'We will cut your throats': The anatomy of Greece's lynch mobs

With anti-migrant violence hitting a fever pitch, victims ask why Greek authorities have carried out so few arrests.

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    Goritsa, Greece - Scrawled in spray paint on a deserted building at the entrance to Goritsa, a Greek farming village on the outskirts of Aspropyrgos, is a large black X crossing out "Anti-Fascist Zone".

    Inside the village, the walls of abandoned factories are blanketed in graffiti bearing crosshairs, a symbol of the neo-fascist Golden Dawn party. "Aspropyrgos - Golden Dawn," one of the tags proclaims.

    In a sprawling field on the periphery of Goritsa, Ashfak Mahmoud, a short, slender man in a billowing, navy blue raincoat and a black beanie, slides gloves onto his work-worn hands. He pulls a dull kitchen knife from his pocket and slices at the bulbous lettuce heads below.

    Mahmoud is one of seven victims of anti-migrant violence and threats who spoke to Al Jazeera. Citing the low number of arrests stemming from the violence, they all accused the police of either acting too slowly or treating their cases with neglect. 

    On a deserted factory in Goritsa is pro-Golden Dawn graffiti [Nick Paleologos/SOOC/Al Jazeera]

    The 40-year-old Pakistani worker walks to the edge of the muddy field, his galoshes squishing on the way. Pausing under the cloud-scattered sunlight on an otherwise bleak afternoon, he raises a finger in the direction of a rusty chain-link fence situated some ten metres away.

    "That's where they were standing when I noticed them," he says of a group of Greek men who lumbered around and watched on as he worked in April 2017.

    Mahmoud recognised the men from the town square, and he was suspicious of their intentions. During his two years in Gortisa's fields, he had witnessed several far-right vigilante attacks.

    Hesitant at first, he eventually confronted the men, asking them what they were doing and if they were looking for trouble. One of the men snapped a photo of him on his iPhone, but they insisted they had no qualms with foreigners.

    "They said that they like Pakistanis, that they are together with the Pakistanis, that they eat with Pakistanis often and that they had no problem with me," he recalls, "and then they went on their way and left."

    Yet, from that day on, he suspected that his time would come. "I was 100 percent sure that they were planning an attack," Mahmoud says.

    Ashfak Mahmoud believes he was targeted owing to his participation in anti-racism rallies [Nick Paleologos/SOOC/Al Jazeera]

    Although many undocumented workers in Greece fear drawing the attention of authorities or the far right, Mahmoud joined the front lines of several anti-racism protests as violence soared in Aspropyrgos and the surrounding villages last year.

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    "There had been many racist attacks, and they [the far right] always saw me [at protests]," he remembers.

    "I was going to the hospital with victims and to the police station when they filed complaints. How could I not help when people were being beaten in front of my eyes?"

    'One by one, we will cut your throats'

    On October 7, 2017, Mahmoud's fears were realised when a band of five black-clad men in masks arrived in the fields that Saturday afternoon and confronted him and Waqas Hussein, his co-worker.

    One of the men revealed a knife. Another swung a hail of punches in Hussein's direction, but most of them only connected with his chest.

    They both turned to run. Hussein escaped, but Mahmoud was not so lucky.

    He slipped and tumbled down. Punches and kicks thudded against his body. Within moments, he had been stabbed in the face, bludgeoned with a stone and pounded with brass knuckles.

    "One by one, we will cut your throats," the assailants said, according to Mahmoud, with the blows still striking him. "We will burn you alive in your houses. Don't think we'll leave you [alone]. If you go to the police, you can be sure it will be worse next time."

    He was subsequently hospitalised and treated for his injuries, but Mahmoud says that he still feels pain under his right eye, where a scar remains.

    Mahmoud was caught by his attackers when he slipped and fell while trying to escape [Nick Paleologos/SOOC/Al Jazeera] 

    Javed Aslam, president of the Pakistani Community of Greece association, documented upwards of 70 attacks on migrant labourers in the Aspropyrgos area between April 2016 and October 2017.

    Aslam, who said he began to receive near daily phone calls from field workers as the bloodshed escalated, explained that the attacks in Aspropyrgos soared during the summer of 2017.

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    He found himself shuttling back and forth to the area regularly to take the testimony of victims, urging them to file police reports and speak out against the campaign of intimidation. "They want to kick [Pakistanis] out of this area," he says grimly.

    Having tracked anti-migrant violence for more than a decade, Aslam sees only one possible culprit: Golden Dawn. 

