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The industrial town that epitomises Europe’s divisions

Europe’s heart of darkness

Migration, tribalism, drug-smuggling and nationalism – a continent’s problems reverberate through one small Greek town. Alexander Clapp travels to Aspropyrgos

Migration, tribalism, drug-smuggling and nationalism – a continent’s problems reverberate through one small Greek town. Alexander Clapp travels to Aspropyrgos

Alexander Clapp | September 1st 2017

One night last April Konstantinos Potouridis disappeared from his home in Aspropyrgos, an industrial town in central Greece. Two weeks later, his uncle Kostas received a phone call from his abductors. “They said my nephew was still alive,” Kostas explains, “but they wanted €1,500 for his return.” Kostas didn’t contact the authorities. His mother had been killed in a hit-and-run accident a few years previously, but the police had called him a liar and refused to consider his case. “Never trust the police in Aspropyrgos,” he says. “They lie to get promoted.” So late that night, he found himself waiting by the side of the highway. A man in a black sports car pulled up next to him. Kostas handed over the money and the car peeled swiftly away. But Konstantinos never showed up. A week later, the police called Kostas and told him that his nephew had been found – handcuffed, pumped with bullets and chained to a bag of stones at the bottom of the Mornos Channel in the hills above the town. “My nephew got too flashy with his money,” Kostas says. “He had the biggest house on the block, six taxis, motorcycles. There was a target on his back.”

This is not an unusual story in Aspropyrgos, but then Aspropyrgos is an unusual place. Twenty kilometres north-west of Athens, it is cut off from the rest of the country by the sea on one side and an arc of mountains on the other. The Greek state crams onto this rocky plain, which stretches the length of 1,000 football pitches, everything that is too noisy or dirty to put in the capital. Aspropyrgos is home to Greece’s major steelworks, brick manufacturers, quarries, cement silos, power plants and petroleum refineries. “Nowhere was it possible to find land so close to Athens and so cheap,” a local butcher called Eirinaos tells me. “Now those old sheep pastures spit out gold.” The Mornos Channel serves as Athens’s major water supply and Greece’s biggest dump lies on a plateau to the north-east. Accounting for less than 1% of the country’s landmass, Aspropyrgos and the surrounding Thriasio Plain are responsible for nearly 40% of Greece’s industrial output. “Aspropyrgos makes, Europe takes”, reads graffiti scrawled around the town.

Oil and blood 
Evening falls on the Hellenic Petroleum refinery

But Aspropyrgos is more than a manufacturing centre; it is an entrepôt. Every year, 3m cargo containers packed with merchandise circulate through Aspropyrgos without leaving so much as a trace. Garments hanging in the bazaars of Skopje and Bucharest, beach chairs erected along the Black Sea coast, refrigerators chugging in kitchens across the Balkan Peninsula – most have spent their first nights on the European continent in Aspropyrgos. Scattered across its highlands are more than 3,000 corporate warehouses. They store the contents of nearly every cargo container that reaches Greece by sea. Merchandise amounting to a double-digit chunk of Greece’s GDP arrives from nearby Piraeus, the largest container port in the eastern Mediterranean, along the coastal road known as the Sacred Way. In antiquity, this led the Athenians every autumn to Eleusis to conduct their religious rites. Now the highway bears more than 20,000 18-wheelers to the warehouses of Aspropyrgos each day. Nearly every major international consumer-goods company, from Estée Lauder to AstraZeneca, operates one. Products sit for days, sometimes weeks, before being moved on to the rest of Greece and Europe on a different set of trucks. A large proportion of these later return to Aspropyrgos to disintegrate in its dump.

The warehouses are minimal cement structures, many the size of aircraft hangars, and most are protected by some combination of barbed-wire fencing, private security and dogs on chains. “Even the abandoned warehouses attract thieves,” Andreas Papadakis, the manager of a warehouse that stores Athens’s medical records, tells me. “They rip out every little strand of wiring and piping.” Aspropyrgos’s 40 police officers are too few in number to patrol the warehouses routinely but it is an open secret that many contain more than they purport to. Some are registered to companies that don’t exist. Others have secret elevators and basements. A fledgling human-trafficking trade takes in refugees from the Aegean Sea, hides them temporarily in Aspropyrgos, then hustles them over to the Adriatic and on to Italy. Guns tend to come by boat from Albania or Ukraine. Hash arrives from Crete, heroin from the Turkish border, cocaine in car parts imported from South America. The contraband cigarette business – a trade that makes €1bn of illegal profit in Greece alone – is an industry in which this town specialises. Only in a place like Aspropyrgos, where the vast quantity of global trade serves as camouflage, could these activities thrive with almost corporate efficiency.

