Austerity in Athens

A report from the Greek capital.

We had many reasons for wanting to travel to Athens and to interview people there about the appalling effects of austerity's assault on services, jobs and aspirations. One was a concern about the brutal realities of cuts in Greece - Abi had visited Athens earlier this year, talked to a lot of people and was keen to meet with more. Another was an interest in comparing cuts stories from Greece with cuts stories in the UK. For several years, Kate has been interviewing people around the UK who were on the sharp end of this government's cuts – people who were losing care services, benefits, homes and any hope of rescue.

It seemed that comparisons could be made. It also seemed that comparisons should be made. Dead-eyed, austerity continues to march Europe deeper into poverty, shock, fascism and other forms of oblivion. Reporting that and the wider experience is a crucial part of the response of those of us who refuse to accept that most people exist to serve out as austerity's fodder. To put it another way – everyone everywhere needs to know when and where poverty and fascism are taking people out across Europe and anyone who is in a position to report that should be doing so. So, we went to Athens last week.
 
Right away, race was an issue. In fact, it was an issue before we went: friends in Greece warned Abi to take care and to stay out of Golden Dawn strongholds. Abi: “I spoke to Greeks in London who told of anarchist friends being beaten up alongside immigrants. Before we left, I'd heard that the American government issued a statement warning dark-skinned Americans in Athens to be careful when leaving their hotels at night. I assumed that as a dark-skinned British person, that probably applied to me as well.”
 
Kate is white and so, to put it bluntly, was a lot less likely to end up as a target. Nobody bothered with niceties on the subject. They simply told us that Abi was at risk and Kate wasn't. Abi: “I was surprised how many people said that I couldn’t go to certain places, although my white companion could. “Especially because you’re coloured” was something I heard a lot.”
 
“Don't you go,” surgeon Charalambos Farantos told Abi when, at the end of our interview with him, we said we said we would go to see Attica Square (Abi had seen this film) and several other areas. “They'll beat you up.”
 
“Is it dangerous here?” we asked antifascist activist Thanasis Kourkoulas when we were walking from Attiki station to his organisation's offices several streets away. We'd heard that Golden Dawn raids and attacks took place in the area at night, but the streets seemed benign during the day. People watched us and each other, but the sun was out and people in squares and cafes were talking and drinking coffee. But Kourkoulas seemed anxious. He took us to the burned-out ruins of a building that had recently been torched. He gave us a few minutes to take pictures of the site and the fascist graffiti that had been daubed on the surrounding walls and then he hurried us away.
 
“Come on,” he said. “Better go.”
 
“Is it dangerous?” we asked.
 
“It would be for you, because you're coloured,” he said to Abi.
 
Almost everyone we spoke to had a Golden Dawn story to tell, or seemed to expect to have one soon. Pavlos Antonopoulos, an Athens high school teacher, told us that just a few days earlier, three young Golden Dawn members – all ex-pupils – had turned up at his school to try and share the party's message with students. He told them to leave and they threatened to stab him. They took a different view of the security guard who let them in. “We will take care of you,” they told her.
 
We talked to doctors who treated immigrants without papers and people without insurance and said they would continue to do so, no matter who turned up to insist otherwise. “I think most doctors here would refuse if they were asked to behave like Mengele,” Farantos said. Doctors at his hospital had already taken pay cuts and were working hours of free overtime to treat people. Farantos told us that the evening before we met him, surgeons had worked into the night, unpaid, to operate on one person who had an appendicitis and another who needed emergency surgery for a stomach perforation.
 
We talked to three young men from Nigeria and Togo who'd come to Greece on the promise of further education. Two were were planning to leave as soon as they could. All said they were frightened of the police, all right. Explaining why, one of the young men pointed to an ugly lump over his eye – a day or two earlier, the police had thrown a bottle at him. We spoke to a teacher and students – all anti-fascist activists in Kallithea who were organising to leaflet against the party on the day we met them – who showed us obscene graffiti which had been sprayed on a school gate and signed with fascist insignia.
 
Not everyone was worried about fascism. Christos Mpampouras, 61, a man who ate regularly at an Omonoia municipal soup kitchen we visited, told us that he didn't have much problem with Golden Dawn because “they are young and they are Greek.” We spoke to a woman in her early thirties who voted Golden Dawn this year and said she'd vote for them again. She said she was proud to be Greek and needed hope.
 
Many of the Greek people we met wondered why the UK government was pursuing cuts with such passion off its own bat. A dentist we spoke to said: “In Greece the Troika is forcing us to implement these cuts. In the UK, your own government is doing it. Why?” Certainly, the evils being inflicted on people in the UK in the name of bank bailouts and corporate welfare - the Atos assessments, care cuts, bedroom taxes, council tax benefit cuts, housing benefit caps, rocketing rents, workfare, falling wages, the relying on foodbanks and all the rest - often came to mind while we were in Athens. The rise and rise of Golden Dawn may not be replicated here, but the heaping of cuts and blame on people who can least afford to shoulder those things sure as hell is.
Shops closed in Athens during a recent strike by transport workers (Photograph: Getty Images)
Azaz, on Syria's northern border with Turkey. Photo: Getty
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Syria's broken people: how Assad destroyed a nation

 Whoever leads the country after this conflict comes to an end will inherit not just the rubble and ruins, but a ravaged people, too. 