    After years of Golden Dawn carrying out violence against migrants in Greece, several journalists and political opponents echoed Aslam's suspicions. 

    Crescendo of violence

    In October, after Mahmoud and Hussein were beaten in Goritsa, the Golden Dawn, which has 16 seats in the Hellenic Parliament, decried accusations of its involvement as "slanderous attacks" on the party.

    "We condemn violence - in total and not casually - and we continue our legitimate and righteous struggle for the liberation of Greece," its statement said, blasting its accusers as "corrupt".

    In a controversial meeting days later, Golden Dawn leader Nikolaos Michaloliakos assured Khalid Usman Qaiser, Pakistan's ambassador in Athens, that his party was not responsible for the incident. 

    At the time of publication, the Golden Dawn's press office had not replied to Al Jazeera's request for a comment. 

    Acknowledging the shocking nature of the attack on Mahmoud and Hussein, Tina Stavrinaki, a spokesperson at the Athens-based Racist Violence Recording Network, a coalition of groups monitoring and documenting xenophobic attacks, said: "It reminds of so many others from before."

    Anti-migrant violence is not new in Greece, where squads of Golden Dawn members and other far-right vigilantes brought a spate of brutal attacks to a fever pitch in 2012, the same year the far-right outfit surged in the elections and first landed its legislators in the parliament.

    The Racist Violence Recording Network documented 154 attacks that year. Of that total, all but three targeted refugees and migrants.

    The following year, the violence peaked at 166 attacks - 144 of which targeted refugees and migrants - that racked up a tally of at least 320 victims. Almost half of the total number of those attacked were shot.

    Supporters of the Golden Dawn rally in Greece on February 3, 2018 [Nick Paleologos/SOOC/Al Jazeera]

    That same year, a pair of high-profile killings rocked the country. In January 2013, two assailants believed to be linked to the Golden Dawn stabbed Pakistani migrant Shahzad Luqman seven times, leaving him in the street to die.

    Nine months later, in September, Giorgos Roupakias, a cafeteria employee in the Golden Dawn's office, stabbed to death anti-fascist rapper Pavlos Fyssas in Piraeus, the port city adjacent to Athens.

    After the murder of Fyssas, anger erupted in the streets, with anti-fascists, anti-racists and leftists rallying regularly against the Golden Dawn.

    The violence receded to a temporary standstill when dozens of Golden Dawn members were arrested for allegedly operating a criminal organisation.

    Today, 69 party members, including the entire parliamentary group from the 2012 elections, are still on trial, and the legal proceedings have moved at a snail's pace.

    In 2014, the number of hate crimes against refugees and migrants recorded by the Racist Violence Monitoring Network sunk to 46.

    In general, we do not think we are back in a situation like 2013, but what we also have is this feeling that we are right before the big wave of violence by Golden Dawn.

    Tina Stavrinaki, communications officer at the Racist Violence Recording Network

    In 2015, 75 incidents involved assaults on refugees and migrants were documented. In 2016, a comparably low number, 31 incidents, involved attacks on refugees and migrants.

    But last year witnessed a crescendo of anti-migrant violence, with at least 47 attacks motivated by race, skin colour or national origin in the first six months alone, according to statistics provided to Al Jazeera by the Hellenic Police.

    "In general, we do not think we are back in a situation like 2013, but what we also have is this feeling that we are right before the big wave of violence by Golden Dawn," Stavrinaki says. "Extremist xenophobic groups are not as afraid as they were during the first part of the trial of Golden Dawn."

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    In an email to Al Jazeera, a police spokesperson denied accusations of impunity for far-right violence, insisting that the force can only file charges at the behest of the prosecutors' offices.

    'Remake the violence of the past'

    Mahdi*, a 17-year-old Afghan refugee who arrived in Greece with his mother and four siblings two years ago, described being followed, beaten and left bleeding on the pavement three months ago. 

    Sitting in a smoke-filled Afghan cafe in Exarchia, an Athens neighbourhood where many anarchists and leftists are based, Mahdi describes the incident, which left him with impaired hearing and chronic dizziness. 

    Around 8:45pm on November 19, 2017, he was walking home to join his family at their flat in the Platia Amerikis area of the capital when he noticed that four men had been following him for more than half a kilometre. 

    He reached an intersection and saw that two more men, both dressed from head-to-toe in black, were waiting there on a motorcycle. As he passed, one of the men lifted the face mask of his helmet and ordered the four following Mahdi to grab the teenager.

