Greek pensioner shoots himself over debts outside Athens parliament4:02 pm - 04/06/2012
An elderly man who took his life outside the Greek parliament in Athens , in apparent desperation over his debts, has highlighted the human cost of an economic crisis that has not only brought the country to the brink financially, but also seen suicides soar.
As Greeks digested the news, with politicians clearly as shocked as society at large, mourners made their way to Syntagma square, where the retired pharmacist shot himself with a handgun.
The 77-year-old pensioner pulled the trigger as people were emerging from a nearby metro station in the morning rush hour. One witness told state TV that before shooting himself he had shouted, "I'm leaving because I don't want to pass on my debts."
In a handwritten note, the unidentified man, who was described as an "upstanding and decent" father of one, said he had decided to end his life because he did not want to be reduced to foraging through rubbish bins to survive.
"The Tsolakoglou occupation government has nullified any chance of my survival which was based on a decent salary that for 35 years I alone (without state support) paid for, " said the note, likening the Athens government to that run by Giorgos Tsolakoglou who headed a collaborationist administration when the Nazis invaded and occupied Greece during the second world war.
"Because I am of an age that does not allow me to forcefully react (without of course excluding that if some Greek took a Kalashnikov first, I would be the second) I see no other solution than a decent ending before I start looking in the garbage to feed myself. I believe that youth who have no future will one day take up arms and hang the national traitors upside-down in Syntagma square just as the Italians did in 1945 to Mussolini."
Within hours, dozens of handwritten notes and flowers had been pinned to the tree under which he had stood. A rally "to ensure that we don't get used to such deaths" was organised in Greece's northern capital, Thessaloniki. Despite the stigma attached to suicide in a country whose official church refuses to bury those who take their own lives, Wednesday's death quickly acquired a very different significance, with priests being among those who rushed to express their regrets.
For many, the suicide encapsulated the desperation of Greece's older generation whose pensions and benefits have been cut by up to 25% as government officials desperately try to rein in runaway public finances.
Athens is under intense pressure from international creditors now keeping its economy afloat to make further radical reforms and cutbacks.
Police data show a 20% increase in suicide rates in the two years since the outbreak of Europe's debt crisis in Greece in late 2009, although the health ministry estimated the figure was almost double that in the first five months of 2011 compared to the first five months of 2010. Suicide hotlines have been deluged with appeals for help.
"Calls have doubled in the last year," said Eleni Bekiari, a psychiatrist who runs a suicide helpline at Klimaka, a refuge set up to provide psycho-social support for the needy and homeless.
"Economic reasons are invariably cited as the main cause," she said.
The symbolism of the suicide outside parliament was not lost on politicians. "It's such a shocking event that any political comment is inappropriate and cheap," said Evangelos Venizelos, leader of the centre-left Pasok party.