We were having a very productive and nice morning at the Habibi.Works workshop. At shortly after 3PM we received initial messages about an incident in the nearby camp Katsikas.
What had happened?
A short period of strong winds destroyed major parts of a roof structure above the new UNHCR tents. The structure is intended to provide some shade on the open field. The green mesh textile is held upon the tents with a grid of concrete pillars, which are kept in place by ground anchored metal wires.
With the intense and humid climate of the Ioannina region, and more specifically its exposed areas around the suburb of Katsikas it was never a suitable place to put families into tents for months to wait. But with autumn coming up problems become again more pressing and obvious. Recently a visibly worried father showed up late-night in Habibi.Works and asked for a heater and blankets to counter the coldness which made his three young daughters freezing. We have a good idea of how the next weeks will develop – and we don’t have any means to meet those requests.
Only few suspected that it will become so dangerous in full sunlight at the middle of a nice day. Due to strong winds the mesh was acting like a sail in the wind and ripped out or moved most anchors around the edges of the structure. After the anchors were lifted from the rocky ground the concrete pillars broke like toothpicks all at once. With a weight of above 100 kilograms each and a length of 3 meters this is getting a deadly hail, which you can’t escape. More than 20 pillars collapsed, and more were visibly bent or deformed.
Literally within seconds people were covered by never ending sheets of textiles, screaming for their kids and trying to extinguish fires which broke out due to the roof falling onto campfires (to heat up lunch). Pillars were breaking right next to children playing, concrete fell onto tents and metal wires snapped through the air. In a cross-cultural camp like Katsikas you will never find out wether Allah him-, or herself or an guardian angel made this miracle happen, but nobody (read: NOBODY!) got hurt. We couldn’t believe it.
Looking closer at the amount of mere chance involved in this you get a sick feeling in your stomach. Syrian baby boy Joad was sitting in his buggy while one of the pillars was missing him for just 10 centimeters and buried one of the wheels below it. By the impact Joad was catapulted out of the carriage onto the ground. He didn’t take any visible damages from it and was smiling again half an hour later.
Thinking about it…
Think about it for a minute what would have happened… no don’t. Refocus and ask yourself: Why and how could this happen? Zooming out of all of this you could ask why families (also often just single travelling women with their kids) are housed (read: tented) in tents for over 7 months with no end in sight. In Europe! In Ioannina! In a city where you can find hundreds of free apartments below 300 € per month with the push of a mouse button. This might have been the easiest way to welcome and integrate war-torn people and at the same time channel European funds into the pockets of economy-torn locals. According to non-public calculations of one of the big NGOs on-site there is no more expensive way to host (and that word sounds so wrong in this context) than in a camp. You could book every single person into a 4-star hotel and you would still be cheaper off than building a somehow survivable space from scratch in a area which used to be a swamp in a city which is known for its “borderline humid subtropical and Mediterranean climate”. Excuse the hasty, but spot-on conclusion: This must be ignorant politics.
But let’s forget about all of this and ask ourselves: How could this particular incident happen? Was it just mother nature playing crazy? Several engineers from the camp population, experts and amateurs alike from small NGOs and basically everybody who saw this somewhat awkward roof structure standing above the brand new tents, were doubting its robustness for months now. For weeks big chunks of the green mesh were already detached by the wind, hanging loosely and noisily scratching on the tents, giving its inhabitants a hard time to fall asleep. But today just a gust created a deadly threat to hundreds below.
Concrete Pillars? Not really…
Looking closely at the damage shows the following:
- The wind caught the meshed textile like a sail and pulled on the construction itself with enormous strength.
- With its bulgy design it offered tons of sail area.
- Note: Did anybody ever think about what would happen in winter with snow on top of those?
- The heavy steel anchors were pulled out of the loose and rocky ground in no time.
- After the support of the steel ropes was lost, there was no more support for the “pillars”.
- The “pillars” crushed like toothpicks.
- BUT WHY? Why didn’t they withstand the pressure or at least bend instead of bursting into at least two pieces?
Now, looking at the point of failure it’s easy to see: Those concrete structures are no pillars! They seem to be long curb-stone templates, used to build sidewalks. Instead of steady metal rods, the concrete is embedded with a couple of twisted metal wires. It’s easy to understand: Without any rigid metal elements in its inside, there is no way that concrete will bend. It will fall apart under the slightest amount of stress. This is not a question of material fatigue or quality – it’s a banal and almost deadly wrong choice of construction materials!
Banality vs. Corrupted System
We leave this to the valued reader of this article to weigh in on wether this stupid mistake can or should have happened to a professional construction company, or if this is just another example of corruption and greed to the disadvantage of the ones who actually are seeking our protection. Keep in mind that there were engineers involved in the planning, and given the size of IOM (who tendered and ordered it), hopefully in the monitoring of the project. There was a lot of very vocal feedback by the engineers among the camp population and by members of small and some bigger NGOs alike. Nobody listened – and we have reason to believe that even after today nobody got the message. Why?
Because Nothing Really Happened, Right?
Tomorrow you will look at the camp and won’t see too many traces from this anymore. IOM staff was very aware of getting the green textiles rolled up for further use. Also the pillars are said to be removed tomorrow (Sunday…). Some might call this a quick clean-up, others could call it removal of shameful evidence.
But we also did our part in this abnormal game: In order to protect the people living in the tents and due to a lack of alternative initiatives or plans presented by the camp management, the small NGOs on-site requested permission to take down the green textiles in order to take stress off the flawed concrete structures. By doing so we made sure that nobody else will get hurt, but we also took off any pressure from the responsible entities (to name a few: European Union, State, Army, Police, IOM and other big NGOs who are under contract with public sponsors) to act on this. By being active here we bring ourselves into the line of responsibility and do things which should be done by public institutions – without having any say in the high-level decision making. We make ourselves the henchmen of others, being used as busy bees here and as a scapegoat in case something doesn’t work out. It’s easy to show our projects up on a lack of professionalism, lack of funding or individual protection. But all of this has come to a point where we need to question the big players more often. Where is the protection of highly vulnerable person in remote mountain villages? Where is the protection of families living in shit cold conditions for months without any housing? And yes – where is the protection of people living under dilettantish built shades?
Here we stand as concerned citizen of Europe and beyond. Because we feel accountable for the well-being of the camp’s citizen, we request the responsible parties who are active in the field, namely IOM Greece and UNHCR in Greece to answer the following pressing questions:
- Who did the engineering concept of the shades?
- Who monitored the contractor with their choice of building materials?
- How much money was accounted for the complete project and more importantly per pillar?
- Are there any other sites where similar shade constructions were implemented?
- Can you guarantee that other installations in Greek camps meet higher standards?
- Are there emergency plans for housing, for cases like today? People couldn’t have slept in their tents without the intervention of the small NGOs (by providing man power and equipment).
We politely, but urgently demand answers to those questions in order to restore the trust of the people from the camp, us as involved individuals and on behalf of our small organisations towards the effort being undertaken to actually solve the ongoing situation of thousands in Greece.
We also repeat our offer for full cooperation, in case we can finally move people over to better housing and stop creating problems artificially, which come along with building a camp in a developed country like Greece.
Florian Horsch, on behalf of Soup and Socks e.V.
Disclaimer: Our perspective on the situation in Katsikas may or may not represent the view of other individuals, small or big NGOs. Please don’t draw conclusions and ask each entity on its own for feedback on what has happened today and on a bigger picture in the last seven months. Thank you.