Wednesday 22 November 2017

Celebrations in the street but future is uncertain

After years of hardship and months of conflict, can this divided nation heal itself?

No voters kiss as they celebrate the results of the first exit polls in front of the Greek parliament in Syntagma Square in Athens last night
No voters kiss as they celebrate the results of the first exit polls in front of the Greek parliament in Syntagma Square in Athens last night
No voters embrace as they celebrate the results of the first exit polls in front of the Greek parliament in Syntagma Square in Athens last night
Anti-austerity ‘No’ voters celebrate the results of the first exit polls in front of the Greek parliament in Syntagma Square in Athens last night
A woman poses with her daughter as she prepares to cast her vote in Athens yesterday
A ballot box is emptied by a voting official at the closing of polling stations in Athens yesterday
Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras casts his ballot at a polling station in Athens yesterday
Mr Tsipras’s wife Betty Baziana gets out of a car at the prime minister’s office
Greek Finance Minister Yanis Varoufakis arrives at a polling station with his father Giorgos.
Caroline Crawford

Caroline Crawford

"If you take Greece apart, In the end you will be left with an olive tree, a vineyard and a boat...which means that with these items you can rebuild Greece..." - Odysseus Elytis

As Greeks in their millions made their voices heard with a resounding cry of 'Oxi', celebrations began in Syntagma Square in Athens for the victors.

But while No supporters were jubilant at the result, the main concern for many was now re-uniting the country.

After weeks and months of turmoil, Greece remains bitterly divided. The contentious vote turned friend against friend and neighbour against neighbour.

With a resounding No from the country, celebrating voters last night urged their fellow countrymen to join them once again to present a united front.

They quoted the country's beloved poet Odysseus Elytis, whose famous poem had adorned a number of polling stations throughout the country.

"We can rebuild Greece and we can do this as a people together," said Nicolaos (35).

Last night the crowds returned to Syntagma Square, just days after tens of thousands had demanded a No vote in one of the largest rallies ever seen in Greece.

Waving Greek flags along with those of the Syriza party, those gathered chanted songs and beat drums as they celebrated a historic win.

"We will now show Europe that we cannot be humiliated," said student Janis (24).

While the crowds gathered, a heavy police presence also appeared. A number of vans with police in full riot gear were positioned around the square.

But those gathered insisted there would be no conflict.

Sisters Denise (30) and Catherine (23) Papadopoulou from Athens joined the crowds. The pair, who both work as secretaries in an Athens hospital, spoke of their delight at the win.

"This is the first time I can smile in weeks. Things have been very bad, but now we will see a change. This is a celebration for all of Greece," said Denise.

The sisters said all No voters accepted the banks may not open for some time, but insisted that together the country would find a way through.

"I think everybody must unite, even the people who have voted Yes. We will not turn against each other, we are a civilised country," added Catherine.

However, the fear of deep divisions remaining in the embattled nation was a common concern for voters yesterday.

Throughout the day people expressed their concerns about the future of the country, regardless of the outcome. As millions of voters took to the ballot boxes for the country's first referendum in close to four decades, the result was no longer the most important thing for many.

Instead, the question turned to how the deeply divided nation could heal itself. The last months and weeks have left deep scars in the Mediterranean country.

Even at the polling booths, fraught tensions proved too much for some, with rows breaking out on the street over how to vote.

Iro Syngarefs (64) revealed how the uncertainty had torn her own family apart.

"My daughters' husbands, one is Yes and one is No. They nearly tore each other apart. We are fighting among ourselves, it is like a civil war," she said.

Leaving Kilepsi polling station, Ms Syngarefs revealed she had voted No, but immediately questioned her decision.

"I voted No but as I came down the stairs I wasn't sure any more. I now worry about my children, will they have a job any more. But either way, it will be difficult. Maybe for my granddaughter's time, things will be better - she is five. In Greece, we have a saying: You are between a cliff and a mountain. Either way is bad for this county," she added.

Outside the polling station two Greek men, both of whom had worked for their country for over three decades, argued in the street.

Michael Pantazopoulos (55), a naval architect, accused Tsipras and his party of splitting the nation in two.

Retired teacher Moustakoufis Stelios (50) vehemently disagreed, saying: "No, it is not Tsipras, it is our beliefs that split us."

As the bitter argument raged on, the two men traded barbs over the role of the EU and the actions of the Syriza party.

Arguing over the role of the EU in the crisis, Mr Pantazopoulos ended the confrontation with the warning: "The EU is not responsible for this. This is our own problem and if we don't solve it, it will be a catastrophe."

As the debate raged on throughout the week, the divisions grew. At already tense ATM queues, where locals must queue to secure their €60 daily allowance, talk of the vote proved incendiary.

"At one queue where I was, two pensioners who supported different sides were in conflict. One hit the other with his umbrella. We don't have to go far down this road for civil unrest and I fear that can turn to civil war," added Ms Syngarefs.

With the country's future hanging in the balance, more than 10 million Greeks were eligible to vote in the referendum, among them 108,000 young people voting for the first time. People of all ages and outlooks travelled to the 19,000 polling booths from early morning.

In Kilepsi, where Syriza leader Alexis Tsipras was brought up and where he returned to vote, No crowds followed him into the station in a state of elation. As the charismatic leader spoke from a makeshift stage, his supporters went wild. A tired Tsipras stated that today democracy conquers fear.

For some, his message was a beacon of hope. Local man Jan Newman (72) broke down in tears as he stated: "Tsipras is our saviour, this is the only way".

"We have people jumping from the balconies, others are eating from the garbage. I have seen difficult things in my life but this is an economic war and we can't survive it," he added.

But for others, his words were hollow. One Yes voter described the polling booth as a den of communism as he left.

Nikolaos Argyropoulos, a dentist with businesses in both Athens and Thessalonika, voted Yes. He said the country faces many years of turmoil regardless of the outcome.

"We are Greeks, we love tragedy and now we are living it," he added.

Irish Independent

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