Friday, 31 August 2007

Heroism and Tragedy

It took authorities three days to send large-scale assistance to the fire-ravaged villages of Ileia, but residents held the line in a collective act of heroism
As they lined up for their 3,000-euro compensation for fire damage, the farmers of the Zaharo municipality in Ileia knew that the money would only be temporary relief. 

Take Agios Ilias, for example, a village with an eagle's-eye view of the Kyparissia bay and a permanent population of about 50. Fires burned most of its olive groves and livestock, destroying its main source of revenue. 

Livestock farmers from around Greece are offering a few sheep or goats to help rebuild the flocks of this area, but there can be no quick replacement for the thirty-year-old olive trees. Tens of thousands of them need to be replanted, and those will take a decade to yield any significant amount of oil. 

Sofia Destouni, an Agios Ilias resident, thinks farmers without supplemental income will have no choice but to leave. "They need to go and find work. If the government gives them a job, fine. If not, are they going to replant and wait 40 years to rebuild their income? They'll die," she said. 

The picture is even less hopeful in Makistos, a few kilometres away, which looked as though it had just been bombed on August 28, four days after fire struck. Some houses had lost their roofs and were still smoking. Fallen cypress trees lay across graves in the cemetery. 

Unlike Agios Ilias, whose younger farmers' energetic defence protected the main village from burning, Makistos' ageing community of 27 has lost half its houses. Seven were killed and another ten are refugees, says Kostas Kalogeropoulos, Makistos' itinerant priest. 

"This village will probably die," he said. "Their lifetime's labours have been destroyed in a moment. Psychologically they are very stricken. There's no courage to start something new." 

Nonagenarian Panayotis Kokkaliaris is a case in point. He lost his 650 olive trees and his house, built by his grandfather and reconstructed several times after earthquake damage. He is currently living with his sister-in-law in Zaharo, and says that without state aid he won't be able to fix his house and return to the place where he has spent his entire life. He wandered slowly through his home's burned out shell, the shattered roof tiles crunching underfoot, his stove barely recognisable against one wall. His aluminium windows had melted into silvery pools on the sill and a sharp smell of burning hung heavily in the air. Against one wall the fire had broiled the grapes of a climbing vine into an opaque brown without bursting them. 

There is nothing around the village either but blackened rocks and fields. Barely a living tree is visible, and the locals urgently want feed for their animals. Nightfall is perhaps a relief. There is still no power with which to light up the desperately unfriendly surroundings.

Despite age, the villagers showed spirit when they fought to save their homes without a single fire engine on August 24. "We didn't have water, so I sprayed the fire with wine," says George Dimopoulos, a robust middle-aged man. He put his produce in a pesticide-spraying backpack and poured away 200 kilos of it, but believes that it saved his house and those of two neighbours. "I fought for 17 hours, " he says. 

In the neighbouring municipality of Skillounta, villagers battled for three days with the help of two fire engines. In Gryllos, two young men on tractors ferried massive trailer-tankers full of water to fire engines at the battlefront. Like modern-day centaurs, they roared down the high street from dawn until well into the night.
"When the [firefighters] run out of water, they simply say, 'That's it folks, you're going to burn'," said 21-year old Marinos Karahristos, a skinny lad with exuberant energy. "We keep resupplying them with water. If it weren't for that, we would have lost the village in the morning. The fire brigade doesn't do anything on its own." 

Four of his friends shouted their agreement as they sat in a group, exhausted from a day spent helping the firefighters. "We're the four biggest families [in the village] so we have a responsibility," Marinos continued pointing to them. "Without volunteers, you can't do anything," added one. 

They, like most in the village, were sleeping about an hour each night, and were giddy with adrenalin. They were also angry at the lack of political attention to their plight. In the small hours of the morning they finally retired to the village cafe for beers and discussed politics. "We're preparing a reception for the politicians when they do come down from Athens. We're going to stretch a banner across the high street telling them where to go," said one. 

When the highly mechanised assistance the village had been calling for did finally arrive in the form of Canadair waterbombing aircraft and helicopters, more fire engines, bulldozers and graders, the back of the fire was broken within the day. But the villagers could easily have missed that rendezvous with salvation.
They are fully aware that the aid was not for their benefit alone. Similarly sized villages, like next-door Greka, had been allowed to burn. But on August 27 the Gryllos fire finally began to reach Krestena, a town of 12,000, and evacuating it would be an unthinkably large task. 

