifth century BCE, meticulous and solemn, reiterated to his followers that history is a source of wealth for man, in the present, in the past and in the future. Not just a passive reading of events, but a “possessing” and a “being” of men who have had and have been and who will have and will be again. Here, high up on the walls, and deep inside the buildings of time, the men of the island transform—still today and according to the fashions—a space that always retains the same barrier of confinement. It’s the same island, beyond the impediment of the sea, beyond any hedge, beyond the line, along a frontier.

The bay I am writing about is among largest and deepest in the Mediterranean. It is the Bay of Lakki, formerly Portolago, located on Leros, an island that is part of the Greek Dodecanese archipelago. Thucydides himself made mention of it in his Peloponnesian War, considering it to be a perfect and strategic shelter for warships and more recently for the entry of submarines.

Leros is an island, protected by the sea which defends it, making it unapproachable, and at the same time exposing it, without warning, to piracy, legends, and winds of falsehoods. Its bay, deep, strategic and sheltered from the wind, is invisible, yet constantly under observation. The history of Leros is the perfect diachronic variant of the same mental and physical ghetto, where many values, at different times, continue to belong to the same variable. The historical evolution of this small rock in the middle of the sea can be seen as evolution of a social panorama, where substitutions and differences of the elements composing it over time are identified in the same place.

It was Sept. 10, 1989, when the British Observer reported the scandal that was labeled “Europe’s Guilty Secret,” presenting on the front page atrocious photos of naked men, patients of a psychiatric hospital who appeared malnourished and had evidently been subjected to inhumane treatments. Those photos were taken in the psychiatric hospital of Leros, where hundreds of psychiatric and handicapped patients had been confined and often shipped out of many other Greek mental institutions from the mainland, which had been defined by public clamor as concentration camps for the disabled. The spotlight on Leros turned on in the ’80s, after Greece applied to join the European Community, thus bringing the serious shortcomings of the national health system to the attention of the international community. In 1983, the new socialist government, under pressure from the European Community, issued a law to reform its psychiatric wards.

It is not clear whether the photographs were taken contemporary to the scandal or earlier. However, it has been proved that the mental institution of Leros was in those years a real ghetto within the ghetto, a Guantanamo for rejected mental patients located on an island of outcasts and operated without trained personnel. The patients remained confined within the old walls of disused buildings inherited from the fascist era and erected on the Bay of Lakki that were never really renovated. There, these more or less abandoned patients were left to their own devices, like strays. No real therapeutic plan, no integration plan for patients, no contact with their families of origin. It was a sad prison for men considered useless by society, who had been exiled from hospital centers in Athens or Thessaloniki and sent into exile on a remote island of shipwrecked souls.

The reform had its effects, even if it was nothing comparable to the better known “Basaglia law” passed in Italy in 1978 by the Italian parliament, a law which imposed the permanent closure of asylums and the regulation for compulsory medical treatment, a law that made Italy the first country in the world to abolish psychiatric hospitals. At that time, according to Franco Basaglia, an advocate of that reform, it was necessary to go beyond the mere internment of people suffering from mental disorders and to open up the horizons of social psychiatry, finally recognizing the patients’ full rights and their need for a quality life. With the reform in Greece, some plans were launched, aimed at involving the patients’ relatives—who were often untraceable—and the local communities, which revolved around the institution.

The psychiatry wards have never been dismantled. They have only been half renovated. The small houses once destined for fascist ordnance employees remain standing in the island’s naval base and the Rossetti seaplane base complex. The rest is at the mercy of stray cats and mice. Sometimes nurses can be seen walking from one house to another. The gardens are decorated with flowers, alongside and opposite the decaying former air force headquarters, completely in ruins and submerged under the debris left by the refugees who arrived in Leros.

A few years ago there was a return to talk about the Leros ghetto. Many NGOs expressed concern about the situation they had found at the Rossetti seaplane base. An unprecedented wave of migration from the Middle East arrived on Leros in 2018. Thousands of refugees were shipwrecked on the Bay of Lakki and were herded into the ruined seaplane base, where they lived together with the psychiatric patients.

