It was just before 6am on 16th October last year when Tamer Abusitta heard dogs barking downstairs. Then came a series of booming thuds as the front door was battered down. Groups of men in black uniforms and balaclavas armed with M16s streamed inside the Hotel Orino, a former love hotel in central Athens, with one screaming “Hands up!” through a loudspeaker that could be heard from his fourth-floor room.
Abusitta, a 30-year-old refugee from the Gaza Strip, was one of the 125 or so who were handcuffed and dragged out of the squat and into a line of buses waiting to take them away to detention centres. He says there were 27 police jeeps waiting outside, pulling out his phone to reveal photos of the gridlocked street, packed with gurning officers and sinister energy.
“I remember it like it was yesterday,” says Abusitta, sitting on a bench in Exarchion Square, at the heart of Athens’ radical, semi-autonomous neighbourhood Exarchia. “As I am Palestinian, I was not afraid of the guns. It was normal to me.”
Sporting skinny blue jeans, a green Free Palestine wristband, sleeve tattoos and a beard with flecks of grey, Abusitta fled war in the Middle East in 2016. It was a brutal journey. On the way, he was hunted by Hungarian police with drones. “It was in the middle of the night, but they made it like day with all the lights,” he recounts. From Belgrade, he walked 12 days before finally reaching Athens. “Normally I’m a shoe size 40, but when I arrived my feet were so swollen I was a 44.”
It turned out to be a pilgrimage of sorts. Following a period spent sleeping on the streets of the Greek capital, Abusitta was directed to Exarchia. “They told me: ‘This is the area in Athens where they welcome outsiders’,” he recalls.
Exarchia has long caught the imagination of those on the political margins. For almost a century, artists and activists, intellectuals and anarchists, have made it their home. More recently, refugees have arrived. In 1941, the communist National Liberation Front was founded there to resist the Nazi occupation. In 1973, an uprising at the Polytechnic University – in which a tank entered the grounds, killing many students – eventually helped to take down Greece’s ruling military junta. In 2008, police murdered a 15-year-old named Alexandros Grigoropoulos who had allegedly thrown a water bottle at their car, causing huge riots that are repeated each year in Exarchia on the anniversary of his death.
“It has a legacy of resistance that is reenacted in the everyday,” says Ioanna Manoussaki-Adamopoulou, an Exarchia-born PhD candidate at University College London, who is researching self-organised housing and communities in the area. “It is constantly re-created by the people that inhabit and frequent it based on these egalitarian principles – no sexism, no racism, anti-authoritarianism. Symbolically, and practically, it is a centre of community building, self-organisation and alternative systems of thought.”
For that reason, almost exactly a year ago Kostas Bakoyannis, the newly-elected mayor of Athens and member of Greece’s right-wing New Democracy party, promised to bring law and order to Exarchia. After taking power he quickly announced a five-year, €10 million plan to give a “makeover” to the neighbourhood. His uncle, Greece’s prime minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis, meanwhile, called Exarchia a “den of lawlessness”. The Ministry of Citizen Protection did not respond to a request for comment.
In the past, police kept to Exarchia’s periphery, a tacit acknowledgement of its special status, but under Bakoyannis, patrolling officers are now ubiquitous. Huddles of policemen flex and frown in the backstreets like poor men’s stormtroopers. Huge navy blue police vans repeatedly circle the neighbourhood like city buses. But their presence is not passive: under Bakoyannis’ orders, Exarchia’s 23 anarchist and refugee squats (like the one once inhabited by Tamer Abusitta) are to all be evicted. Many already have been.
Only a couple of kilometres away for the world-famous Acropolis, Exarchia is a rare semi-autonomous zone for any city in the world. But these strong-handed evictions have put Exarchia under threat, and a battle for its future is underway. In addition to the evictions, the government has scrapped the “academic sanctuary” law that had prevented police from entering campuses, cracked down on refugees living in Exarchia, and, under the guise of the pandemic, passed a law restricting public protest.
“Even before the occupations of the solidarity movement, Exarchia was still an area that the police wanted to control,” says Petros Constantinou, national coordinator of Athens-based anti-racist group KEERFA. “There’s something symbolic about it. The attack on the area is a direct attack on refugees, anarchists and anti-authoritarian people. By arguing for law and order, they are trying to limit working-class resistance. But I don’t think it can permanently change the area.”
The streets of the neighbourhood, comprising a dozen winding blocks in the centre of Athens, look like they’ve been struck by an epic graffiti flood at the beginning of time – every stretch of wall within a hand’s reach is soaked in a layer of murals, street art and political slogans. One depicts a grinning octopus wielding a Molotov cocktail above the words “Octopus Will Win” and another shows a map of Airbnb apartments, each location marked by small fires, above the phrase “Welcome to Exarchia”. It won’t submit easily.
In the backstreets, boarded-up storefronts and bitter orange trees are peppered with cigarette butts, broken glass and pigeon poo, but it leads to an unexpected centre. Here there are a bustling collection of cafés, bookstores, community centres and self-organised refugee homes. People here don’t endlessly glare into their smartphones, but smoke and read and listen to one another, sipping on a steady flow of ouzo. Gardens have been built from disused car parks. Food has been distributed during the pandemic. There is both anarchy and community. It’s a different vision of life.
Yet others aren’t so sure that Exarchia’s legacy will last, with the area once a no-go zone for both members of the neo-Nazi party Golden Dawn and those of the middle-class. “People here are bloodthirsty,” says Kostis, an eloquent skinhead drinking a can of beer outside Dervenion 52, a squat whose doors were sealed with a sheet of iron by police after an eviction in June. “But political activism is weaker and weaker. It isn’t what it used to be. We are talking about a loss of political freedom.”
Years of creeping gentrification have also posed their own threat. Greece’s golden visas (a policy introduced in 2013 allowing a five-year EU residency permit in exchange for a €250,000 investment in real estate) have drawn investors from China, Israel and Russia, including one who purchased a hundred apartments in Exarchia alone. Many residents have been seduced by the allure of Airbnb too, driving up prices and driving out the culture. A metro station is planned. Boutiques are already here.
“It’s ripe for development,” says Penny Travlou, of the local community group Action Against Regeneration and Gentrification. “The rents in Exarchia have already been rising, but the government doesn’t care about the community here. It wants to fill the place with Airbnb and boutique hotels and Starbucks.”
During these times, where threats come quick and fast like a baton to the head, trust is understandably scarce. In hilariously Kafkaesque fashion, K‑Vox, a squatted café and radical social centre, says it will discuss whether to speak to me at their communal assembly. Only through democracy will they say no. Others are more direct: “We don’t talk to the media,” explains one bearded inhabitant of Notara 26, a five-storey squat a few blocks away from Exarchion Square.
But the defiance is clear. One sign hanging across the street from Notara declares “No Pasaran!” (they shall not pass) while a white banner draped across the building’s facade reads: “You can’t evict a movement. Solidarity will win.”
Somewhat reassuringly, there are still the shady guys rifling through dustbins. Still the clandestine political gatherings. Still the wild-eyed lunatics shouting at each other. Still the furious, molotov-laden protests. Still the acidic scent of urine. Still the residents who will burn down any Christmas tree brought here without consent. For now, there is still Exarchia.
“I feel at home here,” says refugee Abusitta. “There is chaos and conflict and trouble all the time. It reminds me of Gaza.”