Staring into the abyss

Published in the Daily Mail (February 18th, 2012)

When Eleni Nikolaidou agreed to help a university research project, she was asked to plough through 6,000 newspapers from World War II. Life was so difficult for the Greeks under Nazi occupation, she discovered, that papers printed ‘Recipes for Hunger’ on their front pages to help readers survive the deprivations of a dark chapter in history.

These included recipes for fried radishes and greens scavenged from parks, along with tips such as grating an aubergine on top of boiled rice to give the look of meat. 

One item especially disturbed her: a suggestion that families collect the crumbs from their table after eating to make into a meal at the end of the week. ‘These were terrible times and thousands died of hunger, especially in Athens,’ said Nikolaidou, who is also a teacher. ‘But it struck me as outrageous that people were so hungry they had to keep the crumbs from their table to survive.’

She was so moved she turned her research into a book, reprinting many of the recipes and suggestions. To her surprise Starvation Recipes has become a big hit — a chilling symbol of the stark times confronting Greece once again.

What is so shockingly evident as you walk around Athens are the awful parallels between that war-time era and today. The soup kitchens, the beggars, the pensioners picking up discarded vegetables after street markets close, the homeless scavenging for food in bins. These are the signs that can be seen.

Less noticeable is the quiet desperation of dignified people who turn off heating despite the cold and share dwindling savings with jobless relatives. Or the workers unable to afford fares home and the children fainting in school from hunger.

It is three years since the financial tsunami struck Greece with dreadful force, exposing the most shocking example of a country living beyond its means. Three years of savage austerity — of sudden new taxes, salary cuts, job losses, rising prices and falling demand — have left the nation shattered and its citizens locked in a spiral of despair.

‘There are so many similarities between these periods,’ said Nikolaidou. ‘Of course, it was the Germans then, and once again the Germans are the dominant figures in our crisis now.’

Greeks seem torn between outrage at their venal politicians, anxiety over the future and the fierce anger they direct at Germany for demanding tough measures as the price of a European Union bailout to allow their country to continue to function.

The imposition of the latest package of conditions by the German-dominated EU and International Monetary Fund provoked riots last weekend, while newspapers made ugly references to the Nazis, and politicians talked of living under a ‘German jackboot’ as Europe’s festering wounds burst open.

Greece’s EU-imposed, unelected government has backed another devastating cutback in their economy — slashing the minimum wage, savaging welfare payments, sacking one-fifth of state workers — but many fear this is just one more chapter in a long-running tragedy.

It is only eight months since a previous package of austerity measures was supposed to solve everything. On the streets, people debate whether Greece should accept this latest deal or default on its debts and leave the euro, with all the devastating repercussions a return to the drachma would bring.

They are damned whatever they do. Only one thing is certain: this nation of 11 million people is being slowly crucified on the cross of its adherence to the single currency.

It does not take long to discover the depth of the pain. Walking near Omonia Square, a central shopping area in Athens, I came across a large crowd. A man was pointing to a balcony three storeys up on an office block, where I could see the dangling legs of a distraught woman who was threatening to jump.

Athanasopoulos Periklis, 51, a mechanical engineer, explained that this was Lambrousi Harikleia, a mother of two who had been warned both she and her husband could lose their jobs. They worked — like Periklis and 800 others — for a cooperative-type building society providing cheap mortgages for workers.

As fire crews stood around inflatable mats below the balcony, Periklis said the organisation was having its ¤12  billion (£9.9 billion) assets ‘liquidated’ because its cheap mortgages were seen as a threat to the country’s banks, which charge higher interest rates.

The woman, who was talked down after five hours, wanted to meet the Minister of Works to protest their case. ‘We cannot go on living in a country in this condition,’ said Periklis. ‘Soon Greece will be like an African country.’

This sentiment was repeated many times. And it is also likely to prove correct, especially given African economy growth rates.

Greece’s economic freefall is calamitous. Gross domestic product is already down 13 per cent since 2008, and is likely to fall a further seven per cent this year. By contrast, the fall in national output in Britain during the Great Depression was never more than 10  per cent. Such is the speed of collapse that a quarter of Greek businesses have gone bust since 2009.

One in five people live below the poverty line. Rates of crime, disease, homelessness and suicide are shooting up, while capital spending and property prices plummet. 

One bright spot is tourism, which rose last year as holidaymakers avoided unrest in North Africa. This year, however, nervous Germans are cancelling trips for fear of hostility — and already on some well-known shopping streets about one in three shops are closed.

Behind these shocking statistics are millions of people betrayed by useless and corrupt politicians, who cooked the books to get Greece into the euro by grotesquely exaggerating the country’s economic situation.

People such as Giorgos Georgopoulos, 53, whom I met outside the social security office. In his blue shirt and smart blazer, he looked like the successful salesman he was until the last day of 2010.

Georgopoulos, married with a teenage daughter, fears he may never get a proper job again. For a year, he has been unemployed and received state support. But now the support has been cut off and he must rely on his elderly parents, the dregs of his savings and odd jobs in the black economy such as driving.

‘I feel so bad for my daughter because I have nothing to give her,’ he said. ‘I had such plans to help her with preparations for university — but what is the point of studying when you have scientists making deliveries and taxi drivers with degrees?’

The days of happy family holidays on the Greek islands are a distant memory. ‘So many Greeks are in my position,’ he said. ‘I fear that as people’s savings run out, things will get far more difficult. People will rebel.’

