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Gyaros: The Forgotten Greek ‘Island of the Devil’ Becomes an Oasis of Life

Today, the small island of exile in the past is an oasis of life. Credit: Giorgos Stefanou/WWF Hellas

Gyaros an arid, and uninhabited Greek island in the northern Cyclades was during the military dictatorship a place of exile and torture. Today, the small island is becoming an oasis of life.

Mediterranean monk seals nurse their young on open beaches and seabirds nest in burrows; on the inaccessible rocks. Lush Posidonia meadows under the surface of the sea, where the sunlight is lost in the endless blue, and even deeper coral formations, shape underwater seascapes of unique environmental value and unparalleled beauty,” says the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) Hellas.

More than a decade ago, WWF Hellas launched an initiative to save the forgotten island and protect its natural wealth.

Specific regulations were absent regarding destructive human activities, such as: trawlers fishing, the main threat to coral formations, or on anchoring of vessels, which can cause irreversible damage to the posidonia meadows, home to many species of fish.

Demetres Karavellas, CEO of WWF Hellas said that the organization chose Gyaros to launch the “Cyclades Life” initiative.

“Gyaros is a unique place, an island where nature meets history. We wanted this island that was a place of exile and death to become an island of life and hope.”

Haunting history of Gyaros

Following the Civil War (1946-49), the island which even from the ancient Roman times was a place of exile, continued the grave tradition. 20,000 people, mostly communists and other dissidents were exiled to Gyaros.

Officially it was a kind of reformatory, where the unruly would be transformed into “real Greeks” by the use of various punishments. It was a place of forced labor and torture. Some characterized it as a concentration camp on Greek soil, as the island of the devil.

Gyaros, Greece
An aerial view of Gyaros. Credit: Olaf Tausch, CC BY 3.0/Wikipedia

“The architecture of the prison areas is clearly reminiscent of the sites of Nazi concentration camps,” said Kostas Katsimbinis, a lawyer who more than 20 years ago founded the “GYAROS-HISTORICAL MEMORY” Association, aimed at preserving the historical memory of the island.

Looking back in the early post-war years, Katsibinis told Deutsche Welle (DW) recently: “It is no coincidence that the Greek and international press at that time called Gyaros the Dachau in the Mediterranean.”

He added, that the detainees themselves were forced to build the main prison and other auxiliary buildings in the island, and “all this under inhumane living conditions.”

In 1952, as soon as the prison was completed, it was abolished. This is because of the outcry from the international community and protests by the UN. The Greek authorities were forced to transfer all prisoners to prisons in the mainland of Greece.

However, during the dictatorship (1967-1974), thousands of dissidents were again exiled to Gyaros. For the first time among the prisoners were women, even in pregnancy.

Junta’s lies exposed

According to Katsibinis, the most famous prisoners of Gyaros included the former Foreign Minister of PASOK (1981-1985) Yannis Charalambopoulos and the poet Yiannis Ritsos.

The dictatorship was denying everything that happened in Gyaros. However, a German journalist managed to reveal the truth. In 1967, shortly after military takeover, a reporter from the German magazine Stern flew over Gyaros, took photos and published them all around Europe.

A few months later, journalists of the French magazine Paris-Match, also flew of the island revealing to the wider public the true purpose of Gyaros.

The colonels could no longer deny the truth. Evidence from the prison at Gyaros contributed to the subsequent exclusion of Greece from the Council of Europe for human rights abuses.

The dictatorship tried even then to distort the truth, lying about the number of dead at Gyaros. “There are 22 tombs in Gyaros, but the dead are many more. The prison administration did not want to be blamed for the deaths, so they transferred moribund cases to the island of Syros, where they died at the local hospital,” Katsibinis told DW.

From “Devil’s Island” to ecological paradise?

Today Gyaros is being transformed into a protected ecological area and a paradise for diving. The island is considered a restricted area and 2011 it was included in the Natura 2000.

WWF Hellas applied pressure on Greek authorities to take further measures to protect the island’s ecosystem. Finally, the Ministry of Energy in the summer of 2019, established Gyaros as the first marine protected area in the Cyclades.

In the marine area around Gyaros lives 15 percent of the total population of the monachus monachus monk seal. It is perhaps the largest colony of the species worldwide, WWF Hellas says.

It adds that the fact that the island has been uninhabited for decades, has allowed nature to remain undisturbed.

The aim is to open the “devil’s island” for visitors, but in such a way as to preserve both its historic character and its natural beauty. The project is complicated when the legal framework remains unclear: In 2001, Gyaros was declared a historic monument, which means that all building activity is prohibited.

Despite that, the encouraging fact is that local communities in neighboring islands support the effort for mild tourist development at Gyaros.

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