No (Police)Man’s Land – Testimony: The Police Attack on Syntagma Square, Wednesday 15/06
“I don’t care if I get dirty, just mind my wig. Give me some more. My eyes are stinging…”
She was a woman near sixty. She had lost her vision for a few minutes, because of the tear gas. Her vision and her breath. She was struck by the panic that unavoidably comes with asphyxiation and burning lungs. She could not find the people she was with. Someone carried her to the chair near the microphone, where the speaker was trying, through the toxic cloud, to calm down the demonstrators on Syntagma Square. People were rubbing Maalox on her – a type of medicine that helps with tear gas exposure – when she lifted her wig, revealing her temples, bald from chemotherapy.
“Go! Let us who are younger get through this” the speaker told her.
“I, my dear girl, am going to die. Instead of dying on my sofa, I would rather die here with you. We had the time to grow old. They want to kill you while you are young.”
Her voice, already interrupted by the gas, faded on the eruption of two more flash-bang grenades. She was scared. She was carried to the infirmary. There was no space for her to lie down. Volunteer doctors and rescuers just couldn’t handle everybody. One of the Red Cross rescuers, mounted on a chair, was waving the Red cross flag toward the platoons of Riot Police that surrounded the square. He believed that might protect his patients.
“You can’t throw chemicals here. It is not possible” he was shouting. To no avail…
Back at the microphone, a lyra (a Cretan string instrument) player is trying to soothe the protesters with music. They, stunned at the brutality of the Police, are now trying to comfort each other.
“Their tear gas does not scare us. Our struggle is just. We will win!» the speaker is shouting. “United on Syntagma Square, which we have held peacefully for twenty two days”. The speaker’s voice, in spite of the panic that the police are dutifully trying to spread, is gradually drowned out by the protesters who begin to sing a Cretan song. It would roughly translate as: “When will the stars show through?”
The mood is contagious. The protesters are clapping hands. Riveting moments. A platoon launches a gas canister right over our heads, in the middle of the square. People start running, hunched over, panicked. We don’t know where it will land, if we’ll get burned. We hide where we can. Gas causes asphyxia, the lungs burn, the body paralyses for a few seconds, vision diminishes dangerously.
“Everyone aside. Stretcher!” People, through the smoke, still find the humanity to step aside and help rescuers carry off the demonstrator who had passed out.
The Police don’t stop. But neither does the lyra player. For every line we sing, there is one more flash-bang grenade. For every encouraging smile, one tear gas canister. For two whole hours. Until the Police decide to disperse us and march onto the square. A tear gas canister is thrown next to the microphone, another a few meters to the side, trying to block any route of escape. Still another at the entrance of the Metro, where protesters have taken refuge for some breathing space, and where the Red Cross first-aid station had been set up.
“They are criminals” people are shouting, trying to hold up, to help those that start dropping, short of breath. They don’t know where to take them. Someone has passed out outside the infirmary. There is just no space for him…
Those who did not have time to hide are kneeling down under the Police batons. If they resist, they get arrested. An image of a young demonstrator is characteristic: she is standing between two platoons of Riot Police, the Parliament in the background, she raises her arms, silent and obviously unarmed. They, the heavily armed men that our political system has entrusted with our “protection”, form a ring around her; they kick her and spray tear gas on her from a distance of half a meter.
In total, thirty three people were transferred to Athens hospitals seriously injured. Sixteen were detained, and two were made to pay 10.000 euro each for carrying gas masks – the kind used by painters – as this is deemed to be “passive resistance to the authorities”.
One day later, nevertheless, Amnesty International issued a Press release, denouncing the Greek authorities for excessive use of force, tear and asphyxia-inducing gasses, while making a reference also to the thirty injured protesters that were left behind on May 11th, when Riot Police attacked with their batons turned around, so as to make sure that the wooden handles would crack the demonstrators’ skulls.
Back on Syntagma Square, the curious everyday life that has developed in the past three weeks is returning. Photographers and camera crews of the demonstrators’ Media Center are putting together the material that testifies to the authorities’ transgression of the law. Volunteers are collecting the chemical canisters and tear gas shells. Many have an expiry date before 1998. Rescuers pin up a copy of the 1925 Geneva Convention, with which the use of chemical weapons was banned internationally. A decision that UN General Secretary U Thant reiterated, this time making a direct reference to tear gas. In his report, the Secretary General suggested: Firstly, that the UN renew their appeal to all nations to join the Geneva Convention. Secondly, to make clear statements that the ban included in the Convention applies to the use of all chemical, bacterial or other biological substances (including tear gas and other harmful substances) that exist today or could be developed in the future.
In research that was carried out by the “Ios” team of “Eleftherotypia” newspaper , in 1998, it was revealed that “although there exist some scientific arguments that the governments of all states employ to justify use of such weapons against ‘domestic enemies’ and make references to the supposed harmless use of chemicals […], even the very same studies that they employ cannot avoid stipulating such strict provisions for their use that in practice render it impossible:
‘1. Do not spray at a distance closer than 3-4 meters, depending on the device, because serious damage to the eyes and skin may be inflicted.
2. Never spray directly onto the face of a demonstrator, because that will definitely lead to serious damage to eye tissue.
3. The time of spraying should be minimal. Spraying on people who are already dispersing is not only inhumane, but also leads to damages to the health of the demonstrators.
4. Only spraying individuals who are conscious and healthy is permitted. No spraying in confined spaces is allowed’.”
Mariniki Alevizopoulou is a journalist, recently fired from a major National newspaper. She is a volunteer in Syntagma Square and states that with this text she represents her views only and no one else’s.