Despair and Hope Under Austerity: Samos

Samos Diary 4
 Last night we went to a party to say farewell to Mohammed who is leaving Samos on the ferry this evening. On Tuesday he flies back to Morocco after 5 years living on Samos. He left north Africa in the hope of finding a better future in Europe. But now that dream has completely dissolved and like all his other ‘refugee’ friends he found himself in a far more desperate situation than he could ever imagine. Ironically too his parents have been urging him to return as quickly as possible as Tangiers, where they live, is now experiencing  a new phenomenon of a growing influx of young Spanish people all desperately seeking work.
None of our friends at the party have paid work. None had any income. But it was a brilliant evening and no one would have guessed that only three days earlier one of those present had tried to hang himself. Moments of happiness and moments of utter despair is the reality for an increasing number of people on the island.
Dimitria, who runs a hotel in Agios Konstantinos was telling me this week that the only income they have had since January comes from her pensioner father –in –law, at just over 300 euros a month. And the immediate future offers no respite. She has no bookings whatsoever for the coming holiday season despite having sent over 90 cards and 80 emails to previous guests. She tells me that she expects ‘war’ this summer. I am not entirely sure what she meant other than the situation is going to be worse than ever. Tourism – which for many in Greece is seen to be one of the few ways out of the crisis is not going to offer much respite. Two Czech holiday companies have just announced that they are cancelling their contracts on Samos with immediate effect and with the 30% reduction in visitors from Germany this summer is going to be grim.
No matter what the locals do to try and attract tourists there are some fundamental issues which are beyond their control to influence. One of the more significant being the sheer cost of getting here. The 35 minute flight from Athens to Samos costs around 180 to 200 euros (return). The ferry is cheaper at around 100 euros but who wants to spend up to 14 hours to get here when they only have a couple of weeks holiday. For the majority of tourists – from northern Europe – there are now many cheaper places to visit than trekking out to a Greek island and without the added risk of their travel being disrupted by strikes and stoppages.
The evidence of tourism in decline is not hard to find. When I first came to Samos in 1995, April marked the start of the season. Last week I was in Kokari and Pythagorion, two of the main holiday towns here. They are like ghost towns. Virtually no signs of the usual early season preparations. Those who rely on tourist employment tell me that no one is expected to be looking for workers until the beginning of May now. And when the work does come the wages and terms of employment are expected to be much worse than last year.
But there are also some flickers of light in all this bleakness. Maritsa and Spiro’s small hotel in Agios has every chance of a good summer. Their principal source of guests is Germany and there is actually an increase in their bookings compared with last year (their best year ever). And what is so heartening is that their guests are saying that they want to return to Samos, not only because they love the island and Maritsa’s hotel but because they want to demonstrate their solidarity with the Greek people and to show that not all Germans are represented by the popular and grotesque German tabloid newspaper, Bild which routinely insults and humiliates Greek society. This small example seems to me to suggest that we should begin to consider ways in which we can encourage ‘solidarity’ tourism which places centre stage local hotels and tavernas and puts money in the pockets of the local enterprises and consciously avoids the multinational concerns which are little more than looters and robbers.
I long for the day when concerned and compassionate tourists interrogate tourist companies in the same way as (some) do clothing and food manufacturers, and boycott those which rip off the local economy and people.
The Drift to Brutalism
One of the more evident signs of the ongoing drift towards deeper state brutalism was the announcement last week by the Civil Protection Minister (sic), Michalis Chrysochoidis concerning the adaptation of an abandoned military base near Kozani in northern Greece as a detention centre for up to 3,000 ‘illegal immigrants’, most of whom will have to live in tents. This was followed by a later announcement for the creation of up to 30 such detention centres in all 13 local government areas of the country. The Kozani base is earmarked for the migrants who currently try and survive in the centre of Athens.
With more than a whiff of fascism, Chrysochoidis justified this development as principally a public health measure as though these most vulnerable of people were little more than rotting garbage that needed to be swept out of the public domain to be dumped and corralled pending their forced repatriation. That the Athens migrants were the first to be marked out for such treatment reflects the state’s anxiety (and Athenian businesses) that the presence of migrants living and surviving in the centre of the city is putting off visitors and tourists.
