heroin in Athens

heroinathensΠρεζα* :

a chronicle of heroin in Athens

Photo: Jérôme Barbosa/S4C

These pictures should hardly exist.

What pushed me to come to Athens? Some strong student demonstrations which will finish to be dissolved under unusual rainfall. Here I am with nothing to do and unwilling to play tourist.

So I walk and loose myself in the maze of the Tinkers’ neighboorhood, close to the Acropolis. The names of the streets call to mind famous men from a glorious past : Diogenes, Sophocles, Socrates, Euripides, Menandres.

What I find there is the complete reverse, milling about; stolen cellular phones, phone cards, cloths, kickers and cheap watchs sellers, and here and there drug dealing and fixing. It’s shock. Nothing would have prepared me to that. I am far away from tourist’s leaflets.

It’s flabbergasting… To be sure of what I have seen, I go back. The last five days of my sojourn are spent that way. I will have to come back, I already know that. At the bottom of a dark and dirty corridor, the madness of this place appears clear-minded in the words of a prostitute.

She asks me what I am doing here. I splutter out almost nothing. And for this, she gives me her point of view :” I do hotel job. I get sixty euros. I buy drug from black men. I drink it. When the day is over, no money.”

Then silence. She finishes to spread her make-up. I help her get up. She walks back to the pavement where the crowd swallows her skinny silhouette. And loneliness appears boundless.

As the wheels of the plane are leaving the Greek soil, I know more than ever I will have to come back.

In unlikely circumstances, I manage to block some time. Meanwhile, the Peloponnese is gone, or almost all of it, in flames, and the dog days have made casualties.

What am I about to find? But, as an echo, I also hear : what am I looking for? I don’t know. Let chance act.

This leads me to the Varvakios, a restaurant based on a platform facing the city market whose alleys are the drug addicts’ playground. I don’t hide, I seat amongst them and learn.

Habits, names, friendships, everything that is not under the influence of the greek language which I don’t speak. I am tolerated, innocence saves me. I begin to strike up a friendship with some of them : Makis, Dimitris, Giorgos. They are my smugglers, guides, translators.

Despite their help, I always look like an intruder to some or an informer for others. The pictures I took from the C.P.E. also help me. At the first misunderstanding, doubt or threat, I display them.

These pictures go from hands to hands – two or three are stolen – and earn me friendly slaps on the back.

They don’t really understand what I am doing here and the barrier of language prevents me from telling them that the purpose of my presence remains a mystery for me.

I take pictures of what I can, the difficulties grow : hostility, light conditions, narrowness of the place.

I skim over the subject, I labour an obvious point, the unknown remains. A chronicle of the place reveals nothing which is not already known.

I try to make portraits, because here we are in the gardens of Babel : people come from Greece, but also from Albania, Bulgaria, Rumania, Kurdistan (Iranian and Turkish), Poland, Ukraine, Russia, Iran, Irak, Afghanistan.

Though, with this, I still am out of focus. I have to focus on a peculiar case which spreads to general. To do so, I must become one of them, to be a regular in the gardens, merge into the scenery.

I succeed so well that drug dealers fawn on me and police officers often go through my cloths and bag. But neither one nor the other lets me take pictures of them.

Drug dealers fear denoucement and police officers want to keep their impunity. The only physical threats come from some drug addicts who wants the drug trafficing to go smoothly.

Then there is the other one, more diffuse and omnipresent, weraring the name of rossopodi : greek people who spent their entire lives in Russia and came back to the land of their ancestors.

They are considered violent and silent. One morning, the occasion is given to me to see some of them in action.

In a corner, voices raise up. An afghan drug dealer is punched by four of them. An annoyance is enough to make blows fall. Around heads are shaking incredulously and one picks up what fell off the pockets of the drug dealer.

Some onlookers excited by the view of blood go and give an hand. No one pretends to calm the situation down and the molesters disappear at the corner of a street with their booty.

Everything takes place in front of the City Police Department where nobody moves, but whose windows are suddenly crowded (I will learn later the only police able to act are the national ones).

It’s hopeless. Although I am warned : it could come from everywhere and, except running away, putting up resistance is in vain.

