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South-west of Crete. The region of Sfakia, known for its high resistance to the Venetians, Ottomans and then to the Germans during the Second World War. The village of Agios Nectarios where Eleni and Vangelis live. Their home. The garden, beautiful lemon trees. The terrace. The table around which we take our seats. In front of us, the sea and, in the distance, a little lost in the mist, the small island of Gavdos. The sun will soon set behind the mountains on our right. Everything is beautiful. Quiet. Eleni and Vangélis serve us a delicious lemonade. French friends who have been living in Crete for twenty years translate the words of our host: « it ‘s a home-made lemonade, made with our lemons ». And he adds, in a strong, firm voice that hints at exasperation:  » they are natural. Chemicals don’t get past my garden gates ». But will they ignore the anger of the Cretans who, for several months, have been opposing the UN’s decision to dispose of some of Syria’s chemical weapons in the middle of the Mediterranean? We are talking about 700 tons of highly toxic chemicals! 

Following the massacre of several hundred civilians in the suburbs of Damascus with sarin and mustard gas (classified as dangerous A), an American-Russian agreement, framed by resolution 2118, provides for the dismantling of the Syrian military arsenal. However, according to the 1993 convention(1) on the prohibition of the use of chemical weapons, the destruction of the stocks should take place on the territory of those who used them, that is to say in S… well precisely, no, nothing is less sure! Because to this day, it is still not known who, the Syrian government or the anti-government rebels linked to Al Qaeda, is responsible (2) ( on the other hand, it might be a good idea to suggest that the destruction takes place on the soil of the countries which have commercialized all these products, Germany and France in particular… ). But, unfortunately, Syria does not have the technical and financial means to orchestrate such an operation. And above all, we tend to forget that these days, it is at war. The Americans then set their sights on other countries. Who could they possibly give this poisoned gift to? To Belgium? NO! NEE! NEIN! Norway? IKKE! Albania, chosen in the first place, also says no (following the pressure of its public opinion which is tired of being the dustbin of Europe). Where then? Let’s see… But damn but it is of course, in the sea! In international waters! How on earth did U.S. Undersecretary of Defense Frank Kendall not think of this sooner? He said (reported by the environmental association Robin Hood(3)): « to avoid having to deposit the chemicals in any territory where we would have to deal with the political and environmental context and confront national laws, let’s destroy them offshore!

International waters, a legal no-man’s-land, are convenient and not new: in 2006, a few kilometers from Gibraltar, oil refining activities took place on board the tanker Probo Koala, which spilled about 500 tons of toxic sludge in Côte d’Ivoire. Projects for floating nuclear power plants, wind power plants and tidal power plants are multiplying. No international convention or IMO (International Maritime Organization) regulation prohibits industrial activities in international waters unless they harm the quality of territorial waters or the environment. To date, the only industrial activity prohibited on all the world’s oceans is waste incineration. It is true that the UN does not incinerate: it hydrolyzes. 


For decades, and under the supervision of the OPCW (Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons), tons of chemical weapons around the world have been destroyed. The United States and Russia have eliminated their own stockpiles of weapons using the so-called hydrolysis method. Basically, this consists of diluting the dangerous molecules in water (for a bit, they would have us believe that it is homeopathy) using a mixture containing products close to caustic soda, chlorine and bleach. « With the toxicity divided by 10,000, the final product will look like Roundup(4)If you find this reassuring: I don’t! « Vangélis insists. According to the IOAC, these 700 tons of chemicals will be transformed into 7 million liters of dirty water that would be « no more toxic » than that recovered after treatment of hospital waste. But this is not what some NGOs think:  » the Chemical Weapons Prohibition Organization and the United States say that a few hundred tons of Syrian chemical munitions will be processed at sea within a few weeks, while the end of the American chemical munitions destruction program (dating from the Cold War) is planned for 2023. On land, the United States hopes to process 3,100 tons in 10 years. At sea, they are sure to process 700 tons in four weeks?  » is surprised Jacky Bonnemains, president of Robin Hood. Look for the error. Small precision which has its importance: hydrolysis has always been used on the floor of cows, never in fish. A mobile device called FDHS for Field Deployable Hydrolysis System capable of processing 5 to 25 tons of toxic agents per day was specially designed by the Edgewood Chemical Biological Center, a U.S. military research center located in Maryland. Its development was only completed this summer and has not yet proven its ability to safely process these hundreds of tons of chemicals on a continuous basis. A first use on an industrial scale and on the high seas is therefore an adventure, a real RISK. For the crew and technicians first, who will have a front row seat in case of problems, then for the fauna, flora, fishermen and inhabitants of the Mediterranean basin. 