Like most people, he seemed remarkably good-humoured given his predicament. ‘We are by nature a happy people. But you can see the stresses of daily life on all the faces in the buses, the trains and on the streets. This has become a very dark place.’

The official unemployment rate has hit 20 per cent — though, as one journalist warned me bitterly, never trust an official statistic in Greece. Nearly half those under 25 are jobless.

Theodora Nikolakakou, 26, a graduate, lost her job last week in the city’s best-known department store after five years. Many of her friends who suffered the same fate have emigrated, in an echo of the great waves of migration that scarred Greek history during previous times of hardship. She wonders about joining the exodus to fulfil her dreams of fashion marketing. ‘My generation has become very pessimistic,’ she said. ‘I don’t even know if there is a future here.’

One legacy of such nihilism is the rioting that exploded last Sunday night as the Greek parliament voted through the austerity measures.

More than 100 police were injured as protesters threw petrol bombs into buildings, setting nearly 50 alight including historic theatres, banks and cafes. Traffic lights were also targeted, adding to the sense of chaos permeating the city.

I found Giorgos Kakoyannis, 52, standing in soot-covered overalls as he surveyed his charred camping shop, a family business destroyed when the demonstrators burned out a nearby post office. On the street was a stinking mound of ruined goods.

Kakoyannis, who recently survived a life-threatening illness, estimated only one-tenth of his stock worth E300,000 (£250,000) was insured, but he vowed to start again. ‘I will pay for everything, just as I have done all my life,’ he said. ‘The losers are always the people, not the government and officials.’

He is right, of course. The crisis was partly caused by politicians hugely increasing the size of the public sector after the country joined the euro.

In 12 years, the wage bill of the Greek state sector doubled — and this excludes ‘fakelaki’, the notorious cash-filled envelopes needed when dealing with officials. It was decreed that those in ‘arduous’ jobs could start receiving pensions from the age of 50 — and hairdressers and waiters were among 600 jobs classified as arduous.

A poor state school system employed four times the number of teachers as Finland, the country with the best education system in Europe. And, famously, a finance minister complained the railways were costing the country so much money, it would be cheaper to pay taxis to take the travelling public wherever they wanted to go.

But despite the cutbacks in the state sector, it is the private sector that has borne the brunt of the pain. By the end of last year, nearly half a million people had lost their jobs in three years — but not one of them in the public services.

Even those in work, however, are struggling with the deadly combination of salary cuts, soaring prices and endless extra taxes. Two years ago, income tax was increased for a second time. More recently, a property tax was tacked on to electricity bills; those unable to afford it are cut off.

One woman told me she inherited her late father’s house and managed to find tenants despite the downturn. The first month she received rent of ¤900 (£750) — but the first instalment of the new tax was E950 (£790).

The crisis has given Greeks an image of being feckless and workshy. But surveys have shown this to be wrong — there are more entrepreneurs per head of population than in any other European country, and they work longer hours, too. In 2008, the year the financial storm broke, the average Greek worked 2,116 hours throughout the year, compared with the 1,426 hours put in by the average German.

Given the incompetence of the state, people are coming together to sort out their problems — another reminder of that war-time spirit under Nazi occupation.

Barter economies have emerged, while networks of neighbours help each other by collecting food and clothes for the homeless, jobless and those in need. Soup kitchens run by volunteers have sprung up across the capital, serving meals to 20,000 Athenians a day. Perhaps fittingly, one of the biggest is on the former site of the stock exchange.

At one of 73 kitchens run by the Archbishop of Athens, hundreds of people queued for cartons of beans in tomato sauce and chunks of bread. One woman, a diabetic, told me she had not eaten for two days. A middle-aged man in a suit, tie and trenchcoat turned his face away in shame when I tried to talk to him. Afterwards, a pile of clothes was tipped on the ground and people grabbed shabby grey trousers and old sweaters.

‘It feels terrible to see this each day,’ said Maria Bini, a journalist whose paper closed in December and was among the volunteers. ‘I feel ashamed and angry — this is not the Europe of solidarity they talk about.’

Giorgos Pefanis, 52, a divorced father of three, was among those collecting his lunch. For more than two decades he ran a celebrated pastry shop, creating delicacies for some of the city’s top hotels. Today, he shares a room in a church hostel, has no money and survives on handouts. ‘I eat here and there when I can get food,’ he said. ‘It is a day-to-day existence, but I have no money and there is no future.’

That bleak refrain I heard again and again in Athens, which is home to nearly half the Greeks. Life is a little easier in the countryside, people told me, which is why some are returning to their home villages.

The question now is whether the latest plan — if implemented — will turn out to be another staging post on the path to debt default and leaving the euro. If this does happen, once again it will be the decent people who are hurt, the people who paid their dues and get by on savings — and any savings they have left will be wiped out overnight.

In this traumatised city, perhaps the most alarming conversation I had was with Christos Christou, a surgeon and vice-president of aid charity Medecins Sans Frontieres in Greece. His group is finalising a report into the impact of the financial crisis. It is worried by the growing numbers unable to access healthcare, and watching with alarm the rise in infectious diseases, the increase in mental health problems and the return of malaria after an absence of nearly 40 years.

‘It is very worrying — we have to work out our reaction,’ said Christou. ‘We have not yet seen a humanitarian crisis here like in Sudan, but we have to be ready.’

This is a profoundly alarming scenario, conjuring up images not seen in modern Europe outside of war zones. ‘Even two years ago I never thought I would see these sorts of things here,’ he said. ‘The fear is that things could be about to get much worse for a large number of people.’

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