Voices of Notara. Part 8: “everywhere I look I see a story”

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.

8. “Spourgiti” (sparrow)

Let’s go back to the summer of 2015, the end of July. Greece was under capital controls from the IMF, meaning there was a limit on how much money you could withdraw from the bank, and also how much you could send or receive through money transfer services like Western Union. Refugees arriving from Afghanistan relied on getting money transferred so they could continue their journey, and now suddenly people were stranded in Athens. People started gathering in the Pedion tou Areos park (in the centre of Athens, next to Exarchia), and the numbers kept growing, soon there were hundreds of people sleeping there.

A comrade said to me “we should help them out.” We got together, just a group of comrades and friends, all residents of Exarchia. We got a pallet of water, borrowed a minivan, and took it to the park. Then we saw – the people there didn’t have anything. The Afghan community in Athens were trying their best to help, but the situation was too much.

It was then we called an assembly, which became called the “self-organised assembly in solidarity with refugees”. Some of us who started it were anarchists, along with leftists involved with the Steki of Refugees and Immigrants on Tsammadou street. But we hadn’t expected the turnout at that first meeting. Hundreds of people came from all over Athens. And the interesting thing was it wasn’t just “comrades” we knew from the movement, there were many new people who had never been involved in anything like an assembly before.

It was spontaneous self-organisation on a big scale. From the first days, we were receiving donations of supplies and distributing tents, medical care, three meals a day, childrens’ activities.

“Things that had never happened before”

One interesting thing about this: it was one of the rare times when the movement didn’t just react to some move from the state – a new law, a new act or wave of repression. Rather, though you could say we were responding to the wider course of events in the world, it was us who took the initiative and created a new political action. In fact, it was the government that was forced to react to us.

For example, it pushed the new Syriza government to open the Elleonas refugee camp in Athens, a supposedly “nice” camp which they had been talking about but hadn’t happened. Actually they even tried to approach our assembly to run it for them! Of course the answer was no. These were things that had never happened before.

And something else. I’m not somebody who wants to enforce my political views on others or try to change theirs. But I’ll say this – I saw many cases where what we were doing in Pedion tou Areos had a big effect on people’s thinking. For instance, I remember one guy turned up and said “I’ve come to volunteer”. I said to him, “here we’re not volunteers, we’re people in solidarity.” He said, “what’s the difference?” And I replied, “I won’t tell you, but if you stay here you’ll find out.”

In the very last assembly he stood up and said, “I came here as a volunteer, now I speak as someone who believes in autonomy and self-organisation.” And there were many more cases like that.

You mention the term self-organisation. But what does that actually mean, in your view?

Self-organisation has many aspects. And there are meanings in books, and meanings in real life. One is that you get together with other people and create something, make an initiative. And in this situation, that means with people who don’t have the same perspectives or political ideas as you, but with whom you share life, you share everyday needs. And that implies that, in a way, you have to defuse your ego, to try and build something together.

It’s a huge experiment, of course. All different attitudes come up, and you find authoritarian people, people acting like leaders – in which I include myself. You’re trying to make a horizontal structure but it becomes vertical, and you have to keep trying to push it back to horizontal again.

Viktoria square

Our intervention in the park lasted just a month, the month of August 2015. In that month, 12,000 people passed through Pedion tou Areos. We had announced in advance that we were leaving on a given date, and that pushed the government to finally open their Elleonas camp. It was a state-run camp, but conditions there were better than being under the sun in the park.

After the end of August, our assembly had a small rest and time for reflection. We thought – “what have we managed to do?!” Then, in early September, as usual many comrades were coming back to Athens who had left for the summer to escape the heat or to work in their villages and islands.

The capital controls were still on, and now many more people were arriving. The government put police in the parks to stop refugees camping again, so then instead people started to gather in Viktoria Square. The square filled up, soon there was nothing to see but hundreds of tents.

So the assembly started to respond to that situation and support the squatted square. And we had a huge amount of surplus stuff left over from Pedion tou Areos. As well as Viktoria Square, we sent things to the islands, and to the camp growing at Idomenei near the Macedonian border.

Sibling initiatives

Back in 2015, at the same time as I got involved in Notata, I was also involved with what we called its sibling, its sister initiative, the Platanos project on Lesbos island.

Many new initiatives came out of that time. Myself, I became involved with a few comrades in our collective, No Borders Athens. Our focus has been on supporting people in some of the worst situations, with serious health or legal issues, but also on being a propaganda or counter-media project, spreading information. And then three of us from No Borders joined in with the squatting project that became Notara.

