State of siege

Something very strange – and very dangerous – is taking place in the heart of Athens. This newspaper has already noted how parts of the capital are being abandoned to lawlessness, following the great influx of illegal immigrants. This has been interpreted both as negligence on the part of the authorities and as a policy of neglect aimed at forcing the migrants to seek a better life elsewhere. Either way, the result is that certain parts of the city’s historic center have been overrun by criminal gangs and petty crooks. Families with the means to do so have moved away from these areas – while others have been abandoned to their fate along with their old neighborhood. Now, the middle-class district of Exarchia has become the new battleground. The neighborhood – a densely built bohemian district of small neoclassical buildings, cramped apartments, cafes, tavernas and bookstores on the slopes of Lycabettus, squeezed between swanky Kolonaki and gritty Omonia Square – is being overwhelmed by drug addicts. This has provoked a reaction among shopkeepers and residents, who have staged demonstrations demanding a solution. More ominously, the anarchists who have made Exarchia their territory over the last few decades, have (naturally) taken the law into their own hands and beaten up junkies in an effort to get them out of the area. Graffiti on walls declares, «Cops and junkies keep out.» Neither the police nor the addicts have left; instead, the two groups have become involved in a tense relationship with residents and anarchists. The junkies need some place to spend their days, and have found a haven of sorts in the narrow streets of Exarchia, just as they have around Omonia and Vathis squares and in the pedestrian area on Tositsa Street next to the National Archaeological Museum. The police have a strong presence in Exarchia, ostensibly to counter the anarchists who frequently go on the rampage. But residents’ well-being does not appear to be their priority. Locals complain that the police are barricaded in their station and do not respond to calls for assistance. It is true that officers on foot or in patrol cars have often been attacked by anarchists, making them wary of straying from the safety of their offices. The result is that residents find themselves surrounded by police (often members of the heavily armed, heavy-handed riot squad), yet do not enjoy the benefits of law and order. This raises the question: Is the problem due to incompetence on the part of the police or perhaps a form of vengeance on the part of the addicts for the fact that their presence in Exarchia is not welcome? Either way, the police are not doing their job, the addicts will not move away and the anarchists have now taken to not only attacking the police but the junkies as well, raising the level of fear and violence. This leaves Exarchia’s residents with no choice but to get organized in a citizens’ initiative to demonstrate, to raise public awareness and try to take their neighborhood back. Many residents are young professionals, artists and intellectuals and therefore more capable of organizing themselves and making their case public than the people of other areas. So, if there is any chance of locals managing to save their neighborhood from state neglect it is here. But as long as no interest is shown in solving the problems of addicts who have nowhere to go, the issue of petty crime and violence will just keep growing – and moving from one area to another. Exarchia is a place to watch.