Filth of all kinds is added to this : blood, vomit, spit and used syringes are spread on the ground and stuck in every innermost recess.

I often hesitate to breath, swallow my own saliva or shake hands. Once in a while, some drug addicts are close to overdose.

The others try to « wake them up » in their own way, by slapping their face or pouring water on them, at the end they go through their pockets.

Most often, salvation come from ambulance doctors of the Ekab* and from an injection of xylocaine. And round one goes on fixing.

Every night, I go back home with a single idea : wash myself. Then I relieve my eyes of what they have seen in a small notebook,

I evacuate disgust, powerlessness, lassitude. It is primordial, because the day after, once again, everything has to be under surveillance.

It is difficult, but day after day my attention sharpens more. I laboriously get the patience which allows me to anticipate gestures, comings and goings, and any possible negative reaction; I spend all the time on the lookout.

My attention focuses on three men who show an uncommon solidatity. They live together. Two of them are named Giorgos, the third one Idris.

The two Giorgos are Greek, Idris is Kurdish from Iran. They live in the streets and, having no source of income, they found their own way of survival.

They shared the different tasks among themselves. Once in a while, one of them touts for customers for a drug dealer who rewards them with a dose of heroin.

They recycle used syringes they have picked up here and there, then swap them for new ones at the Okana*. Some new syringes are sold fifty cents apiece. But as it is not enough, they save the heroin which soaks into cigarette filters used in its preparation.

When they get hungry, they stand in the queue at the Sisitio, which distributes free lunch to homeless people. What remains of their day is punctuated with their injections.

Despite all of this, they are friendly and cultured, and try to explain me to those who consider me an embarrassing witness. I focuse my shots on the three of them without neglecting what is happening around.

The most difficult part is to leave the streets where they are part of the crowd of drug addicts, where it is hard to distinguish them. With a lot of patience and after many failures,

I follow them one night to where they squat. An abondonned hotel on Aghios Konstandinou Avenue, close to Omonia Square. In the staircase, on the first floor, they rebuild a home. A couple of mattresses, some blankets, an occasional table.

The whole lit with candles after the nightfall. I come back one morning to seize this confused moment before their day really starts. I break their intimacy, but they give their agreement to me.

They trust me. Giorgos (the oldest one, is only 35 years old) takes care of his appearance : every morning he combs his hair while his legs are covered with scars where blood or pus is dripping of. I see many paradoxes where I didn’t expected to find any.

Suddenly, the situation worsen. The two Giorgos quarrel about a missing syringe full of heroin and their five months old mutual aid ends. They split. I shuttle from one to another, but they keep their position.

Little by little the relationship between Giorgos and Idris follows the same path since Idris had begun to take sleeping pills and heroin together, which make him forgetful and paranoid.

Arguments burst. I try to work about them the best I can, each in one corner.

In the streets, the situation also changed. The Varvakios is no man’s land since its reopening. Many drug addicts had been pushed back to Theatrou Street. Then the shopkeepers and police patrols clean the street. From Threatrou Street, they go to Theatrou Square. Then fed up with police brutality, they find a shelter in a small passage between Sophocleous and Menandrou Streets. The stench and filth are awful. One morning, I see a couple having sex in a cardboard box while syringes are being emptied around. It is impossible to work in such a place like this. I can step in because everybody knows my face now, but taking a picture makes me exposed to the growing anger and violence of the crowd.

My sojourn is coming to its end, as is my reportage. I don’t know if I managed to talk about all these stories, all these lives whose journey stops here, all these people boiled down to that.

Do their portraits mean their origins, their pain, their broken dreams, their ruin? I hope so. What does one read in these maps which stare at us?

Perhaps something else than the prejudice too quickly attached to drug addiction.

My glance changed. What I thought seven months ago desintegrated more or less. The horror remains. But there is also sadness, joy sometimes, a boundless solitude and, despite everything, humanity. Giorgos, Idris, Giannis, Ahmad, Hebib, Ali, Karolina et alii, I won’t forget you.

Jérôme Barbosa/S4C

N.B.: the waiting time to get access to the only program of treatment of drug addiction (the one of the Okana) with methadon is of six years.

Πρεζα (or preza) : means dope in greek

Ekab : greek mobile emergency medical service

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