Two roll-on/roll-off vessels (vessels designed to carry trailers and rolling stock), including the Ark Futura, were used to transport the products from Syria. They were joined in an Italian port by the Cape Ray, a U.S. military vessel that had left the United States. It is on board that the products were transhipped and that the « neutralization » operations will take place (which will last 90 days according to the information provided by the U.S. Department of Defense). According to the Robin Hood association, Ark Futura has had 38 deficiencies in European ports since the 2000s. The Taiko, built in 1984, belongs to the Wilhelmsen Lines company, well known because of the sinking of the Tricolor in the North Sea (2002). The Cape Ray, which in other lives was called Saudi Makkah and Seaspeed Asia, has nothing to envy them: also a ro-ro vessel, it is 36 years old and, like all its peers, should have been scrapped 6 years ago. Not only that, but the Cape Ray is single-hulled and is very vulnerable to fire and water damage (they are not equipped with crosswalls that prevent water or flames from passing through). Last but not least, the roll-on roll-offs heel in just a few minutes and sink very quickly. With all their cargo of course, which in this case is rather worrying. Of course, the ship has had its little facelift but these improvements will not guarantee sufficient buoyancy in case of serious damage. 

And in case of a leak, what will happen? It’s simple: sarin and mustard gas will be spread everywhere! What if there is heavy weather? Or just a storm?  » Contrary to some preconceived ideas, the Mediterranean is not a calm sea, the swell can be very strong, it forms eddies and storms are very difficult to predict, says Vangélis. If things go wrong on board, no plan B (a port that could accommodate the ship in emergency) has been imagined. This means that in case of an accident, the cargo will end up on the bottom! ». Especially since a ro-ro boat is not supposed to resist to a wind of more than 4 Beaufort! So the Cape Ray is more like a floating garage than a proud ship, and the whole operation is more like a furniture rescue than anything else. Except that the furniture is a chemical weapon and that no evaluation of the impacts on man and the environment is foreseen… 


If the water in the Mediterranean is often clear and transparent, the way the UN is handling the whole affair is not. On the legal level, the non-application of the Basel Convention on the control of transboundary movements of hazardous wastes and their elimination is of concern to associations such as Alsace-Crète as well as NGOs such as Robin des Bois, Objectif transition, Friends of the Earth or Archipelagos (Institute of Marine Convention of Crete), The latter does not hesitate to speak of ecological crime (note the absence of Greenpeace which tends in recent years to shoot at easy targets that leave him as a pear for thirst capitalist interests to which this association is, unfortunately, increasingly subject). Let us specify that Syria ratified this convention in 1992 and the United States, not yet (let us also recall that the United States, with Somalia, did not ratify the international convention of the rights of the child, just like the one relating to the forced labor. Long live American democracy! ). In order to regularize the export of chemical weapons from Syria to Cape Ray (which is therefore subject to American regulations), a specific agreement should be established (Articles 4 and 11 of the convention). There is also the question of transit authorization in the country (or territorial waters) where the transshipment of weapons is to take place (unless it is an enclave reserved for a US base). It should also be noted that as of January 1, 2014, the mixing, at sea, of the liquid cargo of ships to obtain new substances has been prohibited (good news: we will no longer hear about hydrocarbon refining activities) but what about hydrolysis, the principle of which is precisely to mix chemical substances with others? This is definitely not clear. Even the State of Israel is concerned and recalls that « the decomposition of these chemical weapons will generate phosphoric acid whose release into the Mediterranean could affect the fauna and contaminate the coasts.

In case of a leak, what will happen? It’s simple: Sarin and mustard gas will go everywhere! 


