OPINION

Blood in a wood of ghosts

Our public life is like a forest in a fog, where each seeks direction and forms opinions after glimpses of ghosts and shadows which, for want of anything more substantial, serve as signposts on our ambiguous way. For the most part, we are quite content to blunder on in this way, with the mist of illusion allowing each to shout out loudly and alternately that only he knows the way or that no one has suffered as much as he. But now and then, the fog parts suddenly and we stare into the dark heart of uncertainty itself, where we see the human cost of our blindness, as if we are in the Minotaur’s lair, surrounded by the terrifying bones of those who stumbled in before us. Rubini Stathea, a middle-aged civil servant who until a few days ago was a nameless, faceless functionary in the heart of our bureaucratic labyrinth, suddenly found herself among the sacrificial bones. She stood at the top of a cliff at Keratea, took off her sweater, folded it neatly, placed her glasses and phone card on it, and jumped, falling some 20 meters onto jagged rocks beside the sea. The coroner said she died of massive injuries to her chest and abdomen and that she may have been alive and in pain for several hours. She was found more than a day later. We can only hope that this was not so. For a brief moment, we all saw with Rubini Stathea’s eyes that we stood at the edge of the abyss, that our blind stumbling will lead to our fall or to the Minotaur of our inbred demons tearing us apart. Among the notes she left behind for family and colleagues, Rubini Stathea left one for the daily Eleftherotypia. Under the letterhead «Hellenic Republic, Finance Ministry, Central Service» she scribbled «strictly personal.» But she also requested that her letter be made public. It is a confession of what she terms her own failings and an indictment of the world in which she found herself. It tells of the human cost when our society’s failings coalesce suddenly and crash upon a single, isolated individual. Rubini Stathea has the right to describe this herself, as was her last wish. This is not a resignation; this is not retreat. I believe that every end constitutes a new beginning. I wish my own end to be the beginning of a little effort by everyone to become better: the civil servants a little bit more industrious, responsible and effective; the politicians a little more honest; the judges a little more trustworthy and the journalists less carnivorous. I am not a heroine, I do not consider myself a martyr. I believe that I must pay for my mistakes and my failings, as with my actions I sullied, once again, the name of my husband, the most sensitive, honorable and democratic person I ever met and undermined his political future, which should have been bright. I sullied the names of my children, my service, my ministry, the Government and judicial authority. I believe that most civil servants are honest. It is not their fault that they pay the price of the insufficiencies and backwardness that have marked the Greek State since its inception. I believe that the Government – with exceptions – is the best that I’ve ever seen and the prime minister the most honest we have ever had. I believe that the majority of judges are honest and that there are good journalists, too. I thank all my friends – colleagues and others – who stood by me during this tribulation at the service and the previous one. They know. I honor them and love them. Also, I want to thank those who avoided judging me, saying, «I don’t know the lady, I don’t have an opinion.» They know. May there come a day when all the citizens of this country can say, when they do not know, «I don’t know, I can’t have an opinion.» I thank Mr Stathis (the head of her department) for his manly handling of the issue. Mr Stathis, Mrs Tritari and Mr Lambrou, whom I briefed, can provide the authorities with an authoritative account. I hope the inquiry’s report into events will not be rushed. I do not want my case to be dealt with by yellow television shows, on which not even a fragment of truth is uncovered, nor by journalists who pretend to be serious but serve other interests. They know who I mean. Thank you for the hospitality, Rubini Stathea My last wish is that employees not be prosecuted for the mistakes and zig-zagging that I refer to above. What pushed Stathea into taking her life? The only sure things that we knew when her body was found on Monday evening was that she had been missing for more than a day after indicating to her husband in a telephone call that she was going to kill herself. She left behind several notes. Stathea was the assistant director of the Finance Ministry’s State Property Service for Eastern Attica, an area with much illegal construction. The State Property Service, as its name suggests, is responsible for protecting state property, including beaches which are by definition public property. Stathea, hitherto anonymous in her cocoon in the faceless public administration, suddenly found herself thrown to the dogs of expediency as the weaknesses of our political, judicial, bureaucratic and journalistic systems came together in perfect, fatal confluence. This is what we know so far: Last spring, the State Property Service informed the Attica Regional Government of 18 illegal constructions on beaches (buildings, walls, and so on) that were to be demolished following definitive court rulings. On October 6 (Monday), as work crews prepared to get to work, they were presented with a paper signed by Stathea calling for the suspension of the demolitions, on the basis of a court decision from 1976. On Tuesday, the storm broke, with the government stepping in and overtly blaming