The people, like the goods, have come from far-flung corners of Europe and Asia. The majority of the town’s 40,000 inhabitants arrived by sheer historical happenstance, propelled by climactic events over which they had little control. Many do not speak Greek. You hear a cacophony of Albanian, Russian, Greek and Romani dialects incomprehensible to most residents of Athens on the other side of the mountains. As Greece’s recent misfortunes have led to a recrudescence of nationalism, Aspropyrgos has seen rising ethnic tensions, which have proved to be beyond the control of the debilitated state.

Turf wars brewed in the Soviet Union and the Balkans spill out across its neighbourhoods, many of which the police refuse to enter. Vendetta killings and dismemberments are common. In 2009, the 74-year- old oligarch Pericles Panagapoulos was kidnapped at gunpoint from his Athenian home; he was discovered, after two weeks and a €15m ransom, outside an Aspropyrgos warehouse. There are the “tiger” kidnappings, in which Roma take Pakistani immigrants hostage and extract ransoms from their relatives back home. Georgians and Crimeans gun down police with impunity. Albanian and Bulgarian gangs dispatch Roma hitmen from the town to terrorise the upper-class neighbourhoods of Athens. And the growing conflict between the Roma and the Pontic Greeks – immigrants from the former Soviet Union – has created an opportunity which Golden Dawn, the Greek far-right party, has exploited to the full. “Not many people understand all that goes on here,” says Angelos Tziolas, the local police chief.

Into this rich mix the town’s latest newcomers, the Chinese, have ventured. The China Ocean Shipping Company (COSCO) has mighty aspirations for Aspropyrgos. It hopes to make the town its primary European distribution site on One Belt, One Road – the integrated network across which China plans to secure a significant portion of the world’s trade over the next two decades. The Chinese have already acquired the majority stake in nearby Piraeus and are in the process of transforming it into a purely commercial outpost that will absorb the brunt of the sea traffic entering the Mediterranean from Asia. Aspropyrgos is the lesser known but equally important Chinese project in Greece. On a slab of the Thriasio Plain recently connected by rail to the docks at Piraeus, the Chinese plan to invest tens of millions of euros in the largest railway hub in south-eastern Europe. They will transport cargo to Aspropyrgos by train, then to Prague by a new railway line, distributing goods to the countries en route – if, that is, they can bring the place under control.

End of the road
LEFT A typical picturesque scene. RIGHT Kostas Potouridis with a photo of his brother Dimitris, who died before he was able to return to Greece. 

Kostas Potouridis, uncle of the murdered Konstantinos, is an unemployed engineer with a hawk-like olive face and a mouth sprinkled with gold teeth. When he arrived in Aspropyrgos in late 1989, he knew “less than the tourists” about Greece. His ancestors had left its shores in antiquity to colonise the Black Sea coastline. For generations they lived prosperously in the northern reaches of Turkey until the collapse of the Ottoman Empire at the end of the first world war. No longer subjects of one vast multinational empire, Kostas’s parents headed on horseback to the Caucasus and became subjects of another. In Soviet Abkhazia, a few hundred kilometres along the shore of the Black Sea, they worked in the tobacco fields. They were uprooted again shortly before the second world war – this time to Kazakhstan – after Stalin branded the likes of them fifth columnists. Khrushchev later barred them from leaving the Soviet Union altogether. Kostas grew up in a village near Uzbekistan, among people who seemed “crazy” to him – Turkic peasants, Muscovite infantrymen and Armenian merchants. He spoke Russian, studied electrical engineering and undertook military service in Estonia. His was “as Soviet a life as you could imagine”.

But Kostas was deeply attuned to what it meant to be Greek. Generations of his ancestors had preserved their traditions long after they and the other Pontic Greeks – the Greeks of the Pontos, the Black Sea – had forgotten the sights and sounds of their homeland. Their rituals, maintained for thousands of years, were haunted by the inertia of a people who dreamed of home but never attempted to return. In their xores – their dances – the Pontic Greeks linked their elbows and kicked out their legs in a circle of bristling heels. In their tragoudia, their melancholic ballads, they mourned the fall of Constantinople to the eerie screech of the lyre. In the Pontic language, they preserved the grammatical structures of ancient Greek that had long been discarded by their European cousins – who, as Kostas saw it, had been corrupted by waves of invaders.

