Despairing Greek leftist makes final stand

Fluttering on a nondescript balcony in a middle-class Athens neighbourhood, the remnants of a banner declaring «I won’t pay» bear witness to the protest Dimitris Christoulas staged against Greece’s economic crisis and the politicians he blamed for it.

For months the banner hung as a gesture of resistance to one-off taxes imposed by the government under a savage austerity programme demanded by Greece’s foreign lenders.

On Wednesday the 77-year-old retired pharmacist staged his final act of defiance. Christoulas went to the city’s main Syntagma Square and shot himself in the head outside parliament.

In a suicide note Christoulas, a leftist, said his age prevented him from taking «dynamic» action.

“I cannot find any other form of struggle except a dignified end before I have to start scrounging for food from the rubbish,» he wrote, adding that one day young Greeks would take up arms and hang the national traitors upside down in Syntagma Square.

Police have reported at least four people have tried to kill themselves because of financial troubles this week but the case of Christoulas particularly shocked the nation.

Ripples from the suicide were being felt across Greece on Thursday and in corridors of power, far from the narrow street in the Ambelokipoi district where Christoulas lived for years.

Stunned Greeks asked if a flawed recipe of austerity cuts to save the country was pushing its citizens to the brink ? and family and friends said that is exactly what Christoulas had hoped to accomplish.

“My father’s handwritten note leaves no room for misinterpretation. His whole life was spent as a leftist fighter, a selfless visionary,» his only daughter, Emy Christoula, 43, said in a statement.

“This final act was a conscious political act, entirely consistent with what he believed and did in his life.”

She recalled as a child attending a 1975 concert by Greek leftist composer Mikis Theodorakis, where she and her father sang together. For some dreamers, «committing suicide is not an escape but a cry of awakening», she said.

Friends and acquaintances describe Christoulas as a quiet and gentle man, but also a passionate leftist deeply shaken by the pain that the crisis had inflicted on his fellow citizens.

To many who knew him, «Makis» was a hero – a martyr who had jolted Greeks into asking whether spending and salary cuts prescribed by the foreign lenders in exchange for financial aid as Greece lurched towards bankruptcy had gone too far.

“The way he did it made the difference. It was a political act,» said 91-year old Thymios, a fellow-member of Christoulas’s neighbourhood association, who would not give his last name.

“Maybe the right thing would be to keep fighting but his act was symbolic: He went into the politicians’ ‘nest’ ? parliament – and humiliated them.”

Thymios said his neighbour had hinted at his intentions during a recent encounter, although few people had expected him to carry it out.

“I used to tell him that taking to the streets is the only way to protest. But in one of our last meetings he said: ‘I take to the streets and go to rallies but maybe I should go to parliament to blow my brains out,’» Thymios said.

The retiree had lived in the neighbourhood for years, becoming an active supporter of efforts to rid it of drugs.

Divorced, Christoulas lived alone in his first-floor apartment. His ex-wife, also a pensioner, held a job in national broadcaster ERT’s accounting office, police said.

Christoulas sold his pharmacy in 1994 and retired. Fond of reading political essays and books, he spent many an evening in Elias Tsironis’s bookshop in the neighbourhood, perusing titles and chatting about politics and the deepening recession.

“What he did was very courageous. Often it is from the people you least expect that something starts, like a spark,» said the 50-year-old Tsironis, who had come by his old friend’s apartment building to inquire about the funeral.

About a year ago or so, Christoulas told the bookshop owner to come to his apartment to take all his books and give them away to people in need.

“He felt other people should be able to benefit from the books since he had already read them,» Tsironis said.

The last book he bought from Tsironis was «Greece’s Pompeii», which examined the similarities between the Roman city – which was beset by a decadent, corrupt social system and finally destroyed by a volcano – and present-day Greece.

Lately, the pharmacist had looked pale and weak, neighbours said. Local media said he suffered poor health and Kathimerini newspaper said he had struggled to pay for his medication.

Last summer, Christoulas hopped daily on the Athens subway with a small bag under his arm to attend «Indignant» protests against austerity and the political elite on Syntagma Square.

Towards the end, Christoulas appeared to become increasingly exasperated by the state of affairs in his country. Greece is in its fifth year of recession, with one out of five Greeks jobless. Tax hikes have accompanied wage and pension cuts.

“A few days ago, he told a friend that he could not understand this apathy and asked how could people sit around without protesting,» said 60-year old Ilias Sirakos, owner of a store where Christoulas came in to pay his power bills.

“He is a hero. It takes guts to do something like that.”