Athens celebrates in the shadow of dark memories

Will the unbounded optimism of Greece’s left, euphoric and partying after stunning election win, prove founded?

Parliamentary elections in Greece

Oh to be young, socialist and in love in Athens. At one o’clock in the morning, I watched couples embrace, weep and dance in the middle of Stadiou Avenue, giddy with delight at the scale and significance of Syriza’s victory.

This main thoroughfare was blocked by the happy throng. Resistance anthems belted out from the speakers overhead. It was a night of euphoria for the Greek left, but also fellow travellers who had come from Spain, France and Italy to share in Syriza’s moment, and who now hope to see similar change in their own countries. I met a group of students from Oxford University, who said they’d had to come here, “to see history being made”.

Five long years of humiliation and pain are over, if we believe Alexis Tsipras. Nobody should underestimate the turmoil Greek society has been through in recent years. I left the happy crowd, and walked in the dark along Stadiou towards Syntagma Square.

I passed the burnt out remnants of Marfin Bank, and remembered a tumultuous day: 5th May 2010. That was back when Greeks still had the energy to take to the streets in great numbers, when they thought their mass protests would force the politicians to back down.

But on that day, someone in the crowd set fire to the Bank – probably by lobbing a Molotov cocktail through a window – and three employees, trapped inside, died of smoke inhalation. Hours later, we watched as their bodies were pulled out, people around us in tears and shock. I’m not sure the Athens street protests ever recovered their momentum, such was the horror at these pointless deaths.

I walked along Stadiou a bit further, past another burnt-out shell of a building. It used to be the Attikon Cinema, and when I lived in Athens with my wife it was one of our favourites. Big, comfy seats, and just a short walk from our apartment underneath the Acropolis. But the Attikon was also set on fire, in a furious evening of riots and protests: 12th February 2012. We stood outside that night, and watched in silence as a much-loved Athens landmark came crashing down.

In Syntagma Square, I paused by a tree covered in posters and photos. This is where Dimitiris Christoulas, a modest man and retired pharmacist in his 70s, blew his brains out with a pistol on the 4th of April 2012, at the height of the morning rush-hour. Dimitris left a note that blamed his suicide on the economic crisis. At his funeral, his daughter, Emi, whom I would later get to know, said that her father’s death was a ‘deeply political’ act, in defiance of ‘the harsh noose of economic austerity’.

I remember Emi, a committed Syriza supporter, as a tough person. She saw her father’s suicide as an heroic sacrifice in the struggle for social justice. In our long conversations she always framed her relationship with her father in political terms. Not once did her mask slip, not once did she tell me what it meant to her as a young woman to lose her dad. And now, three years later on this night of Syriza’s victory, I saw that someone had laid a new wreath of flowers by the tree.

As one gets older, one gets more cynical. I find it hard to share in some of the unbounded optimism I found in that crowd of celebrating Syriza supporters. Let’s hope they are right, and some of my pessimism proves to be groundless . For the memory of those who were killed in the Marfin Bank and Dimitris, and for Emi. And for the millions of Greeks who’ve lost jobs in recent years, for those that have lost their homes and slipped into poverty, as well as for the hundreds of thousands who’ve emigrated to look for work elsewhere.

Source: Al Jazeera