No matter where the Potouridis family had settled, they always identified themselves as Romaioi – citizens of Byzantium, the eastern Roman Empire. Finally, in 1989, the Soviet Union collapsed and the Pontic Greeks could travel at will. Kostas leapt at the opportunity to return home. “Greece invited us back, but it was more than that,” he says. “It meant living in a place and saying ‘I’m from here’ – and having that actually be true.” He packed his mother, his wife, his daughter and his possessions into his blue Lada and drove west for six days. The journey retraced his ancestors’ movements, across the Steppes, over the Caspian Sea, down through Abkhazia and the tobacco fields where his parents had laboured, along the coast of Turkey and past his grandparents’ village, out to Istanbul before, finally, ending in Aspropyrgos – across the Aegean from Miletus, the ancient city-state from which his ancestors had probably set forth nearly three millennia previously. “And that”, says Kostas, “is where the troubles started.”

The first thing that struck Kostas about Aspropyrgos was that almost none of its inhabitants took seriously his claim to be Greek. “They called us Slavs,” he says, “and treated us like it.” The blighted landscape looked nothing like the bright mother country that the Pontic Greeks had hymned in exile. The sea was too polluted with petrol to swim in. The mountains were strewn with refuse. The winds had a gamey stench. Like several other countries with a lost diaspora in the Soviet Union, Greece had encouraged hundreds of thousands of Pontic Greeks to return to the homeland. But, in Aspropyrgos, it did nothing to help them once they pitched up. The Pontic Greeks were directed to a strip of plain called Gorutsa, buttressed by Roma camps on one side and a string of refineries on the other, and told to build their homes themselves. Kostas patched together his house, a rambling edifice of undressed bricks and cement, one room at a time. He picked up work as an engineer, designing the homes of other Pontic Greeks.

Pause to reflect
Refugees relax by the Gulf of Elefsina

Having finally arrived home, the Pontic Greeks began to wax nostalgic for the land they had left behind. Even today, nearly 30 years after they settled in Aspropyrgos, Gorutsa seems like a Soviet enclave deposited on the Aegean coast. Streets take their names from the ports of the Caucasus. Large white satellite dishes stream news channels from Moscow. Supermarkets sell sausages from Ukraine and boxed chocolates from the Baltics. Men in tracksuits play chess at picnic tables and argue in their Black Sea koiné – a gravelly swirl of Russian and Greek and Pontiaka.

It is no wonder that people like Kostas chose to cherish this past when Greece had disappointed them. He has been out of work since 2013 and is now supported by his two daughters. An operation for cancer, which he blames on industrial pollution, has shorn off slices of his nose and ear. He has no expectations of anything good to come. It is hardly surprising, given their dire circumstances, that many Pontic Greeks have turned to illicit ways of earning a living. Contacts in the Abkhazia tobacco fields offered them access to the contraband cigarette trade. In the late 1990s, cigarettes were transported on fishing trawlers from Odessa and Batumi. Later, when the Black Sea ring was compounded into an international network that stretches to China, shipments arrived on the same vessels that brought shiny new merchandise to the town’s warehouses. Kostas believes his nephew was killed by the Georgian mob bosses who run the trade: “He owed a lot to his suppliers, and I wouldn’t be surprised if they start coming to me for the money.”

The Pontic Greeks were perplexed and aggravated by their Roma neighbours, but the similarities between the two groups were nonetheless striking. Their numbers are roughly equivalent – approximately 15,000 each – and both had arrived in Aspropyrgos at around the same time. In the 1980s, just as the warehouses began popping up on the Aspropyrgos highlands, the Greek state relocated Roma communities from Athens into camps on the town’s outskirts. As with the Pontic Greeks, it did almost nothing to help them thereafter.

I meet Lambros Karachalios one morning as he is waiting in line at a branch of Piraeus Bank. He has enormous chestnut eyes and a stomach that tumbles out from the waistband of his jeans. “What?” he says, turning to me. “You wanted to watch a Roma work an ATM?” Lambros demands €6,000 for driving me up to his camp. I bargain him down to €20. We get in his truck, a silver Toyota pickup he often pets with affection. In the truck’s bed lie a blanket of flowers and shrubs. Most mornings Lambros drives to Athens to sell his stock to florists. His father did the same work, and Lambros is teaching it to his three sons. His wife has left him to live in northern Greece with another man. He coughs lightly whenever I asked about her and waves his hand in front of his nose, as though wafting away a bad smell.