A migrant pushes a bike inside the migrant camp on the Greek island of Leros, on Sept. 8, 2021
A migrant pushes a bike inside the migrant camp on the Greek island of Leros, on Sept. 8, 2021

Theophile Bloudanis/AFP via Getty Images

Still now there are broken mattresses, remains of tin cans, rats, flies, torn camp tents, broken windows, pieces of glass everywhere and Arabic writing all over the walls, especially invocations to Allah. The local administration has never deigned to clean up anything.

Like a faded fresco that reveals another one lying beneath it, going inward and backward in time, the interiors of those crumbling buildings, once populated by screams and desperation, can transport the visitor back into the past. These are beautiful rationalist buildings commissioned by Mussolini during the Italian occupation of the island. It was in that period, between the first and second world wars, that Italy established its naval base on Leros and built an entire city whose examples of art deco elegance are second only to those on Miami’s Ocean Drive.

The entire Bay of Lakki on Leros was in fact designed by Armando Bernabiti and Rodolfo Petracco, under the supervision of the former Governor Mario Lago to whom the bay “Portolago” (today Lakki) owes its name. The urban plan included the barracks, Balilla house, the covered market, the elementary school, the Casa del Fascio (City Hall), the cinema theater, and the church once dedicated to San Francesco and today, after being converted from Catholic to Orthodox, dedicated to Saint Nicholas.

In 1943 the island fell into German hands after the battle of Lero. There was a small Jewish community, according to a feeble urban legend that locals report as a fact. Perhaps the community never existed. Or maybe it did. Somewhere next to the small square, right and then turning left, there is maybe a building with the Star of David. No one can say for sure. The islanders of Leros are isolated even from their own community and history.

I have lived here for several months and over that time I have met quite a few Jews and Israelis, some of whom moved to the island years ago. But few traces remain of that old community of Platanos, the small historical center of Leros where the town hall is situated. Not even the Nazis seemed to care that much. They hunted down one Jew, an alleged Mr. Malachia, who was forcibly deported and never returned.

This tragic event was followed by the Greek Civil War. The barracks were used as a place of imprisonment for communist political dissidents, communists who had an active base among the island’s intellectuals. During the Greek junta, between 1964 and 1974, the same spaces were transformed into reeducation camps for communists and their children. About 4,000 political prisoners were exiled to Leros, where they shared this same ghetto with the psychiatric patients.

Iorgos Ioannidis is still alive. He goes to the same pastry shop every day around 5 o’clock in the afternoon. He sits and asks for his usual one-shot Greek coffee, without sugar or cold milk, with a glass of water on the rocks. He arrived on Leros back in the ’90s, sent by the government as manager of the mental asylum. I often stop to have a word with Iorgos; it’s me who prepares and brings him his coffee. He speaks an acceptable English, and has the air of being an arrogant pensioner. He always arrives aboard his Mate 50 Yamaha, an old vintage motorbike that all the foreigners on the island envy.

Iorgos declared to the press upon his arrival in Leros that his intention was to reform the hospital. But he soon realized that the economic destiny of the entire island went hand-in-hand with the management of that hospital, which could never have been dismantled. Hundreds of people would be put out on the street, people who survived only thanks to those salaries. Following their example, Iorgos adapted himself to local customs, adopting the same ghetto mentality.

As in the myth of Plato’s cave, silhouettes of mannequins and various objects that some men carry up continue to pile up on the causeway that forms the border walls of this island of Leros. Between the poor chained souls and the wall, there is fire, that of reason. The prisoners are only allowed to see the shadows of those objects projected from the street onto a wall in front of them. If the prisoners were released, they would suddenly be blinded by the outside sunlight. Only with time would the freed man finally be able to see both the objects, the other celestial bodies and himself, understanding that the sun that he and his companions could not see governs all things of the world.

Once enlightenment is achieved, however, there would be nothing he could do for his former comrades. In order to release them, the freedman would have to get his eyes used to the darkness again.

The small community of Leros remains prisoners of their own mental ghetto. They do not know the truth, they are not interested, do not seek it. Instead, they adapt to the effect that is passively produced on them by living here, in a physical and mental ghetto, which reproduces itself every season—the creation of those who unconsciously deny that any other reality is possible.

Verdiana Garau is a political analyst based in Dubai.