As bailout draws to close, Syntagma Square still bears scars

As bailout draws to close, Syntagma Square still bears scars

Christos Papageorgiou has seen the kiosk he owns trashed, slept inside it with a fire extinguisher beside him and developed asthma from the tear gas that rained down on Athens’s Syntagma Square during fierce protests against austerity.

Between 2010 and 2015, this square was the focal point of angry and often violent demonstrations by thousands of Greeks against budget measures prescribed by Greece’s international lenders in return for three financial bailouts.

Eight years later, the clatter in the sprawling square in the center of the capital – Syntagma means “constitution” in English – comes from thousands of tourists pulling their wheelie-bags across it. But for hundreds of people who work nearby, surrounded by office blocks and in front of the imposing Parliament, initially built as a palace for Greece’s now-deposed royals in 1843, the protests remain a vivid memory.

On many occasions lawmakers voted for austerity laws to the sound of stun grenades outside, as clashes between self-styled anarchists and protesters and police turned the square into a battlefield of tear gas, broken marble and garbage bins on fire.

Papageorgiou, 43, runs a small kiosk fronting the square. He says things have largely calmed down, even though the area is still the venue of choice for Greek protests.

Back then, he said, it was like a “war zone.”

“We actually feared for our lives,” he told Reuters, recalling one instance where he slept in the tiny kiosk – with an interior of 4.25 square meters – for three days straight as protests raged outside.

“We were stuck between riot police and demonstrators, we were wearing gas masks and had fire extinguishers to make sure the kiosk wasn’t set upon,” he said.

From the many rounds of tear gas, he has developed asthma, he said.

Across the square, Alexandros Aliousis, 28, who manages another kiosk selling newspapers and cigarettes, tells a similar story. Both say their businesses were attacked two or three times during the protests.

“Everything was broken. I came to see it and I burst into tears… When you have put everything you have into the place, to suddenly see it trashed really hurts,” said Aliousis, who was once injured as he tried to dodge a petrol bomb.

Greece emerges from its creditor-imposed fiscal straitjacket on Monday, August 20.

While the city is calmer – tourist arrivals were up 16.8 percent in the first five months of the year – the country will be dealing with the impact of austerity for years.

Further pension cuts are in the pipeline next year, and the country has to ensure it has surpluses for years to come.

“It’s not really over,” said Aliousis.

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