    "I said to myself, 'I hope they just want to rob me and not kill me'," he remembers, adjusting his rectangular, black-rimmed glasses nervously and rubbing his eyes as he tells the story. 

    He turned when he heard the men running nearer behind him and removed his glasses to shield his eyes. A fist landed on his temple, and Mahdi fell from the pavement onto the hood of a parked car. The men, one of whom wore a sharp ring, took turns hitting him. 

    Mockingly, one of the assailants said to the others: "Don't hit him, guys, he's just a poor immigrant." 

    The blows pounded his face and torso.

    Cars passed by, but no one stopped to intervene, he says. "F*** your mother," his attackers screamed. "F*** your religion, terrorist. Go back to your country." 

    He eventually broke free and rushed into his apartment.

    Activists from Keerfa, the anti-racist group of which he is a member, rushed over and took him to the hospital. The next morning, he filed a police report at a station 600 metres from the site of the attack. 

    Investigators told him they could not find any witnesses and no security cameras caught the incident. Outraged by what he perceived as indifference on the part of the police, he cut off communication with them. 

    "They know what is happening in that area because a church in [the nearby square] Agios Panteleimonas is a meeting point for fascists," he insists. 

    Of course, fascists and racists are a threat to both Greeks and migrants. But it's like the police don't care because it's just another report they have to file and that's it.

    Mahdi, 17-year-old Afghan refugee

    "It was a racist attack, and in that area the people doing this stuff the most are Golden Dawn," Mahdi argues. 

    "I had heard about the far-right people before coming to Greece, but I never expected this. We also heard that people here are very welcoming," he continues. 

    "Of course, fascists and racists are a threat to both Greeks and migrants," he concludes, alluding an incident in which Golden Dawn members beat and hospitalised 24-year-old Alexis Lazaras, a university student, last March in an Athens suburb.

    "But it's like the police don't care because it's just another report they have to file and that's it." 

    Mahdi's beating came just two weeks after a group calling itself Crypteia, a reference to an ancient band of Spartans who committed atrocities against slaves, assaulted the home of an 11-year-old Afghan boy in Athens.

    Mahdi, a 17-year-old Afghan, has endured impaired hearing and chronic dizziness since being attacked several months ago [Nick Paleologos/SOOC/Al Jazeera]

    Identified in the local press only as Emir, the boy saw his home targeted after he was flung into the national media when his school blocked him from carrying a Greek flag during a parade commemorating Greek resistance during the second world war.

    On November 3, 2017, stones and beer bottles crashed through Emir's windows. "Leave from here, and go back to your village," read a note left behind by the attackers.

    Claiming to be a member of Crypteia, a previously unknown group, an anonymous caller phoned a Greek news outlet and claimed credit for the incident.

    In January, Crypteia claimed responsibility for a series of death threats left on the voicemails of several civil society organisations, including the Muslim Association of Greece.

    "We are the group that kills, burns, hits and tortures immigrants, mainly Muslims," the caller said, according to the Muslim Association of Greece's Anna Stamou, who spoke to Al Jazeera at the time.

    Observers and analysts have cast doubt on the group's authenticity, noting that Golden Dawn - as well as being Islamophobic - opposes non-Greeks carrying the flag in parades.

    Dimitris Psarras, an Athens-based investigative journalist at the Efimerida Sintakton newspaper and author of The Black Bible of Golden Dawn, doubts that Crypteia is separate from Golden Dawn.

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    "I think it's ridiculous and that [Crypteia] doesn't exist," he speculates, organising papers at his desk.

    "Some party members want to remake the past violence of Golden Dawn before the end of the trial."

    'Teaching how to attack'

    In Renti and Nikaia, working-class neighbourhoods in Piraeus, attacks were similar, with assailants bearing masks and draped in black attire.

    In these boroughs, at least 30 homes where migrant labourers reside were attacked during the two weeks following Christmas 2017, according to Keerfa, an anti-racist activist group based in Athens.

    Nawaz Muhammad, 27, who came to Greece nine years ago with the hope of supporting his family back in Pakistan, was among those who saw their homes targeted in Renti, he explains on a pale afternoon in early January of this year. 

    Around 11:00pm on January 4, stones came crashing through his window, flinging shattered glass across the bedroom floor.

    Then, a torrent of oranges followed, thudding against the walls and wooden shutters. Beer bottles came next, bursting into fractured shards on the concrete balcony.

    When Nawaz rushed to the window after the first stone entered his home, he saw a group of men under the glow of the adjacent streetlight. They were winding up to throw slabs of jagged concrete in his direction.

