Set Up A Fire
| Part One |
On a warm night in September 2013, a group of friends arrive at the Koralli Cafe on the west side of Athens. They are there to watch Greece’s most famed football team, Olympiakos, take on a French squad. It is 10:30pm and the second half of the game is about to start. As they order drinks and talk with one another, they wonder if Olympiakos can defeat the visiting French. Among this group is a dark-haired man with a broad smile named Pavlos Fyssas. He is a native of west Athens. His passion is music, and he is a successful songwriter and MC in the Greek rap and hip hop scene, opening for big-name acts and playing shows under the handle of “Killah P.” Two years ago, he released his first album. He raps about resistance, about solidarity, about struggle, about the hard life, about the inner fire. He began rapping as a teenager; now 34 years old, Pavlos Fyssas is still as active in the scene as ever.
As they find a spot and take their seats, Pavlos and his friends notice a group of three men sitting at a table nearby. They recognize one another. There is tension between them, but it does not escalate. As the second half gets underway, some of Pavlos’ friends notice that the trio at the other table are texting, making calls, and watching them.
The game ends with Olympiakos going down, 1-4, and the Koralli Cafe begins to empty. It’s a weeknight and people with jobs can’t stay out mourning the defeat. They console themselves with the knowledge that the tournament isn't over yet.
As they make their way outside, they are alarmed to see a crowd gathering across the street. It is not a crowd of Olympiakos fans in red and white. The crowd looks like a small army appearing out of the night, many of them dressed in black t-shirts, camouflage pants and black boots. Their hair is cut close to the scalp or buzzed. Some have striking meandros tattoos on their arms. They prowl with restless energy of a wolfpack awaiting a lamb. Many of them carry bats, crowbars, and planks. There is the dull gleam of brass knuckles. The spectacle of this uniformed mob instantly strips the memory of the football game out of everyone’s minds and fear ripples through the night. As soon as they see Pavlos, they begin shouting vicious insults and threats.
Seeing how outnumbered they are, glimpsing the weapons in the crowd, and hearing the menace and aggression in their voices, Pavlos knows that he and his friends are in grave danger. He fears for his girlfriend, knowing that if the mob rushes them, he will have only his bare hands to protect her. Wearing shorts and a t-shirt, he is completely unprepared for a melee; against these odds, nobody would have a chance.
His friends are frightened, but they stick together for the moment; they do not turn and run. He is not a brawler, but neither does Pavlos even think of running away. He knows what the strangers in the mob are. They are called Golden Dawn. They are Greece’s neo-Nazis, a violent force on the streets across the country, and they are his sworn enemies.
An off-duty prison guard tries to prevent bloodshed. “You need to get out of here now,” he tells Pavlos and his friends. The police are already on the way; it is vital to avoid a fight. They are so outnumbered that standing their ground in a fight will be useless, maybe even suicidal.
“We’re just trying to get to our cars,” they reply, but the path back to their cars is blocked by the crowd. The off-duty guard approaches the mob to try to calm them down and distract them. Pavlos and his friends walk away in the opposite direction. This attempt to defuse the situation fails. Shouting curses and taunts, the crowd follows, threading between parked cars, brandishing their weapons and their fists.
A silver Nissan pulls up and the driver asks for directions. One of Pavlos’ friends speaks to him and the car moves off through the ranks of the mob. They try to continue their retreat down the sidewalk, but the crowd is upon them.
Some of Pavlos’ friends run for their lives, dodging into a nearby underground parkade or sprinting down alleys. A group of police on motorcycles sweep past but the attack does not stop. The thugs concentrate their attack on Pavlos: he is their target, and he is not to be allowed to escape.
Now half-pursuit, half street fight, the struggle spills across the intersection of a busy street, with Pavlos and his assailants in the nucleus, frightened bystanders and pedestrians falling back in all directions, thugs running after Pavlos’ friends, or fleeing from the police, who have dismounted from their motorcycles and are slowly approaching. Pavlos’ girlfriend runs to them, frantic for help.
Suddenly, the silver Nissan reappears, driving the wrong way up the street. By chance, there are no oncoming vehicles in the lane, and the Nissan drives right up to where Pavlos is trying to hold off half a dozen attackers on his own. A heavyset man emerges from the car, wielding a knife. Seconds later, he is face-to-face with Pavlos.
