Devastating Athens fires caused by greedy ‘development’ speculation

Profits are valued over human life and the natural environment as at least 84 Greek people are declared dead, over 120 more are missing and 2,000 homes destroyed.

Smoke from forest fires surrounds the Acropolis

The horrific loss of life and total destruction of homes and small shops as a result of the recent inferno on the outskirts of Athens adds to the countless devastating consequences that the working people of Attica have been facing for many years as a result of earthquakes, floods and fires in their region.

Once again, the Greek people faced the catastrophe with minimal help from the state apparatus. Back in 2007, eighty-four people died in similar fires in the Peloponnese. From the tragedy of 2007 to the desolation of 2018, no lessons were learned and no official has resigned or been held to account.

The Greek post-EU ‘economic adjustment programme’ state is a dystopia where EU debt auditors have permanent positions but firefighters have joined the precariat – the growing section of the working class that does not enjoy even a vestige of security and is unable to make ends meet.

During the declared three days of national mourning, the banks continued to auction family homes lost to debt. The EU-imposed troika’s mechanisms are always in readiness when it comes to confiscating millions from working people’s accounts, but they are singularly unable to protect human life from fire and floods.

Just last November, flash floods in western Attica (Mandra) claimed the lives of 23 people. It is clear that, in the European Union of 2018, the only death worth preventing is that of a big bank. Greece ranks second in military spending amongst Nato members, but it does not have the basic infrastructure to deal with the fires and floods caused by the construction contractors’ impunity.

Whilst firefighting funds have been slashed, politicians have absolutely no problem doing business with contractors wanting to build on the devastated land. The Greek parliament has no issue with voting swiftly for the recapitalisation of banks but has never voted for the prohibition of building on destroyed forest land.

It is nothing less than premeditated murder that in a country where fires and arson are so common, the fire brigade has been left to disintegrate, the forest patrol service has been dissolved and there is a total lack of preventive measures in place.

In the recent catastrophe in western coastal Athens, the supposedly ‘left-wing’ Syriza-led government failed to mobilise the necessary forces to support the inhabitants of the affected regions. It failed even to record the missing persons and responsibly inform the relatives of those looking for lost family members.

As with the ad hoc management of the refugee crisis, the government again relied on volunteers and private companies offering assistance and rescuing victims of the fires. Local authorities even failed to support health services with the necessary personnel for such emergencies.

As in so many previous cases in Greece, the families who were hit by the fires now face an ordeal with no safe housing, clothing or food being guaranteed by the state. Even the basic tasks of reconnecting electricity and water supplies remain uncertain at time of writing.

Instead of ensuring the recording of the damages and proceeding to compensate working-class families and small businesses who have lost everything, the state is putting its citizens through a humiliating process whereby they must register their losses and form never-ending queues to claim basic benefits – only to be treated as beggars and offered crumbs.

Mainstream media and government propaganda has gone so far as to put the blame on the victims for overcrowding the area of Mati, and living in illegally-built homes inside the forest. Mati was the worst-hit area, where whole families were trapped and burned to death.

It is a disgustingly immoral argument to blame the victims – an argument we have heard before against the Greek people, who apparently caused their own misery and debt by being lazy and refusing to pay their taxes.

The reality is that behind every piece of overcrowded land around the capital of Athens, and behind every illegally-built house, stands a series of private contractors and corrupt politicians who have benefited from bribery and turned a blind eye to health and safety legislation.

The Greek state has tolerated and benefited (through taxation) from the existence of whole towns built without permission and trespassing on seaside or woodland, and it is truly appalling for mafia-like politicians to now turn against their voters and victim-blame them in their hour of need.

Indeed, as we go to press, it has been revealed that the Syriza MP and former minister Giorgos Stathakis himself gave permission for the unregulated construction of the homes in Kokkino Limanaki, where families died trapped.

