Samos Diary: 5
General Election May 6th 2012: Hope and Fear
Sunday May 6th was like the height of summer in the village. The plateia was full of cars and for a change the two village tavernas were busy. All this was due to the general election where people return to their villages to vote. Voting in Greece is compulsory although increasing numbers are opting out (a record 35% in this election). But for some this is not an option, such as the owner of the mini market cum village post office. If she didn’t vote she would lose her post office license.
We went down to the kafenio to watch the results from 7 o’clock on the TV. First the exit polls and then the results from the actual counts. In many ways, people in the village expressed no surprise. As elsewhere in Greece, it was clear long before Election Day that the 2 main parties which had dominated Greek electoral politics since the junta were going to be punished for their active collaboration with the troika and the brutal austerity polices imposed on the people. And so it turned out with New Democracy (conservative) and Pasok (labour) tumbling from 80% of the vote in the last election to 30% now. Pasok in particular was pasted finishing 4th in the polls overall.
Even if this was widely anticipated it needs to be noted that the mass media, especially the TV stations have been continuously pumping out horror stories of what awaits Greece if the people vote for anti-austerity parties. Political leaders and other elite commentators were given extraordinary air time to warn people that unmitigated poverty and suffering awaited them if they should vote against the troika and its policies. It was a strategy doomed to failure for one simple and overwhelming reason. For the majority of the Greek people the crisis is not something to come in the future. It is here now and has been for 2 years or more. For many with no work, no money, reduced wages if working and massive price rises in all basic commodities for daily life, it could hardly be worse. Moreover, it is now part of the common knowledge that the troika is only for the banks and the elites and not one cent of the bail out funds will find itself in the pockets of those most in need.
So as Katerinio in the kafenio told me, this vote more than anything was an expression of anger and despair. People don’t care at the moment if no government can be formed. But they do care that those politicians who have governed Greece for the past 40 odd years are punished and humiliated.
And she continued, this is how the significant emergence of the fascist party (Golden Dawn) should be seen. Not because people are necessarily supportive of the fascists but because they wanted to express their anger.
I am not so sure. Like the guy who served me petrol yesterday, he found it difficult to believe that people ‘voted for Hitler’ as he put it. Our next door neighbours Despina and Costa are nervous too by the fascist’s gains. Despina worries how this ‘small fire’ might gain a hold amidst a desperate people. Again, it is important to remember that the Greek people acutely suffered under the Nazi occupation of the 2nd World War. Furthermore, great swathes of the population suffered under crypto fascistic regimes following the civil war and throughout the fifties and early 60s. Unless you could gain a certificate of moral probity from the police (meaning no history of involvement and support for left politics and parties) it was impossible to gain any state funded employment throughout the 1950s. Tens of thousands of Greeks were forced to migrate during these years. They were political exiles in every sense of the word.
For those that remained they found themselves in a society where fascism was not expunged but actively incorporated in the armed services and the police – which in turn is reflected in their current active involvement in the resurgent Golden Dawn. It is reflected in the significant fact that at 1 police for every 300 of the population Greece is one of the most policed states in the EU. It is reflected in the active collaboration between the police and the fascist thugs in their response to mass protests, especially where they involve migrant workers and refugees. You Tube contains many clips of such active collaboration during demonstrations in Athens, Patras and Thessaloniki.
It is against this particular context that the rise of Golden Dawn has to be judged.
Cleaning the Streets
For the thousands of refugees and migrant workers in Greece these developments have very real and horrifying consequences.
In the weeks preceding the election the police in Athens embarked on their ‘scoupa’ programme. Scoupa translates as broom in English. With wide media coverage the police were to sweep the streets of garbage but the rubbish to be cleaned away was not the litter of fast food outlets but human beings. Anybody who remotely looks like a refugee in the central parts of Athens where thousands seek refuge and support, is being routinely stopped and asked for their papers. If they don’t have them then they are made to sit on the pavement until sufficient numbers (around 20 to 30) are collected to be driven in police buses to the Immigration Office.
Tariq, a refugee who lives in Samos returned just a week ago horrified by what he saw. He described scenes in central Athens which were chillingly reminiscent of the Nazi Jewish pogroms. He told of us of police buses parked up in all the areas of Athens where refugees were concentrated. He told us of his friends who were forced to sit on the streets for up to 6 hours before being bussed away and ending up in the prison with a 6 month sentence , even though no one was processed through a court of law. Again and again he told us of his horror and outrage that fellow human beings were being treated in this way. “We are being treated like shit on the streets.”
Skin colour is taken as the key identifier as far as the police are concerned he said. For him and his fellow North Africans (Moroccans, Algerians, and Tunisians) they stand a chance of avoiding harassment and arrest but only as long as they wear their smartest clothes when they go out onto the street. But for the Afghans, Pakistanis and Africans they are not so lucky and according to Tariq ‘eat shit everyday’. Not surprisingly, many try to limit their public exposure but total isolation is not possible and is made much worse by the fact that the places where they live are generally run down and they ‘live like rats’ in overcrowded decaying and often dangerous buildings.
