Late last night we were down in Agios Konstantinos with some Syrian refugees who had landed at 1 am the previous night. We were walking to get some bottled water with 2 of the Syrian lads when they asked us where they could find a bank. They needed to change dollars into euros. They had money but they couldn’t use it. They were stunned when we told them that on this very day the government had closed all banks in Greece for a week. Their next response was “where are we?” “Europe?” Good questions. We laughed as it all seemed so crazy.
But there is no single story line about life on the Greek island of Samos during these days dominated by the debt and the troika. Probably the most obvious point to make is that life goes on. The sun comes up and the sun goes down. The gardens, the vines, the flowers don’t wait on any referendum. The refugees continue to hit the beaches in growing numbers. Its these kinds of events which set the daily rhythms on Samos and not whether the ATM machine is open. Athens and the bigger cities and towns will be undoubtedly different.
In terms of ‘episodes’ in the Greek crisis this does seem to be more important than many. The stakes are high involving the currency and even Greece’s place in the EU. But as one of our friends told us at the weekend, “we have no money, we have no accounts what can they do to us?” Worrying about money and bills has been the daily reality for the majority of Greeks for six years or more. There have been no let-ups. It just gets worse. Slowly and corrosively. And there is no reason to think next week, whatever the result of the referendum, that life is going to change much.
The Syriza government elected in January 2015 has not changed this material reality, but it has lifted peoples’ spirits. The government and the prime minister are popular here. This is a big difference to the recent past when most politicians were viewed with disgust and hostility. “They are like us. They look like us”. You can hear this said many times about the Syriza ministers. They are nothing like the fat suits of yesterday in their chauffeur driven cars. This is no illusion. They are different. And one of the important difference is that they tell us what they are doing and saying. We can read their speeches and policy announcements. The government recognises that it is up against a hostile media and so tries to reduce the distortions by trying to ensure that people can see directly what they are proposing. People like it. They feel more connected for sure.
These feelings are further deepened because Syriza does not stand with those with power in Greece who have been happy over the years to insult the people by encouraging myths about carefree spendthrift Greeks as being at the root of the country’s suffering. It is more than refreshing after years of this kind of humiliation to hear ministers attacking the Troika for its inhumanity ( imposing they said, policies the equivalent of financial water-boarding) and its authoritarianism. More than a few scales have slipped away from eyes which once viewed all things EU as positive and progressive. The bare knuckles of European power have been revealed in the past couple of weeks. And people have been appalled.
A friend told us of meeting this week with some other unemployed men who were looking for construction jobs in Vathi. To a person they announced they would be voting No on Sunday. Lagarde of the IMF is quite mistaken when she says that Greeks don’t know what they will be voting on come Sunday. She is very wrong. These unemployed guys were without doubt, they were voting for people against the banks/creditors; they were voting for dignity and not never ending slavery. They were voting for themselves. Their dignity and their respect. If this means on-going poverty then so be it. Nothing new there. ‘But we will be able to swallow our food’.
Whatever the outcome, the events of these days are going to leave their marks. There has been a dark cloud of cruelty building over Europe for decades now. The growing chasm between the poor and the rich is a massive factor for that wealth increasingly comes from pressing the boot harder on the neck of the poor – lower wages, mind and body destroying jobs, savage benefit cuts accompanied by new layers of surveillance and harassment. It is a cruelty that is reflected in the expansion of prisons and detention and the audacity of transforming these core public functions into lucrative profits for trans national corporations. And then of course there are the refugees who for the past 15 years have been at the sharp end of the new cruelties emerging in Europe. At the European summit last week both the refugee ‘crisis’ in Europe and the Greek debt were at the top of the agenda. It was fascinating to witness the similarities in the responses to both issues. In both cases the absence of any humanitarian sentiment and European solidarity was graphic. The power brokers of Europe really don’t care about the most vulnerable. On Samos at least, it is clear that many of the NO voters will use the opportunity provided by the referendum to challenge that world view.
Last night we were with the Syrian refugees in the school yard of Agios Konstantinos. They had been terrified by the 2 hour journey in the dark with 47 of them packed into a rubber boat which would normally sit 15. I stood with a young Syrian father who had his 6 month old baby sleeping in his arms. He was fleeing Syria for his life and those of his children. “Why did I risk my child in making this journey” was what he said. “The war. Just the war”. He was about to be arrested and taken to the camp to be ‘processed’. No wonder we were asked “where are we? Europe?”
The same questions are now being raised by Greeks and not just the refugees. The issues seem clearer now and not so bogged down in all the economic details. So next week the sun will rise and set again over Samos. But maybe it won’t be quite the same place as before.