As you approach Greece from the air, smog covers the land like a curtain – a thick grey line separating the deep blue Mediterranean sky from the Pindos mountains that run the length of the country north to south. There isn’t a major fire along the aircraft route, but with more than five hundred active wildfires across the country, the smoke is everywhere. Greece is facing its worst heatwave in four decades. With every passing year, the country sees more extremely hot days in the summer months. Wildfires are a feature of its ecosystem at the best of times. Now the threat is existential.
Every hour in Pazarkule, the church bells told the migrants how close they were to Europe; and the shots told them they weren’t going to get in. On the Turkish-Greek border, where thousands are still waiting to cross, those who tried were repelled by tear gas and rubber bullets. And all day on Wednesday, as the ambulance sirens came and went, rumours spread of much worse, too: one dead and five injured trying to make it into Greece.
Last Thursday, President Erdoğan announced that he was going to open Turkey’s borders to refugees fleeing to Europe, apparently in order to put pressure on Nato to back him against the Syrian regime and its Russian allies. The Greek media were quick to whip up fear of invading ‘hordes’ of refugees. A four-year-old Syrian boy drowned in the early hours of this morning after a boat capsized off Lesvos. Those who make it to shore are often met by a mob that won’t let them land. Others are freezing on the Greek-Turkish border along the river Evros. Those who get across are pushed back by the army and border guards, firing tear gas and stun grenades. Greece has announced that it won’t process any new asylum claims for a month.
On a Wednesday morning at the end of November, an angry crowd gathered outside a hotel in Sparta. A group of 180 refugees was expected to arrive at any moment. They had been evacuated from the Greek islands, where conditions have reached a new nadir. On Lesvos, for instance, more than 16,000 people are crammed into facilities designed for around 3000. The mayor of Sparta said he hadn’t been informed in advance. ‘I hope this situation ends with the people that have just arrived,’ he told the TV cameras. (A total of 750 were being distributed across the Lakonia municipality, which has a population of 35,000.) ‘Our municipality is already under strain. The day before yesterday five hundred people from Pakistan arrived to work in Geraki. This is not possible. Are we the dumping ground of Greece? We have no growth, no nothing. They shut down the universities, the hospital, they’ve taken away everything.’
The squad of armed riot police arrived at 5 a.m. on 26 August. The abandoned office block at Spirou Trikoupi 17, near Exarchia Square in central Athens, had been home to more than a hundred asylum seekers since 2016. The police hauled the men, women and children from their beds and loaded them onto buses, with no notice of their destination. Those without papers were taken to Athens’ main immigration prison to be deported. When the building had been evacuated, the police took their batons and smashed everything inside. The entrance was sealed with bricks and mortar.
In Moria camp on Lesvos, 9000 people are trying to live in a space built for less than 2000. Children as young as ten are reported as suicidal. Sitting outside a cafe in Mytilene, UK Border Agency sailors seconded to Europe’s Frontex force drink frappés and talk about football, about a message to a girl back home that she has received but not replied to. In Athens, I had been told by someone recently returned from holiday on Lesvos that the arrival of the Royal Navy had suppressed the trafficker routes from Turkey, allowing the tourist island to return to a kind of normalcy. But the border officers – working two weeks on, two off – tell a different story: ‘Some nights it’s quiet, then there’ll be two, three rescues.’ I asked how long they’ve been stationed here: ‘Too long.’
Wildfires break out every summer across Greece. The mountains surrounding Athens have burned on more than one occasion this year. It was just columns of smoke in the distance. It wasn’t news, until it was. When I woke up on Tuesday morning there were 50 dead. Then 60. It would be 74 by the end of the day. Now it’s closer to 80 and likely to go higher.
Since the dissolution of Yugoslavia in the early 1990s, Greece and the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (FYROM) have been locked in dispute over the name Macedonia. A million people gathered in the streets of Thessaloniki on 14 February 1992 to protest against the former Yugoslav republic’s use of the name. ‘Macedonia is Greek,’ they chanted. The neo-Nazi Golden Dawn was quick to capitalise on the issue. Earlier this month, the two countries at last signed a preliminary deal that would see Greece recognise its neighbour as Northern Macedonia, and thereby open the path towards its joining Nato and the EU. There have been almost daily protests in Greece against the deal, especially in the north, providing fertile ground for a new wave of nationalist and far-right sentiment.