A policewoman shouts, “No, no knives!”
What happens next is captured by a security camera nearly a block away. It is the only video evidence of the attack itself, the only witness that will tell the same story, over and over, without fear. It is a grainy, soundless recording. Under the pale lights of a shopfront, blurred shapes lunge at Pavlos. He is surrounded and alone, with no weapons, no shield.
By the time police officers finally stop the attack, Pavlos has been severely wounded. His girlfriend is by his side, while friends emerge from their hiding places and gather around him as he collapses onto the sidewalk. The man who attacked him with the knife is still on the scene, sitting in the car. Despite having the opportunity to make a run for it, he does not attempt to escape.
The police call for an ambulance, although nobody understands how serious Pavlos’ wounds are yet. The minutes begin to slide past. No ambulance appears. From being lucid enough to identify his attacker only minutes earlier, he has lost consciousness. His girlfriend cradles his head in her lap. He is very pale. Officers make repeated calls to the ambulance headquarters as they desperately attempt to save Pavlos’ life. The dispatcher assures them that two units are on their way, but the officer is getting overwhelmed. He can see that Pavlos’ condition is dire.
When the ambulance HQ asks if Pavlos is conscious, the officer snaps back, “The boy isn’t anything!” The dispatcher offers to put a doctor on the line to help. On the recording, the police officer is confused and desperate. The dispatcher asks if Pavlos is still breathing. The officer replies, “I don’t know, how do I check? Tell me, how do I check?” Even with a doctor on the line, the situation worsens. When the ambulance finally arrives, winding its way through cars and onlookers, it is not clear if Pavlos is alive.
The man who stabbed him is still at the scene, smoking a cigarette in his Nissan parked facing the wrong way up the street. He is Giorgios Roupakias, a trucker who helps out in a cafeteria for Golden Dawn members. He has boxing experience, but at age 45 his stocky physique is running to fat, his cheeks heavy. At this moment, his body language is calm.
A police car parks in front of the Nissan, blocking its escape. After checking the scene, one of the policemen approaches Roupakias and asks him what happened.
Roupakias replies that he does not know.
“Okay, put out the cigarette and wait.”
The policeman discovers the bloody knife lying near the Nissan’s front tire, and picks it up and deposits it in an evidence bag. He then retrieves Roupakias and transfers him to the patrol car. Roupakias is still smoking the cigarette when he is handcuffed.
Once he has Roupakias in the patrol car, the officer again questions him about what happened. When he denies the crime, the policeman tells him that there is blood and DNA evidence on the knife.
Roupakias changes his story. “I did it,” he says. “But don’t give me away. I’m one of you.”
“What do you mean? Are you police?”
“No, I'm with Golden Dawn.”
Panagiotis Fyssas, Pavlos’ father, receives a call just after midnight telling him that his son has been stabbed. Since he lives only a short distance from the Koralli Cafe, it takes him only minutes to run to the scene. By the time he gets there, his son is unconscious. The street is in an uproar. He tries to bring Pavlos around by calling his name. His son’s wounds do not look severe to him; what worries him most is how unresponsive Pavlos is. When the ambulance approaches, Panagiotis gets in his car to follow it to the hospital. On the way there, he keeps wondering why the ambulance isn’t using its sirens.
Pavlos is pronounced dead at the hospital. In the brief assault, Giorgios Roupakias had stabbed him three times, once in the heart. After this, there was little that any doctor, police officer, or his father could have done. A doctor at the hospital admits to Panagiotis that, even if the stabbing had occurred on the hospital’s front step, Pavlos’ wounds would probably have been fatal. In the doctor's opinion, it seemed like a “professional” murder.
“WE WILL NOT WAIT”
While Pavlos and his friends watched the game at the Koralli Cafe, the three men at the nearby table began sending the text messages and calls that led to the fateful street brawl.
It went like this:
At 11:19pm, they called the security chief of their local party office in the nearby suburb of Nikaia.
11:21pm: after speaking with them, the security chief contacted his boss, the Nikaia branch chief, with the news that Pavlos was at the cafe.
