Fire is over but it still threatens Greek PM’s future

Fire is over but it still threatens Greek PM’s future

It is funny how sometimes unrelated events eventually link together and make a different sense.

One day, back in May, I climbed up to the hilltop of Christos on the island of Prinkipo, the biggest of the Prince’s Islands, to make a story on the dilapidated century-old Greek Orphanage, a huge wooden structure on magnificent pine-lined grounds, now on the list of the most endangered cultural monuments of Europe. It was a sweet-sour experience, as the once lively centre of hospitality and education for the Greek Orthodox community in Istanbul has now been reduced into a shadow of a blackened wood, devoid of any human or material content. It is as if this huge black wooden entity is the only thing that survived out of a catastrophic inferno.

Last week, I received a message from a photojournalist friend who had watched our tv news story. He told me that he, too, went up there to do a similar story for his international agency and whether I knew where he could find archival material. But the more interesting part of his message came later. He was taking two weeks off, he said, staying in Crete, not reading or watching anything, that he has been devastated by the fire outside Athens, that he cannot psychologically handle the story, and he is spending time with his young twin daughters.

Fifteen days, today, after the huge fire that wrecked the popular seaside Athens resort of Mati, the exact number of victims is still not clear. Last Friday, a 35-year-old mother of a six-month-old baby that had died in the blaze earlier, was the 88th victim of this unending toll. She was the wife of a firefighter who participated in the battle to contain the flames in Mati. There are still seriously wounded in hospitals, two bodies are still unidentified and unclaimed.

The leftist-led Greek government is suffering its biggest blow to its image since it came to power in autumn 2015. Especially the prime minister Alexis Tsipras, whose slow response and lack of convincing empathy, damaged his image at a time when he most needed a popularity boost.

At the end of August Greece will be exiting from the last bail-out after almost a decade of austerity. Strictly speaking, all is not over. The country will still be under a surveillance program and will need to report to Brussels and IMF on the performance of its economy. It will still owe a huge sum to its international creditors and people will see more pension cuts and more taxes in the new year, already voted by the parliament. But for Alexis Tsipras the 21st of August was planned to be the date of consolidation of his political destiny as the first Greek prime-minister who “extricated his country from its last bail-out”.

But you can never plan everything. And the anticipated celebrations for the ‘grand exit’ now look incongruous for a society who is still in mourning.

The initial shock for the high number of dead in the Mati inferno, two weeks ago, was followed by a blame-game between government officials and authorities over who was ultimately responsible for handling the situation. With the death toll rising by the day, so did the public anger targeting the government and responsible authorities for allowing thousands of people trapped in a burning seaside suburb, without help and timely warnings. The initial response of the government to “blame” the people of Mati for illegally constructing their houses backfired. Everything went wrong. It was with a long delay that the Greek prime minister accepted “political responsibility”, and it was only last Friday that the responsible minister for Civil Protection -a former army general- had his resignation accepted. Nikos Toskas stated that “the loss of so many people in Mati, overwhelmed his desire to continue in his post”.

More heads are expected to roll in the following days and urgent bills are to be speeded up through the parliament to try to reverse the process of public rejection for the “first leftist government in Greece” that rose to power by promoting solidarity and care for the needy. A new effective government team is urgently needed to boost Tsipras’s sinking image but also to prove its efficiency. This is extremely difficult while the opposition is getting ready to take over in a year’s time.

Human disasters have human faces. Perhaps the most striking picture that epitomized the tragedy in Mati was the picture of the young twin girls whose charred bodies together with their grandparents were identified last week. It was the time that my photojournalist friend sent me his message from Crete. He had his twin girls with him. Because of his post in Istanbul, he has not managed to see them often. It would not surprise me if he is not now looking for a job in Athens.