Greece Rebels!

The air outside the US embassy is acrid with tear gas. Dozens of young people scatter, coughing behind scarves and tissues held over their noses and eyes. A three-year old boy yells, tears streaming down his face.


Directly in front of the embassy building – a whitewashed chunk of concrete covering an entire block – a line of blue police buses are stained red by paint bombs. The usual gridlock on Athens busy avenues is absent as trade unions and political parties have called a general strike. Three weeks into Bush’s Iraqi adventure, tens of thousands of Greeks take to the streets to protest for peace.


"We Greeks have been through so much – dictatorships, Balkan wars, not to mention the Roman and Ottoman occupations" says a placard-carrying man who has been singing along to a traditional Greek ballad played by a nearby accordionist. "We are a small country but we have the experience to know that war is not the answer". His placard features a moustachioed Bush with the inscription "Adolf Bushler". Every inch of the walls on this street is covered with Greek and English graffiti. "Texas boy go home!" "USA fascists we don’t want you."


"Can you really compare Bush with Hitler?" asks Vincent Moloi, my fellow filmmaker from Johannesburg. We are in Greece to shoot a documentary. "Sure, both were obsessed with their own power, and prepared to kill other nations to expand it," comes the reply.


A dense mass of 500 militant protestors blowing whistles and chanting with military precision interrupt our conversation. Greek anarchists? Communists? I speculate. "Athenian school teachers," I am corrected. Behind them a thousand students from Athens university. Further to the rear, countless school pupils and then more workers. At the height of the anti-war movement a quarter of a million people regularly filled central Athens – that’s one in 16 of the city’s population.


In addition to their turbulent history, Greeks have several reasons to feel strongly about Bush’s actions. Firstly their home is located just a 90-minute flight from the site of the hostilities. Secondly, and more importantly, their government continues to host a US naval base on the island of Crete, despite widespread opposition amongst the population.


"We would close down the base if we could," says Panos Trigazis, at dinner later that evening. Trigazis is International Relations head for Synaspismos, a coalition of greens and leftists, with 4% of the electoral vote and a close relationship with the ruling PASOK (socialist) party. "In fact the government would like to withdraw support to the Americans if it was feasible" he explains. "We don’t want to become the next Iraq" continues Katie Nicolatis, a Synaspismos member who grew up in Johannesburg, now back in Athens with her Benoni-born husband.


As we munch our way from tarama salata to halva in a taverna at the foot of the Lykavittos hill, and a stone’s throw from the Acropolis, I am struck that this land, once the fount of democratic thinking in the days of Aristotle and Socrates, has become but a pawn to be played in support of the new Pax Americana.


To romanticize Ancient Greek city states is to forget the slaves who built their temples and talk-shops. However at the present juncture it seems appropriate to ask how the noble concepts of demos (people) and kratein (rule) – combined in the term democracy – are now being used to legitimise US anti-democratic designs across the world.


At the port of Pireas the following evening, a thousand modern Athenians assemble for a voyage. Their destination – the US naval base in Crete. Their mission – to wrest back control of the concept developed by their ancestors.


"We are members of the Greek Social Forum," says one young girl, "because it’s not like a political party. You don’t have to follow the party line on all things. You just come together because you all know something is wrong and you have to do something about it. Also everybody is consulted and involved in the decisions of the forum. We have no leaders, just activists."


On this sailing, the Greek vessel Eleftherios Venizelos, operated by shipping magnates and arch capitalists Anek Lines, resembles the anti-capitalist convergences of Seattle and Genoa. Its bars and restaurants filled with singing protestors, it’s staircases stacked with banners, its hallways home to a hundred sleeping bags, their occupants protected from the chill by a zillion glasses of Ouzo and Retsina.


In the captain’s dining room, leading figures in Greek struggles, old and new share stories and plan for the day ahead. "Our protest is symbolic," explains Natasha Theodoracopoulou, a founder of the Greek Social Forum. "We cannot close the US naval base, but we will block the main road for a weekend. The soldiers won’t be able to go and party in Chania as usual over the weekend. It’s one of our most ambitious demonstrations to date and a sign that political consciousness amongst Greek youth is on the rise, thanks to Bush. On Sunday we plan to send a delegation into the base demanding to know what weapons they have there and if they are being used in Iraq. According to Greek law we have a right to know. I guess they will refuse us."


At the same table, eating soup and spaghetti, and trading struggle stories with Greek freedom fighter Manolis Glezos, is South African anti-apartheid veteran Dennis Brutus (named "Dennis the Menace" by Essop Pahad for his ability to be a constant thorn in the side of the Mbeki government). Glezos inspired millions to fight fascism when he tore down the Nazi flag flying from the Acropolis on the night of May 30th, 1941. His courage led him to be condemned to death for treason in 1948 and imprisoned many times by the Greek Junta. We while away the small hours comparing the prison experiences of the two octogenarians.


At the port the next morning, the sleepy-eyed masses are met by the mayor of Suda and other political dignitaries. At the market place at noon, 5000 angry young people, their hangovers now a distant memory, shout down PASOK speakers who are there to denounce Bush. "Hypocrites! How can you criticize with your left hand whilst you help them with your right". I am reminded of the Stop the War movement in Johannesburg which has asked how sincere Mbeki’s anti-war sentiments can be whilst state arms company Denel continues to ship military hardware to the USA. Brutus takes the podium and declares "I bring you a message of solidarity from the anti-war movement in the United States. We are building a global movement prepared to go to prison for what we believe in!"


The streets of Chania, with their Armani boutiques and trendy cafes are more used to British lager louts and Japanese shoppers than activists from the Greek mainland. Today a hundred hair stylists peer through their make-up at their unwashed countrymen on the streets, carrying yet more banners comparing Bush to Hitler and denouncing Greek hypocrisy. The creativity of the slogan-writers put even the most experienced Soweto strugglistas to shame with their range and rhythm. "Disaster! Disaster! We Wont Allow The War to Take Place Here!" shouts the animator through a megaphone. "Shame! Shame. Chania Will Never be a Base for Killing Children!" bellows the reply from a hundred perfectly aligned lungs.


As dusk falls at the Suda Naval Base, these young Greeks prepare for a huge party. On the main road to the base, weaving through the hills high above the water, twenty teenagers are sitting on the white lines in the middle of the road, the words "Fuck Bush No War" sprayed in red on the tarmac. Behind them the towering loudspeakers of a huge concert stage, where Greek rock music will soon shake the Cretan hills. Behind the stage, to the left, the glimmering waters of Suda bay, and above, the snow capped peaks of the Cretan mountain range. A more beautiful backdrop no laser show could create.


Perhaps tonight the US troops down below will turn up CNN to drown out the pacifist rock. I doubt they’ll succeed. A potent symbol, I think, as I watch the sun set, of Bush’s increasing isolation as his superpower flexes its muscles for the last moments of his "certain victory" in Baghdad. If these young people in Greece, and millions more across the world are anything to go by, this military victory will presage an even more mammoth political defeat, at the hands of another superpower – world public opinion.




Ben Cashdan is a documentary filmmaker based in Johannesburg. The events he describes took place in Greece on 5-6 April 2003.







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