11:26pm: the Nikaia branch chief then phoned his superior: a serving Member of Parliament for Golden Dawn.
This sequence of phone calls and text messages, preserved in cell phone records, would become key evidence in the trial that followed. Golden Dawn’s leadership would deny any involvement in the events of that night, arguing that the killer was acting on his own. When questioned about the call at 11:26pm, they would claim they did not discuss Pavlos Fyssas at all; they claimed the call was simply to discuss the football score.
This explanation seems unlikely. The conversations themselves were not recorded, but the timing of the phone calls suggests a chain of command in rapid action.
11:28pm: after speaking with the MP, the Nikaia manager sent out a group text to a list of reliable members. It read:
EVERYONE COME NOW TO THE LOCAL OFFICE, WHOEVER IS NEARBY. WE WILL NOT WAIT FOR THOSE WHO ARE FAR. NOW.
Among those who received the group text was Giorgios Roupakias. He immediately drove to the rendezvous. By the time he pulled up, there were already eight motorcycles lined up in the street in front of Golden Dawn’s Nikaia office, their drivers mounted, lights and engines on, ready to go. Sensing that they were about to depart, Roupakias pulled in behind the motorcycles and prepared to follow them. They were approximately three kilometers away from the Koralli Cafe, less than ten minutes’ drive unless they were caught in traffic.
By 11:45pm, Pavlos and his friends had encountered the armed crowd waiting for them outside the cafe. The crowd had not been summoned by the group text; the word to assemble there had been sent out by the three Golden Dawn supporters in the cafe. Their street-level organization was rapid and effective.
At 11:54pm, the first police motorcycle unit approached the scene.
At 11:59pm, the convoy of eight motorcycles and two cars from Nikaia, including Giorgios Roupakias in his Nissan, turned onto the same street where Pavlos and his friends were retreating from the mob.
In the trial to come, the main question was not Giorgios Roupakias’ guilt; his responsibility for the murder was never in doubt. The question was, what kind of murder was it? If the murder was a spontaneous crime, that was one thing. However, if it were proven that Golden Dawn itself had ordered the murder, the stakes were vastly higher. They were Europe’s most successful neo-Nazi party. They were riding high after election triumphs, having won nearly half a million votes, 7% of the Greek electorate. Their supporters were highly motivated. They had the ability to engineer acts of intimidation, vandalism and violence against their opponents. If their leadership were linked to the murder of Pavlos Fyssas, Golden Dawn would be designated a criminal organization. They would be banned from Parliament, stripped of their power and their future. What would their supporters do if that happened? What would the consequences be?
In the early morning hours of Wednesday, September 18, the news of Pavlos’ death was already spreading. The neighbourhoods where he had grown up, worked, performed and made his name now seethed with outrage and grief. His lifestyle and his lyrics had bonded him with many people in west Athens, including the syndicalists, socialists and anarchists who had lived in these districts for generations. Even for people who struggled to make ends meet and did not have time for politics, the murder was still shocking.
As Pavlos’ father knew all too well, his son’s lyrics often took direct aim at the racists and would-be neo-Nazis of Golden Dawn. His lyrics came from a place of truth; his art was an honest expression of his beliefs; his art made him a marked man.
The first tremors of a great outcry could already be felt as the sun came up that day. They could be felt from the narrow streets of west Athens to the highest level of the government. The gravity of the situation even unsettled some Golden Dawn members; as one admitted, Pavlos Fyssas “wasn’t any random person...this guy was someone on the streets.”
Greece was already in a condition of turmoil and strife. This new act of viciousness had the potential to spark a disastrous explosion. Before the day was out, the Prime Minister would address the nation, appealing to the people to restrain their anger.
What really happened on the night of September 17? Why had it happened? Had it been planned? As witness accounts emerged, it became clear that the police had arrived at the scene before the fatal attack took place. Why had they failed to prevent it?
The family of Pavlos Fyssas was determined to find answers.
In Part 2 of SET UP A FIRE, Golden Dawn is put on trial, and Greece struggles with its ghosts
Pavlos Fyssas' work as Killah P can be found on Youtube, Spotify, and Google Play