The police it seems don’t raid these places because according to Tariq they are both afraid of violence but also because they believe that these places are ‘full of sickness’ which will infect them. So instead, they wait nearby ready to hassle and round up those that venture out. It is a view that reinforces their view that they really are garbage collectors.
The consequences of all this are varied and some are deeply distressing such as the spread of heroin addiction. Tariq talks of the ready availability of ‘black’ heroin from Afghanistan which is cheap at 8 euros a gram. He says that this black heroin is particularly nasty and makes people sick and crazy. And he continued, ‘heroin helps people forget their problems’ and when ‘they are stoned they are capable of anything’. When I asked what he meant he said that for many addicts the heroin means that they can go out onto the streets and ‘beg without shame’ and for others they ‘can steal without shame’. I wonder how many people realize the revulsion many refugees have for thieving, especially when the victims are poor and vulnerable such as the old lady who had had a gold crucifix ripped from her neck. To thieve like this is taken as a sign that your fellow refugees have hit rock bottom.
Of course most refugees struggle daily to avoid this descent into brutalism and despair and the sight of their friends self-destructing drives them on in their desperate attempts to leave Greece. This is the common theme which according to Tariq unites all the refugees.
With little solidarity from the Greek people – according to Tariq, you rarely see Greeks offering water, food, or cigarettes to the refugees who are corralled on the streets waiting for hours to be bussed by the police to immigration centres – the refugees do what they can to get by. There is for the example the 8 storey run down building they have in the centre of Athens where they have set up a café (you can eat for less than a euro and for free if you have nothing), where there are prayer rooms and imams, where you can access medical and legal assistance, where there is a clothes store, where there is a barber, and so forth. It is a place where a few Greek NGOs provide much needed assistance.
It is also a place of self-organisation. Where, for example, those with technical skills will make forged papers and ID cards. These are in great demand now that the Scoupa programme is under way. This is where mobile phones can be repaired for as Tariq explained one of the basic needs of all refugees is to have phone contact with the friends and family at home. Getting phone cards into the camps where their friends are detained is a top priority and is seen as crucial to limit depression and despair. And this is also where those with virtually nothing will look for support to pay for the repatriation of their friends who die on the streets. My heart bleeds at some of these stories.
But as Tariq says it is also a place for the mafia and those seeking to exploit the refugees. This is where you can sell on stolen property. This is where you can hook up with the ‘slave traders’ who will at a cost attempt to get you out of Greece. As Tariq pointed out most of the refugees have friends and relatives elsewhere in Europe and are desperate to reach them. Greece is simply a point of entry into Europe and rarely the final destination.
The desperation of many makes them easy targets for such vultures as lawyers who charge refugees for making appointments with the immigration authorities. In Samos for example, Mohammed told me that some lawyers charge up to 250 euros for this, when in reality there is no charge. To beat this practice, Mohammed takes newly arrived refugees to the police station himself in order to get the papers they need. The vultures weren’t happy by being by-passed which led to the police accusing Mohammed of being a trafficker bringing the refugees over from Turkey to the island. With no evidence, Mohammed refuses to be intimidated and simply tells the police to fuck off. To survive you need to be strong and to hide your fear.
Samos is not Athens
Samos is not so dangerous for refugees as the centre of Athens but neither is it entirely safe. Sadly too many on the island see the refugees as highly exploitable human beings who will work long hours for peanuts. Many of our friends are skilled construction workers, expert tilers, electricians, painters and the like and yet when they get rare offers of such work they are offered pitiful wages and are met with surprise when they turn down the work. Pride and dignity are crucial to their survival.
Fortunately there are also many on the island who like the petrol station worker told us that he was sick of all politicians and that he longed for the day when he could live in a world where the needs of the people are paramount irrespective of where they come from and that we could live in peace with one another. He was, as I noted above, distressed that so many of his compatriots had ‘voted for Hitler’ and were prepared to accept that refugees and undocumented migrant workers were to blame for the crisis. He could not understand why areas of the Peloponnese which had villages massacred in Nazi reprisals during the Second World War could vote for the Golden Dawn, nor why in the midst of this crisis KKE, the Greek communist party could continue to refuse to make any alliance with other progressive forces on the Left.
At the same time many in Samos are happy that so many voted for parties that oppose austerity and the troika. Many are excited by the success of Syriza and are convinced that this Left party will gather in strength now it has shown that a vote for them will not be wasted. But as the gaze of the people rests on the current turmoil in Greek politics the onslaught on thousands of refugees and migrant workers gathers pace. The electoral break through of the fascists makes them strut all the more aggressively now.
The growing institutionalized violence against our fellow human beings is a deep stain on this country and its people. Let’s be delighted that the people have punished the collaborators with the Troika but if we forget the suffering of the most vulnerable the future here looks bleak indeed.
Samos Diary 5
Samos Diary: 5