Posted by steven greaves photography on June 9, 2010 · 

Like some Tom Clancy novel, my first commissioned article unfolded as if some kind of cold-war spy thriller. 

Asked to join Matt Carr, a seasoned journalist and author, for a Geographical Magazine article, we met in Istanbul, Turkey where he was attending a Migreurop conference. Matt is in the midst of writing a book on Western border policies taking into account Europe, the US and Australia. He had approached Geographical Magazine with a piece that he wished to pen concerning the Greek/Turkish border in the Evros region and some of the outlying islands, specifically Lesvos and Samos. This border is out on the far reaches of the European perimeter fence and, due to the geography of the area, is a natural funnel for those coming from Asian nations especially Afghanistan. It was ripe subject matter for both Matt and Geographical and continued my foray into issues of European migration, a journey I had begun five months prior. 

Matt usually tackles articles on his own and had never worked with a photographer. We met in Calais where he was conducting research for his book. Sharing somewhat similar political stances and oddly familiar family backgrounds, we had much in common and immediately gravitated towards one another. 15 years my senior and as an experienced journo, Matt spoke sagely on the field I wished to enter. He offered words of encouragement, direction and a sympathetic ear. In return, I showed him around the town that had become my new home and brought him in to the sordid underbelly of Europe’s war on migration, Edition: Calais. Together, we shared the solidarity of CRS raids on the Afghans out at the railroad tracks and huddled against the chill in “Africa House.” I introduced him as a “friend” to those whose trust I had worked so diligently to earn. I knew he would not falter nor jeopardize the earnest work I had put in. Fumbling with my iphone one night, he scrolled through the work of Terre des Oublis and found merit within. He was taken with the humanity I had shown in Calais’ downtrodden. To him, it was the catalyst for a partnership to be forged. He resolved to work with me and I with him. I could not have been more humbled or delighted. 

While still in Turkey, we discussed how best to conduct our operations and arrived at north to south route. We would begin in northern Greece where Bulgaria and Turkey meet the Greek mainland. The Evros River cleaves this area and provides a natural border between the nations of Turkey and Greece. From there we would trace the river southward where the delta opens up in to the Aegean Sea and onward to the islands of Lesvos and Samos before finishing up in Izmir, Turkey. Our designated time to pull this off was short: just over one week. We both knew that sleepless nights would be the norm and that the pace would be swift. To me, it sounded like a blast. I was nervous and excited. It was my first shot at getting my work in to a “real” publication…..and they were paying. 

Off the bus from Turkey, we holed up in Alexandropoulos, Greece in a shabby and run down hotel operated by a grandmother-like Greek woman. What the room lacked in cleanliness and ambiance, Helen made up in character. Quick with a smile and chuckle, she was befitting of a Greece we would not find. 

We rented a tiny Chevrolet and made the drive towards and north of Orestiada, Greece and the minefields that had taken so many migrant lives. The article was equally dependent on Matt’s ability to conduct interviews and my ability to capture images that illustrated the story. We hoped to get a shot of the minefields and any signage that indicated the threat- a skull and crossbones perhaps. We bumped into a local at a café and asked for directions. After telling us to be careful of the military, we took the car off-road and towards the DMZ. On the wrong side of the railroad tracks, a “Restricted Area” sign welcomed us to our first day on assignment. Matt and I looked at each other and, with little said, marched beyond the sign. That first day marked Matt testing my limits and I his. How far would we push this story? 

After wandering down a dirt trail alongside the Evros River and coming up short, we returned to the parked car and resolved to drive down the same trail….and deeper into a military zone. How far would we push the story? In front of us a camouflage jeep made slow progress. Obviously spotted, I urged Matt to push on as if two idiotic and lost tourists. Despite the jeep pulling over and the passenger door opening, we passed on the narrow trail and made quick work of getting back to the paved road. We would not get far as the jeep flashed its’ lights and indicated that we pull over. 

Passports were handed over, questions answered and ignorance claimed….to no avail. One soldier kept switching from a military radio to his mobile phone. I knew we were in the shit when all three soldiers in the vehicle donned their ammo vests and slung their rifles behind their backs. It was obvious that our pleas of ignorance were not going to provide any escape and that senior officers would shortly appear on-scene. I jumped back into the passenger seat, turned my camera on and began to furtively and furiously delete any images that would sink the story and find us in some Greek prison. 

A civilian and marked police car arrived shortly after a jeep carrying a senior military commander. Matt and I watched on in disbelief as conversations became heated between the parties. One didn’t have to speak Greek to understand that a jurisdictional squabble was ensuing and that this was not going to end well. We were bade to place all electronics (my camera, memory cards, computer etc.) into the marked police car and ordered to follow behind in our jalopy. Matt and I looked at each other but said little. This was the beginning of the story; this was the end of the story. 

With sweat building on my brow, I sat on the couch. Matt saddled up on a chair alongside, a large man next to him. We faced the police chief, a stern-looking, squat man in his 50s. Both men were dressed in casual clothing; it was obvious we had disturbed them from their Sunday personal pursuits that found them now at the office and interrogating us. The chief pulled out a box of Marlboros, lit one and inhaled the smoke. I indicated my desire to follow suit. He nodded his assent. I’ve never had a better tasting cigarette. Coffee was offered as the mood changed. Papers from Athens sitting on the chief’s desk indicated our impending arrival in the area (although we were one day early). The large man (later we found out he was the director of intelligence for the area) translated the chief’s question: “What do you want?” Matt, ever the smooth talker, relayed his requests to which the chief assented. It seemed that we had skirted disaster and had been granted more than Athens had even allowed. A rendezvous was arranged for 9am the following morning and we were bid farewell. I held my laughter until we arrived at the car and drove off from leering glances. In disbelief, we looked at each other and fought back the comedy. 

“I think we’re being tailed!” I uttered to Matt. From the passenger seat, I had noticed a car keeping its’ distance and following each turn we made in our attempt to leave Orestiada. In a society where even the elderly drive as Formula 1 drivers, a grey Skoda was keeping a healthy distance from our Chevy piloted by a light-footed English writer. A series of wrong turns, stops at petrol stations or on the side of the road would confirm our company. It appeared that, according to Matt’s journalistic credo, we had “become the story.” We continued to drive around and were pawned off by at least 4 different cars each driving in similar patterns. 

Now firmly positioned in the driver’s seat, I pulled into a little town off the main highway route and took evasive actions. I had seen enough spy flicks, James Bond and Jason Bourne antics to have an idea of how to evade our pursuer….well, at least, according to Hollywood. Turning a corner very slowly, I disappeared into the street and put gas pedal to floorboards. Speeding through the village and making a series of erratic turns, I guided the car back to the highway, jumped on it and sped northward and back toward the scene of the crime. We had lost our tail and had certainly now “become the story.” 

For each day during the remainder of the assignment from the Evros region to the islands of Lesvos and Samos, we would be tailed by police. Whether behind the wheel or on foot, Greece’s military and police forces would not be too far behind. It became obvious that two journalists digging around in the border environs was a threat to national security or, more likely, national secrecy. Maybe all of the sordid and damning reports we had read by various NGO’s (MSF, Human Rights Watch and Group of Lawyers) held some sway. Through visits to detention centers, rides on coast guard patrol boats and interviews with migrants themselves, we could piece together the story of Fortress Europe and the Greek war on migration.  Pick it up at a newsstand near you!
As Matt and I departed company safe on Turkish shores, I relayed my desire for another mission- “anytime, anyplace.” Sign me up for another Carr-caper. It beats watching Borne or Bond any day.

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