By Andy Dabilis
In all, 149 people had taken their lives this year in Greece before 77-year-old Dimitris Christoulas, a pensioner and retired pharmacist, stood under a tree the morning of April 4th in Syntagma Square in the heart of Athens, across the street from the Parliament where lawmakers have imposed two years of austerity measures, and put a bullet in his head.
His death, in front of passersby and shocked commuters coming out of the Metro stop during rush hour, was a shot heard around the world.
With that very public suicide, Christoulas became what one Greek newspaper called a martyred victim of a crushing economic crisis that has created 21% unemployment, closed more than 111,000 businesses, left 500,000 people with no income and no hope and pushed many Greeks into poverty.
He left behind a note saying he could not afford medicine for an illness, nor face the idea “of searching through garbage bins for food and becoming a burden to my child.” And in a brutal dig at political leaders who have put pay cuts, tax hikes and slashed pensions on the public to meet conditions set by international lenders offering 239 billion euros in bailouts, he likened the government to that of a collaborationist prime minister who worked with the Nazis during their occupation of Greece during World War II, an apparent swipe at Germany’s role in forcing the austerity measures imposed on Greeks and the government’s acquiescence.
Christoulas became an immediate symbol of the anger and frustration over the austerity measures, especially for pensioners like himself, some of whom have seen their benefits cut to as little as 300 euros a month, while tax evaders owing the country 55 billion euros have largely gone unpunished and politicians charged with massive bribery and corruption are free, one even taking the government to court to increase his pension. It’s the injustice, Greeks said, that drives people like Christoulas to act.
While politicians issued statements of condolence and tried to distance themselves from the tragedy, saying it may not have been related to the economic crisis despite the note, Christoulas’ suicide galvanised Greek society, sparked candlelight vigils, protests and battles with riot police who tried to disperse crowds who had gathered under the tree that same day. They were back the next day, scores of them, walking around the tree, pinning notes on it saying, “It wasn’t suicide, it was political murder.”
Their protests are ramping up the rage just weeks before elections to choose a new leader for the beleaguered country, replacing a shaky hybrid government of PASOK Socialists and their bitter rival New Democracy Conservatives who interim Prime Minister Lucas Papademos said have been trying to sabotage reforms while they are sliding in the polls.
The spot where Christoulas killed himself became an instant shrine. It was the same place where two years of protests, riots and strikes against austerity and last year’s occupation of the square by thousands of so-called indignants, including Christoulas, captured images of Greece as a country reeling in turmoil and trouble. On Thursday (April 5th), as he stood with his wife watching people furiously debate what happened, Nick Strikos, 33, said he thinks there will be more people following Christoulas’ lead because the despair is so great among so many.
“It’s only a beginning. This was the first political suicide,” Strikos, a high school computer theory teacher, told SETimes. “This place will be a monument.”
Standing nearby, Kimon Sapnas, 38, who works for a shipping company, said, “I hope this will not be in vain.” He told SETimes: “It’s the frustration of the people and the anger. People believe the austerity measures are to save the banks.”
There was analysing too over what statement he hoped his death would make. “This was done in public. It was not a private act. He wanted to declare something,” Vasileilos Pavlopoulos, an assistant professor of cross-cultural psychology at the University of Athens told SETimes.
(Kathimerini, 05/04/12; 04/04/12; The Guardian, 05/04/12; AP, 04/04/12)