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The Siege of Kalithea PDF Printable Version E-mail



Assault, Attempted Theft, Kafenion Siege and Unhelpful Police Behaviour

Saturday, 24 February 2007

A report by Barry Williamson


The following report describes events in the Messinian village of Kalithea, during a 92 km bicycle ride with my wife, Margaret. It involved the dangerous driving of a car occupied by 3 young men, assault on me by these men on the terrace of a nearby Kafenion, and the attempted theft and resulting damage to my digital camera (cost 800). I also describe the extreme lack of support given to us by the police, who I had called when my wife and I were trapped in the Kafenion by these 3 men. We left the scene when the police and a number of young men started to threaten us.

Who are we?

We are a retired graduate professional English couple. I was a Principal Lecturer and Head of Department in a University in the UK. Margaret was a lecturer in a College of Further Education and a National Examiner and Moderator for the Royal Society of Arts. I am probably the total age of my 3 assailants.

We are very experienced travellers and have made year-long round-the-world journeys in 2000, 2002 and 2005. We have cycled in over 60 countries and across 3 continents - Europe, USA (twice) and Australia. We know Greece very well indeed. In fact, Greece has been our winter home for 8 of the last 12 years and we have cycled many of its roads and mountain passes, from the Mani to Alexandroupolis. We know this area of the Peloponnese especially well, having ridden every road in Messinia that lies south of the Pylos-Kalamata Road.

We drive our motorhome throughout and beyond Europe: presently it is here in Greece. Between us, we have held British driving licences for 90 years, with no accidents, incidents, fines, endorsements or insurance claims. Although we have driven and cycled extensively in some very challenging countries, including Albania, the former Yugoslavia, Turkey, Morocco, Tunisia, Palestine, South Africa, India, Burma, Cambodia and Laos, the assaults described here are the worst we have ever suffered.

Knowing that road conditions in Greece are not good and the accident rate is among the highest in Europe, we have learned to cycle defensively. We have coped with much dangerous driving behaviour, but we have never before been assaulted by a car driver and his passengers.

In addition to maintaining our own very popular website for long-term, long-distance travellers, we write for a leading British motorhome and travel magazine and for the Cyclists Touring Club (Patron HM the Queen), the UK's premier organisation for cyclists, with over 55,000 members.

What Happened?

Margaret and I were riding our bicycles through the village of Kalithea towards the end of a 92 km ride, coming south (downhill) along the main street of the village at about 1640 hrs on 24 February 2007.

As we approached a Kafenion on the right, we were slowing down to stop for coffee. We know the village and the Kafenion well, having cycled through and paused there several times. With no warning, a car drove straight out of the minor lane along the side of the Kafenion, on our right. The car did not stop at the junction with the main road, crossed in front of us and turned quickly left, before driving up the hill. Given our slow speed, our good bicycles and our experience, we were both able to swerve, brake, stop and avoid the car. But it came very close to a collision.

The car contained 3 young men and, hearing our shouts of protest, it finally stopped about 100 metres up the hill and reversed back towards us. We complained to the driver that he should halt and look before coming out of a small side turning. The driver and passengers gave us some verbal abuse about being more careful ourselves. The car then sped away up the hill and we thought the incident was over.

Margaret went inside the Kafenion to order coffee and I sat at a tA1.JPGable on the outside terrace. To my surprise, the car returned and parked in the narrow street from which it had initially emerged, alongside the Kafenion (see picture on the right). The 3 men waited menacingly for us to leave. We still had about 16 km to cycle to our base in Finikounda on quiet country roads. As protection against further harassment and as our only means of future identification, if needed, I took this photograph of the car and its number plate (AXP 3005) at 1645 hrs (time recorded on camera). I then returned to my seat on the terrace.

The 3 men immediately approached me on the narrow terrace, blocking my exit and demanding that I delete the photograph. Feeling even more threatened and in even more need of their identities, I refused. There followed a struggle in which 2 of the men stood over me, using their combined strength to try to wrestle the camera from my hold. This was a physical attack with intent to steal the camera. I was seated and pinned against a window, while they pulled and twisted my arms. At one stage the camera dropped to the concrete floor when its wrist strap broke, but I retrieved it and held on to it.

The photo A3.JPGon the left, taken on an earlier happier occasion, shows Margaret sitting exactly where I sat during the attack. The far end of the terrace is closed and the 3 men approached from the direction of the camera. The Kafenion is inside on the right. Our bicycles were in the main street, below on the left. The car and 3 young men came from the side street behind the camera.

