Voices of Notara. Part 3: “a place of love and revolution”

This is one in a series of interviews with people involved in the Notara 26 squat in Exarcheia, Athens. The struggle for the free spaces here is made up of people with very different backgrounds, life stories and ideas. We aim to record people’s own words without imposing our views – though of course we can’t escape our own perspectives, or the limits of translation.

3. “Dokhtar-e-Mah” (daughter of the moon)

The idea of Notara came when lots of people were arriving in 2015. Many people were camping in the park in Pedion tou Areos, next to Exarcheia in the centre of Athens, living in tents outside in very bad conditions. We were some people from the movement who went to try and help.

Winter was coming. We held an assembly with comrades, and decided to find a building and occupy it as a squat for refugees. After doing a mapping of the area, we decided on this one, which belongs to the ministry of labour but had been abandoned for more than five years. We said – “what is public, we’ll give to the people.”

We entered the building on 25 September 2015, but we needed at least 15 days to prepare it. We made separations for rooms, showers, common spaces, storage spaces, the kitchen, etc. Social kitchens supported the project and brought in food every day for lunch and dinner, as later they also did for other squats in Exarchia.

Notara 26 was the first squat for refugees opened in Exarcheia. At least 12 or more opened after that. We had no model for how it would work, and we were testing everything out as we went. At the start, we had an assembly every day, and we set up some basic principles. We agreed that everyone would participate as individuals in the new squat, rather than representing groups to which they belonged. And we agreed a political framework based on these ideas: self-organisation, equality, horizontality, and acceptance of difference.

The term “self-organisation” was very important in the refugee solidarity movement at that moment. What does it mean for you?

It means to take our lives in our own hands. We decide together what to do, how to do it, what are our visions and how we try to achieve them. And, from the beginning, we said no connection to the state or to NGOs.

But self-organisation is difficult. Particularly at the beginning, when the borders were still open and refugees were arriving for just two or three days, so it was a squat of people in transit. You can’t really have self-organisation when people don’t stay long enough to build a community. And how can you ask people to get involved in self-organisation when maybe it’s the first time they’ve ever been allowed the right to decide for themselves?

The borders close

So that was the first period of Notara. It was a transit point for refugees passing through Greece, and the “solidarians” – mainly Greek people, and some existing refugees coming mainly as translators – were doing all the jobs.

The second period started in March 2016, when the borders were shut and the EU-Turkey deal was signed. Now people were stuck in Greece and stayed much longer in the squat. Also, a lot of comrades from all over the planet were coming to participate in the squat – and are still coming until now.

The fascist fire bomb attack

Then, on 24 August 2016, at 4 am, came the fascist attack. It was a fire bomb with gas canisters. There could have been many people killed or injured, but the three residents who were on security duty had very good reactions. One called people to come in solidarity, one took a fire extinguisher, and the third person went upstairs to wake everyone and get them down. A lot of comrades came quickly in support. Two fire trucks came, eventually they put it out at 8 am. Everything in the ground floor “salon”, and the childrens’ play area, the stores, the pharmacy, were all destroyed.

We thought the building was gone. But there was so much support, not just hands to work, but also people sending funds from other countries, and the other squats rallying round to house people. We were open again in 15 days.

The third period

There was an assembly where the refugees living in the squat said they didn’t want to be referred to as “refugees”. They wanted to be called the residents of Notara. I think this marks the beginning of a third period: when self-organisation really started, not just as a theoretical aim. People were staying longer in the squat and making a real community.

Of course there have been lots of testing times and problems. It’s a political and social project in process. I think it’s only now, after four years, that we can really call Notara a self-organised space. Decisions are mostly in the hands of residents, with solidarians who don’t live in the squat coming to offer their support. Work is carried out collectively with people forming teams for security, cleaning, storage, food distribution, supervising the playground, etc.

From the beginning until now, more than 9,000 people have been hosted in Notara, coming from more than 15 countries.

And the squat has also become a site of many projects and initiatives. We have had four convoys coming from other countries, particularly France, bringing supplies. We have had groups for women’s empowerment, language lessons, children’s activities, collective kitchens, photography, dance, theatre. One of our core principles has been the acceptance of difference, and one sign of that is that some of the first assemblies of the community of LGBTQI refugees started here.

I want to quote our first declaration, which we still say until now. It says: “let’s make the odyssey of refugees for survival the voyage of humanity towards freedom.”

What does Notara mean to you?

Notara is a place of love and revolution. Here you find many people with different cultures, different experiences, beliefs, ideas – but we are all are trying to walk together towards freedom. Without the state, without NGOs, but ourselves, together. This is revolutionary.

And love, because as a political and social project, we are not only anarchists and anti-authoritarians, we are people trying to build connections, to find things in common across our differences. We have many problems, but we continue. And that requires love. It is because we love our community that we keep working to overcome the challenges.

To continue a struggle you don’t just need fighters, you also need human relations. Otherwise you just have an army, not a revolution. What we need is – human relations with a fighting spirit.

What are your thoughts on the current situation of threat?

In July, a few days after the election, they made their first attack on us, cutting the electricity. Since then, most of the squats in Exarcheia have been evicted, and there have been numerous threats that we will be next.

During these four years, Notara 26 has been welcomed in the neighbourhood of Exarcheia and has been an active part in the life of this neighbourhood. But since the evictions of Spiro Trikoupi 17 and other squats on 26 August, we are living in occupied territory, with riot cops stationed all around us. They are here all day, all night, causing trouble and provoking us – shouting racist abuse, banging on the windows, trying to force the door, and so on – until they get the order to evict.

We have had 24 hour security watch on the squat since the fascist attack in 2016. And what is for sure, the Notara assembly took the decision that we will defend this community. We are not leaving the building. We will defend it in our own way. And they have to know that, even if they evict this building, they cannot evict the idea of Notara.

Also soon after the election, the City Plaza squat organised by left-wing groups decided to close. Amongst other things, they said it was not safe for refugees to stay in a building under intense threat. Also, no doubt many were tired after three years of the squat. Did you discuss this at Notara?

Every three or four months we have a special assembly with just the residents present, not us “solidarians”, to discuss big issues about the squat and its direction. After City Plaza left we were shocked, especially about the timing just a few days after the election, and the residents’ assembly met to discuss it. They took the decision that they wanted to continue. That’s their decision, but we solidarians are totally behind this too. We say that whatever happens, we continue.

Now, in recent weeks we have taken in more people who have been evicted from the other squats. They’ve already been through at least one eviction, and they know what may come here. But when you’ve experienced the freedom of a squat, and when you’ve experienced the hell conditions in the government camps, what do you choose?

As for being tired, of course I’m tired. I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t. But speaking for myself, I can’t surrender. When I feel tired, I look to my picture of utopia, of the horizon that we’re walking towards.

How do you see the future?

The future is an open horizon. We make our road as we walk it. It is sure that Notara will never die. Even if they evict this building, they cannot evict the idea. I know that the community of residents and solidarians we have built will continue in new ways. The struggle for freedom, and our human relations – these are what give us the power to see the horizon ahead, and to walk towards it.