A Civilization on Edge
Amid Debt Crisis, Athens Falls Apart
By Julia Amalia Heyer
As Greece struggles to master its devastating debt problem, decades of mismanagement have taken their toll on the country’s once-proud capital. Athens has degenerated into a hotbed of chaos and crime, where tensions between Greeks and immigrants have led to attacks on foreigners by the far-right.
Massoud starts walking faster as the shadows lengthen. He glances at the scratched display on his mobile phone. It’s 7:15 p.m.
The sun is setting behind the large apartment buildings on Patission Street, disappearing behind the few remaining classical facades where the plaster is beginning to crumble. “For Rent” and “For Sale” signs are posted on boarded-up windows or behind sheets of opaque glass.
Massoud is in a hurry. He wants to get home before dark, because that’s when the people who are out to get him come out.
The gangs of right-wing thugs, sometimes up to 20 at a time, approach their victims on foot or on mopeds, carrying clubs and knives. They are masked, faceless and fast. They appear suddenly and silently before striking.
The neo-fascists are hunting down immigrants in the middle of downtown Athens, in the streets north of the central Omonia Square. They call it cleansing.
They hunt people like Massoud, a 25-year-old Afghan from Kabul. He has been living in Athens for five years without a residency permit, even though he speaks fluent Greek. He studied geography in Kabul, but in Athens he works as a day laborer.
The gangs also hunt the dark-skinned man pushing a shopping cart filled with garbage and scrap metal through the streets. Or the woman with Asian features, who now grabs her child and the paper cup with which she has just been begging in the streets.
Social Bankruptcy
The area around Patission Street used to be one of the most upscale parts of Athens. Maria Callas lived there, but that was a long time ago. Today there is a shoe store on the street that sells patent leather ballerina shoes from China for €5 ($7) and sneakers for €8. The columned structure of the National Archaeological Museum, which houses the largest collection of art from Greek antiquity, is also on Patission Street. A section of Aristotle Street frequented by prostitutes, who are getting ever-younger, is only 50 meters (165 feet) from the museum.
The Greeks may have come to terms with the fact that the luster of antiquity is long gone. But the notion that Athens, a once-proud city, has now become synonymous with political failure and mismanagement is difficult to take. The consequences of decades of mismanagement are most glaringly evident in the center of the Greek capital.
A few years ago, Café Frappé on Omonia Square was filled with tourists and Athenians. Today, the homeless camp out on air shafts, and police wearing bulletproof vests patrol the area at regular intervals. Even the traffic has declined.
The Greeks are moving away, and they are already a minority today. Here, in the middle of the city, the central issue is no longer the nation’s insolvency but its social bankruptcy. The plaster is crumbling on the polykatoikias, the apartment buildings typical of Athens, and so is civilization. And in the places where poverty and destitution are most clearly evident, hatred is outpacing any desire to help people.
Stickers in the colors of the Greek flag are attached to the corners of many buildings. “Greece for the Greeks,” the stickers read, put there by the right-wing extremist Chrysi Avgi party. Polls show the party at close to 4 percent, and it now stands a good chance of entering the parliament after the election in a few weeks. It would be a small step toward the party’s goal of securing the “dominance of the white race and the Greek nation.”
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‘The Focal Point of the Greek Plight’
Athens has a population of more than three million people, but no one knows how many more are living there illegally and without papers. Nevertheless, where they live is no secret: in the city center. Their numbers are estimated at more than 100,000.
The downtown area is “a hotbed of crime, drugs and prostitution,” says Athens Mayor Giorgos Kaminis, sounding more resigned than combative. Kaminis, a constitutional lawyer, is supported by several parties on the left. City hall is in the middle of the 6th district, the largest in the downtown area. His proposal to solve the problem doesn’t sound much different from that of the right-wing hardliners.
“Voluntary repatriation” is the only way to cope with the plight. Together with European Union authorities, Kaminis wants to develop a plan and create incentives for the refugees to voluntarily allow themselves to be sent home. The problem in downtown Athens, according to the mayor, is also a consequence of the failure of European refugee policy. “Some 300 people come across the border in northern Greece every day,” which is far too many, says Kaminis.
A walk along Panepistimou Street, one of the city’s main arteries, reveals people openly injecting drugs into their arms, carotid arteries or penises. Depending on the police presence, the scene sometimes shifts by a few hundred meters, to Syntagma Square or Omonia Square. Most of these people are young Greeks, and their numbers are growing by the day.
No other European capital’s city center looks like downtown Athens, says Nikitas Kanakis. “This is where you’ll find the focal point of the Greek plight,” he says. Kanakis, a 44-year-old dentist, runs the aid organization Doctors of the World in Greece. He was in Rwanda shortly after that country’s genocide, and he was in Baghdad during the Iraq war. Now he runs a humanitarian mission in the middle of his native city. He calls it “a favela of sorts, just with real houses.”
Violence, Drugs and Disease
Athens had problems before the crisis, but the crisis has only intensified and exposed them. The Greek flight from downtown Athens began in the 1980s, when people moved to the suburbs for cleaner air and more space. Downtown rents declined and immigrants moved in. Their numbers increased as new immigrants came to live with acquaintances and relatives.
Sometimes up to 25 people live in a 50-square-meter (540-square-foot) apartment, and few have papers. The police periodically search the buildings during raids, sometimes accompanied by prosecutors and tax investigators.