Hearing the noise of the struggle, Margaret came out of the Kafenion to join me. Not being able to get between the men and myself (it is a narrow terrace), she pushed at my assailants from behind and called for help. The woman who runs the Kafenion came outside and the men finally withdrew. She advised us to take shelter inside the Kafenion. The camera's wrist strap was broken and we later found that the camera could not be recharged. It is now useless a good Fuji digital camera bought in England, which cost over ₤500 (about 800).

What would the men have done if they had got hold of my camera? Located the image, deleted it and returned the camera to me? Highly unlikely! Broken the camera? Quite likely! Disappeared with it, knowing that we could not follow or identify them? Very likely! Whichever way, it would have been theft aggravated by assault. In the event, it was assault and only attempted theft, since I was strong enough to resist. It is also appropriate here to note that by law (European and Greek), the photographer holds the copyright to the image!

Once we were inside, the 3 young men sat on the kerb, right outside the Kafenion door. Inside the Kafenion, several old men had watched the action through the windows but offered no help. Given the impasse in which we found ourselves, we asked the Kafenion woman to phone the police, but she was unwilling to do so. Our mobile phone was in a bag on my bicycle, out in the street. Margaret had the courage to pass the hostile young men to fetch the phone. They had been joined by a friend and were still shouting about the photograph.

I rang the emergency number, 112, at 1653 hrs on my mobile phone and the helpful English-speaking operator listened carefully. She was amazed that a mature English tourist was being assaulted and threatened in this way and advised us both to stay in the Kafenion until the police came. After about 10 minutes, a vehicle with 2 police officers arrived. One of them spoke some English; the other, a sergeant, spoke no English in our presence.

To our surprise, the policemen immediately gave their full attention to the Greek driver and his friends, who spoke loudly and at length. The police ignored us and took no notes. We could not understand what was being said and asked the police to listen to us, as we had summoned help and wished to report an assault and attempted theft. We were not taken seriously and were treated as if it was simply an argument about a driving incident. In fact, we were told to be more careful when cycling past a junction, even though we were on the main road, and as if we were the ones at fault.

The police literally did not want to hear about the assault and attempted theft of the camera. It was as if it had never happened. Instead, the police officer demanded that we delete the photo from our camera! When I mentioned my own age compared with that of my assailants, the policeman found this amusing. He seemed to be having a joke with the young men, who appeared very confident. They gave no explanation or apology for their behaviour.

I was told that I must not take a photo without permission in Greece. I replied that cameras are routinely used throughout the world, including recently in Athens, to identify suspected criminals, rioters and terrorists. Is their permission sought? Do tourists ask the permission of whoever appears in their viewfinder? On hearing the word 'Athens', the policeman smiled again and said that this was Kalithea and not Athens. This summarised the situation: the local police and Kalithea were a law unto themselves.

All this took place standing in the street, with the Greek culprits interrupting us, shouting, laughing and joking with the police officers. There was no attempt at a serious interview. The police at no stage separated us from our attackers. No witness statements were taken, although the occupants of the Kafenion (and the men at the window of another Kafenion opposite) had seen the assault take place. In fact, no notes at all were taken, except our address in the UK and the place we were staying in Greece just written on a piece of blank A4 paper. I tried to give the police officer my card (including telephone number, home, email and website addresses) but he handed it back with little interest. Only at my insistence did he ask for and note the name of the car driver and ring leader of the assault, on the same scrap of paper. He did not want to hear who else was involved.

All this took place in front of the 3 young men, plus one or two of their friends who joined our group (one of whom spoke very good English). This meant that they knew much more about us than we did about them, including how they could find us later. In fact we knew nothing about them, other than the make and number of their car from my photograph.

The police did not give us any information or advice. They did not give us their names. They did not tell us how we could make a statement. They did not tell us anything of our rights, as the victims of an actual assault. We were merely 2 foreigners, out in the street with an audience of old Kafenion men (who kept out of it), suffering the hostility of 2 policemen and 5 young men. We asked the police for the location of their Station (Pylos) and indicated that we would submit a report of our own. This increased the aggression of the young men, who crowded round. The police kept emphasising that we should delete the photograph, as if taking a photo was the crime to which they had been called.

All we could do, finally, was to ask the police to make sure the Greek driver and his friends did not follow us in their car, as we left the village to cycle to Finikounda. This was a lonely ride. We were very angry at the treatment we received at the hands of the police we had summoned to help. As foreign tourists, our statement and safety counted for nothing.

What did we expect of the Police?

