Sun, May 15, 2011 - Page 11 News List

Debt crisis forces young Greeks to flee Athens, head for hills

Debt, unemployment and poverty are causing mass unrest and thousands to seek a cheaper lifestyle outside the capital, despite a lack of opportunities

By Helena Smith  /  THE GUARDIAN, ANDRITSAINA, ARCADIA, GREECE

High in the hills of Arcadia, in the eastern part of the Peloponnese peninsula, in a big stone house on the edge of this village overlooking verdant pastures and a valley beyond, a group of young Athenians are busy rebuilding their lives.

Until recently Andritsaina was not much of a prospect for urban Greeks.

“But that,” Yiannis Dikiakos said, “was before Athens turned into the explosive cauldron that it has become. We woke up one day and thought we’ve had enough. We want to live the real Greece and we want to live it somewhere else.”

Piling his possessions into a Land Rover and trailer, the businessman made the 270km journey to Andritsaina last month. As he drove past villages full of derelict buildings and empty homes, along roads that wound their way around rivers and ravines, he did not look back.

“Athens has failed its young people. It has nothing to offer them any more. Our politicians are idiots ... they have disappointed us greatly,” said Dikiakos, who will soon be joined by 10 friends who have also decided to escape the capital.

They are part of an internal migration, thousands of Greeks seeking solace in rural areas as the debt-stricken country grapples with its gravest economic crisis since the World War II.

“It’s a big decision, but people are making it,” said Giorgos Galos, a teacher in Proti Serron on the great plains of Macedonia, in northern Greece. “We’ve had two couples come here and I know lots in Thessaloniki who want to go back to their villages. The crisis is eating away at them. If they had just a little bit of support, of official encouragement, the stream would turn into a wave because everything is so much cheaper here.”

This week, as the IMF and EU debated ways of trying to re-rescue Greece and observers openly wondered whether the country would have to leave the euro, Greece appeared more adrift than ever, tossed on a high sea of mounting anger and civil disobedience from people who have lost trust in their politicians, and at the mercy of markets that refuse to believe it can pull itself back from the brink of bankruptcy.

“The reality is that these people, they are in deep shit,” IMF managing director Dominique Strauss-Kahn said recently. “If we had not come they would have fallen into the abyss. Two weeks later the government would not have been able to pay civil servants’ wages.”

Ironically, it is the medicine doled out under last year’s draconian EU-IMF 110 billion euro (US$155 billion) rescue program, implemented to modernize a sclerotic economy, that has made their lot worse. Twelve months of sweeping public sector pay and pension cuts, massive job losses, tax increases and galloping inflation have begun to have a brutal effect. GDP is predicted to contract by 3 percent this year — making Greece’s the deepest recession in Europe.

In Athens, home to almost half of Greece’s 11 million-strong population, the signs of austerity — and poverty — are everywhere: in the homeless and hungry who forage through municipal trash cans late at night; in the cash-strapped pensioners who pick up rejects at the street markets that sell fruit and vegetables; in the shops now boarded and closed and in the thousands of ordinary Greeks who can no longer afford to take family outings or regularly eat meat.

“We’ve had to give up tavernas, give up buying new clothes and give up eating meat more than once a week,” said Vasso Vitalis, a mother of two who struggles with her civil servant husband to make ends meet on a joint monthly income of 2,000 euros.

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