A Greek Refugee Camp Went Up in Flames. The Aftermath Was Even Worse.

A MAP OF FUTURE RUINS: On Borders and Belonging, by Lauren Markham

More than three years after the fact, we still know too little about what happened in the migrant camp known as Moria, on the Greek island of Lesbos, on Sept. 8, 2020. That night, a fire started in Moria’s Zone 6, one of the makeshift areas abutting the main camp’s walls. Flames tore through the tents, the embers carried by the wind, leaving most of Moria’s 11,000 residents homeless.

Nearly everything else about the fire is contested. Within a few days, Greek authorities arrested six young Afghans, convicting them in two rushed trials over the next nine months. In one trial, the judges deliberated for less than 10 minutes before handing down guilty verdicts; in the other, the government’s sole eyewitness, whose account was already riddled with holes, didn’t even show up.

Because of Covid restrictions at the time, Lauren Markham says, these were months when she had to “follow the case from afar.” She had visited Moria in 2019, an experience she describes in “A Map of Future Ruins,” her ruminative new book about borders and identity. In 2021, she returned to Greece, where officials “repeatedly refused to provide evidence or facts on the case,” stonewalling her reporting efforts. (The defendants’ appeal, originally scheduled for last year, is now expected to take place in March.) She concludes that the six defendants “hadn’t set the fires — there was simply no proof.”

The Moria fire turns out to be only one part of the story she wants to tell. Markham is the author of “The Far Away Brothers” (2017), a powerful, superbly narrated account of Salvadoran twins who arrived in the United States as teenagers, fleeing the violence of their home country. “A Map of Future Ruins” is at once more ambitious and more diffuse, braiding together scenes from contemporary Greece with the history of Markham’s own family’s emigration from Greece a century ago, along with a detour to an ice hotel in the borderlands between Russia and Norway and a short chapter on what humans can learn from trees.

“Ultimately the Moria story would end up not only connected to but central within my larger inquiry into the mechanics of belonging, exclusion and whiteness in a heavily bordered world, the inquiry that had brought me to Greece in the first place — and central to the book that I would eventually write, this very book you hold in your hands, so different from how I first imagined it,” Markham explains early on. It’s an unwieldy sentence that conveys the hazards of such an expansive approach. When she describes what she sees, her observations are vivid; when she starts musing, the prose gets windy. Where her previous book was animated by an unflinching specificity, “A Map of Future Ruins” sometimes meanders so far afield that it loses its bearings.

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