Stathea for allegedly protecting illegal construction. Public Works Minister Vasso Papandreou spoke of the malfunction of public administration and wondered loudly why this legal hitch suddenly appeared. The government is trying hard to appear merciless on some illegal construction in an effort to lessen the impression of vote-grabbing stemming from its efforts to grant hundreds of thousands of illegally built homes the right to get connected to the power and water grids in the runup to elections. Suddenly, like the ill-fated David Kelly who found himself at the center of a titanic clash between the British government and the BBC, an obscure civil servant became the government’s great obstacle and her name was thrown to the press. The news media, usually quite content to let every sleeping dog lie and every sacred cow to tread unhindered over every institution, suddenly found itself with a name, a face, on which it could pin all the vague declarations of corruption and collusion in the public and private sectors which it has seldom bothered to investigate. Stathea, bewildered, was thrown into the blinding headlights of very public vilification. She reversed herself, signing a paper saying that only one of the 18 cases was still outstanding and that demolition should go ahead with regard to the others. The inspector of public administration ordered an inquiry. And then the judiciary, usually also more than content to let things slide until the opportunity for grandstanding arises, jumped in. On Wednesday, the chief prosecutor ordered his own probe into whether any crime had been committed in the suspension of the demolition orders. The feeding frenzy intensified, with Stathea at its center. On Sunday (October 12), she briefed the inspector of public administration and her Finance Ministry seniors. Then she went to Keratea and jumped. Her body was found on Monday. She was buried on Wednesday. In his eulogy, her husband said that she had, in effect, been pushed. He spoke of her being pulled in different directions by politicians and property owners, of her trying desperately to get instructions as to how to proceed, of how the regional governor had made public only her suspension of demolition work and not her effort to get guidance and consensus. The details of the case are still murky and Stathea herself (at least in the letter made public) does not clarify what she believes her failings are. But it is clear that no mortal could have endured the pressure that she came under. If our institutions functioned, no single official could be responsible alone for deciding on such difficult and sensitive procedures as the demolition of property. Unable to endure, Stathea chose to go with the only dignity left to her. She fell on her sword. We have been shocked by tragedy often enough in the past few years to both hope that this sacrifice may awaken some to the dangers of our selective application of laws and principles and to fear that nothing at all will happen. Not even Stathea’s seemingly modest wish for us all to become a «little better» is likely to be remembered. In January 1996, just as Costas Simitis was to begin the longest uninterrupted run as prime minister of Greece, irresponsible flag-waving by journalists and local officials on both sides brought Greece and Turkey to the brink of war. The fright prompted a radical reorganization of Greece’s armed forces and helped lead to a gradual improvement in relations with Turkey. In 1998, a thoughtless and farcical attempt to find refuge for Kurdish rebel leader Abdullah Ocalan, as if there were no state institutions to handle such issues, was another frightening moment in which Greece looked into the abyss and stepped back. From then on, Greece has worked with Turkey within the strictly ordered institutions of the European Union – to the benefit of both. The sinking of the Express Samina ferry in 2000, with the loss of 80 lives, pointed out what happens when those responsible for a vessel’s safety are not serious about it. The same lackadaisical attitude to our jobs allowed a truck’s cargo of plywood boards to slice through a busload of schoolchildren, killing 21, six months ago. All of these instances showed that what we had become used to is just not good enough; in fact, it is catastrophic. Sloppiness is pandemic. Our country does not make the changes necessary to become competitive in an increasingly competitive world. But, even worse, it is not even holding a serious debate on the issues. Politicians avoid it and so do journalists, who mostly prefer to busy themselves with political gossip rather than problems. And the people watch, at once disinterested and passionate over issues on which they are ill-informed. It is as if we have a collective agreement not to endanger our treasured delusion that we can know everything without learning, that we can find without seeking, that we can have without working, that we can navigate the future while watching soccer on television. Our myths abound with stories in which future action is built on human sacrifice – from the slaughter of Iphigenia before the Trojan War to the burial of the master builder’s wife in the foundations of the Bridge of Arta so that it could, at last, be built. We live off sacrificial blood. When Homer’s Odysseus visits the underworld, he gives the shades of the dead some blood so they may gain the strength to speak to him. They lust after every drop, knowing that it will not last. For a few days, we too will feed off Rubini’s blood and bones. Then it is up to us whether we will fade back into our wood of ghosts, or whether we will scream loud enough, at last, to part the clouds a little and let the sunlight in.