Wednesday, 4 April 2012

Snapshots of fear and uncertainty: Last exit Syntagma

This morning, I walked past a man minutes after he took his own life. 

Crossing Syntagma Square, in front of Greece's Parliament, on my way from the Metro station to my bus, I spotted the figure of a man lying on his back at the foot of one of the tall trees ten metres to my right. He was old, slight, with grey hair and a close-cropped beard, lying motionless on the grass with his right arm thrown out to his side. Around him were a handful of police officers and a couple of concerned members of the public. 

I gave it little thought (much to my later shame), guessing he was a drunk or junkie overcome by his weakness, or that one of the growing number of homeless men living on the city streets had died in the night. At worst, I thought he might have been attacked by a group of thugs with more brute strength than human compassion. 

It was a sad sight but there was nothing I could do to help, I figured, and I was running late for work. So, I put my head down and picked up my pace to catch the next bus for Piraeus, making a mental note to check the Greek news sites when I reached the office.

What I didn't know, like dozens of other Athenians in Syntagma at 8.45 this morning, was that a 77-year-old retired pharmacist had come to the square with a desperately sad mission. Facing the Parliament building, he took out a gun, pointed it to his head...   and pulled the trigger. 

A note in his pocket explained his actions. It condemned the Government of scoundrels, decried the austerity measures that had reduced him to penury after a lifetime of work, and said he preferred to take his own life than being reduced to the indignity of searching rubbish bins for food. 

As I made my way back across the city this evening, the bus stopped short of Syntagma, which had been cordoned off. I soon saw why. It was filled with people, milling around in a silence strange and uncharacteristic for the garrulous Greeks. The knot of humanity was tightest around the tree where I had seen the figure of the man lying this morning. The place where he had lain was now filled with flowers and hand-written notes. 

The quiet of the place, amid so many faces, was eerie. Hundreds of people were there mourning the sad exit of a man most of them never knew, but who will undoubtedly become a symbol of the desperation more and more Greeks are feeling as they witness their country fall into disarray, disrepute and possible bankruptcy. 

Suicide is not a natural thread in the Greek character. As a people, they are too full of life and in your face for such a defeat. But the past couple of years have seen a worrying spike in one the lowest suicide rates in Europe.

The man who killed himself today no doubt felt he had reached the end of his tether. He brought his life to an abrupt end in a very public, and ultimately highly political, way.  

His message was eloquently expressed by the silence of the people in Syntagma Square this evening. I wonder if the politicians in the Parliament building across the road heard it?


  1. Agh - I heard about that on the news today. How very sad, and shocking at the same time. Over here (USA) we're used to older people not having much at the end of their lives, despite what everyone may think who doesn't live here. It wouldn't be so much of a shock here, but in Greece, ...

  2. I am equally shocked and moved Mandi! Elections on the way, and I hope the "government" or whoever is behind them, will GET the message whether they hear it or not!

  3. How truly awful, for him and for all of Greece. It really speaks of how awful things are for the average Greek