In Greece, crisis and violence stir a collective trauma

  • July 11, 2011

Capitalism & Crisis

Economic collapse and police brutality bring back painful memories of years of military dictatorship and decades of financial hardship.

Syntagma Square, Monday July 11th

Like so many other words in the English language, the words trauma and crisis trace their roots back to classical Greek: τραῦμα literally means ‘wound’, while κρίσις means so much as a ‘turning point in a disease.’ Here in Athens, the turning point in the country’s debt disease appears to have struck the people right at the heart of an old and festering wound.

Between economic collapse, political alienation and police brutality, the ongoing crisis is stirring a collective trauma in the modern Greek psyche. Painful memories of the country’s military dictatorship of 1967-1974 were rekindled two weeks ago as riot police unleashed their violent fury upon the thousands of peaceful protesters that have been occupying the square in front of Parliament for the past 50 days.

“My dad was literally depressed for days after seeing the images of June 28 and 29,” our wonderful host Amalia told me earlier. “He spent a year in prison during the military dictatorship [for his opposition to the regime]. He never really talks about it, I think he was badly traumatized. But he told me he had never seen anything like this. Even the dictatorship was never this violent against the people.”

Her views have been echoed by at least half a dozen protesters I have spoken to in Athens over the past 24 hours. “The whole square looked like a nuclear disaster zone,” said Lydia, a friendly lady who has been camped out on the square for the past couple of weeks. Like Achilias, a Greek journalist, she is becoming increasingly despaired by dirty police tactics, like planting drug dealers around the square in order to attract junkies and discredit the occupation.

On June 28 and 29, the Greek police was strongly condemned by Amnesty International for using illegal chemicals that are banned by the Geneva convention. Most of the gas canisters were way beyond their stated expiry date. “And they used so much of it, ” Lydia said in between intermittent coughs. “There was gas everywhere, no one could breathe. It was terrifying. I couldn’t speak for 5 days, I got really sick. It really was like a civil war.”

Last night, the situation got tense again for a moment. The mayor of Athens, George Kaminis, had warned that if protesters didn’t vacate Syntagma by 4 o’clock on Monday morning, he would send in police and cleaners to clear the square. The memories of June 28-29 and the Barcelona clean-up made Lydia adamant that this time she wouldn’t be able to stand her ground. “I can’t take anymore gas. I just can’t do it.”

In the end, the cleaning crew failed to show up. Thousands of protesters had stayed in the square to defend it in case of a police intervention, but the municipal workers, in a heartwarming display of solidarity, simply refused to take the mayor’s orders unless they received the explicit permission of the indignants at Syntagma. But the temporary anxiety caused by the mayor’s announcement revealed the deep-seated trauma of decades of police abuse.

In truth, the people here are fed up with violence. While last week’s unrest was clearly instigated by riot police and the black bloc, the peaceful majority in Syntagma ended up taking the heaviest load of the violence. In an attempt to pacifically stand their ground, over 500 people were injured by police stone-throwing, baton-swinginginfiltration, and tear-gassing.

“Many people who were here had never experienced real violence before,” Lydia told me. “This was their first time at a protest. They simply didn’t know what to do. People were running in all directions, they were trying to hide in cafés and inside the metro station, but the police just kept throwing tear gas into the square.”

Amalia was in the Syntagma metro station on June 29, along with a friend of hers, a doctor. “They turned the metro station into a makeshift hospital. There were hundreds of injured people there, many of them bleeding from the head, coughing, throwing up. I even saw a woman with a young child there. But the police didn’t care: they just threw the tear gas grenades into the metro.”

For Amalia’s father, the most depressing part of the violence was that it was carried out in name of his former comrades in the ruling PASOK party — the same very people he used to fight for democracy with. For many millions of center-left voters like him, PASOK’s transformation under Papandreou from liberator-heroes to oppressor-foes has left a bitter taste of betrayal and a deep sense of personal hurt.

But it’s not just the police violence that is stirring memories of a painful past. The economic crisis itself is also affecting people in a profoundly psychological way. “Our parents worked so hard all their life,” Amalia said, “just to give their two children better chances than they had themselves. They always told us to get a good education. They had hoped that our future would be brighter, that we would have real opportunities.”

Instead, her brother, who holds a PhD in law, was out of work for 1,5 years. When he finally found a job, he was forced to work from 8 in the morning until 9 at night for a salary of just 700 euros per month. He recently got lucky and landed a job at a university in Belgium, unshackling him from the debt slavery that haunts so many of his young peers. But his luck to find a better opportunity abroad has also been painful for his family.

Forced economic migration is rupturing family life — such an important cornerstone of Greek society — and is likely to have profound and unforeseen consequences for social cohesion in the years and decades to come. For Amalia’s parents, “it’s very sad to see that despite everything they invested in us, there is simply so little opportunity for us here.”

After years of dictatorship and decades of financial hardship, integration into the European Union was meant to bring hope to Greece. Economic progress, it was said, would help to firmly cement the country’s status as an advanced economy within the EU’s single market. Instead, the adoption of the euro gave rise to the greatest delusion of all.

In Greece, the European Dream has turned into a European Trauma. Stuck between fight and flight mode, thousands of talented young people are forced to make a choice between facing the increasing grimness of everyday life and the threatening malice of an unaccountable police force, or fleeing the country in hope of a better future abroad. Everyone knows it’s a false choice — but for most young people it’s the only one they have.

And so the ancient words τραῦμα and κρίσις have come back today to haunt the cradle of European civilization. And as the crisis spreads to Italy and Spain, we are finding out that the Greek tragedy was really only just the beginning. Greece is the canary in our global coalmine. If we tolerate this, our children will be next.

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Magazine — Issue 11