Rebellious, Crete has always been. Informed by Albanian immigrants (the same ones who said no to their government), a local newspaper, the Haniotika Nea, published an article that set off the fire. A first gathering of about 2,000 people took place in the bay of Souda. It was the worst day of the whole winter, the north wind was gusting, the sea was very bad, « the sound system even burned » adds Vangélis. Yet, as if God had sought to test their will, to test their ability to withstand adversity, the people came. A little later, another demonstration gathered 6,000 people at the site of the historic monastery of Arkadi, a major site of Cretan resistance against the Ottoman occupiers.  » Dhe organizations of workers and scientists, researchers of Kerkyra (Corfu), trade unions, municipalities, associations of parents, all responded to the call ». Bishops and popes were also present. The Metropolitan of Kydonia Damascene, as representative of the Holy Synod of the Church of Crete, even spoke. « Some people, » says Vangélis, were dressed in traditional costumes and carried weapons.  » Crete has always been invaded, he explains, taking up elements of the speech of the mayor of Sfakia, Pavlo Polakis, and we will defend ourselves until the end . When you know that in Arkadi, during the Second World War, pallikaris (fighters, the brave) gave their lives to avoid falling into the hands of the enemy, you shudder. 

The third demonstration takes place on Sunday at the pier of the port of Hora Sfakion from where tourists who want to go to Gavdos, Loutros, Marmara or Roumeli embark.« All the people of the region were there, Panayotis the grocer, the Pope Papa Yorgis, Manousso who holds one of the very good taverns on the port, this American, Fred, who organizes street shows and who, from Chania, had come on his dinghy! « Not only the locals, by the way: the huge ferry Daskaloyannis, the name of the Cretan leader of the 1770 revolution who was brutally murdered by the Ottomans, was present and had embarked, free of charge, the Cretans from all over the island as well as the Greeks from the mainland. All those who wanted to participate in the event were welcome on board. About twenty fishing boats, small, medium, large and speedboats formed a blockade to symbolize their opposition to the UN and to the coming of the Cape Ray. If the neutralization of chemical weapons really takes place and there is an accident, it will have catastrophic consequences on tourism and therefore on the entire Greek economy! Because of the Troika, » Vangélis says,  » the Greek government does not dare to do anything . But  » the only ones who will not be silenced are the citizens of Crete », said Socrates Vardakis, president of the Heraklion labor center. 

Before taking the plane back to Chania airport, we went to greet other friends in Stavros, where exactly 50 years ago the famous movie Zorba the Greek was shot. It is in the company of the film’s director of photography, Walter Lassally, who has settled there, that we drink a last glass to the health of the Cretans. Malika Tzamaridakis, who holds with her husband, the fisherman Yorgos, an excellent canteen on one of the two beaches of the place stuck everywhere, on the wooden walls, the fridge, at the school of her daughters, the big posters printed by about thirty associations of defense of the environment. These posters represent two dolphin skeletons leaping out of a beautiful blue water. A young Cretan student from the University of Strasbourg wrote a letter to Janez Potocnik, European Commissioner for the Environment. She concludes her letter by saying:  » I appeal to your conscience. Your duty is to oppose this operation and do your best not to let it happen. Does Europe still exist? Is it able to defend its citizens? « . This is what the Cretans, and not only them, more and more Europeans, are hoping for… 

Corine Jamar, author

Notes et références
  1. Tout Etat-partie s’engage à détruire les armes chimiques ainsi que les installations de fabrication d’armes chimiques qu’il détient ou possède ou qui se trouvent en un lieu placé sous sa juridiction ou son contrôle (art.1, par.2 et 4). La Syrie a adhéré à la convention le 14 septembre 2013.
  2. La responsabilité du gouvernement syrien dans le massacre de civils à Damas fait l’unanimité des gouvernements occidentaux et de la presse atlantiste à leur botte. Or, il pourrait s’agir d’une opération de propagande planifiée comme en fait part dans un article interpellant le très sérieux site d’information
  3. et
  4. Nom d’un herbicide produit par la compagnie américaine Montsanto. Herbicide total dont la substance active est le glyphosate, hautement écotoxique.

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