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Last Updated: Thursday, 12 August, 2004, 07:14 GMT 08:14 UK
The people the Olympics forgot
By Neil Arun
BBC News Online in Athens

The old man, tanned and bare-chested, swung a tattooed arm in a grand gesture of annoyance.

Roma in Athens' Ano Liossia district
Roma living near the stadium have little hope for the future
"Tell them the whole story," he shouted, pointing out the new stadium towering over the squat homes and the streets - strewn with rubbish and rubble - of Athens' Ano Liossia district.

"Tell the politicians they can come here and eat the garbage!"

The Ano Liossia judo and wrestling stadium has brought the Olympic Games to the doorstep of Athens' Roma (Gypsy) community.

Construction on this confident mass of swirling grey concrete was completed in January 2004 at a cost of 56m.

It stands in a northern suburb of the city, in stark contrast to the area around it - a sun-baked expanse dotted with debris, abandoned furniture and the wrecked remnants of cars and caravan trailers.

'No rubbish'

The Roma live here, in modest houses where the colours and cleanliness heighten the contrast with the drab wasteland and monolithic stadium outside.

For them, the rubbish and the stadium are symptoms of the same problem - their suffering at the hands of a system that interferes with their lives but remains indifferent to their needs.

Rubbish-strewn area in Athens' Ano Liossia district

The local mayor, Nikos Papadimas, says the Roma are exaggerating the problem and insists the entire area will soon see the benefits of Olympic regeneration.

There is no rubbish, Mr Papadimas says, only debris left by "construction works and an earlier earthquake" - a reference to the tremors that shook Athens in 1999.

The Roma families say they have heard it all before.

A local elder showed us a patch of land ringed by houses and filled with rubbish.

"That used to be the house of a big family," he said. "They came and demolished the house because they said they were going to build a square. Now, there's nothing - no square, no house, just garbage."

Another man told us how the municipality's rubbish trucks had long stopped coming to the area.

"We have to put the rubbish in our own trucks and take it away," he said.

"I have nine grandchildren. I am worried about the diseases. Tell them about us, tell them to clean up this filth."

Coffee and cold water

All those who spoke out wanted to remain anonymous, refusing to give their names or be photographed, saying they feared punishment for their criticism.

Initially suspicious of the two strangers asking questions in their midst, the Roma of Ano Liossia soon showed a stronger instinct for hospitality.

The men stopped work - or left their sun-loungers - to show us around the area.

View of the new Olympic stadium
Close to the new stadium, a dirt track leads to the Roma's houses
Their wives flashed gold-toothed smiles as we accepted offers of coffee and cold water.

And children ran along the streets, posing for the digital camera and squealing with glee when their picture appeared on its tiny screen.

As Athens counts down to what many predict will be the best-ever modern Olympics, the Roma living in the shadow of Ano Liossi stadium are invariably pessimistic about the future.

They complain they are being swept under the carpet by a city that sees no place for them in the Olympic showcase.

Many are bitter that a golden business opportunity - the chance to sell cheap plastic goods and clothing to tourists - has been ruined by the authorities' refusal to give them street-vendors' licenses.

The younger children speak of being chased away by armed police whenever they go near the stadium - though that will not surprise anyone who has tried to approach an Olympic site this year without an appropriate pass.

Broken promises

When we arrived at the stadium, heavily-armed soldiers waved us away, refusing to be photographed.

As we walked around the stadium's perimeter, a police car crawled behind us, the officers in sunglasses exuding an air of lazy vigilance.

The vehicle stopped as we stepped off the freshly-laid road and onto the dirt track leading to the Roma's houses.

"Before the elections, all the politicians came with promises of flower-beds and fountains," a gold-toothed Roma man said.

"But the only thing they have built here is the road to the stadium."

The 2004 Olympic Games have acted as a catalyst for the upgrading of downtown Athens.

Locals and visitors are paying tribute to a city that, they say, is cleaner, prettier and more efficient than ever.

Amidst the chorus of awe and acclaim, the Roma of Ano Liossia see themselves as an anomaly - the people the Olympics forgot.

Tolerance or prejudice?

Thousands of visitors may come to the state-of-the-art stadium in their backyard - but, they say, no one will come to collect the rubbish from their streets.

Mayor Papadimas says the modern stadium will push up property values in the area.

As for the Roma, he says, they are "human beings. We should try and incorporate them into society, but we can't paint them white."

The Roma have long been persecuted in Europe so their presence next to the new stadium can be read, perhaps, as a mark of Athenian tolerance - where another city might have uprooted them altogether.

For the families of Ano Liossia though, the tolerance has become a mask for prejudice and neglect.

"We are Greeks," a Roma man told BBC News Online, patting his heart. "We were born here. We live here. We are victims."


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