By Dimitris Rigopoulos
In the 1980s, when wildfires razed thousands of hectares of forest and farmland on the eastern Aegean island of Chios, writer Yiannis Makridakis was a teenager. In the summer of 1988, while heading down to the seafront in the island capital, he was stopped by two police officers and ordered to join a troop of soldiers dispatched to the island to battle the blazes. The young man went back home, changed his clothes and got into the army truck to go and join the firefighting efforts at the island’s famous 11th-century Nea Moni Monastery.
Almost 30 years later, Makridakis was destined to relive the same nightmare this summer, only this time under very different personal circumstances.
Now in his 40s, he is an acclaimed writer and has become even more closely connected with the island of his birth -- which also forms the backdrop for his novels -- and has founded the Chios Studies Center as well as a magazine. As forest fires ravaged his island once more in August, Makridakis poured out his pain, rage and denial on his blog, only to emerge a few days later a new man with a plan.
Makridakis founded Movement 18, named after the date, August 18, when the wildfire began. “It is a citizens’ movement that aims at turning a new page in the island’s political and social history, by fervently championing respect for humanity, the environment and culture,” he told Kathimerini.
Up until the day that he founded the movement, Makridakis had been living an isolated life in the village of Volissos, but the fires rocked his world and got him out and about again, launching initiatives, collecting signatures, writing to ministers and regional authorities, networking with other like-minded groups and giving interviews to media in Greece and abroad.
When did your passion for the island of Chios start to make itself felt?
Ever since I was free of the oppression of school and began taking my life into my own hands, getting around like an adult and discovering the island, I realized that I had the good fortune to be born and raised in a special and beautiful place. Then, when I got my mathematics degree and went out in search of a job, something inside me was rocked. I felt that it was crazy to be surrounded by such beauty, so many great achievements of nature and man, such energy coming from the past -- to have all this enticing me to discover it and live it, while I was holed up in classrooms selling exam answers to children in order to buy back my life. That was when I realized that I had no interest in working to earn a living; that all the hours I lost working cannot be paid back in money and that life must be somewhere else because it certainly was not there [in Athens]. Chios tipped the scales inside me and so I surrendered to it.
Your life in Volissos is almost hermetic. How come?
I live in Volissos because I decided years ago not to live within the contours of the economic system that governs the lives of modern people. I live on its fringes. I feed myself exclusively on what I and my fellow villagers grow. I never buy packaged food. I cultivate local varieties of seeds, I preserve food in the old-fashioned way -- sun-drying, pickling and so on. I try to use as much energy as the natural environment around me allows and I generally live in this kind of manner because I am interested in creating my own way of life rather than buying it with a salary, earned by mortgaging myself to some private businessman or the state. You see, with this kind of life, you have very little use for money. The only problem is increasing taxation and social security. Thankfully my books are selling well, providing me with an umbilical cord that keeps me attached to money and the system.
Some people have the idea that your fellow islanders snub tourism, but I saw a lot of signs on the island written in Turkish, which suggests that this may not be the case.
The decline of Chios began in 1922, when its ties with Asia Minor were severed. In the past 20 years especially, it has a experienced a period of profound and permanent decline. And that decline is apparent in the appearance and strengthening of voices that want the island to become a tourist resort with large investments. Chios has been saved from the tourism delirium of the past decades because its people are seafaring folk and had no need of money from other sources. Over the past few years though, the sad phenomenon of rampant abuse for the sake of easy money has found its avid fans here as well. The signs written in Turkish confirm that the island’s tourism market is resting its hopes on Turkish visitors and that the days when a handful of us were being accused of being spies because we supported closer Greek-Turkish ties are long gone.
Tell us a bit about what you thought and felt during the August fires.
Personally, they made me feel like an animal that sees its habitat becoming smaller and smaller or being completely razed because of the irreparable damage man has inflicted on nature. I put myself in the position of a bear that suddenly sees a large highway replace the den and forest in which it once lived. Wild animals cannot understand the reasons behind such things, but I can, and this makes the feelings even more unbearable. In moments of rage, this feeling breeds hatred toward mankind and triggers a flight reflex. Later, in moments of calm, you see that people are the only source of hope and you steel your resolve, you tell yourself that you will do anything you can to change things. Maybe this huge disaster has made people more accepting of new ideas.
What does Movement 18 hope to achieve and how has it been received by the islanders?
Movement 18 wants to unite people who believe that growth is one thing and prosperity another, that the natural and cultural characteristics of our country are our only true asset, that they never lose their value and that we ourselves have devalued it, but it is now time to protect them. The movement also promotes development through small-scale investments rather than gigantic plans that erode the landscape, it respects and promotes the particularities of every part of the country and wants to build a Greece that is a sum of all of its small paradisiacal parts rather than a country that has been sold off, that has no natural resources and no soul.
There are people all over Greece who are resisting the erosion and destruction of their places of birth from so-called development. We have something more to suggest: It’s time that we got to know each other, displayed our solidarity, got organized and faced the common enemy, and -- why not? -- stayed out of the local political race. The political powers that have governed us for decades seem to be done after having pushed Greece into this dead end.
Has your involvement in the movement put your work as a writer on the back burner?
Writing is a vital need for me. Right now I am very busy with organizing the actions that will bring about a change in way society thinks politically and haven’t got the peace of mind that writing a literary piece requires. I think, though, that that is where my true calling is and not political games, so I will get back to it sooner or later.