    With their faces covered, the men hurled racist insults at Nawaz as he watched on. "Leave our country, you dirty Pakistanis," they bellowed. "We won't let you stay here."

    Muhammad Nawaz stands behind a window broken by stones tossed by far-right assailants [Nick Paleologos/SOOC/Al Jazeera]

    Sitting on a bare mattress in his austere, third-storey apartment, frustration swallows his face as he explains that, according to his estimation, the January 4 incident was the twentieth attack on his apartment block since late November.

    "They have been trying to provoke us to come down," he guesses, "but we won't make that mistake."

    Nawaz lives with his younger brother and a friend, and when the first attack happened, they chalked it up to drunkenness, assuming a band of teenagers had been looking for trouble after a night at the bar.

    Then, two more attacks happened that week, and two to three like them every week in the following month. With each incident, the attacks appeared more and more like part of an organised campaign.

    Fearful of police, the migrant labourer and his roommates were reluctant to report the incidents at first. Yet, when the black-clad assailants continued to show up, they eventually called for help.

    "At first, they said there was nothing they could do," he recalls.

    Weeks later, only after local Greek TV crews showed up and reported on the violence, police took their testimony. At the time of publication, no arrests have been made. 

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    Speaking to Al Jazeera, Petros Constantinou, national director of Keerfa, argues that the flurry of attacks suggested Golden Dawn was "training new fighting squads". 

    "The hardcore Nazi caucus in Golden Dawn wants to say 'Enough with the legal processions and the trial, let's get back to the attacks'," he says. 

    "Practically speaking, in the areas of Renti and Nikaia, they are trying to educate a new generation of fascists. It was obvious to us because they are using young people there."

    'They don't care because we're foreigners'

    Syed Qurban Shah, a 64-year-old who ventured from Pakistan to Greece in 1994, works in a nearby ice factory. He scoops up an orange from the brown tract of dead grass and dried mud in front of his apartment building.

    "They brought this to throw at us - there aren't even orange trees here," he says, motioning to a scatter of mashed fruit on the ground.

    Grabbing a sharp stone, he shakes his head ominously and adds: "They threw these also."

    Syed Qurban Shah has lived in Greece since migrating from Pakistan in 1994 [Nick Paleologos/SOOC/Al Jazeera]

    Down the road, 45-year-old shop owner Javid Nasser said his minimarket, which he has run for six years, has been attacked more than 15 times since the end of November 2017. In mid-December, his house was also vandalised.

    Standing behind the counter in his store, Nasser picks up the phone to take a delivery order, jotting down a list of groceries before gently putting down the receiver and continuing his account of the violence. 

    Having lived in Greece for the last 20 years, he explains that until four months ago there had been few attacks in the Renti area during the period after Golden Dawn was put on trial.

    "During the first attack, they entered and realised it was a shop belonging to a foreigner," he says. "They said, 'You have to leave our country, you're dirty and you take our jobs'."

    The attacks mirrored others in the area: the assailants hurled oranges and bottles at his store front.

    Javid Nasser says his store has been attacked 15 times since November 2017 [Nick Paleologos/SOOC/Al Jazeera]

    Around the corner, young men have on several occasions pelted a makeshift mosque with tomatoes and sprayed ketchup on its entrance, Nasser says.

    "I've called the police more than 15 times, but they've only come once to take a report," he recounts, explaining officers only showed up after an adjacent Greek-owned store was mistakenly hit with bottles and oranges.

    "I pay taxes and live here with papers … Why don't they help?" Answering his own question, he says: "They don't care because we are foreigners."

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    Standing aside Nasser between the aisles of the minimarket, Qurban Shah chimed in: "The jobs we have - they could never do them. Try waking up at 3:00 in the morning."

    'I've never hurt anyone'

    Back in Goritsa, other victims of anti-migrant attacks decried the apparent culture of impunity that allows for the attacks to continue unabated.

    Latif Abdul, 48, came to Greece a decade ago intending to support his wife and two kids in Pakistan's Islamabad. Yet, an April 2017 attack left him unable to work consistently.

    Abdul sits on a porch, stuttering as he speaks, a condition he says is a result of the assault.

    Latif Abdul's home was set on fire in January 2017, just three months before he was brutally beaten [Nick Paleologos/SOOC/Al Jazeera] 

    In January 2017, after months of hearing rumours of attacks, Abdul first witnessed a fellow field worker being stomped by a mob of far-rightists.