In a glass darkly 
LEFT Lambros Karachalios, a Roma, at home in a camp on the town’s outskirts. RIGHT The government has little authority in Aspropyrgos

The Roma make no claims on Greece’s historic past or its modern aspirations. To them, being Greek means understanding how the country works in practice. Lambros can rattle off the days that different street markets in Athens operate. His grasp of the national road network and seasonal winds is comprehensive. During the summer, he ventures out to monasteries across the islands and acquires icons from each one. These are arranged in a corner of his house and brought out to his bedside on festival days. “Mystika pragmata!” he says. “These are mystical things.” His house is a shanty construction of white plastic beams and clear tarp windows. “Come look at my shower,” he says, pointing to a hose hooked up to the Mornos Channel. A few metres away, two shrines commemorate children who were electrocuted trying to tap a power line for electricity. Pickup trucks bounce around blaring Romani jazz. The local school is an assemblage of cargo containers gathering rust. But Lambros claims no one sends their kids to it anyway. “The Roma can teach themselves everything they need to know,” he says.

Lambros’s camp is called Sofos. He moved there five years ago after his previous camp was burned down in revenge for the rape of a Pontic Greek girl by several Roma men. “The Pontics brought in all their people for it,” he says. “Buses came down from Thessaloniki.” The roads of Sofos are strewn with rubbish – swivel chairs, mannequins, stereo speakers – that had first entered Greece through Piraeus. “We pick this stuff out from the dump and toss what we can’t sell.”

The Roma are proudly defiant of a state that will not aid them and neighbours who refuse to hire them. They have learned how to exploit the riches of Aspropyrgos. Some rob warehouses. Others turn to smuggling. But most work in the metal trade – the main reason why, despite their quarrels with the Pontic Greeks, the Roma have stayed in Aspropyrgos. Their ancestors spent centuries fashioning tin and copper, but in Aspropyrgos more money is to be made by picking it out of dumpsters. The work is illegal but the Greek authorities rarely trouble them.

The mountainsides shimmer with scavenger boys scouring the ground for anything metallic, from washing machines to cutlery, that can be sold to local junkyards. Athens itself offers an even bigger draw: Roma from across Greece ransack everything from drain covers to parked cars. “Our kids used to help us,” Lambros says ruefully. “But the Children’s Smile” – a Greek NGO – “captured them and locked them up in shelters. It took weeks to get them back.” The refugee crisis has enabled the Roma to enlist Pakistanis and Syrians with promises, rarely kept, of marriages and EU passports. The metal is sorted upon arrival, having been ferried to Aspropyrgos by a fleet of pickup trucks and motorised wheelbarrows. Everything else – windshields, plastic fixtures, rubber tyres – is burned in fires that illuminate the hills every night. The metal is sold to one of over 200 scrapyards scattered across Aspropyrgos, many of them operated by Pontic Greeks. It is weighed and auctioned off to the enormous steelworks by the coast, where it is smelted and laden onto ships bound for the great ports of north Africa and Asia. Some of it will return to Greece – wrought into an appliance or cargo container – and the cycle will begin again.

Trial by fire 
A Pakistani labourer recovers scrap aluminium from disassembled fridges

The economic crisis made the lives of the Aspropyrgians harder than ever before. Relations between Pontic Greeks and Roma grew increasingly hostile, as each group blamed the other for their misfortunes. “Look how lawless they are,” Kostas says of his Roma neighbours. “They leave their trash and their kids everywhere.” Lambros views people like Kostas as intruders. “Nothing bad came in from the sea before they got there,” he says. Into the void left by the emaciated and neglectful state stepped Golden Dawn, the neo-Nazi party that has thrived on resentment of austerity.

Golden Dawn attracts nearly one in three votes in Aspropyrgos. Kostas heartily supports them; so does almost every other Pontic Greek I meet. Many approve of Golden Dawn’s willingness to put the Roma in their place, often through brute force. But even more attractive to Pontic Greeks is Golden Dawn’s veneration of their distinctive identity. By resisting assimilation and maintaining their traditions for thousands of years, the Pontic Greeks affirm Golden Dawn’s central tenet: that the Greeks are exceptional people. They preserve the connection to the era of Hellenic supremacy. While others treat them as interlopers, Golden Dawn elevates them to aristocrats. No other politicians have ever talked to them like this before.

Golden Dawn has single-handedly resurrected some public services that the state cannot afford to support and provided food handouts (these may be financed by the party’s involvement in the heroin trade, yet another illicit business circulating through Aspropyrgos). Kostas finds their actions reassuring. Golden Dawn patrols his neighbourhood and keeps the Roma thieves out. They chase Albanian drug-dealers from the railway station. They threaten local bosses who hire Bulgarians and Ukrainians ahead of Greeks. Unlike other parties, which are barely visible, Golden Dawn is known intimately by Aspropyrgians. Its two-storey office can be seen from the Sacred Road. Its best-known MPs are frequent visitors.

