Athens suicide: a cry for dignity from downtrodden

The pensioner who committed suicide in Athens' main square said it was his only dignified option before pension cuts forced him to forage for food in the trash.

John Kolesidis/Reuters
Mourners stand around the spot where a man committed suicide at central Syntagma square in Athens, Thursday. A cash-strapped Greek pensioner shot and killed himself on Wednesday saying he refused to scrounge for food in the rubbish, touching a nerve among ordinary Greeks feeling the brunt of the country's economic crisis.

In the end, Dimitris Christoulas had little hope left, he said. 

“I see no other option for a dignified end before having to scavenge through the garbage for my food,” the 77-year-old retired pharmacist from Karditsa wrote in the note found on him after he shot himself to death in Athens' main square yesterday morning.

His suicide sparked demonstrations, recriminations, and a public debate on its significance. As people took to the square in commiseration and anger, Prime Minister Lukas Papademos expressed sorrow.

“It’s tragic that a fellow man has ended his own life," he said  "In these difficult times for our society, we, both the state and the citizens, have to support the people next to us that are in distress." 

The public suicide as a political statement is highly unusual in Greek political tradition.

“I have to say this is a little out of our political culture,” says Michalis Spourdalakis, professor of political sociology at the University of Athens. “But, this is a political act, despite the different comments uttered by politicians and journalists in Greece. They’re trying to depoliticize it, saying that it was a personal choice of a troubled fellow citizen. But, his life, his death, the suicide note, and the spot he chose, leave no room for doubt that this is a political stance.”

Mr. Christoulas, who, like most Greek pensioners had his pension slashed last year, chose Syntagma Square, which is across from parliament, and committed suicide during the morning rush hour. 

“If this suicide hadn’t taken place in Syntagma Square, we wouldn’t be talking about it today,” says Konstantinos Lourantos, president of the pharmacists in Attica, on the periphery of Athens. “No one has talked about the other 2,000 suicides that have taken place in over the past few years.” 

“He retired early so his pension was smaller than the 800 euros [or $1,044, a month] pharmacists are now getting after the cuts,” says Mr. Lourantos, who knew Christoulas. “He had health problems, but I remember he had dignity and he really didn’t want to become someone’s burden.” 

Although Christoulas is the first to commit such a public suicide since the Greek crisis began, there have been other attempts – a clear sign of the desperation that extreme austerity measures have caused.

In February, a married couple threatened to jump off the third floor of the public organization they worked at after they were told that it was closing because of state budget cuts. Without their jobs, they wouldn’t be able to afford the 1,600 euros ($2,088) a month they needed for medicine for their handicapped child.

In October, a man set himself on fire in Thessaloniki, the country’s second largest city, after a private bank threatened to take his house. In February, a state television employee committed suicide after his contract wasn’t renewed.

In 2011, suicides increased from the previous year by 45 percent, with the majority of them attributed to the economic crisis. The increase gives Greece claim to the highest increase in suicides in Europe.

Yesterday afternoon, hundreds of demonstrators left candles and flowers next to the tree in Syntagma Square, where Christoulas committed suicide. In the evening, the crowd turned violent and riot police fired tear gas and flash grenades against the protesters. 

The demonstrations were organized via Facebook, and included an event called "Altogether at Syntamga so we don't get used to death." In the event description, an organizer writes, “We can’t just watch them murdering people. Syntagma Square’s symbolism makes it meaningful and [calls] for an immediate reaction.”

The square’s name means "Constitution" – a tragic irony, protestors say, since the Greek Constitution obliges the state to protect the right of human dignity and well-being.

With unemployment reaching 21 percent last month and the IMF forecasting a 4.7 percent contraction of the economy for 2012, the future seems bleak.  Elections are likely to be held in early May but the IMF has announced that it will ask the new government for new budget cuts.

“The government has to understand that it has to bring back optimism to Greeks’ lives,” said Lourantos. “Because Greeks didn’t suddenly become depressed. We were always optimists, and loud, and enjoyed life. If they take that away, it’s like taking away life itself.”

The protesters outside the Parliament chant “murderers” and “traitors.”

“We know and all studies show us that when the percentage of unemployment rises, the suicide rates also rise,” says Thodoris Megaloikonomou, a psychiatrist at the Psychiatric Hospital of Attica. “If you were in court, how would you call these people deciding on these austerity measures? Murderers, right?"

A new demonstration is scheduled for today at 6 pm local time to commemorate Christoulas and demonstrate against the austerity measures. Twenty percent of the population lives below the poverty line, according to UNICEF’s latest report released yesterday.

Marina Rigou contributed reporting.

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