From the little fishing village of Skala Sikamineas in northern Lesbos you have a good view of the Turkish coast less than 15 km away. Even when the wind gets up and riles the water, there are still refugees crossing in inflatable dinghies with outboard motors, mostly at night. There are descendants on this part of the island from an earlier refugee influx at the end of the Greco-Turkish war, when Turkish forces entered the city of Smyrna in 1922 and Greek and Armenian residents crammed the waterfront for days waiting for boats to get them to safety. In a report for the League of Nations on 18 November 1922, Fridtjof Nansen reckoned the number of refugees ‘already within the frontiers of Greece’ at ‘not less than 900,000’. The Northern Aegean islands and the mainland port of Piraeus were common destinations for those who were lucky enough to leave Turkey by sea. This history gives the inhabitants of Lesbos a perspective on the current refugee crisis that is now much harder to imagine in island communities such as the UK. Before the NGOs arrived in force in 2015, when thousands of refugees were arriving daily, rescuing people in danger was a matter for local people, especially fishermen, and the overstretched Hellenic Coast Guard.
Weeding in the garden of my ex-council bungalow this summer, I came across a young dandelion. It poked up next to the arthritic rose planted by the previous tenant, a Greek Cypriot woman who lived here for 16 years until her death. Her son visited us when we moved in and told us about the barbecues they had in the garden and the dolmades his mother made from the vine she grew here. After she died, he cut it back, but stopped short of digging it out, unsure whether the strangers moving in would want it. We did.
The photograph on the front page of the neo-fascist Golden Dawn’s website last week was a collage by the photographer Nelly’s, produced as propaganda for the Metaxas regime and displayed in the Greek Pavilion at the 1939 New York World’s Fair. There’s a ruined temple in the background, and in the foreground the ancient bronze statue known as the Artemision Zeus or Poseidon, next to an elderly modern Greek shepherd who looks remarkably like the classical god. The message of racial continuity between ancient and modern Greeks that the regime was keen to project, alongside its tourism campaign, could not have been more obvious. The Golden Dawn headline above the picture claims that ‘the 4000-year racial continuity of the Greeks has been proved’. The article is based on a study published in Nature, ‘Genetic origins of Minoans and Mycenaeans’, by Iosif Laziridis et al. It was reported in the international as well as the Greek press, and the emphasis in most headlines was on the genetic continuity between people in the Bronze Age Aegean and contemporary Greeks: ‘Minos, our grandfather’, for example.
The Documenta festival, a contemporary art exhibition that usually takes place every five years in Kassel, Germany, is currently in Athens. Its presence there isn’t uncontroversial. The role of the art market in gentrification, the festival’s preference for established or dead artists, the spectacle of a wealthy German institution descending on a city that has been at the centre of economic and refugee crises in recent years – all this has drawn criticism. The curators have made some effort to engage with the political context, but not everything has gone to plan: a collaboration between the artist Roger Bernat and an LGBT refugee group foundered when the participants stole the exhibit in protest at what they saw as exploitation.
Alongside a Frontex vessel flying the Union Jack, a group of Afghan men sat dangling makeshift fishing rods into the harbour at Mytilene. It’s over a year since EU and Turkish leaders signed an agreement to ‘end’ irregular migration across the Aegean. Brokered shortly after a cascade of border closures along the overland Balkan route, the deal says that migrants who cross to Greece after 19 March 2016, if their asylum applications are considered inadmissible, will be returned to Turkey. In exchange for gatekeeping at its end, Ankara would receive €6 billion, visa-free travel for Turkish nationals and a promise to fast-track EU membership talks.
The City Plaza hotel in downtown Athens, ‘the best hotel in Europe’, was empty for years after the company operating it went bankrupt in 2010. A group of activists and refugees occupied it a few months ago. Nasim Lomani, an Afghan national who has lived in Greece for more than a decade, is a longtime activist for the rights of migrants and refugees. He opened the door to me when I paid a recent visit to the hotel.