Gryllos was lucky to be situated near Krestena. Not everyone was. Nearby Vrina fought with much slighter means and was denied even a fire engine. On the night of August 25 its inhabitants watched a broad fire front slowly move down Mount Lapithas, about a kilometre away across a narrow valley.

The fire crawled downhill along the pine forest floor claiming underbrush and shrubs. When it reached a new cluster of pines it would flare up violently with a noise of revving jet engines. Its heat warmed cheeks in Vrina, and it produced enough light to read by.

The young men of the village waited until the fire reached the edge of their olive groves. Then they got into their tractors, which carry 500-litre pesticide tanks, now filled with water, and drove to the fire. Their spray hoses were no good against a pine forest blaze, they explained, but could defend olive groves where the trees were smaller and more spaced out, which slowed the fire down. 

Inevitably, in the midst of the crisis, politics reared their ugly head. One irate villager accosted television journalists trying to do live appearances. "Is Vrina burning? Is Vrina burning?" he shouted. "The fields are burning. Vrina isn't burning!" It took several people to send him off. The village priest later explained to journalists, "He's a New Democracy man. " Conservative party officials had called him, the villagers surmised, to put a stop to the alarmist reporting from Vrina which was that night leading the evening news.

The damage to the environment in the wider Zaharo area will take months to assess. As the fires began they fed a sickly grey-brown cloud that gathered, unmoving, like an oilslick in the sky, leaving just a glimpse of the azure horizon between it and the hilltops. But by the morning of August 26, Zaharo awoke to an unnatural fog. The few aeroplanes that did operate could not do so until well into the day for lack of visibility.

Slowly, the pine forest of Kaiafas emerged into the light still smouldering, its hefty pine trunks devoured from within and snapped backwards like stalks of celery. On Zaharo's high street a tarpaulin banner shows an aerial photo of the forest as it was, set on the sand dunes between an endless azure beach and the warm springs that well up from under Mount Lapitha. "Enchanted Zaharo" reads its legend.

Zaharo is the country's hardest-hit municipality. It is where two thirds of the national death toll of 64 was discovered. Mayor Pantelis Hronopoulos told the Athens News that not one of its 19 villages is unscathed, and a total of 500 structures are lost.

The most tragic of Zaharo's villages is surely Artemida. Fully 24 people died here when they tried to flee the oncoming fire by car on August 24. Fourteen of them were from the village, representing a sixth of its population.
"A young technician came to to my house from Pyrgos, a lad of about 26 or 27, to fix my washing machine" says Vasilis Diplas, a pensioner. As he prepared to test the machine the power went out. It was 2: 45pm. He went out on my balcony and started snapping picutres of the fire with his mobile phone. He then spoke to his girlfriend in Kalamata and told her he is leaving so as not to get trapped. He got into his car and I learned that he remained down there," Diplas says pointing down the mountainside to where most locals were killed. "And I mourn for that." 

Artemida is home to a modern Greek tragedy. George Paraskevopoulos put his mother, wife and four children, aged four and-a-half to fifteen, into the family car at three o'clock on that same afternoon, as reports spread of the oncoming fire.

"The husband later told me that he sent the family ahead and stayed behind with the motorbike to see what would happen, " says Panayotis Bamis.

"They took the road for Zaharo. I think someone told them to turn around because the mountain was burning. " The Paraskevopoulos family, along with a convoy of cars from the village headed back uphill, but in the panic and poor visibility one of the cars collided head-on with a fire truck, overturning it and causing the death of three firemen inside.

With the road now blocked by the wreckage, the family left their car and scrambled up the mountainside. They must have made a last-minute attempt to protect each other as they realised that they could not outrun the fire. Recovery teams found the mother's remains in an embrace with three of her children. The fourth managed to go only a few yards further.

The cruel irony of this fire is that is didn't touch the Paraskevopoulos house. Had they stayed, they would have been alive. Their front yard remained, three days after the fire, as it was left that Friday afternoon, two tricycles parked neatly against the wall, several foam mattresses stacked up for sleeping outdoors on hot nights, and perched on top of them a toy speedboat and a truck.

"We are all familiar here. We are all connected by blood or friendship," said Diplas. "So now we're all mourning for someone, whether he was a brother, a best man or a neighbour... They are all known to us and so we are all crying. And that is why we're now in the worst possible state. And rage at the indifference of the state. Indifference. Indifference."

There is hope for this area. There was no talk of leaving for cities among young people, who were the most enthusiastic about defending their homes. But preserving an economic basis for that will now take massive government assistance. If the election is about anything here, it is about that.

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