In 2020, greek newspaper Kathimerini published an audio recording two years after the fire at the seaside town of Mati that killed 103 people. Fire investigator Dimitris Liotsios was secretly recording threats by the then Fire Service Chief Vassilis Mattheopoulos. “Keep it simple, even if it does make you look like an idiot… Five basic things: Wind, combustible matter, a combination of pine trees and houses, anarchic, unplanned construction. And the result was that the fire got out of control in an hour… Five lines, five words, and hand it in. And the prosecutors? Some people will get the pie and you’ll get f…d. That’s how the game is played in Greece”.
The next day (20 July 2020), then Minister for Citizen Protection, Olga Gerovassili (Syriza), reacted with a lawsuit against the newspaper, after it refused to revoke the extensive article. Mattheopoulos, having threatened and admitted mismanagement and cover-ups from both politicians and fire service officers, was released on bail in March 2021. There were charges against 20 officials for how the Mati wildfire was handled: from false reports on how quickly air means were mobilised to evidence that motorists were directed to evacuate in the wrong direction. “The distance between Marathonos Avenue and the sea is 500-600 meters, which means that the average resident could have been in a safe place near the water within 15 minutes. We had the time and the personnel to carry out an evacuation… We were ready to go, but the order never came from the fire department”, a traffic officer explained. That’s how the game is played in Greece.
With or without 45°C, with or without wind, charged drones or antique fire trucks, Greece is the country where elderly men in slippers attempt to put out fires with garden hoses – the type of hoses that melt like cheese at a small distance from over 100-120° Celsius. The region of Evia effectively had minimal aerial operations this past week. Meanwhile, the top prosecutor has initiated an investigation on organised arson given the number of simultaneous outbreaks this month (154 as of 7 August). When there were two failed attempts to charge the ex fire chief and other officials with felony over the Mati death-toll, will any upcoming judicial proceedings be any quicker? When tapes tell citizens that their government, whether left or right, appoints public officials who spend their time “score settling” instead of doing their job, will they wait for fire planes this time around? The audio recording of Mattheopoulos has an entire segment on the power games between fire service chiefs that he said were similar in at least two pre-2018 wildfires, blatantly admitting to sabotage tactics among senior officials. Meanwhile, nobody resigns for having appointed them. Not under Syriza, not under New Democracy now.
There is no post regime-change administration that hasn’t been met with summertime fires. And yet Greece operates with the same infrastructure (resources), laws (institutions) and emergency responses as usual. With or without wind, Greece is the country of couch forestry experts, bribery, unregulated construction, a convoluted land title system, pseudo-academic agronomy, budget cuts to fire services and forest protection, deflective party politics and myopic media coverage*. The most predictable summer occurrence is fires (which, yes, often become extremely difficult to tame). It is not some peculiar altruism we see on social media at the moment. It is not that firefighters are suddenly braver (they have always been) or that citizens are suddenly more selfless. Greek firefighters are photographed sleeping on the ground after the arrival of brigades from other countries. Action to create space for affected animals has been unprecedented. Residents stay behind defending houses and the surrounding nature with buckets. It might be incredibly touching but it points to something else. These are images of citizens who do not trust that the state will mobilise on time. These are images of people who know a culture of impunity all too well.
That’s how the game is played in Greece.
*Besides press censorship, there is debate about how disasters are reported, especially on TV and social media where visuals become more important (e.g. presented as isolated outbreaks, sensationalist coverage, etc, minimal coverage of geographically remote areas etc.).