Athens, Monday 25 February 2008

A tourist trip to the Junta

Many countries give the tourist nowadays a peek into their past. You can visit war museums all over the world, in Wounded Knee, Auschwitz and Oradour. Recently plans were unveiled to destine one of the gulag camps in Russia for tourists and former prisoners who can show to their loved ones what life was like in those days. Greece went through the years 67-74 under a fascist dictatorship locally referred to as 'the Junta'. Colonels used tanks to occupy the parliament and abandon democracy. A student revolt and a putsch in Cyprus made an end to the regime. The bloody suppression of the student revolt caused the death of tens of students and wounded hundreds. Even now the exact figures are unknown. The revolt took place in Exarchia, a picturesque neighborhood in the center of Athens with many small bookshops and curiosities. The Polytechnic University and the Archaeological Museum are located in this area.

17 November 1973. A tank positions itself to crush the entrance of the Polytechnic University in Exarchia. Students of which many were to be killed singing the national hymn.

Coming back from an exhibition I took a cold coffee on Plateia Exarchia and realized that I could pay a visit to my friends Pavlos and Salome, architects and urbanists who live here and who had invited me to pass by when I was in the neighborhood. I called. Salome, happy to hear my voice: “Phone me again when you are in front of my house and I'll come down to open the door. The doorbell doesn't function properly" From Plateia Exarchia to their house at Odos Ippokrates is only a ten minutes walking. I ascended the small streets with their many cafes and shops. Once I stopped to take pictures of a beggar, and bought a packet of paper handkerchiefs from him on a corner adorned with bougainvillea. I shot a photo of a raffle ticket seller I saw at the end of the alley and then the silhouette of a man with a helmet, a rifle and a shield. What was he selling? I took a picture, passed the man and rounded the corner of Hippocrates Street. The street was empty apart from yet another similar person with a big plastic shield with the words ΑΣΤΥΝΟΜΙΑ POLICE. What was going on? I took a picture but it was difficult to get a proper image of the scene as another uniformed man came running towards me with his hand shielding his face.

Was this some form of theatre? In an instant both my arms were twisted behind my back by two of the actors. They rushed me towards a green armored vehicle with one of the small doors invitingly opened. I understood. This was a service for tourists to get the feeling of what life under the Junta must have been like.
Just in front of the car they suddenly halted and talked amongst themselves as if to decide what to do next. "Identification please" said one of them, obviously the leader of the pack. I gave him my driver’s license. On my puzzled gaze he explained: "It is forbidden to take photographs". He studied the document carefully as if he could discern a hidden meaning in the document. He snapped a command and I was dragged by two men into a side street to an old derelict building with iron bars in front of the windows. Between them there was a big double door with a broad stairway under the sign ΕΛΛΙΝΙΚΙ ΑΣΤΥΝΟΜΙΑ. They dragged me inside up the stairs. This I understood was their base, the police station. It looked nowhere like the popular TV-series Hill Street Blues where policeman, always with professional determination, were heading in one direction or other. This place was smaller. I estimated it as only a hundred square meters in the shape of a cross. In the four corners of the building there were rooms. The walls were painted in various tints of gray and looked as if they hadn't been repainted since the years of the Junta. And it was crowded, very crowded, with well fed young men in green, gray and blue with bulletproof body armor and weapons. They were moving slowly amongst one another as if they were all sleepwalking. Nobody looked. It was as if nobody had taken any notice of my unusual entrance to the building. The boss dragged me to the room to the right of the stairs. He opened the door. I saw a skinny older man with a moustache and a cigarette sitting behind a small table with a lamp. There were three other uniformed men in the room each looking in a different direction with their eyes open but without seeing anything it seemed. Ah, this is the place were I will be tortured I thought and I scanned the paint-less walls for electrical wires and other tools. The man behind the table waved with his arm above his head: Out! Now! This part of the programme was obviously to be skipped. I was dragged to the area opposite the stairs and commanded to sit down on a chair next to a small table. I asked the man, a middle aged head of a family it seemed to me who was guarding me now, why I was here.
"It is forbidden to take photographs"
"It is against the law"
"How can I know it is against the law. In Holland it is allowed to take pictures of the police. Holland is a free country. Greece is not a free country?"
" Greece is a free country."
"O yes? Can I make a phone call? Some friends are expecting me" I was allowed to call Salome.
"Hello Anthony, you're there. I come down to open the door for you."
"Oh no, Salome, don't do that. I'm not in front of the house. I'm at the police station. They arrested me."
"You were arrested? Why?"
"I guess because I was taking photographs of them."
"Don't worry. But I guess I will arrive a little bit later than originally planned."
"You are not arrested" said my guard who had been listening to my phone call. I looked over my shoulder to the gray heavy iron clad door of the jail. Little chance that they would allow me to investigate that place from the inside if I was not arrested.
"We just want to check your identity."
The police station was literally loaded with pig like policemen. I don't use the qualification pig like in a pejorative way like in "male chauvinist pig" but rather in a positive way looking at their well fed muscular stature and haircuts. I imagined a scent of testosterone in the air. I had already understood that it was not allowed to take any pictures so I will draw one for you.

