Kastelorizo: The ‘invisible’ heroes of a forgotten island
by Angela Boletsi*
Kastelorizo or Megisti, an island of geopolitical importance inversely proportional to its size, just 2 kilometres off the Turkish coast and about 600 kilometres from mainland Greece, is the south-eastern edge of Greece and Europe. The unique settlement of the island develops amphitheatrically around the port and can only enchant visitors with its colourful neoclassical houses, over which a huge Greek flag is waving.
The island became known because of the Oscar-winning film “Mediterraneo”, as well as the infamous announcement on April 23, 2010 by the Prime Minister of the time, George Papandreou, regarding the activation of a joint eurozone-International Monetary Fund financial rescue to pull Greece out of the debt crisis.
A bridge between two cultures, Kastelorizo has been a bone of contention for relations between Greece and Turkey and is – once again – in the spotlight. Many politicians have been visiting the island for years now. The highlight is the recent two-day visit, of symbolic importance, of the Greek President Katerina Sakellaropoulou on the occasion of the anniversary of the 77th anniversary of the island’s liberation, and she was accompanied by representatives of the political and military leadership of the country.
Small island with big history
The history of Kastelorizo can be traced back to Neolithic times. The first inhabitants of Katelorizo were the Pelasgians, while the island was originally named Megisti, which means the «greatest». It got its current name around the end of the 14th century from its castle and specifically from the Venetian name “Castello Rosso”, which means red castle.
After the fall of the Byzantine Empire, the island fell under the rule of many interests such as the Romans, the Knights of Saint John of Rhodes and the Turks. In 1523 Kastelorizo, as all the Dodecanese islands, was conquered by Turkish forces. During the Greek revolution of 1821, the island acquired an active role by offering a large number of ships. In 1830 it was re-occupied by the Turkish empire by virtue of the London Protocol, while in 1915, during World War I, it was ceded to the French and served as a naval base. The long-awaited integration with the Greek state took place on March 7, 1948.
Small island with huge problems
A timeless complaint of the residents is that Greeks “remember” Kastelorizo only when Turkey “remembers” it!
Greeks speak with pride about the remote island that is in the crosshairs of Turkish provocation. Few, however, are aware of the concerns and problems that are hidden in the daily life of the residents of Kastelorizo.
Life on the remote island after the end of the tourist season is anything but easy for the 200 inhabitants, who try to keep Hellenism alive throughout the year.
Young people looking for incentives to remain on the island during winter must cope with unemployment and key deficiencies in health and education. Unfortunately, the abandonment of the island by the Greek state has led many residents to seek better living conditions in Rhodes and Athens, resulting in significant population decline from previous decades.
Key deficiencies-Solution by Turkey!
The insufficient provision of public health is one of the long-standing problems that afflict Kastelorizo. Poorly sanitised, the island of Megisti is called upon to meet the needs of its inhabitants.
A multipurpose regional medical centre operates in the island which, although equipped with technological and sanitary equipment, is unable to adequately serve the residents, due to understaffing. The centre is staffed by a cardiologist, two rural doctors and a nurse. As the deputy mayor of the island, Stratos Amygdalos, informed us, the position of general practitioner is still vacant.
Kastelorizo lacks doctors of various medical specialties, despite residents urging for regular visits of certain doctors, even for specific days of the month.
Even for a simple blood test, the residents are forced to travel to Rhodes at their own expense. Going to Rhodes for hospitalisation or medical examination is time-consuming and costly, especially during winter, when ferry routes to Rhodes are operated only on Mondays and Fridays. Consequently, patients and their companions are obliged to stay on the island of Rhodes for four days, with huge financial costs.
“I am forced to go with my family to Rhodes every month to have my child vaccinated, and pay accommodation, ferry tickets and food for the whole family for four days,” says Christos Doulos, a permanent resident and father of a baby.
Noteworthy is that is not uncommon for the residents of Kastelorizo to seek medical care even on the neighbouring coasts of Turkey! The recent construction of a well-equipped hospital unit in the neighbouring town of Kas, which is in fact visible from the shores of Kastelorizo, is magnifying the problems of health coverage of the remote island.
According to the deputy mayor, the residents are trying to refrain from resorting to Turkey to serve their medical needs. It is, however, remarkable that medical care in the hospital of Kas is free for the Greek residents of Kastelorizo by order of the Turkish Municipality, as Christos Doulos informs us.