    Paralysed by fear, he stood and watched on until one of the assailants threatened him. He fled the scene, but Abdul says he still didn't expect he would eventually become a target.

    Two weeks later, he laid on his bed and drifted off shortly after nightfall. The smell of smoke woke him from his sleep. He rushed outside to see grey plumes rising from his jerry-built home. In a distant field, a group of masked men were sprinting from the site.

    He eventually repaired the home, but he grew increasingly fearful. One evening in April, he was alarmed when he heard his guard dogs barking loudly. He stepped outside to see what was happening. At first, he didn't see anyone.

    Abdul, 48, says ongoing dizziness and headaches often render him unable to work [Nick Paleologos/SOOC/Al Jazeera]

    Then, as he turned around to step back inside, a powerful blow struck the back of his head.

    He hit the ground and rolled onto his back, and a group of men wearing brass knuckles appeared above him.

    They struck his head repeatedly with the knuckledusters. "Go back to your country, a**hole," he heard them shouting before he lost consciousness.

    Abdul woke up in the hospital later that night. When his boss took him to the police station to file a report the next morning, he says, officers said they could not do anything to help because he is in the country illegally.

    The police subsequently held him in a holding cell for three days.

    "I feel dizzy and sick sometimes, and I have trouble focusing," he says, explaining that he has been denied medical treatment several times owing to his lack of legal residency papers and health insurance.

    "When I can't work, I don't get paid," he says, "but my boss brings me some potatoes and onions, so I can at least eat something."

    While he describes the hardships he has endured since last April, his two guard dogs mull around the yard, sniffing for scraps.

    Until last week, he had five dogs, but three were killed just days earlier when someone threw poisoned meat into his yard. He wonders if it indicates someone is planning to attack him again. 

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    With a trace of sadness in his voice, he concludes: "I've been here for 10 years, and I've never hurt anyone. All I do is collect metal and cartons. They don't have a reason to do this; they're just a**holes."

    'They could still kill me'

    Although the attacks halted after Ashfak Mahmoud and Waqas Hussein were targeted in October, migrant workers in Goritsa fear the pause may be temporary.

    Shortly after dusk one evening in early February 2018, 23-year-old Muhammad Naseef, who has worked in Goritsa since migrating to Greece five years ago, was picking lettuce in the field.

    He looked up to the adjacent gravel road, one of several unnamed streets dissecting Goritsa's fields, as a small sedan slowed to a halt.

    "Come here," the driver shouted in his direction. "We want to ask you for directions."

    Initially unable to see well, Nafees started in the direction of the car.

    When the driver and three passengers opened their doors and stepped out, however, he noticed they were wearing masks and brass knuckles. "No, I won't come over," he replied sharply, turning and dashing away through the field.

    "As usual, [the police] did nothing. I told my boss, but he said there is nothing he can do for me. He just told me to keep doing my job.

    Muhammad Nafees, 23-year-old Pakistani labourer

    With the help of the Pakistani Community of Greece, Nafees filed a police report at the local station the following day. "As usual, they did nothing," he recalls. "I told my boss, but he said there is nothing he can do for me. He just told me to keep doing my job."

    Walking back to the field after a brief cigarette break, he says: "I'm worried. I've seen what they've done to other people here."

    For his part, Mahmoud admitted that the violence has instilled a sense of fear in him. "It's a big problem," he says. "Until now, I am afraid they could kill me."

    After he was attacked, Greek television reporters lined up to interview him. Leading politicians, including then Migration Minister Ioannis Mouzalas, visited his home, posing for photos and condemning the violence at every opportunity.

    Three teenagers with far-right ties were arrested following the incident, but nearly six months later, Mahmoud has received no additional updates from the police.

    Two Pakistani workers left Goritsa after their home was set ablaze in early 2016 [Nick Paleologos/SOOC/Al Jazeera]

    The fields have thinned throughout the last year, with many workers leaving Goritsa for safer areas.

    He walks through the stretch of green farmland, stopping to point out the shell of a nearby deserted home. Several of the remaining concrete blocks are partially charred.

    "Two workers, Jaafar and Nasser, used to live there," he says. "They left after their home was burned down."

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    Despite his fears, he refuses to join his colleagues who left and moved on to jobs elsewhere.

    "I'm also afraid that if I leave they'll see the violence works, and I don't want that," he concludes.

    "If I go, hundreds of others could see it and leave also. In the end, they [the attackers] would succeed."

    *Mahdi's last name has been withheld by Al Jazeera because he is a minor. 

    SOURCE: Al Jazeera News


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