By Leslie Absher
I spent the first years of my childhood living in Athens during the junta, brought to Greece by my CIA dad for his first field assignment.
I knew nothing about the dictatorship then; I was a child playing in the garden of our house in Old Psychico.
When the students took over the Polytechnic, 43 years ago today, to protest the junta, we had already left Greece.
I was in my 20s when I learned about the role the U.S. played in tolerating and supporting the dictatorship.
Had the CIA – and by implication my father – helped orchestrate the coup? And what about the torture inside detention centers like the one on Bouboulinas Street in downtown Athens?
The U.S. must have known what the security police were doing there. Still, it took years before I was ready to know the truth.
At first, I read books and newspaper articles but knew eventually I would have to travel to Greece. I was forty when I decided to travel to Athens in order to investigate the junta.
On the eve of my flight, I compiled a list of sites to see including the U.S. embassy, the Polytechnic, and the old detention center on Bouboulinas Street.
I had read grueling accounts of people dragged from their homes to this center. Once there, they were taken up to the roof, to the ‘taratsa,’ and beaten with lead pipes or worse. Each story haunted me. To make my peace with U.S. complicity, I needed to see it for myself, maybe even go inside.
I arrived on a sweltering day in the middle of July. Using a common tourist map, I located Bouboulinas Street behind the famous National Archeological Museum.
I took the metro to Omonia Square and started walking. When I reached the street, I trudged up and down but couldn’t find the building. I ducked into a small snack shop to ask.
The friendly proprietor stepped out onto the sidewalk, pointed to the middle of the block, and said he had a friend who could accompany me inside.
Two days later, I returned to meet this friend but was told he had canceled at the last minute. My stomach dropped. I would have to do this alone. Was my Greek good enough? Would they even let me into the building?
Dread filled me as I left the shop and started walking. At the entrance, I watched people walk briskly past a small guardhouse. Come on, I told myself. You can do this. I kept my focus straight ahead and pretended that just like them, I too, had official business inside. It worked. The guard didn’t lift his eyes from his phone.
Once inside the drab lobby, I noticed a friendly looking security guard standing next to a metal detector. I walked over. Here goes.
“Hello,” I said, smiling. “I’m looking for information about this building during the Junta years,” I said in Greek.
The woman squinted at me. Please don’t kick me out, I thought.
“You can ask over there,” she said, pointing to a doorway on the other side of the lobby.
I crossed the lobby and entered some kind of mail or filing room. In the middle, stood a stern-looking man in brown leather dress shoes. People rushed in with files and papers and formed a line behind him. He took each document in turn and smacked it with a stamp.
I started to sweat. There was nowhere to sit. I stood by the door just inside the room trying to seem innocuous. The stream of people kept coming. And then suddenly, there was a lull.
It was just me and the frowning bureaucrat. I didn’t think he had noticed me but he had. He pivoted toward me and reached for my paper.
“Excuse me, sir,” I began. ”I’m a writer from America and I’m looking for information about the history of this building during the Junta.”
Time to get kicked out, I thought. The man lowered his hand.
I forced myself to keep talking. “Is there a plaque or a pamphlet I can read?”
As if on que, a woman rushed into the room, followed by a few more people. But it didn’t last. Soon, it was the two of us again. Sweat dripped down my back. If I decided to walk out now, we could both pretend I hadn’t just said this, hadn’t brought up the junta on a perfectly ordinary day.
“Pame,” the man said, suddenly. Let’s go.
I fell in behind him as he quickly crossed the lobby, bypassing the metal detector and guard, heading toward the elevators.
“Do you have Greek roots?” he asked, keeping his gaze on the floor tiles as he pressed the button.
“No, but I lived in Athens when I was small. My father worked for the U.S. Government,” I said.
“At the embassy?” he asked, using the commonly accepted euphemism for the CIA.
“Yes,” I said.
The elevator arrived and we stepped inside. Several floors later, we were out and walking hurriedly down a barely lit hallway, where file cabinets and desks were jammed up against the walls.
There was a room at the end of the hall and we stepped inside it. It was lined with metal chairs but the man stayed standing. The room was cramped and depressing. Two young women sat typing. A row of dingy, closed windows lined the far wall. Could this have been an interrogation room decades ago? I wondered.
One of the women pushed up from her chair and exited the room, while the other kept typing. My bag pulled at my shoulder. I longed to put it down or sit but I stood frozen, unable to move. At least I’m here, I thought. Inside Bouboulinas Street.
Then the remaining woman rose from her swivel chair and disappeared behind a closed door into an inner office I hadn’t noticed. It was just me and my escort now. Then the woman returned from the inner office and resumed typing, which inexplicably signalled to the man that we could sit. He lowered himself onto the edge of a chair in a sort of crouch without speaking. I sat down too.
The awkwardness inside the room seemed to grow exponentially. I stared at the side of the woman’s desk and flashed to something I had read – a prisoner’s account of her interrogation here.
She said the man who interrogated her sat behind a desk emblazoned with the insignia of American aid – a red, white and blue clasped-hand symbol. I wondered if it was still around.
Maybe jammed against the wall in hallway, the insignia scratched and faded.
Just then, my escort stood up, mumbled something and departed.
The woman looked at me. “What is your request exactly?”
“I’m looking for information about this building during the junta.” I stammered.
The phone rang and she turned to answer it. When she was finished, she got up and slipped back through the inner door. A second later it opened and a man in his early sixties, wearing a plaid blazer strode in.
I bolted up from my chair, the strap from my bag cutting into my shoulder.
“What is your request?” he asked, his Greek clipped and officious.
“I’m a writer. I’m looking for information about this building during the junta,” I said.
He didn’t seem taken aback or if he was he didn’t show it. Maybe it wasn’t an uncommon request. Maybe there were legions of journalists who came here from around the world.
“There’s no one to take you on a tour. Perhaps another day. I am sorry,” he said.
“Maybe I can just go onto the ‘taratsa’?” I asked. This is what I had come for anyway, the chance to see the roof, the place so many had been interrogated and tortured.
“Impossible. That’s all in the past. The building has been transformed. There is nothing to see.”
He said something more but I didn’t catch it. Was he trying to sweep the building’s history under the rug or just in a hurry to get back to work? I couldn’t be sure.
He offered his hand and we shook. The visit was over.
I took the elevator back to the lobby and crossed toward the exit. The building seemed to close in around me, expelling me out onto the sidewalk.
I stood in the middle of the street and looked up. At the roof’s edge, a yellow and white striped awning flapped in the breeze. Beside it, stood several tall potted plants. It looked cheery, a nice place for employees to go for a cigarette. What had I been expecting?
It was an office building now. Everyone inside seemed to have moved on. Everyone but me. I did it anyway. I closed my eyes and whispered a prayer for all who were once detained and harmed inside these walls. I did it to remember. To never forget.
Leslie Absher is a journalist and writer. She writes about travel, women’s lives, and growing up with a CIA father.
Her work has appeared in the Los Angeles Times, San Francisco Chronicle, the Independent, Salon, Huffington Post, Ms magazine and elsewhere.