The apocalyptic scenes that we saw on our screens as the fire raged were, unfortunately, a predictable development, simply because, under unrestrained monopoly capitalism, as it currently operates in Greece, there is no real planning to prevent and deal with the loss of working-class life. The cuts imposed by the troika resulted in the shortages in personnel and infrastructure needed to prevent and deal with such events.

The EU loan shark, to whose outrageous demands the Syriza government so cravenly caved in, is, by stripping Greece of such a basic services such as firefighting (to say nothing of health, welfare and education services) in the interests of debt repayment, primarily responsible for a broken society that is totally vulnerable and exposed to all possible natural and man-made disasters. Indeed, forest fires break out every summer in Greece, very few of which can be attributed to natural causes. Most are the result of either careless or malicious human actions.

Both Greek and foreign nationals have in the past been caught red-handed setting fires deliberately, and Turkey, not too long ago, admitted responsibility for forest fires in Greece in the 1990s.

In this particular fire, there are reports that show tens of different simultaneous ignition points suggesting deliberate arson. It is sadly very telling that on a windy summer day, Greeks usually say that “there will be a fire somewhere” as they are so bitterly used to criminals looking out for windy days to wreak most havoc and inflict the most damage possible, deforesting land they hope to exploit either for building or mining.

Strange coincidences

There are reports that the first fire – by a ‘strange coincidence’– occurred in the area of the Gerania mountains, an area of 50,000 acres targeted for drilling for bauxite. Last year, local residents protested against an exploration project and the proposal of the private company involved was rejected as the mountains are a ‘natural’ protected forest. The fire has burnt down exactly the area targeted for mining, meaning the private drilling can now take place without impediment.

Indeed, firefighters have announced the discovery of nine incendiary devices at the point where the inferno began, making arson impossible to ignore as a cause. Naturally, the media and politicians are keen to suggest that the arsonists were petty crooks hoping to loot people’s homes as they fled, but this version stretches credulity when the facts above are taken into consideration.

Despite all this, fire and flood protection projects are never implemented in Greece, as was the case with Grenfell Tower in London last year, because they are a cost without immediate profit for the capitalists, and can even be an obstacle to their plans.

Working families are quite literally sacrificed for the sake of the growth of business profits and the pillaging of the nation’s natural resources. After the memorandum of austerity was imposed by the EU troika, things got worse. Five hundred and forty Greek firefighters were offered free to German public company Fraport when Greece was obliged to sell its airports. The 84 and more deaths we mourn today were entirely predictable.

EU memorandum is killing people

In the spring of 2018, cuts of €34m were imposed on Greece’s civil and anti-fire protection services, removing both firefighters and physical and technical infrastructure. This led to fewer permanent firefighters, more seasonal contractors, fewer materials and the decimation of Greece’s firefighting aircraft fleet, from 20 planes to 10 (three of which turned out not to be in working order when the time came to use them).

This was all imposed by the EU memorandum – ie, the structural adjustment programme imposed on Greece – with literally fatal consequences. Both the government and opposition are mutually accountable for the deaths; they are betting on the desperation and indignation of the people for small-party benefits.

Greek governments have for decades given priority to ‘profit-making’ investments, and have tolerated illegal private construction on forests and other public land. One of the main reasons people died trapped and could not find any escape route, was that all public access to the sea was prevented by the luxury properties that had been built on the shoreline, surrounded by tall fences that made it impossible for people to reach the sea and save themselves.

The ensuing despair and rage must be transformed into a conscious political struggle. Only this will force the government and local councils to undertake the immediate reparation of the damage, the compensation of the victims of the disaster, the fortification of the city, and the creation of adequate infrastructure for protection and management of crises.

Finally, the working class needs to put an end to the capitalist system of exploitation and pillage that leads to so much death and destruction. Human beings should not be dying in this way, but they will continue to do so while profit remains the motive force for all human productive activity.

No appeal to logic or common decency can change the behaviour of those who benefit from the system, and who are, in the final analysis, merely the human embodiment of capital’s drive to constantly expand itself.

Only when capital ceases to exist as a social phenomenon will humanity be able to raise itself above such barbarism.