Kanakis also runs Medicenter, a clinic on Sappho Street, which provides medical care to people without income and insurance, and often to illegal immigrants. The number of patients increased dramatically last year, and now the clinic handles about 300 patients a day, including a growing number of Greeks. Treatment is provided free of change, and the lines form outside the grate at the entrance long before the clinic opens at 9 a.m. In addition to medication, the clinic also distributes free aid packages. Each 8-kilo (17-lb.) package contains rice, noodles and powdered milk.
The situation is untenable, says Kanakis, and the mood becomes increasingly aggressive among both Greeks and immigrants. There is more violence, including muggings and holdup murders. Everyone knows this, even though no one is keeping accurate statistics. Doctors are diagnosing more syphilis and tuberculosis, at levels that haven’t been seen in decades. In 2011, the rate of new HIV infections increased by 1,250 percent over the previous year.
For Kanakis, the immigrants are the weakest link in this miserable scenario. He calls the stranded immigrants “the Dubliners.” They are people who came to Greece with the intention of moving on to other EU countries but were forced to stay under the European Union’s Dublin II Regulation, a law that determines which member country is responsible for asylum seekers — usually the country through which they have entered the EU. They are now living in a country of agony, if they are lucky. In the worst of cases, they are just as persecuted in Greece as they were in the countries from which they fled.
Even Kanakis, a Greek and an Athenian, has been avoiding certain blocks for a while. He calls the area around Aghios Pantelimonas Square a “national liberated zone.” The extreme right rules the area, and the balconies are decorated with flags. Half a year ago Kanakis’ translator, an Afghan, had to be hospitalized after being beaten by right-wing extremists on the square. Since then, there are two security guards at the clinic, which also houses 66 refugees, and now Kanakis only drives to work.
Right-Wing Extremists Gain Support
When the attacks increased at the end of last year, the doctor, together with other aid organizations, began
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collecting data on racially motivated violence. They counted 61 such attacks between October and the end of January alone. The immigrants, including women and children, were beaten and sometimes stabbed.
Kanakis and others have now written letters to Greek politicians, demanding that they finally take action “against the tolerance of racist violence” and “against the impunity of such crimes.”
There are suspicions that many police officers sympathize, at the very least, with the Chrysi Avgi (“Golden Dawn”) party. The name is intended to convey the hope among the far-right that the Greeks will find their way out of the darkness and return to glory, “as in the days of Homer,” says party leader Nikos Michaloliakos, 54, an elected member of the Athens city council.
Michaloliakos is in a good mood as he sits in his office near Omonia Square. He has just come from party headquarters, where he organized an event for Greek shop owners to address the problem of growing crime in the downtown area. A group of broad-shouldered men with crew cuts have gathered in front of his office, where pamphlets on the “Lenin lie” and “Aryan culture” are laid out in display cases. There are also various items for sale, including T-shirts from the Pit Bull Germany collection, a label associated with right-wing extremism, flags and other memorabilia. Most items sport the party’s logo, a rune-like character surrounded by a laurel wreath. The resemblance to the swastika is so striking that it has to be deliberate.
“We are nationalists,” says Michaloliakos, by way of explanation, and points out that his party has more than 10,000 members nationwide and is growing by the day. “Golden Dawn” wants to close Greece’s borders and, with the help of the EU and the United Nations, send immigrants back to their countries. Until then, his supporters will just have to deal with the problem, Michaloliakos says with a chuckle — and quickly adds that it’s just a joke.
But it doesn’t seem like a joke. One owner of a souvlaki snack bar now keeps a telephone number next to his cash register. It’s an emergency number of sorts. If he feels threatened, he says, he dials the number and they show up — on mopeds, carrying clubs and usually masked. They know what to do, he says, unlike the police. Who are they? “The members of Golden Dawn,” says the man.
‘A Bomb That Must Be Neutralized’
The number of vigilante groups and initiatives in downtown Athens has grown significantly in recent months, as residents begin to organize. A neighborhood group recently removed a telephone booth from a small square in front of their apartment buildings — to prevent immigrants from standing in line to make calls.
Many residents feel abandoned by the state, the city and the police. According to a study by the University of Peloponnese, more than 90 percent of shop and tavern owners in the downtown area believe that their neighborhood is “very unsafe.” More than half say that they have already been attacked and robbed. Hotels are closing or hiring security personnel.
Penelope Agathou founded a group called Epoizo about a year ago. According to the bylaws, the club supports “a better quality of life.” It has 110 members, “cultivated people only,” as Agathou is quick to point out. An older woman in an angora sweater with a heart-shaped pattern and carefully made-up lips, she lives on America Square, which she says ought to be called Africa Square.
“Everything was black,” says Agathou, looking out the window. The Africans were eating, sleeping and urinating in front of her door. She says that she is no racist, and that she gives regularly to UNICEF. But, she adds, “for us, these people are a threat to public health.”
Now that an election campaign is underway in Athens and the police presence has suddenly been increased, many illegal immigrants are afraid to go into the streets, and America Square isn’t quite as full of immigrants. Last week, the minister of citizen protection announced the so-called broom campaign. People without residency permits will now be arrested and taken to newly constructed detention centers. The situation in downtown Athens, says the minister, is “a bomb that must be neutralized.”
Massoud, the Afghan, has reached his home unscathed before the onset of darkness. An old woman is standing in the entrance to the building.
“What do you want?” she shouts at him.
“I live here,” Massoud says quietly. He shows her his key, and the woman sighs. When he reaches the third floor, he unlocks the door to the single room he shares with his cousin. “I have to get out of here,” he says. Life used to be good in Greece, he says, but now it’s terrible.
So where does he want to go? To Germany, France, it doesn’t matter, says Massoud — any place that’s better than this.
Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan
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Photo Gallery: Chaos in Downtown Athens
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