Our cruel summer

Agora Contributor: Nick Malkoutzis
Photo by MacroPolis
Photo by MacroPolis

For decades, jumping onto a ferry at the last minute as it prepared to leave for one of the islands was almost a rite of passage in Greece. The lax safety procedures never bothered anyone. It was quaint to leap onto the loading ramp without being impeded by crush barriers, security checks or coast guard officers, but it was also convenient. But this view, commonly accepted for so many years, changed overnight.

On September 5, 36-year-old Antonis Karyotis attempted to board the Blue Horizon ferry as it was about to set sail from Piraeus to Crete. CCTV footage shows he was confronted by several crew members, one of whom pushed the passenger three times, causing him to slip and fall into the sea between the dock and the departing ship. Karyotis’s lifeless body was pulled from the water as the Blue Horizon continued on its course.

The footage brought right into Greek homes the brutal reality of this disregard for human life. There was shock over the barbarism displayed by the crew members involved, but questions were also asked about how this could be allowed to happen. Where were the safety procedures? Where were the coast guard officers on duty at the time? Why did the ferry captain not stop the vessel?

After a lifetime of giving short shrift to the idea, on September 6 Greeks were contemplating how their own lives might have been at risk when doing something as innocuous as rushing to board a ferry. It is often a feature of human nature, though, to ignore risks until an extreme event forces us to reevaluate.

Karyotis’s appalling death, over which three crew members are facing charges, took an even more disturbing turn when the ship’s master attempted to explain why the 36-year-old victim from Crete was prevented from boarding. “I thought he didn’t have a ticket,” he said in radio communication with other crew members aired on Greek TV. “I thought he was black, a Pakistani,” added the sailor.

The colour/ethnicity/race of the victim was offered as a mitigating factor to defend inexplicable actions. The seaman’s words are a chilling reminder of the societal and institutional racism that exists in Greece. The kind of prejudice that allows the term “black” or “Pakistani” to be used liberally as a catch-all description for anyone deemed to be inferior or dispensable. The kind of bigotry that means it is acceptable to consider the life of a migrant to be less valuable than anyone else’s. And the kind of cynicism that creates the sense that non-Greeks can be responsible for any kind of wickedness simply by existing.

It is this environment that allowed vigilantes to go hunting this summer for irregular migrants crossing into Evros, northeastern Greece, from Turkey, and to live-stream their expeditions over the Internet, with viewers sending in messages encouraging violence, even killings. It also made an ultra-nationalist MP feel he had the licence to claim migrants had been starting fires and impeding the work of firefighters without fearing he would be charged with inciting racial violence. It permitted government officials to toy with such conspiracy theories, including Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis, who claimed in Parliament on August 31 - without providing any evidence - that the Evros fire, the largest recorded in Europe over the last few decades, was almost certainly man-made and lit on routes used by migrants to make their illegal crossings.

Again, though, in an instant extreme events turned flawed perceptions on their head. As Storm Daniel dumped months’ worth of rain in Thessaly on September 4 and 5, causing almost 20 deaths, extensive flooding and widespread damage, it was Greeks who felt the pain and helplessness of losing everything they owned and worked for. It was Greeks who found themselves having to flee their homes with what few belongings they could gather, climbing into rubber dinghies to escape destruction and reach safety. It was Greeks who spoke of having to leave the land they and their ancestors inhabited for decades in search of a future elsewhere. It was Greeks who would be transferred to temporary accommodation in the Koutsochero camp, which had housed refugees until the storm arrived. It was Greeks who became climate refugees in their own country, like those who also lost their homes in this summer’s devastating wildfires.

Once more, the fragility of our existence was revealed to us. We saw how fate can twist wickedly and sweep away our nonchalance about things staying as they are because that is all we have known in our lifetimes. The certainties we had about our world, and our place in it, are being breached one by one, like the flood barriers in the Thessaly plain and on Mount Pelion or firebreaks in Evros and on Mount Parnitha.

Whether in the form that caused or was used to justify the violent death of Antonis Karyotis or the sinister scapegoating of migrants over this summer’s wildfires, racial prejudice will probably prove the last preconception to be eroded by these changing times in the climate crisis era. Despite the recent cataclysmic events, no doubt some Greeks will continue to refuse to accept that we are all brothers and sisters with finite time, space and resources on this planet.

What they can’t ignore after this cruel summer is that we all live under the same scorching sun and the same fierce rain, which are making the lives we were accustomed to increasingly untenable. The last few weeks should leave us in no doubt that we are all in the same boat, and we are all being shoved off it.

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