by Caroline Colebrook
OSMAN Atasagun, the owner of a the Cactus Tree restaurant in Eltham High Street, south east London, earlier this month returned from a holiday in Europe to find his business had been set alight and racist graffiti had been scrawled on the building.
A staircase leading to the first floor of the Mexican-style restaurant had been badly damaged and the walls of the ground floor and backyard were scrawled with racist graffiti, including swastika symbols and death threats.
The fire was spotted in the early hours of 12th April by a worker at a petrol station opposite the restaurant who alerted the fire brigade, who arrived and had the blaze under control within 35 minutes.
Atasagun told the local press: “I was very lucky not to be in there. It makes me mad as I didn’t deserve it. I’ve never had any problem with anyone.”
He said he believed the attack may be related to a threatening letter sent to him and to other shop owners four months ago.
The letter told them: “Get out from Eltham, get out from UK. If you don’t we are going to take you out from our country. England only for the British people. Give our country back to us.” It was signed by a group calling itself EBG.
Atasagun also said: “I think it was a warning. The fire was a personal attack to me but I’m more worried about my kids.
“Eltham is a racist place. We need to make it more secure. If it happened to me then it will happen to someone else tomorrow. People like me are not safe, even at night-time.”
In a separate incident Balakrishnan Kandiah, who runs the Wine Barrel off-licence, also in Eltham High Street, reported that on Good Friday six youths, aged in their 20s, beat up one of his customers and smashed £500-worth of his stock. They fled when police arrived.
He said: “I was at a counter and they threw a bottle at me. They come into my shop and fight. I do feel a victim.
“We have a lot of trouble and some action needs to be done.”
He commented on the fire at the Cactus Tree: “If it happened to them it could happen to us.”
Police are treating the fire as a racist incident.
Eltham gained notoriety in the early 1990s after the racist murders of Rohit Dougal and Stephen Lawrence. Since then it has become a much more mixed and relaxed place but its reputation attracts some racists to the area and there does seem still to be a tiny hardcore of serious vicious racists in Eltham.
Before the arson attack, Dev Barrah of the Greenwich Council for Racial Equality’s Racial Attack Monitoring Unit (Ramu) had spoken to the New Worker on the problems of sustaining anti-racist work in the area.
He explained that is took time to educate senior officers in the police and in the local authority of the steps that are needed to counter racist violence, “You get everything working smoothly, and then they get posted; you get a new person in the job and you have to start from square one again”.
He added that some of these officers had a genuine interest in solving the problem while others saw “doing a few months in community liaison and countering hate crimes as a necessary addition to their CV on their path to ‘higher things’.”