That they behave like police officers. That they follow laid down procedures. That they apply the laws that have been passed by the parliament of their country, and not ones of their own making. That they separate us from our attackers. That they either take down our full statement, or tell us how and where we can make a statement in English (which is our right). That they take separate statements from and details of some of the many witnesses. That they identify the attackers and take statements from them. That they take all this information back to their Station before deciding what action to take.

None of this happened!

We did not ask to press charges: we are travellers in Greece, soon to leave. But we did want the young men to understand that their behaviour was intolerable. We did need protection and we did need to feel safe cycling the remaining 16 km to Finikounda.

The Purpose of this Report

I have written this report in order to publicise what happened to us on an otherwise pleasant bicycle ride in rural Messinia on a fine Saturday afternoon. The Messinian coast, all the way round from Pylos to Messini via Methoni, Finikounda, Koroni and Petalidi, has become very popular with foreign tourists. Package holidaymakers fly into Kalamata to stay along this coast. There are plans for much greater expansion near Pylos.

Some of these tourists will want to explore the pleasant hills, lanes and orchards of inland Messinia, as we did. Kalithea is at the centre of this arc of tourist development. Therefore foreign tourists need to know what may await them, and the police need to greatly improve the way they deal with incidents involving foreign tourists. Ours is a lesson on how not to deal with foreign tourists, when they are threatened by dangerous driving on the road and actual assault and attempted robbery in a remote and uncaring village.

We will place this report on our own very popular internet website. The website is for those travelling independently (mainly by motorhome, campervan, caravan and bicycle) and is read in a wide range of countries. We expect that the story will be picked up by other websites in the UK and elsewhere.

We will pass this report to the police in Pylos and elsewhere in the hope that they will improve their procedures (which were non-existent in our case) and their relationship with foreign tourists. Individual policemen do not have the right to ignore the law, to decide whose side to take, or to make up laws of their own. Xenophobia and tourism do not mix and tourism has replaced agriculture as the main source of income in this region. Amazingly, we understand that there are no Tourist Police stationed in Pylos.

Greek and foreign media may also be interested in the story, given the extreme bias which it shows in the behaviour of the police.

Tourist operators should also warn their clients that an innocent bicycle ride in Messinian hills can end in trauma and that the police, called to protect, may side with the attackers.

Barry Williamson (with Margaret Williamson)

27 February 2007

The above report was circulated within Greece to the English-language newspaper, Athens News, to the Police at local, regional and national level, to local and national tourist authorities and to the Member of Parliament for Messinia. This is a copy of the accompanying letter which gives the reason for the delay in the report's circulation!

28 March 2007

Dear Sir or Madam

The Siege of Kalithea

Please take time to read the attached report which records events in the Messinian village of Kalithea on the evening of Saturday, 24 February 2007. It describes how we were nearly knocked from our bicycles by a car pulling across the road in front of us, how we were assaulted on the terrace of a nearby Kafenion by 3 young men from the car, how they tried to steal our camera, how the camera was damaged in the ensuing struggle, how we were besieged in the Kafenion by these young men and how the police, when called by us, threatened us and sided completely with the young men!

We are a retired professional couple who come regularly to Greece in the winter months with our motorhome and bicycles. We are exactly the kind of tourists that Greece wants to attract. Kalithea is in the centre of a great arc of tourist development in Messinia: from the new resort north of Pylos, Pylos itself, Methoni, Finikunda, Koroni, Petalidi and several others. Tourism and xenophobia do not mix and we were truly shocked by the aggression of the motorist and his friends, and even more so by the extremely unhelpful attitude of the Pylos-based police.

We were advised by good friends (Greeks and expatriates alike) not to make a report to the police in Pylos or to make any sort of complaint. This, we were told, would cause us even more trouble. We were also advised not to circulate this report until we were leaving the country. This is a very sad state of affairs that one goes in fear of the police, who themselves side with those guilty of dangerous driving, assault, attempted theft and intimidation.

We are circulating this report widely within Greece and elsewhere, directly and through our very popular cyclists' and motorhomers' website. As a minimum, we hope that this report will lead to better police training and briefing, to police following lawful procedures and to an awareness that respectable foreign tourists need to feel secure and protected which we certainly didn't.

Finally, we must emphasise that we are mature and very experienced travellers. We have cycled in every country in Europe; we have cycled round the world; across Europe, across Australia and twice across the USA. Never, in all that time cycling have we been so threatened as we were by the driving of the car involved and by the subsequent behaviour of the car driver, his passengers and the police themselves.

Barry and Margaret Williamson