NEWS

Daily clashes in full view of tourists as addicts suspect others of stealing their fix or money

Omonia, the second-largest square after Syntagma, and the busiest, is a place of glaring contrasts. In the morning it buzzes with life, in the evening with death. For hundreds of tourists from abroad it is the showcase of Athens, for locals a necessary evil, and for drug users a seeming paradise. Plush hotels on the square are frequented by well-heeled guests and the filthy sidewalks by homeless drug users. In the early hours of the morning, among the few people going home after a night’s entertainment are some 200 heroin users (some of them small-scale dealers) who beg for money and cigarettes and meet dealers. Twice that number seek refuge in the nearby streets, Socratous, Aghiou Constantinou, Menandrou, Theatrou Square and the dark alleyways behind Kotzia Square to avoid the gaze of passers-by and the bothersome presence of the police. Apart from the sprucing-up project in the days before and after the 2004 Olympic Games in Athens, the city center and Omonia Square have been left to their fate, turning into a drug users’ hangout at night. «Early in the evening, when Omonia is still busy, most of the drug users hang out in the streets around the square. Later, when there are fewer passers-by, the users appear in the square. Sometimes there are as many as 500-600 of them,» police officers on foot patrol told Kathimerini. «The total number of heroin users in Omonia is around 1,000. They are almost always the same people, unless someone new turns up from the provinces. We know them all by sight since we’re here every night. And they know too when there’s somebody new on the scene.» Most of the denizens of the square are Greeks, and many of them are from provincial towns such as Thebes, Halkida, Ioannina and Ptolemaida. Some come to Athens to join rehabilitation programs, others in search of anonymity. «But most of them end up homeless here,» said the patrol officers. «Those who sell heroin are mostly foreigners and come to the square only to deal.» A 27-year-old fast-food outlet employee told Kathimerini about the daily clashes between drug users, their attempts to steal whatever they can from the kiosks and stores that remain open at night, and the amazement of tourists when they see what is going on around them. «There are quarrels among users nearly every day,» he said. «They usually fight with each other because they think someone has stolen their fix or their money. Luckily they don’t create worse problems for unsuspecting passers-by. They are in such a bad state that they can’t do much harm. Tourists who obviously don’t know about the situation in Omonia are definitely bothered by it, even though they are not in danger.» Scores of complaints Every day the City of Athens receives scores of complaints from storeowners and other professionals in the area. Katerina Katsabe-Marneri, a city council member who is responsible for the municipality’s Addiction Prevention and Health Education Center, explained that the businesses most affected are the hotels in the area which have invested vast sums in restoring and upgrading their property. «They constantly write and call complaining that the situation in Omonia is keeping customers away and harming their interests.» Other complaints come from people who on their way to work downtown see used syringes, blood stains and even comatose drug users. The municipality cannot handle the situation alone as the problem concerns many different authorities apart from City Hall and the police.