For a moment, the residents of al-Fu’ah and Kafriya dreamed of a better future. After living under siege for more than two years, civilians from these two Shia villages in the rebel-held Idlib province of north-western Syria were finally allowed to leave earlier this month.

Buses arrived to evacuate them to regime-held areas in Aleppo province, snaking through hostile territory. They eventually stopped at an agreed crossover point, between regime- and rebel-held areas in the Rashideen district of western Aleppo.

These journeys are long: it can take hours, sometimes days, to travel just a few miles. Checkpoints, angry negotiations and deep distrust between opposing factions (even when they are apparently on the same side) ensure that such transfers are never as efficient as they should be.

As families waited at the Rashideen checkpoint, with some disembarking to stretch their legs or to let their children play outside, a powerful car bomb exploded. More than 126 civilians were killed in the blast – the deadliest attack of its kind in more than a year.

The fatalities included 60 children. The act was made all the more unconscionable by the way that they were deliberately targeted. A truck ostensibly providing humanitarian relief parked beside the buses and began distributing sweets and ice cream, causing the children to swarm towards it. Then  it exploded.

One of the most striking features of this conflict is its seemingly endless capacity to spiral into greater depravity. Both sides have butchered and brutalised one another in a fashion that would make the Marquis de Sade recoil. At times, it can seem as if each side is competing with the other to adopt more sadistic and cruel methods. When they do, it is ordinary civilians who invariably pay the biggest price.

Even children have not been spared from the privations of this vicious war, as the events in Rashideen demonstrate. Last August, it was the image of Omran Daqneesh, the stunned and bloodied five-year-old boy in the back of an ambulance, which epitomised the suffering of another besieged group: the mainly Sunni residents of eastern Aleppo, encircled by government forces.

To characterise the Syrian conflict as wholly sectarian is reductionist, but factional infighting has become one of its defining elements. The imprimatur of sectarianism is leaving indelible marks across the Levant, tearing the region apart.

Bashar al-Assad, Syria’s embattled president, set the tone for this when the uprising first began in 2011. To undermine the protest movement, he characterised the opposition as Sunni extremists who were driven by sectarian hatred (Assad is from the minority Alawite community; a heterodox Shia sect).

His unaccountable loyalist militia, the shabiha (“ghosts”), brutalised the opposition not just physically but also with sectarian slurs, introducing a caustic and corrosive mood to the uprising. This pathology has continued to metastasise ever since.

The current policy of displacing besieged residents has further enhanced the sectarian aspects of this war. For years, the Syrian regime has used siege warfare to bring rebel areas under control. Once the inhabitants have been worn down, the government moves them to rebel-held areas, away from its sphere of control. In this way, President Assad has consolidated control over important and strategic areas closer to home while edging disloyal elements further away.

Occasionally, new residents are brought in to repopulate evacuated areas, typically from minorities more inclined to support the government. What is taking place is a slow demographic recalibration, in which errant Sunnis are moved to the periphery and loyalist minorities are moved closer to the core.

These transfers are now so common in Syria that a dedicated fleet of green buses is used in the process, and has become an iconic image of this conflict. The buses catch the eye and are used for moving besieged people. Their sanctity is not to be violated. In a conflict that has ignored almost every norm, this one had lasted – albeit with occasional violations – until the assault in Rashideen.

There are moments when important leaders appear to transcend the divide. Moqtada al-Sadr, an Iraqi Shia cleric who rose to prominence after leading a militia against British troops in Basra after the 2003 invasion, recently called for Bashar al-Assad to step aside.

In doing so, Sadr became one of only a few prominent Shia leaders to publicly acknowledge Assad’s bloodshed. His comments came after the chemical weapons attack in Idlib earlier this month, which claimed more than 80 lives.

Statements such as Sadr’s have huge symbolic value, but are easily forgotten in the aftermath of the next atrocity. Speaking to the American broadcaster NBC last October, General David Petraeus summed up the mood of many military planners in Washington when he concluded that Syria may have passed the point of no return. “Syria may not be able to be put back together,” he said. “Humpty Dumpty has fallen and again I’m not sure you can piece it back together.”

His comments came even before the most tumultuous events of the past six months, which have included the fall of Aleppo, the emergence of a more empowered jihadist coalition (composed principally of al-Qaeda members), the use of chemical weapons and now the Rashideen bus bombing.

Petraeus’s remarks were prescient. As a result of the cycle of bitter vengeance and retribution, often fuelled by deep sectarian suspicion, the Syrian Civil War will continue its descent into chaos. When Assad first unleashed the shabiha to quash the protest movement, the militia warned the opposition: “Assad, or we burn the country.”

In this respect, at least, it has kept its word. Whoever leads the country after this conflict finally comes to an end will inherit not just the rubble and ruins but a ravaged people, too. 

Shiraz Maher is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and a senior research fellow at King’s College London’s International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation.

This article first appeared in the 20 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, May's gamble

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