Youngsters’ memories of the anti-landfill blockades

It was dawn on December 11, 2010, when the civil defense sirens sounded in Keratea, a small town in southeastern Attica, some 30 kilometers from the Greek capital. A few seconds later, the bells of the town’s two churches started ringing and a municipal car roved the streets, megaphone blaring: “People of Keratea! Get to Ovriokastro now! We are being occupied by police and contractors!”

Yiannis Maniatis, 15 years old at the time, remembers his mother bursting into his bedroom in a state of panic. He had never been to a protest march before but on that day he put on his Sunday best and ran to Lavriou Avenue.

This was the first of 128 similar days in Keratea as residents took to the streets to protest government plans to built a landfill on Ovriokastro hill, 5 kilometers from the town center. The highway linking the town to the hill became the site of a four-month standoff between residents and authorities, often turning violent, especially at night.

“I would spend all day at the blockade,” Yiannis tells Kathimerini today. “I always had the clothes I needed ready to throw on: a pair of sneakers so I could run and a sweatshirt.”

His mother, Yiola Katsieri, joined the rallies along with other parents, not to protest but to keep an eye on her son, to make sure that he was not arrested or did anything stupid like “pick up a stone.”

“It was like a game. The things I saw made me want to throw a Molotov cocktail even though it’s wrong,” says Yiannis, adding that he never participated in violent attacks against the riot police who were stationed in the area 24/7 throughout the duration of the protests. But, he admits, he did become alienated from some of his friends who chose not to participate in the rallies because, as he says, “they didn’t want to help for the good of our town.”

The parents of Keratea’s young firebrands were worried from the start how such intense experiences would affect them. “I felt such anger, as though we were being violated,” says Katsieri. But she was also very wary of the risk that her son and other children like him would form the impression that all police officers are bad and violent.

A number of parents, teachers and community leaders Kathimerini spoke to said that was precisely what happened to dozens of teenagers.

The fact is that the teenagers and 20-somethings of Keratea grew up hearing their parents complain about the plans for the dump.

“We knew this was something bad and we were afraid that the riot police would come in some day,” remembers Sotiris Papathanasiou. He was 9 years old when the construction crew eventually rolled in in 2010, escorted by a convoy of riot police vans.

The residents of Keratea, however, had been preparing for that day since 1996, when the proposal was first made for the construction of a landfill in the area that would process one-third of Attica’s trash. In the years that followed, the authorities rejected a proposal by the community that it handle its own trash as well as a limited amount from nearby municipalities, and plans for a major landfill were put into motion. The Municipality of Keratea created a fund that would allow it to fight the issue in court. It held frequent community meetings to inform residents about developments and organized cultural events at and excursions to the site of the planned dump. In Keratea’s schools, teachers screened pertinent documentaries, while a committee of residents planned visits to Attica’s biggest dump at Fyli, north of Athens, to illustrate the dangers of having such a facility just a few kilometers outside their town.

In 2009, after riot police broke up a large protest against another planned dump in Grammatiko, northeast of Athens, the residents of Keratea began organizing watches on Ovriokastro hill. From dusk to dawn, in rotating shifts, lookouts would keep their eyes open for any sign of police.

According to the testimony seen by Kathimerini of a high-ranking police official, the plans of the community protest included sending text messages to residents when riot vans were spotted and blockading the main road into the town with municipal vehicles, as well as stopping classes and transporting the schoolchildren to Ovriokastro hill. According to the officer, the protest leaders were concerned that if the authorities had decided to move in in August instead of October, the movement would not have had the “volume and pulse” of the students to rely on.

Stavros Iatrou, who was mayor of Keratea at the time, confirms the police officer’s statements.

“This was the plan. We can’t hide such things,” he says. “The older classes, which were very dynamic, were to join their parents and us in a large, peaceful sit-in protest. We wanted to educate them in social mobilization.”

Yiannis Adamis was the president of the the Keratea high school’s parent and teacher association (PTA) at the time. He made frequent visits to the school in a bid to discourage the children from joining the roadblocks. He was not always successful.

“We’d hear a blast and suddenly half the kids in the school would get up and run to the protest. We had a problem with absences but asked the teachers to show some leniency,” Adamis says.

On two occasions only, the students, along with their parents and teachers, held peaceful protests after an understanding had been reached with the police chief at the location that there would be no violence.

“The kids set the tone for the media,” says Iatrou. “They would stand in front of the cameras and do the talking. It’s much different hearing from a young boy or a girl.”

The routine in most of Keratea’s homes changed because of the constant mobilization. “We were home alone a lot. Our parents were gone all day,” remembers Sotiris, 9 at the time.

“Our day-to-day lives were work and protests, nothing else. The family was on autopilot as my wife was also at the blockade a lot in order to boost numbers,” says Sotiris’s father, Stamatis Papathanasiou.

Many of Keratea’s children spent those four months being taken care of by their grandparents or they would join their parents at the blockade at times when there was little risk of violence.

The cycle of violence

The town’s teenagers almost always headed to Lavriou as soon as school was out.