On Monday night, a group of refugees in the Moria camp on Lesvos started a fire that blazed throughout the night and destroyed most of the camp. A storm hit the island the next morning and finished the job, mixing cinders and gravel into dark sludge. The 4000 people staying in the camp were displaced and most of them, including 100 unaccompanied minors, had to sleep rough that night.
On Tuesday I went to visit a group of refugee children in police custody in a village near Idomeni, on the Greek border with Macedonia. The policeman banged open the lock of the black metal cell door and it swung forward. The other boys moved aside to let Harith through. The door clanged shut. Harith and the seven boys with him are refugees from Syria, Iraq and Pakistan; they are all aged between 14 and 17. Under Greek law, unaccompanied minors are supposed to be held in police custody only until they can be transferred to centres for young people. But, all over Greece, the centres are full. Harith has been in jail for more than two weeks.
Outside the Greek village of Idomeni, near the Macedonian border, about 15,000 people are living in small recreational tents and a few UN emergency shelters, waiting to continue their journey to Western Europe. The Macedonians shut the gates a week ago. They enforced their decision with tear gas and the threat of water cannon. The frontier occasionally opens and few dozen people cross, but more arrive every day than leave. In the camp, small signs of permanence have started to appear.
Early in the morning of 25 March, I was woken by jet planes flying low over downtown Athens and helicopters cruising the sky in formation, making the windows shake. It was Independence Day, the anniversary of the start of the Greek Revolution against the Ottoman Empire in 1821. The army was parading in front of the parliament in Syntagma Square, watched by officials from the state, the armed forces and the church. I’d recently got back from an army camp.
Syriza's victory in the Greek general election is a hopeful moment for Europe. It shows how a radical left-wing political movement, brought together in a short time, can use the democratic system to attack three menaces: the rentier lords of jurisdiction-hopping private capital, the compromised political hacks of the traditional parties who have become their accomplices, and the panphobic haters of the populist right.
On Monday, six days before the general election, the Greek Ministry of Culture published a preliminary report by the osteo-archaeological team studying the skeletal remains found in the mound of Amphipolis in northern Greece. The bones were found in November, since when there had been a lot of speculation about who they might have belonged to. Alexander the Great’s name came up a lot, as did his mother’s, Olympias.
Two hundred Syrians are camped on the pavement outside the Greek parliament in Athens. For two weeks, 150 of them have been on hunger strike. The interior ministry has handed out leaflets: ‘You have nothing to gain if you remain on Syntagma Square. You should follow the only way to a life with dignity. You should apply for asylum.’ The minister repeated the proposal on Tuesday, adding he would ask northern European countries to take them in instead, though he expected the answer would be no.
When George Clooney and his friends got special leave to be photographed in front of Leonardo's Last Supper the Italian newspapers couldn't resist pointing out that the last man to have that privilege was Silvio Berlusconi. And when he said off-the-cuff in Berlin that it would be very nice if the Parthenon frieze that Lord Elgin brought to London 200 years ago were returned to Greece, Clooney didn't help his case by confirming his view to the press in London but calling them the 'Pantheon' marbles.
Nikolaos Michaloliakos, the 55-year-old leader of the Golden Dawn, has been remanded in custody pending trial, after a lengthy court hearing last night. He was arrested in the early hours of Saturday morning, accused of leading a criminal organisation. He and 21 others – MPs from the party, members of local branches, police officers who co-operated with the group – may face charges of conspiring to murder, attempted murder, assault and blackmail. The report by the deputy public prosecutor Haralambos Vourliotis describes a group more concerned with making a quick buck and building a pseudo-patriotic front than of ‘citizens concerned with the condition of their homeland in these dark times’.
In the early hours of Thursday 17 January, 26-year-old Shehzad Luqman rode his bicycle from the Peristeri suburb of Athens to the farmers’ market (or bakery, according to other reports) in Petralona, not far from the Acropolis, where he’d been working for several months. He was paid 20 euros a day, most of which he sent back to his family in Pakistan. He’d been in Greece for six years, and now had a ‘pink card’, granting him temporary residence. Not far from the market, he was knifed to death by two young Greek men on a motorbike. They then unscrewed their number plate, put it under the seat and drove calmly towards Syntagma Square.