So I was involved in Notara at the beginning. Later I stopped being actively involved for about a year – I’ve come back now because of the state repression and threat of eviction.

And Platanos: we were sending supplies to Lesbos, but people there said – “more than supplies, what we really need here is people.” This was the time when hundreds, even thousands of people were starting to arrive on Lesbos across the sea from Turkey every day. The Platanos initiative was an occupation of public land by the sea, in the north of the island by the main crossing point. As well as sea rescue teams we welcomed people arriving off the boats with medical care, food and clothing.

The initiative lasted seven months, until the borders were shut by the EU-Turkey deal. Some 700 solidarians were involved over that time. As for the people who were supported by the Platanos initiative, 150,000 might be a conservative estimate.

Notara opened five days before the first team went to Lesbos. So that’s why I say they were like siblings – and Pedion tou Areas was the parent.

What does Notara mean to you?

It’s not political. Not any more. It’s infused inside me so much that it’s part of me. It’s not a squat, it’s the people inside. The residents and the people in solidarity. Sometimes it feels more home than my own home. Of course, yes it is political, in that we strive for certain goals – horizontality, self-organisation. But for me what’s more than that is the emotional meaning. The people who live here call it “our home”, and that’s what it is – it’s home away from home.

When I come here, everywhere I look I see a story. There are hundreds of stories here. These stories could have happened in any home anywhere, but somehow because they happened here they have a greater substance.

Baba Noel

Here’s just one. A couple of years ago, one of the kids went to one of the solidarians and asked if “Baba Noel” was going to come. At first none of us understood what this meant, until we realised Baba Noel means Santa Claus in French, and he was asking if Santa would come to a squat.

So then we did a whole project. We made all these pictures with photoshop showing three of us going on a journey to the north pole, walking through the snow and mountains until we found Santa’s house. We made a map of the journey, and we made a video out of the pictures and screened it in the squat, inviting the kids from Spyro Trikoupi squat too. We also had a map of the route we’d taken, and we explained that we’d gone to ask Santa if he was coming, but we didn’t know whether he would accept the invitation.

We have a comrade who has just the physical proportions of Santa, down to the long white beard. And the costume hire shop, when they found out what it was for, gave us the outfit for free. So when the film ended, we pulled away the bedsheet it was projected on, and there was Santa with a pile of presents. Then there was a tsunami of kids running, crushing, hugging him. Santa started crying – I told him, “stop that, Santa doesn’t cry”.

One kid, who’s now in Germany, he was a bit older and wanted to show he was tougher than the younger ones. He refused to believe it was Santa, and to prove he was right he did the obvious thing, went to pull off the beard. Then when he saw the beard was real he fell into his arms crying “Santa!”

And this is what I mean, the same thing could maybe have been organised by the town hall in Syntagma square, but then it wouldn’t have the same substance at all. And this is also political.

I heard her heartbeat echoing in my ribcage”

One more story. One day I come into Notara, pissed off with something (as usual). A Kurdish couple had just come back from the hospital after giving birth. The father took their days’ old baby and put her in my arms. As I held the baby, she looked at me and smiled, and I heard her heartbeat echoing in my ribcage.

I gave the baby to someone else to hold and walked out of the squat, I walked all the way to Pedion tou Arios, crying all the way. I said to myself – this is why we have to keep the squats, we have to keep them for the people, and especially for the children, the seeds of tomorrow.

All the squats and initiatives have these stories. These stories are the fuel that makes us go on. Sometimes we want to hide them, but they are what water our souls.

How do you feel about the current situation with the squats under threat?

What we’re living in these days is unprecedented. We didn’t have this level of repression, even with the previous right wing government. It is extremely targeted, and they don’t stop at anything. Every day there are three or four new events, stories of people getting tortured, beaten up. For example, today they arrested a whole group of people who were just doing yoga in the park.

The Neo Democratia party that won the elections this summer is a populist right-wing party, but in truth with many far-right elements. Many of its MPs are fascists and push their own agenda. And they have an unprecedented parliamentary majority that means they are unchallenged.

But this does give us another thing. It means that after four years of worsening infighting in the movement, somehow we are starting to unite.

What is your vision for the future?

Difficult. Dark, bleak. But whatever the future is, we make it. And we, we’re always here on the path. The path was here before us, and it will continue after us. So our task is just to keep the path open. So – fuck the future!