What does a woman do in such an environment? The young blond policewomen looked very serious (and not at me) when she came to take my drivers license. She disappeared into the small room next to the supposed torture chamber.
"You are not arrested. You are only here because we want to check your identity" explained my uniformed companion. He was the only one in the whole police station who looked me in the eyes apart from another young handcuffed individual who apparently also was 'arrested' and who indicated with gestures behind his back that if I would shut up a bit things would work more in my favor.
The woman came back. She had difficulty in finding out my terrorist background without the names of my father and my mother.
"Bijnen and Van Sleeuwen."
"Their first names" she asked me while she managed not to look at me.
"Jos and Marthe." No terrorist known under that name in Greece. She came back and handed me my driver’s license. So that was all: No photos wiped out, no written account of the charge and no idea what law I violated taking a picture of a policeman when I discerned between the mass of uniforms the laughing face of Pavlos who came to collect me.
"I'm free again." Had it all been a theatrical performance? I thought it was well done. They didn't want to accept my donation when we left the station.

"What are they doing?" I asked Pavlos when we were walking down Hippocrates Street.
"They are afraid." He answered.
"Afraid for what?"
"Well, sometimes in the night when students go home after a party they throw a Molotov cocktail into the police station."
"But the station has proved to be resistant to these sorts of attacks I assume. Apart from that, now It's daytime and I don't see any other danger than this young uniformed gang."
"Uh yes, we have a lot of trouble with them."
"Why, if they are not actors but state paid employees, why don't they dismiss them all together? Throw them on the street so that they can find a proper job."

We arrived at the home of Pavlos and Salome. Salome received me cordially with coffee, sweets and tsiporo, a home -made liquor from the Northern Province Ipiros. We were talking about Gavdos and my plans to start an art center there, Arcadia, urbanism, Dutch architecture, space frames and the recent birthday party for their daughter. Talking about the trouble they have with the police in their neighborhood I repeated my earlier question:
"Why don't they throw them all out on the street so that they can find a proper job?"
"Then they will join the Neo-Nazis" Salome remarked sadly.
"There are Neo-Nazis here?"
"A lot! It's a big problem."
I could not believe my ears. “Sixty-three years after the suicide of Adolph Hitler and thirty-four years after the end of the Junta you still have problems with these hooligans?" We had a short discussion on police behavior under the Junta and since then but it all ended in a cheerful way. They remembered the Rolling Stones concert that time. It was interrupted by the police when the group threw red roses to the public. End of the concert. ...............

"They only defend themselves!" Vasilis said when I arrived home and told them about my day "And we are so generous to pay them for that". His wife Nicky remembered the many times she was stopped by the police because she wears a helmet and a small backpack when she wants to go on her motorbike to the shop where she works. Evi who has studied psychology at the university tells us how she was halted with a group of students by the Police. "Identification!" All the papers proved to be correct but they were not released. When they asked "why not?" more policemen arrived who started to beat them up. They had photos taken of their wounds afterwards and a well known lawyer started a case against the police but without effect. This happened only a few years ago.

Vasilis came with a newspaper of 4 February 2008 that showed a photo of the riot police assisted by skinheads and Neo-Nazis in their hunt for students.







Now I want to ask this to the one who is ultimately responsible for this mess:

Prime minister Constantinos Karamanlis, why don't you use your influence to make sure that these riots belong to the past instead of the present! Make Exarchia a safe place! Convert the old police station to a museum devoted to the Junta-atrocities and educate the former police officers to be the law abiding citizens that we need in a democratic society.

I add a photo from a Dutch newspaper from 1968 showing me as a twenty-two year old student of the polytechnic university of Eindhoven chased and bitten by a police dog in a demonstration against the fascist regime in Greece. The police on that occasion were assisted by the private police of the Philips enterprise. Since then, both dogs and the Philips police have not been used anymore against students in the Netherlands.


Anthony Bijnen






Note for the reader:

I never got an answer on this letter to prime minister Constantinos Karamanlis. It did not surprise me. The policestation remained in function also on 6 December 2008 when policeman Epaminondas Korkoneas left the building to kill the fifteen year old Alexis Grigoropoulis in the streets of Exarchia. The murder sparked a massive popular unrest in all the mayor cities of Greece. The riots resulted in a damage estimated at one billion euros. The prime minister has promised to reimburse the damage. I don't know if he kept his word.