It is therefore not hard to conclude that the medical care in the neighbouring city of Kas becomes more “attractive” compared to the medical care provided in Greece, both in terms of cost and distance.
The gaps in the health sector of the remote island are reinforced by the absence of a pharmacy. The prescription and supply of medicines becomes time-consuming and complicated. A pharmacist receives all drug prescriptions for the entirety of inhabitants, which are sent upon order from Rhodes. It is a fact that residents may be obliged to wait for up to seven days to be provided with the necessary medicines, in case of a ferry cancellation.
The problems in education are also significant, as quite a few times, lessons in Santrapia Urban School have started without a primary school teacher or teachers, as in 2019, when a teacher was finally transferred by special secondment from the island of Halki!
Unemployment and expensive living costs
Apart from the deficiencies in health and education sectors, the lack of jobs combined with the high cost of living in Kastelorizo constitute disheartening factors for young people and families who insist on not abandoning their island.
“The prices in the supermarket in Kastelorizo are higher than those in the island of Rhodes. A typical example is that a package of spaghetti that costs 40 cents in Rhodes, costs 90 cents in Kastelorizo. This is due to the high cost required by traders for importing products to the island, which is subsequently passed on to the retail prices of goods “, says Christos Doulos.
Moreover, rental prices, which average 35-40 euros per day, are high compared to other Dodecanese islands, due to the limited number of houses offered for long-term rent.
“Expensive living combined with the difficulty of finding employment in winter, makes permanent living in Kastelorizo, for the 30 families residing in the island, difficult or even impossible, turning the thought of relocation into an one-way street ” says Christos Doulos who continues: “Families in Kastelorizo live a marathon in order to survive. The government should encourage young people to remain in the island in the course of winter. The provision of rental allowance could be a solution. There are also work positions that could employ young people on a permanent basis. For example, the island lacks an ambulance driver, as well as a fire department, while agricultural graduates could be provided with the motive to actively engage in agricultural activities. In addition, locals who meet the necessary qualifications should be prioritised for the filing of permanent positions in the Municipality of Kastelorizo.
“There are positions unrelated to tourism that could support young people on the island and prevent the population from shrinking. For example, there is no butcher shop, and residents are forced to procure large quantities of meat from Rhodes. In addition, a beauty centre or a hair salon could open on the island”, points out the deputy mayor Stratos Amygdalos.
Turkey a key part of everyday life!
It is worth noting that the daily relations between the Greeks of Kastelorizo and the Turkish people of Kas are excellent, with the two parties supporting each other in terms of tourism, but also psychologically, despite political events. “One city helps the other, we are twinned with the neighbouring city. “Turkey is a key pillar of our tourism and strengthens the economy of the island even in non-tourist periods for Greece, such as April”, points out the deputy mayor.
For years now, Kastelorizo has established “close” trade relations with the neighbouring Turkish city of Kas, as they are only a few kilometres away and until recently (before the recent tension with Turkey) were connected by daily services. In recent years, the island is mainly supplied with grocery products exclusively from Kas, as vegetables and fruits cost half the price compared to the nearest Greek island, Rhodes. Specifically, tomatoes sold in Turkey for 38 cents per kilo, in Greece are sold for about 80 cents.
“Every Friday we used to go to the bazaar of Kas to buy groceries and products for daily use. “Turkey was a key part of our daily lives,” the Deputy Mayor points out.
The recent strains in Greek-Turkish relations and the pandemic have changed the daily life of the inhabitants, as no ferry routes have run for the past months between the two cities. “Even under the current circumstances we still have excellent relations with the Turkish fishermen. We talk about politics. “There are some fanatics, but they are few”, Christos Doulos tells us.
Kastelorizo remains at the centre of the ongoing discord between Greece and Turkey, as the two countries are at loggerheads over maritime borders and energy resources in the Eastern Mediterranean. The “invisible” heroes of the island, apart from the increasingly tense situation, need to overcome many hurdles to be able to remain the place they love. They live under the indifference of the Greek state and the fear of Turkey, which seems willing to offer them what Greece deprives them of!
*Angela Boletsi is a lawyer, graduate from the London School of Economics. Her practice includes advising on competition law, including on cartels, abuse of dominance and merger control, as well as on a wide range of corporate transactions including M&Αs.-