Wildfires break out every summer across Greece. The mountains surrounding Athens have burned on more than one occasion this year. It was just columns of smoke in the distance. It wasn’t news, until it was. When I woke up on Tuesday morning there were 50 dead. Then 60. It would be 74 by the end of the day. Now it’s closer to 80 and likely to go higher.
Since the dissolution of Yugoslavia in the early 1990s, Greece and the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (FYROM) have been locked in dispute over the name Macedonia. A million people gathered in the streets of Thessaloniki on 14 February 1992 to protest against the former Yugoslav republic’s use of the name. ‘Macedonia is Greek,’ they chanted. The neo-Nazi Golden Dawn was quick to capitalise on the issue. Earlier this month, the two countries at last signed a preliminary deal that would see Greece recognise its neighbour as Northern Macedonia, and thereby open the path towards its joining Nato and the EU. There have been almost daily protests in Greece against the deal, especially in the north, providing fertile ground for a new wave of nationalist and far-right sentiment.
The City Plaza hotel in downtown Athens, ‘the best hotel in Europe’, was empty for years after the company operating it went bankrupt in 2010. A group of activists and refugees occupied it a few months ago. Nasim Lomani, an Afghan national who has lived in Greece for more than a decade, is a longtime activist for the rights of migrants and refugees. He opened the door to me when I paid a recent visit to the hotel.
On Monday night, a group of refugees in the Moria camp on Lesvos started a fire that blazed throughout the night and destroyed most of the camp. A storm hit the island the next morning and finished the job, mixing cinders and gravel into dark sludge. The 4000 people staying in the camp were displaced and most of them, including 100 unaccompanied minors, had to sleep rough that night.
Early in the morning of 25 March, I was woken by jet planes flying low over downtown Athens and helicopters cruising the sky in formation, making the windows shake. It was Independence Day, the anniversary of the start of the Greek Revolution against the Ottoman Empire in 1821. The army was parading in front of the parliament in Syntagma Square, watched by officials from the state, the armed forces and the church. I’d recently got back from an army camp.
Two hundred Syrians are camped on the pavement outside the Greek parliament in Athens. For two weeks, 150 of them have been on hunger strike. The interior ministry has handed out leaflets: ‘You have nothing to gain if you remain on Syntagma Square. You should follow the only way to a life with dignity. You should apply for asylum.’ The minister repeated the proposal on Tuesday, adding he would ask northern European countries to take them in instead, though he expected the answer would be no.
Nikolaos Michaloliakos, the 55-year-old leader of the Golden Dawn, has been remanded in custody pending trial, after a lengthy court hearing last night. He was arrested in the early hours of Saturday morning, accused of leading a criminal organisation. He and 21 others – MPs from the party, members of local branches, police officers who co-operated with the group – may face charges of conspiring to murder, attempted murder, assault and blackmail. The report by the deputy public prosecutor Haralambos Vourliotis describes a group more concerned with making a quick buck and building a pseudo-patriotic front than of ‘citizens concerned with the condition of their homeland in these dark times’.