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Dublin: 12 °C Sunday 15 September, 2019
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Eyewitness: Tear gas and tension in Syntagma Square

An Irish woman living in Athens spends some hours at the heart of the Greek protests and records the fear, anger and uncertainty on the streets.

Cáit Power

CÁIT POWER is a former broadcast and print journalist who has been living and working in Athens for the past six months. Cáit is currently working with the Global Kiter Foundation. Here she gives a taste of the chaos, anger – and fear – on the streets of the Greek capital right now.

YESTERDAY evening I went into town at 5pm, aiming for Syntagma Square. I wanted to go in in daylight because I knew there had been plenty of trouble in the morning. I approached through a side street as the main roads towards Syntagma are blocked off by riot vans and lines of police.

I ended up approaching from a side street called Stadiou, and was trying to decide whether to keep moving, when a bunch of people came running towards me because a tear gas canister had just been thrown – about 20 feet away! Tear gas is horrendous, you don’t really smell it… Your eyes start streaming and stinging, your nose is running and you realise a scarf is no defencee to tear gas. You can’t really breathe properly and it takes a long time to get over the effect.  It’s horrible. I don’t have any idea how those people stayed in the square without masks or anything. When you get home you can still taste it in your mouth.

I pressed on, and went into the square where people have been camped for about a month now. It has to be said that the majority are peaceful protesters who are going to be severely affected by the austerity cuts. There were bits of debris all over the place, some bins on fire. McDonald’s on the square has been trashed, the windows have been smashed in, garden umbrellas lining the square were on fire. And I’m not sure how they did it, but there were lumps of rock taken from pillars and steps obviously used as missiles all over the place. I thought the hotels around the square had been shut down, but there were plenty of people looking from their balconies – I think they are effectively trapped in their rooms.

People were chanting at the top of the square, and there was a lot of taunting going on between protesters and police. Protesters would shout at the guards lined in front of the parliament building and the police would wave their tear gas cans as if to say… ‘come and have a go if you want’.

Protestors have come prepared too. Lots of protesters have their own masks, or wear goggles or diving masks. You’ll see from pictures that they have white stuff on their face – it’s this lotion that’s meant to counteract the tear gas effect. For the most part they are well organised, and yesterday anyway (today is a different story), there were just a few people who were there to really make trouble. A guy threw something at the police, and a bunch of other protesters pushed him and yelled at him. They were making the point that it was meant to be peaceful. And there’s no distinction in ages: it’s young people, old. I saw one child with his dad.

I stayed for a few hours yesterday and was constantly looking over my shoulder. The police kept appearing with their gas masks on, so I was getting ready to run most of the time. When I was walking home last night, I could taste the tear gas and hear the bangs. Today I decided not to go at all because I think I’ve had enough of tear gassing. I can actually hear the helicopters buzzing right now.

Up to today, it was very much localised in the square but I was at the Special Olympics volunteer hotel earlier, and a warning came in to let them know not to travel to certain parts of town, like Monastiraki or Plaka (which is traditionally a tourist hotspot and a fair distance from Syntagma) because there were incidents.

It’s an awful shame – the Special Olympics could be such a good boost for the country.

In photos: Images of yesterday’s protests as captured by Cáit:

Eyewitness: Tear gas and tension in Syntagma Square
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