Most news scandals are shameful, but the violent riots that took hold of Limassol on September 1 were nothing short of a disgrace. The reasons? Numerous. Take it from the fact that police officers stood by idly while rioters wreaked havoc in the town’s busiest Molos area. While people scrambled for shelter – under tables, inside restaurants or even worse, those who jumped into the sea to escape a beating.

It was a Friday night, the city centre packed. The rioters, some 200 of them in black-clad clothing began their march, screaming their racist chants to anyone who could hear. The extremists, who proudly screamed that “foreigners are not welcome here” and “we are Greek” ruled the city that night, setting the streets on fire without anyone questioning their authority.

They beat up anyone they thought looked Middle Eastern, and smashed up businesses that had anything Arabic on them. It took less than two minutes before they found their first victims, a Syrian and African man who were minding their own business close to the beach. They began to beat them and stub their cigarette out on one. Though dozens of police officers were at the scene, no one stepped in to establish order, to stop the violence.

Not one investigation was ordered into police’s ardent failing that fateful night – even though we all know that in Cyprus nothing ever comes of them. Calls for a resignation of the police chief and the justice minister fell on deaf ears, because why would anyone take any responsibility for the atrocities that were allowed to happen?

In any functioning country, you would think that if a bunch of hooligans beat people up on the streets because of their skin colour or set the city centre on fire, racially targeting businesses to smash up their stores or throw Molotov cocktails, at least someone should apologise.

You would think that someone from the government would say that these migrants are the people who build our homes, clean our houses and look after our elderly – because that’s all we underpay them to do. Or perhaps remind the public that many Cypriots are migrants in other countries – and that the word immigrant is not a bad one, nor should it be associated with only a specific set of nationalities.

Instead, police let it all happen. Dare I say, some even wanted to see it happen. You see, racism in the police force is no joke. The same riots which unfolded in Chlorakas only days before they moved to Limassol, had policemen sitting around and joking with the people who were about to embark on their “peaceful demonstration” which also saw Syrian people beaten in their homes and their shop fronts smashed to pieces.

MPs put this directly to the police chief, telling him that officers weren’t going to arrest their friends. Everyone in Chlorakas knew what was going to happen. Everyone knew what was going to unfold in Limassol. There was never going to be a “peaceful demo” especially when Chlorakas had already set a violent precedent.

feature andria balaclava wearing protesters before the riot

Balaclava wearing protesters before the riot

Police chief Stelios Papatheodorou, however, only feebly fumbled his papers when he was grilled about it in parliament. He never said anything about clamping down on racism in the force he heads, never said that any concerns over his staff were isolated incidents. He just fumbled. And at the end of that House legal affairs committee, a bunch of his MP friends clapped his back and proudly exclaimed “I tried to help you in there, man.”

There is some hope to be found in the fact that counter-demos gathered thousands of supporters. People loudly proclaimed “this is not my Limassol”. They called out police officers for racism – and suddenly the men who just one night before barely uttered a word, became enraged, spitting out in fury that someone had the gall to criticise them.

And while many of those who went on their violent rampage may have been angry individuals with problems they thought they could blame on migrants and issues with integration, they were egged on by careless and irresponsible media which added fuel to the fire. Headlines circulated saying there were ‘151 jihadists living in Chlorakas’. Did no one think for one second that those “jihadists” which took world powers years to fight, may have been able to take on Cyprus’ far-right single-handedly? Did anyone really think that ISIS fighters would’ve balked at Elam and football fans? Or did some people just think that the words ‘Syrian’ and ‘jihadists’ are interchangeable?

More embarrassingly, the police chief finally admitted – long after the articles did their job and the violence unfurled – that in fact, there are not 151 jihadists in Chlorakas. Asked why not a single person in the police force sought to clarify this ahead of the looming violence everyone could see coming, he fumbled, yet again. A recurring theme.

The government, in all fairness called the events shameful. But I’m not quite sure if the lackluster response is just as shameful. Almost four months on, the seven businesses in Limassol that saw thugs destroy everything they had worked hard to build, have yet to see any state support. In fact, a government official outright told the Cyprus Mail that of course the state couldn’t help: what if it happened again?

Hard to fight that logic.

To really add the cherry on the cake, our very own top officials, including House President Annita Demetriou, have been advocating for Syria to be designated as a safe country. Though this was a government plan which began months ago by Interior Minister Constantinos Ioannou seeking to designate parts of the war-torn country safe, Demetriou made her suggestion in the same week that Aleppo and Damascus airports were bombed by Israeli strikes. The reason cited was to help Cyprus send back its Syrian asylum-seekers.

How safe is Syria really now as a country? Would Demetriou or Ioannou go there tomorrow, if asked? The US travel advisory says “no part of Syria is safe from violence.” The UK says there should be no travel there under any circumstances. But of course, Cyprus’ top officials see the safety of migrants differently than their own.

It’s this fumbling and lack of decisive action that’s given the carte blanche to teenagers to ambush delivery drivers and attack them. That’s allowed bus drivers to verbally abuse passengers who aren’t the “right” colour. That planted the seed of fear in some migrant communities that if the tide turns against them, the state may look the other way. That made at least one Middle Eastern business owner remove the Arabic from his shop so he feels safe for his family.

The community may have shown a brave face and demonstrated their spirit won’t be broken, but the violence that was allowed to unfold without consequence, has sent frightening messages to those who are watching.

As we look to see how the trial of the 13 suspects linked to the violence in Limassol unfolds, I’ll end on the words of my new-found favourite author Fredrik Backman:

“Most people don’t do what we tell them to. They do what we let them get away with.”