A Civilization on Edge Amid Debt Crisis, Athens Falls Apart

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Part 2: 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 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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