Thousands went on strike. Thousands came to protest. This was the Greek people telling their government: enough!

 

When we arrived early in the morning, the atmosphere seemed calm, although there was an underlying air of menace as people approached us and told us to leave. The suggested destinations ranged from a nearby hotel to my native Scotland. Polite but insistent – it was clear some people did not want cameras there – a suggestion things were not going to pass off quietly.

 

I saw them getting ready. Dressed in black, they pulled goggles and scarves from their bags, they talked and pointed. Perhaps no more than 10, but organised and clearly determined.

 

I watched as they made their way to the front of the crowd. In front of them, police guarding the parliament building, a long protective line with white helmets and riot shields.

 

First they threw stones. One or two to begin with, then more. The police fired back with thunder flashes – loud and frightening. Then tear gas. The thick white choking smoke hanging in the air, biting into the eyes and the throat. 

 

The ones in black, men and women, knew what to do. They tried to kick the capsules back, push them away.  Some even wore gasmasks. 

 

Flares were thrown. Quickly followed by petrol bombs. Only two or three, but it proved to the police the violence was pre-meditated and designed to cause damage.

 

Some of the crowd didn’t want their message tainted. They confronted the troublemakers, but that only succeeded in starting fights in a number of places.

 

The police tried to get control, but ended up dealing with running battles around the main square.

 

They would advance and clear an area, step back and watch it fill again.

 

A few people started hammering at the paving stones, the roads and even a fountain, chipping off pieces of rock to be used as weapons. .

 

In one corner, police grabbed a man in a red t-shirt who had been near the front of the trouble. He raised his hands in surrender but their frustration at a few hours chasing shadows clearly boiled over and they threw kicks and punches, some connecting, some not. As his friends realised he hadn’t made it back when they ran, they started to throw stones and rocks at the police, who simply pushed him out from behind their shields and dragged him along as he tried to miss what was intended for others.

 

Eventually calm was restored. Where people had appeared with hammers, they now appeared with brushes and bags to clear the debris.

 

One year ago Greece was struggling to repay its debts. so asked for a bailout. The International Monetary Fund, the European Union and the World Bank produced the cash but demanded changes. Higher taxes, cuts in public spending, the privatisation of public utilities. The people were told it was short term pain to get the country back on its feet. Twelve months on, the debt is even bigger. The recession has hit harder and deeper here than anywhere else – and to meet the terms of the bailout, the government needs more tax rises, more cuts in public spending and more pain.

 

The people are not convinced the government knows what happens if this latest austerity package doesn’t work – not convinced that in a few months time it won’t all happen again.

 


The prime minister wanted a government of national unity. He asked opposition parties to join the government. He offered to stand down if that would help. They said no.  


And in the square in front of his office – they stood in their thousands waiting for a sign of where things were going. The violence may be over for now, but the anger remains.