Leonidas Liambeys - 05/07/2005
This summer, Athens is playing host to a bumper season of outdoor concerts – Thievery Corporation, Kraftwerk, Marylyn Manson, White Stripes, Black Sabbath and Duran Duran amongst many other Greek and foreign artists that are playing or have played in venues throughout the city. It is generally agreed that this summer’s outdoor concert scene is particularly rich and despite the odd thunderstorm (Thievery Corporation had to rearrange their concert for later this month), so far there have been a number of successes. The Skatalites, Tonino Carotone and Thanassis Papakonstantinou played at the G-Fiesta last week in front of at least 10,000 people at the Olympic Beach Volleyball Complex in Faliro with a backdrop of the yacht filled marina, the battleship Averof and the beach-side apartments in the evening sun. The stadium had been transformed into a make-shift concert venue and the spectators ended up sprawled across the judges’ stands drinking beer or raki and smoking inevitable cigarettes. The parking was less chaotic than most of the older venues that become midnight traffic jams as everyone tries to head home. The event seemed to offer one solution to the question of what to do with the Olympic buildings in a city that doesn’t regularly host the major international sporting events that it is now equipped to handle.
Meanwhile, the legacy of the games a year on has become a hot issue. The prospect of multi-million Euro stadiums and facilities slowly falling into disrepair after just a few weeks use is galling, even for the Games’ most ardent supporters. Some of the infrastructure projects such as the Metro and new roads have improved the lives of many of Athens’ citizens, others, however, despite their impressive presence and success during the games seem like extravagant relics at a time when government spending is being fiercely reduced and public sector workers are striking over pay and insurance benefits. The 300 camera security system that was put in place for the games and remains in operation is an issue that continues to upset a sector of the political spectrum. Whilst the number of foreign tourists in Athens is noticeably higher and much to the relief of many “The American [tourists] are Back” after years of staying away due to Greece’s perceived security problems the process of paying for the Games is a long way from over.
Beneath these issues, there are some groups of people that were directly affected by the building work that went on for the Games. A group of 50 Roma or “Gypsy” families some of whom had lived on a site in the suburb of Maroussi for over thirty years was moved on in an agreement with the local municipality in 2002 to make way for the Olympic coach park next to the main athletics complex. They were promised help to find alternative sites, subsidies for temporary accommodation and consequently left peacefully, without making a claim of ownership over the land. The story of their upheaval in the shadow of the games is the subject of the film Uprooted by the American documentary-maker Cameron Hickey that is currently in post-production.
The film’s protagonist is Prokopis Nikolaou, a thirty seven year old father of three from the Chalkide clan of Roma, a group originally from the town of Chalkida on the island of Evia. He and his family left Maroussi in 2002 and moved in with relatives in Geraka, another Athenian suburb north east of Maroussi. To support his family, he sells seasonal produce and scrap metal from the back of his pick up truck: garlic in the spring, watermelons in the summer, potatoes in the autumn and holly at Christmas. When I spoke to him in June 2005, he was irate: “Our case deserves media coverage – I want the TV channels here! There are forty families that are owed ten months rent by the municipality of Marousi and we haven’t seen a penny.” He went on, “we signed an agreement that promised us help finding a new site and subsidized rent until we do, but it was not implemented by the [Mayor Panagiotis] Tzanikos.”
According to Amnesty International, on 1st August 2002, as part of the ongoing preparations in Maroussi for the Games, the Mayor of Maroussi and a representative of the group of fifty Romani families signed an agreement that stated that the families would leave their homes on condition they would receive subsidies to help them rent new accommodation. This was to be a temporary measure, as under the terms of the agreement, the Municipality of Maroussi also undertook to find a plot of land and relocate the Roma in heavy duty pre-fabricated houses while promising to find them more permanent housing. The main motivation for the agreement was the extension of the parking facilities at the athletics complex and the widening of an access road in time for the Games.
The agreement which affects a total of 137 people, guaranteed monthly payments for each family according to its size. Shortly afterwards the families moved into rented accommodation or in with members of their wider family group. However, by October 2002, they had already begun making complaints that they were not receiving payments or that payments were erratic. Some families allege that they faced discrimination whilst looking for new accommodation and when they did actually find a house they would lose it due to lack of funds caused by the slow payment from the Maroussi Municipality. This prompted the Greek Helsinki Monitor to file a criminal complaint against the Municipality. According to a letter from the Mayor of Maroussi to the Ombudsmen in February 2004, only 14 of the families have been paid in full whilst the remaining families had not received any subsidy since December 2003. Following the proceedings all the Roma were then paid what was owed to them up to and including December 2003. In late June 2005, however, the representatives of the Roma I spoke to had not been paid for 10 months.
War between municipalities
The Deputy Mayor of Maroussi told me that the Municipality was doing all it could to find the Roma a new site and had even brought in contractors to begin work but that their efforts had been frustrated by the unwillingness of the Roma families to settle on an affordable piece of land. Pushed further however, he admitted that part of the problem was local resistance to the establishment of a Roma settlement in nearby Geraka: he did not want “a war between the municipalities” as local residents objected to the Roma living nearby. In the meantime the money that was going to subsidize the families rent is being held in order to pay for a more permanent solution. This was linked by the Municipality to money from the state Roma Program that provides 800,000 Euros in loans for the families’ resettlement on condition the Roma families accepted new conditions that were not in the terms of the 2002 agreement. These loans would be guaranteed by the municipality and allow the Roma to buy new sites. However, following the municipality’s erratic payments after signing the first agreement, the Roma are understandably unwilling to trust the municipality in this new scheme.
The plight of the Roma families reflects some of the broader issues that were raised by the Olympic Games. Promised generous handouts in a rather desperate effort to get them off the land quickly so as to complete the stadiums, they were left with expectations and rents the municipality was in no position to pay. The Games offered some Athenian politicians the platform to promise grand solutions to social and infrastructure problems that have been festering in the city for decades. Though the Games themselves were a success, in their aftermath the social fabric of the city was little affected and money that could have been spent addressing these problems is now in short supply. Meanwhile, the summer concert season continues in beautifully built stadiums. If only the tickets weren’t so expensive. Leonidas Liambeys