On the drizzly evening of 7 November, I joined a demonstration in front of the Parliament in Athens. Like the estimated 100,000 other people in the vast square and surrounding streets to protest against the imposition of yet another – the fifth – round of austerity measures being debated inside the building, I wasn’t in a good mood. My pension had already been cut by 40 per cent, the tax rate on the remainder nearly doubled, and a further cut was planned. We were kept away from the building by multiple rows of police, a terrifying sight with their bulky black uniforms, white helmets and visors, assorted weapons and communications gear, tear-gas canisters and water cannons. The scene that wet evening made for a peculiar image of democracy in practice; the people’s elected representatives cowering inside the temple of democracy, protected from the people’s wrath by a praetorian guard. That was bad enough. Inside the building, parliamentary democracy was getting short shrift.
Angela Merkel’s visit to Athens on Tuesday came at a critical moment for Antonis Samaras and the junior partners in his three-party coalition government. Under pressure to agree to new, socially wrenching austerity measures, his government faces enormous odds in navigating the country through its worst crisis since the collapse of the colonels’ junta in 1974. At stake is whether Greece can remain in the eurozone, but of greater importance in the long run is whether, in doing so, it can again find its footing as a polity, renewing the struggle that began after the Second World War to emerge as a modern European democracy.
Since the weekend, the Greek police have rounded up around 6500 immigrants in Athens. About 1500 have been found to be without documents and are currently imprisoned awaiting deportation, in overcrowded detention centres where conditions are ‘dire’. More than three-quarters of the people targeted by the police are completely innocent. But most of the media (even the Guardian) have described it as an operation against lathrometanastes or ‘illegal’ immigrants.
Like most Greeks, I have had my medical needs covered by a comprehensive state health insurance programme to which I’ve contributed all my working life. It is supposed to mean that I don’t pay for services and only a token amount for medicines. But at the doctor’s last month, the examination over and the prescription written, I was handed a receipt for €50. ‘What’s this?’ I asked. ‘My fee.’ ‘I’m insured, as you know.’ ‘I know. That’s why I’ve given you a receipt.’ ‘To do what with it?’ ‘So you can be reimbursed.’ ‘When?’ ‘If and when the crisis ends, and you’re still alive.’
On 6 May, I went with my father to vote at our local polling station in Maroussi in north Athens. The anger in the queue was palpable. It was unsurprising that the centre-left Pasok had its parliamentary majority wiped out, coming third with 13 per cent of the vote and winning a mere 41 seats out of 300. Pasok’s former coalition partner, the centre-right New Democracy, came top, but with less than 19 per cent of the vote and only 108 seats, couldn’t form a government. The left-wing anti-austerity party, Syriza, came second, with just over 16 per cent of the vote and 52 seats (taken together, the various far-left parties won about a third of the vote). And the overtly fascist Golden Dawn received nearly 7 per cent of the vote, gaining 21 seats. The result may have been unclear, but the message was not: a total rejection of the EU, ECB and IMF’s bailout plan, and of austerity.
Charred bricks and broken glass form the bulk of what was once the Attikon cinema, burned down by hundreds of rioting Greeks in protest at the harshest austerity measures Europe has ever seen. Five lethargic firemen hose water onto the smouldering ruins. Behind them a ring of about 20 camera crews film the scene, and behind them, a ring of bystanders hold up their phones and take pictures. Even for crisis-hit Greece, the violence has been severe.
As if the Greeks didn't have enough to be angry about, on Monday the International Court of Justice ruled against Greece in a case brought by the Republic that would like to be known as Macedonia. The feud has been raging for 20 years. According to Greece, the name ‘Macedonia’ refers to the northern Greek region of Macedonia, and residents of the landlocked territory to their north should call their country something else. But they say that they have nothing else to call themselves, and anyway don’t see why they shouldn’t be able to use whatever name they want.