“The younger you are, the less you feel a sense of danger. You like the action, the crowds, the intensity. It’s entrancing. Not the violence, but the fact that everyone is there, together,” says Eleni Dimitriou, 14 at the time of the protests. Eleni took the bus to Lavriou Avenue on the very first day. She was hit in the back with a riot baton. “It was a shock,” she says.

In the first few weeks of the protest, the flareups were frequent, a cycle of violence feeding violence.

“Certain youths would stage nighttime raids, organized assaults, to thwart the police. On one of these they torched the contractor’s vehicles,” says Yiannis Argyris, a resident of Keratea and former air force officer. Even today, he says, there are some things that cannot be mentioned. “Maybe after 15 years, when the statue of limitations has expired,” he says.

Iatrou denies any official involvement in firebomb attacks against the riot police squads and the contractor.

“It was something that occurred spontaneously after a point,” he says, yet he admits that the situation did spiral out of control. “There were gunshots [police testified they came from the hunting rifles of unknown assailants] and the riot officers were often violent. I won’t forget some of them wrapped in flames from a Molotov cocktail – just as I won’t forget a policeman firing a smoke bomb right into a protester’s face,” says Iatrou.

On February 8, 2011, the battle entered the streets of the town for the first time. The sirens sounded again. Yiannis Maniatis was 15 and remembers seeing riot officers beating down elderly residents for no apparent reason.

“I am not an anarchist, but I can understand some of their arguments,” he says today. “They helped us. People who had nothing to gain would come from Athens. These were the people accused of being murderers and criminals on the television and suddenly they became the people who helped keep the dump away from our town.”

Members of different political parties and movements tried to approach the residents, even ultranationalist Golden Dawn, but the parents made sure that their children were kept well away from politics.

Sofia Syrigou taught at Keratea’s elementary school during that period and observed how the protests affected the children. The signs were there even a year later.

“I would ask them to draw Christmas pictures and they would draw riot police and tear gas,” Syrigou says. A number of these pictures were put on display by the pupils’ parents during the blockade.

Sotiris Papathanasiou goes back to an essay he wrote for school at the time: “The undercover officers took the plates of many cars and the riot police would them smash the cars with their batons. Then the people of Keratea went and trashed the police station. Recently there have been attacks with new Molotov cocktails, with gunpowder inside them,” he wrote when he was 9 years old. Now, four years later, he says, “It was like a war to me.” His father, sitting beside him in the family home, adds, “It was war.”

The day after

Finally, on April 18, 2011, the riot police squads were ordered to leave. Following lengthy negotiations between the community and the authorities, a compromise was reached to built a smaller waste processing plant only for solid urban waste at Fovoles, the location of Keratea’s old dump. Many locals were opposed to this idea as well. The tender for the project, nevertheless, came to a standstill a few months ago because of local elections in May, and now the new regional governor for Attica, Rena Dourou, is planning to cancel it and seek new solutions for the capital’s waste management problem.

On Ovriokastro hill, where the dump was to be built, the locals have erected a small chapel. They had made a vow, they say, to express their thanks if the protests succeeded without any casualties. In this deeply religious community, even the priests joined the blockade.

“My flock was there and I had to be there too, as their shepherd,” says Father Stamatis, one of Keratea’s three priests.

Every Sunday locals get together at a shack on Lavriou Avenue they have dubbed the “Untaken Castle,” which serves as a meeting point. The town also celebrates two new landmark dates: the start of the blockade on December 11 and the end on April 18.

This year’s winter anniversary was marked with an event at the cultural center and included the unveiling of a statue made with spent tear gas canisters built by the locals. The community is also planning to open a “museum of the struggle,” where exhibits will include dozens of tear gas canisters collected during the 128 days of mobilization.

For the children of Keratea, however, getting back into the normal swing of things has not always been easy.

“The children continued to be reactionary even after the end of the protest,” says Adamis. “Unfortunately I saw it manifesting itself mostly in sports. They had short fuses. Every small thing would become a big deal. They’d see a policeman and think him an extension of the riot squads. They’d hear about some government decision on the television and immediately think it bad and unfair.” This went on for at least six months, he says.

As far as the judicial side of the issue is concerned, two minors who had been accused of participating in riots were acquitted. Over 30 people were arrested and charged during those 128 days and more than half have been found innocent so far. More cases are pending, while Iatrou is among others who faces charges of instigation.

“We were very aware of the fact the we were the authority,” he says about that time, when he was in office. “We were the state but we were also the spokespeople of our community.”

Despite the dangers, many of Keratea’s young people miss those days.

“We lost our sense of community afterward. We missed going down to the roadblock all together and talking. It’s not the violence we miss, as many believe,” says Eleni Iatrou, today aged 19. “I haven’t joined a single protest since. I never want to see that kind of thing again.”

Katsieri says that she does not regret allowing her son to get involved in the mobilization. During those 128 days the family would often discuss developments. “I explained that all struggles have to be fought with dignity and within the boundaries of the law, but that we do not back down from what we believe,” she says.

Her son Yiannis, now 19, remembers his parents’ advice.

“They told me that there was always a solution, a middle ground, and that I shouldn’t go after the things I want in life in the manner that I witnessed at the roadblock,” he says. “The things I saw were nothing short of simple street violence. I don’t know how I would have turned out if I had done some of things I witnessed.”