Submitted by: Donald Hank
Greece is slipping into the abyss
As the economic crisis worsens, the very fabric of society in Athens is being ripped apart as the Greeks lose their good humour and generosity.
The old lady I saw on the street in Athens this week was typical, except in one shocking respect. She was begging. Beggars are normal here these days, but almost all are immigrants or drug users. This was different. The image of this proud woman sitting on a plastic crate outside the supermarket with her hands out has stayed in my mind. If a symbol is needed to illustrate the unravelling of Greek society, then this is it.
The Athens I knew 20 years ago has changed radically. I used to tell British friends that despite its chaos, it was a very civilised city.
When I moved here, you didn't have homeless people sleeping on the streets, there was little crime and the sick and needy were looked after. That civility is vanishing fast. With economic doom becoming ever more likely, it sometimes feels as if the fabric of society is being ripped asunder.
Muggings used to be a rarity; not any more. Walk down the main streets of central Athens at night and you will see people sleeping rough. The other day I had to deal with a young man who had passed out on my doorstep. He may have been drunk, but in these crisis-stricken days, it is just as likely that he was high on crack cocaine, now selling for 5 euros a hit. I wasn't going to risk disturbing him - I had my children with me.
My area of central Athens is a relatively "bad" location, but there are much worse places. The neighbourhood of Psirri borders the popular tourist attractions. Ten years ago, Psirri was rejuvenated. Bars and cafes opened, old buildings were restored. A live jazz club opened that was an instant hit. The club is gone now, and most of the shops are closed. The area became so dangerous that people simply stopped going there. Now it's riddled with drugs. People shoot up on the street and accost anyone foolish enough to stray through the area for money. And all of this takes place a short walk from the Acropolis.
These changes to Athens didn't happen overnight, but have occurred astonishingly fast. A perfect storm has been created, with the financial meltdown which threatens to bring down Greece and the rest of the EU, combining with social breakdown and that ''other'' crisis - immigration.
Despite the turmoil, illegal immigration isn't slowing. An Afghan refugee doesn't care if Greece is in trouble, he only intends staying long enough to find a way to get to the promised lands of Germany, Britain or Scandinavia. But many illegals don't make it any further. Before the crisis this didn't matter too much. There was work on building sites and in the fields. Manual labour that Greeks have become used to paying someone else to do. But most of this work has gone, too.
Five years ago, I met Mahjid, a Pakistani with legal status in Greece. He's lived here for 15 years, ran a successful building business and sent enough money home to keep his family happy. He even captained a fledgling cricket team. Now he hasn't worked for six months and is leaving for Germany. The Bangladeshi in my local shop keeps asking me why I haven't gone back to Britain. He thinks I am mad. "Even the Albanians are leaving!" he tells me. If Britain thinks the Greek crisis won't have an impact there, it is wrong.
The luckiest immigrants do make it to the promised lands, but many fail. Trapped, they rent mattresses on crammed floors from unscrupulous landlords for 12 hours a day and hang around the few open spaces Athens has to offer. One such space was a local square, which has the largest Orthodox church in the Balkans. The immigrants used to congregate here, but suffered too many attacks. Now three foot high letters are written on the ground in front of the church spelling "Foreigners Out." Nobody will remove it. Greek reaction ranges from pity and patience, to anger and racism. The neo-Nazi "Golden Dawn" party has its headquarters nearby - while they haven't made it to parliament yet, the dangerous mixture of increasing immigration and falling living standards ensures their growing popularity.
The immigrants are a constant reminder of how desperate things can get. I don't bother recycling tin cans any more. The bin outside my apartment is gone through five or six times a day. Some people are looking for food, but most are metal scavengers. A small army operates all over Athens. We used to take unwanted clothes to charity shops but I can't see the point now. If I leave anything outside the door it will be gone in minutes.
The description of Britain as a nation of shopkeepers could equally apply to Greece; except those small family businesses are closing in their thousands. Walk along a central Athens street and up to half the shops will have a small sign in the window with red writing saying "for sale" or "for rent". Every sign represents another family for whom life has just been turned upside down.
I wrote before the summer about the difficulties of daily life. Back then, the frequent strikes were frustrating, but could be lived with. People said: "Wait until after the summer, then we are really going to see how tough it gets." They were right.
The Greek granny begging, the daily assault course of strikes and the hopeless plight of immigrants are only the visible signs of growing despair. It is in the family homes that the full impact is being felt. Greeks can appear loud and gregarious, but their family life is intensely private. You never admit to difficulties within the family. Protesters may have grabbed headlines, but they didn't speak for many of the decent, hard working Greeks. These people are suffering with quiet dignity, and it's taking its toll.
It may not sound like the end of the world to lose 250 euros a month from your pay, but it is when the salary is only 1,000 euros. Salaries are going in one direction, while prices are going in the other. VAT has had a 10 point hike and the cost of milk rises by the week. We are no longer talking about lifestyles being altered: people are struggling to put food on the table. And that's before they get hit by emergency property taxes. If you don't pay them your electricity will be cut off, as the state is using the electricity company to collect the tax.
Looming over the day-to-day difficulties is the threat of losing your job, especially a state one, that used to mean a job for life: 30,000 jobs are to be axed immediately. The days of the gold-plated state jobs are numbered.
I spoke to a friend who runs a psychiatric hospital. He acknowledged that depression is rife. "We are all depressed now," he said. "It's just a question of degree. Some people make the problem worse with drugs or alcohol."
Suicide figures are difficult to pin down, partly because the Orthodox Church says that it is a sin and refuses to bury anyone who has taken their own life. But if the Hellenic Statistical Authority can be believed, the first five months of 2011 saw a 40 per cent rise, while help lines report a massive increase in calls.
Good humour and generosity were once a Greek trademark. But that's all gone. People are depressed, scared and exhausted by the relentless pressure of heavier cuts and taxes.
Every Greek granny remembers the hardships and suffering of the war and its aftermath. Hundreds of thousands of civilians died from starvation. The civil war that followed and the brutal military dictatorship that lasted until 1974 are recent events. Greeks were led to believe that those nightmarish times were over, that the future would be better.
But we are only at the start of this crisis. What will happen next year when unemployment doubles and people lose their homes? The Communist calls for revolution don't look nearly as far-fetched as they did six months ago. While civil war doesn't look likely, a return to the military days must be a possibility. If the Greek people reject their entire political system and the state falls apart, what will be left? The great danger is that the people are being pushed so far that the unthinkable becomes possible.