KERATEA, Greece — As explosions boom, the town’s loudspeakers blare: “Attention! Attention! We are under attack!” Air raid sirens wail through the streets, mingling with the frantic clanging of church bells. Clouds of tear gas waft between houses as helmeted riot police move in to push back the rebels.
This isn’t a war zone, but a small town just outside Athens. And while its fight is about a garbage dump, it captures Greece’s angry mood over its devastated economy.
As unemployment rises and austerity bites ever harder, tempers seem to fray faster than ever these days in Greece, with citizens of all stripes increasingly thumbing their noses at authority. Some refuse to pay increased highway tolls and public transport tickets, and there has been a rise in politicians being heckled – even assaulted – by constituents.
The anger is most palpable in Keratea, a town of about 15,000 people some 50 kilometers (30 miles) south of Athens that appears to have spun completely out of control. The state’s attempt to start work on a planned garbage dump on a nearby hillside in December caused locals to set fire to construction vehicles and erect massive roadblocks on a highway that bypasses the town and runs to the capital.
It’s a fight that has galvanized the town, from the mayor and the local priest to shopkeepers, farmers, schoolteachers and teenagers.
“We live and breathe to finish our jobs for the day, to go to the blockades, to participate, to sacrifice ourselves in preventing the landfill from happening,” said Nikos Manolis, a local resident and bus owner.
Over the past four months, locals have developed increasingly inventive roadblocks to stop contractors from getting to the proposed dump site. They have parked trucks across the street and built piles of rubble and dirt. Apparently in it for the long haul, they have erected a wooden hut by the side of the road to serve as protest headquarters, complete with campaign posters, news clippings and children’s drawings of the riots.
Their latest move was a nighttime expedition to dig a shoulder-high trench across both lanes of the highway. That was one step too far for authorities, who on Thursday sent in road crews – protected by police – to repair the damage.
Within hours the confrontation had degenerated. Masked youths hurled firebombs and rocks at riot police who responded with rubber baton rounds and repeated volleys of tear gas. A police helicopter circled overhead.
“The town is out of control. Business activity has stopped,” said Yannis Adamis, a local resident and mechanical engineer. “The stores are closed. The sirens are blaring, the (church) bells are ringing, people are on the streets. This cannot continue.”
In nearby streets, gaggles of teenage girls, cut lemons held to their noses in a futile effort to ward off tear gas, mingled with young men in balaclavas stocking up on rocks to throw at police. An elderly man wielding a shepherd’s staff stormed past.
“We’ve learned at the age of 60 about Molotov cocktails,” he thundered through his gas mask – an accessory sported by young and old alike. He would only give his first name, Panagiotis.
By the end of the night, more than 20 people – including three riot policemen – had been treated in the hospital. Just after midnight, a police officer’s home in the area was attacked with firebombs, leaving three cars destroyed. The officer and his wife, who is also in the police force, and their four children were home at the time but unharmed, police said.
Greece is no stranger to riots, and demonstrations in Athens often end in scuffles with police. But the escalation of violence in Keratea is causing concern.
“The fact that we don’t have victims yet is sheer luck,” said Konstantinos Priftis, a local farmer and basketball coach. “Keratea is protecting its dignity, its history. … We’re not going to back down.”
A sense of paranoia has also settled over the town. Rumors abound that undercover police are at work, walking around town and gathering information. Journalists, with their cameras and notebooks, immediately arouse suspicion. A cameraman for an international news agency was beaten by locals during the clashes on Thursday, and his camera equipment destroyed.
Residents argue the landfill will devalue the region and pose a health hazard. The town’s mayor says local authorities have made a counterproposal for waste management, but that government officials refuse to listen.
“We have a very specific proposal. We accept to manage our proportion of the garbage in the manufacturing district with a small, modern factory that we want to build as a municipality,” said mayor Kostas Levantis.
Government spokesman Giorgos Petalotis condemned the violence on Thursday, and said the government had no intention of abandoning its plans to build the landfill, which it said would ease problems at Athens’ single garbage dump.
“We are the only authority that has a comprehensive plans for (greater Athens’) regional development … we will not abandon the effort that has been made and is currently being made to build this new facility,” he said.
But the residents are adamant.
“There’s no way we will back down. If they don’t accept that this project cannot happen, we will be here as long as it takes,” said Levantis.