Downtown Athens

Downtown Athens

THURSDAY SPOTLIGHT: NEWS reporter experiences street level turmoil in Greece

Candace Wu was in Athens for riots earlier this month

The most memorable moments in life are the ones we didn’t take the time to plan.

On an unassuming Wednesday night in Athens I got caught in the midst of the most violent political riot since  Alexis Tsipras’ leftwing Syriza party took office roughly six months ago.

I was on my way home from the iconic Acropolis of Athens when I noticed a big crowd of people armed with blue and white flags heading somewhere with a purpose. The best part about traveling is having absolute freedom to change your itinerary in a heartbeat based on whatever you so desire.

For the first time in a long time my reporter senses were going off like mad.

Of course, I followed the growing crowd of people joining in the rally for part of an authentic Athenian experience. It felt peaceful at first, thriving with an enticing climate of illustrious political activism. There were seniors and kids and teenagers taking to the streets with massive banners, Greek music blaring in the background and national media everywhere.

One of the men leading the group screamed something catchy and Greek into a megaphone and the masses of people repeated it. I never quite figured out what they were chanting.

We marched through the city until we reached Syntagma Square, a political epicentre that sits in front of the ominous Greek Parliament building where MPs were debating the conditions of a contentious European Union bailout deal that day.

For a moment, everything seemed so surreal like a scene ripped from a movie and I had this passing epiphany that I should be chasing international news because who wouldn’t want to be covering current events that are on the world stage?

I sat down on the steps by the Parliament building beside a lovely Greek woman. We chatted briefly and I asked her what the crowd was chanting. She misinterpreted my question and thought I was asking what everyone was doing here.

She explained to me, quite simply and poignantly, “our government asked us what we wanted, and now they’re doing the opposite, so people are upset.”

I told her I was from Canada and she asked if she could come back with me when I left. We shared a lighthearted laugh, but as darkness fell on the Greek capital everything changed.

Dozens of riot police armed with what looked like very powerful machine guns stormed past us. The motherly Greek woman I was chatting with motioned for me to sit closer and told me not to worry.The sense of peaceful political activism had faded with the sun and all that was left was chaos on the brink of an eruption like a volcano patiently waiting to blow.

The Greek woman pulled a small, white gel package covered in Greek symbols out of her purse and gave it to me.

She said, “If anything happens put these on your forehead, beneath your eyes and above your lips.”

I thanked her and smiled, then suddenly thought aloud, “Wait, what do you mean if anything happens?”

Just as the words came out of my mouth I heard a loud explosion coming from behind the crowds of people. Then another and another. Hooded anarchists dressed head to toe in black holding wooden batons were hauling petrol bombs and rocks at riot police, who responded by tear gassing the crowd of approximately 12,000 protestors.

All I could hear was the sound of fiery explosives going off and petrified screams.

“Run,” the woman told me. “Go! Now!”

Horrified, I took cover in a nearby metro station where hundreds were fleeing. One of the entrances was closed and I could see and smell tear gas seeping though the shutters. People were pouring bottles of water over their faces to alleviate the burning pain. Greek announcements I couldn’t understand were going off and for the first time in my travels I felt really, really alone.

The subway dropped me off in an unfamiliar neighbourhood because they had to re-route transit before shutting it down. It took ages to hail a cab and when I finally did the driver flipped out in Greek because of all the road closures in town resulting in congested traffic.

Staring out the window, with what I assume were Greek profanities being muttered in the background, I couldn’t help but feel sympathy for the people of Greece who felt so impassioned about their political climate they’d take to the streets in violence; whereas back in B.C. we have people rioting about losing a hockey game.

Talk about first world problems.

— Candace Wu is on leave from her position as a reporter with The NEWS. E-mail: candacemariewu@gmail.com

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