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.  

Photo Gallery: Chaos in Downtown Athens Photos
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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."

'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."

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