Living in Greece you get used to state pronouncements followed by little or no action.  This has been especially true when it comes to tackling the rampant criminality of the rich many of whom pay little or no tax, or who build their ostentatious houses on protected land. But when it comes to punishing and oppressing the most vulnerable the Greek state now acts with extraordinary alacrity. Athens News (30/3/2012) reported that within 7 days of announcing its intention to cleanse the streets of central Athens, 455 police officers stopped and searched 1,023 people in the city centre detaining 466 undocumented migrants and 25 Greeks ( mainly involved in illegal trading, sex work and drugs).  Vassilis, who returned to Samos at the beginning of April, told me that it is incredible to see virtually no refugees now in the centre of Athens. These are chilling developments.
Not surprisingly, Chrysochoidis makes no mention of what many here perceive as the principal barrier to tourists travelling to central Athens, namely the likelihood they will be tear gassed. The state’s chemical warfare against its own people is only too evident. Just take a look at the countless clips on YouTube. Clouds of gas pouring into the subway stations of central Athens engulfing tourists seeking shelter seems to me a  far more compelling reason to stay away. Incredibly, the former Minister for Citizens’ Protection and recently defeated candidate for the leadership of PASOK ,Christos Papoutsis defended the extensive use of tear gas during protests in Athens and other Greek cities claiming that chemicals are better than water : “These chemicals are the mildest form of reaction throughout Europe. They are not rubber bullets, they’re not water….” (http://www.keeptalkinggreece.com/2012/03/05/papoutsis-tear-gas-is-the-mildest-form-of-reaction-across-europe/)
[Last year I had an interesting discussion with the stewards on an Aegean Airways flight to London when I suggested that their in flight magazine ought to include advice to visitors on how to minimise the effects of being tear gassed when on holiday in Athens. They were sympathetic but not hopeful that the airline would take up this suggestion!]
But back to the detention centres. The day after the announcement the daily newspaper, Ekathimerini duly reported that the people living near the proposed centre were unhappy on the grounds that it would degrade their neighbourhood and deflate the value of their properties and homes. But the next day, the reports in the same newspaper (23rd March 2012) were of quite a different order. This time no mention of property values but reports of a wave of humanitarian protest that such a plan was immoral, inhumane and unacceptable. Here are some of the comments they published:
"They want to create a hell hole. We will have people next door to us who are suffering” said Theoklitos Iotis, deputy mayor of Voio, an area which includes Neapoli. “How many of them will last under the sun in 40 degree heat in the summer”, he questioned. “We have sensitivities … We can't see people suffer."
‘In Neapoli, local council president Christos Makris insisted the facilities were unacceptable, saying the base's sewage system was designed for a far smaller number of people and would not be able to cope, thereby creating a health risk. He also rejected claims that the center would create jobs for local residents.
"We don't want a single job that gives money based on the pain, misery and death of others,” he said.’
It was these sentiments that led the local people to use mechanical diggers, to block access to the military camp and it is these sentiments that provide some optimism that the continued and ongoing brutalism of the state will be resisted. For as my friend Sofiane pointed out, as a growing number of Greeks are plunged into the same straits as those of the ‘illegal migrants’ they realize that what the state plans for the most vulnerable of this society are all too likely to be rolled out to include them in the not too distant future. It is hard to feel positive at times here, but there are solidarities here you will not find in many comparable societies and this needs to be understood and recognized. Although I might have fears and anxieties about what might happen in the future, I don’t think we are about to witness Martin Niemoller’s nightmare of Nazi Germany ( ‘first they came for the socialists, and I did not speak out because I was not a socialst’…..). Here we have too many examples of inspiring solidarities and ‘ordinary’ Greeks speaking out and mobilizing to fight state violence against those such as the undocumented migrants.
Yet again, such episodes reflect the ever shifting dynamic between despair and hope which characterises so much of life under brutal austerity. Each day it seems brings forth similar stories. Of the 84 year old woman who immolated herself in Piraeus on the one hand and examples of the most extraordinary solidarities on the other. And I suspect that this will remain the case for some time to come.

Leave a comment