The centrepiece of its public services is a bland-sounding initiative called “The Proposal for the Management of Waste”. Over the past six years, Aspropyrgians have attended detailed scientific lectures at which Golden Dawn MPs have expounded their proposals for reversing the environmental despoliation of Aspropyrgos. In a speech in 2014 Ilias Panagiotaros, a Golden Dawn MP who used to run a military-apparel supply company and has no qualifications in chemistry, enumerated the dozens of lethal toxins to be found in Aspropyrgos’s soil. Naturally, he blamed the Roma and their metal collecting. The residents of Aspropyrgos are now hundreds of times more likely to contract cancer than Greeks of nearby towns, he told a crowd of several hundred Aspropyrgians. “The dump”, he said to raucous applause “must be closed!”

This is a roundabout way of targeting those whom Golden Dawn considers most unwelcome – the Roma themselves. Panagiotaros’s solution was not to close down the metal trade entirely, but to force the Roma out and replace them with “real” Greeks. Shortly after the crisis began, a Golden Dawn training camp sprang up in the hills not far from Lambros’s camp. “You are going to get rid of the human garbage which has been depositing here, stealing, murdering, committing crimes,” Golden Dawn’s spokesman, Ilias Kasidiaris, said at the time. “Don’t you realise? There’s no state here, no police, no justice, nobody to help you. Take to the streets. Reclaim your rights. You will win; we are at your side.”  Kostas didn’t care whether or not this was fascism. To him, it looked like a solution.

What rough beast?
LEFT The Golden Dawn office in Aspropyrgos, surmounted by a banner of two murdered activists. RIGHT A friendly welcome

An alternative solution to the problems of Aspropyrgos has emerged from the other side of the globe. A few kilometres to the west of the town lies the port of Piraeus. Its cargo terminals have been under the control of COSCO, the shipping company owned by the Chinese government, for much of the last decade. Now COSCO has set its sights on Aspropyrgos. Though the town may be unruly, even inherently ungovernable, Chinese investment in Piraeus will come to naught without access to this hinterland. Much of the cargo imported by COSCO needs to be transported to Aspropyrgos for storage. The town is also a focal point for Chinese mercantile aspirations across Europe. A new freight railway, which currently stretches 1,500km to Budapest and will eventually terminate in Prague, departs from there. The Chinese are disarmingly honest about their intention to reverse a century of humiliations at the hands of Europeans.

In order to understand the potential transformation that lies in store for Aspropyrgos, I meet Zhang Anming, one of seven Chinese Communist Party officials charged with running Piraeus. He is a slender, serious man who managed a handful of Chinese ports before coming to Greece. From an office decorated with murals that juxtapose artefacts from the Han dynasty and classical Athens, he looks out on a meticulously organised harbour, in which tens of thousands of metal shipping containers are stacked in towers. “At any one time, we can tell where each one of those containers is,” Zhang informs me, pointing to a TV screen that tracks the movements of individual containers by satellite.

This is not COSCO’s first foray into Europe. Two decades ago the Chinese pitched up in Naples with equal determination to establish a beachhead. That venture turned sour in 2007 when hundreds of Chinese and Italian contraband entrepreneurs were arrested for manufacturing fake designer goods. Two years later, having been desperately courted by Greece’s austerity-starved government and shipping elites, the Chinese relocated to Piraeus.

But the allegations that hounded the Chinese out of Naples are already resurfacing. COSCO has an astonishing degree of independence over the customs controls of the port and strange new shipments have been arriving in Greece from a string of ports in South-East Asia. The head of the Aspropyrgos police told me that over the summer a truck bearing a cargo container from Piraeus was randomly pulled over and searched. Inside were dozens of boxes filled with Lacoste alligator patches. “It looks like the Chinese are manufacturing the products in Aspropyrgos’s warehouses or in the Chinese neighbourhoods of Athens,” he says. “They attach one button, one collar, and call it a European product, no taxes paid.” The feeble rule of law in Aspropyrgos may add to the site’s appeal. Zhang, though, denies any illicit activity. “What’s the point of investing €500m into a port just to attach some fake buttons here and there?” he asks.

Most Pontic Greeks are confident the advantages of COSCO’s eventual arrival will outweigh any drawbacks. They believe that the Chinese will clean up the town and enforce order, but will not obstruct their cigarette smuggling. The Roma, though, are fearful. Few of them dare ransack the new Chinese railway for scrap metal. “These people adore profit even more than our politicians,” Lambros says. “They’ll do anything to get it – kill stray dogs, destroy the mountains.” But whatever the exact repercussions might be, nobody doubts that, for good or ill, there’s a new sheriff coming to this festering town.

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