The World from Berlin: 'Catastrophe, Apocalypse, Tragedy'

Tens of thousands of Greeks hit the streets on Wednesday to protest against their government's handling of the recent devastating forest fires. They also accused successive governments of not doing enough to tackle real estate speculation and arson.

Tens of thousands of Greeks took to the streets on Wednesday to protest what they see as the woefully inadequate government response to the devastating forest fires that killed 64 people over the past week.

In Athens, up to 15,000 people gathered in front of the parliament, many wearing black and carrying placards such as "No to the destruction of nature," and "Our patience is at an end." Things turned nasty when demonstrators began taunting and throwing stones at the police, who responded with tear gas and stun grenades.

Demonstrators voiced their anger with the government for failing to take preventative measures or to deal effectively with the crisis. "I am annoyed by the apathy and hypocrisy of politicians," one of the protestors, Apostolis Giannakidis, told Reuters. "I hope this will affect how people vote in the elections," Irini Panagopoulou said." The conservative New Democracy party has ruled Greece since 2004 and, with less than three weeks to go until elections on Sept. 16, it is fast losing popularity.

The demonstrators also accused governments of the past 50 years of failing to do enough to tackle real estate speculation and arson. Many Greeks believe dodgy developers are responsible for starting the fires, to clear the forests and make way for construction, taking advantage of a lack of land registry and clear zoning laws. "The cement and profits are theirs, the deaths are ours," read one poster at the Athens rally. The government has said that it believes the fires were "not a coincidence," and has offered a reward of up to €1 million for information leading to the arrests of arsonists.

Meanwhile firefighters were still battling one major blaze in southern Greece on Thursday but most of the hundreds of other fires are now under control. The authorities have begun to focus on the daunting relief effort. "Our main task now is to relieve the pain, the stress and the agony that the victims … are feeling," said deputy government spokesman Evangelos Antonaros.

According to the Greek financial daily Imersia the inferno has destroyed 4,5 million olive trees, killed 60,000 sheep and goats and burnt down 510 houses. Up to 190,000 hectares of forest were burnt between Friday and Tuesday alone. The Peloponnese is particularly badly hit. The fires destroyed homes, villages and crops, and many villagers are now facing the prospect of becoming "environmental refugees."

Thousands of people queued outside banks on Wednesday to receive aid and the government announced that 7,500 people had received €24 million ($33 million) already. Although the government has budgeted around a third of a billion euros for aid, the Fnance Ministry expects the costs to end up being much higher.

The German-language press is shocked that this kind of catastrophe could occur in Europe and berates the Greek authorities for their shortcomings.

The conservative Die Welt writes:

"People are not burning to death in an unfamiliar developing country, but in the middle of Europe, the site of part of its most important cultural heritage … Greece is far away and yet at the same time unimaginably near."

"When Greece became the 10th member of the European Union in 1979, there was no doubt that it belonged to the core of Europe -- quite unlike the new members from Eastern Europe and the Balkans. In Greece we see ourselves, our classical past."

"When Greece played host to the Olympic Games in 2004, its neighbors were pleasantly surprised to see that the tourist destination had become a modern, almost wealthy country. They deliberately ignored the fact that Athens had become a sprawling juggernaut, that the country's infrastructure was completely worn out, and the authorities were unable to cope."

"The current catastrophe is just too big to be ignored. Certainly Brussels will show Europe's material solidarity. But maybe this disaster will be a chance to correct the distorted image of the country. Greece is a poor country on the borders with Asia, with its own traditions and countless problems. Beyond Athens, the Third World begins. It would help desolate Hellas, if we could finally understand that."

The left-leaning Berliner Zeitung writes:

"Catastrophe, apocalypse, tragedy -- the Western world uses ancient Greek words to describe everything that is terrible."

"The crux of the Greek misery is obvious: a lack of responsibility, indifference and negligence on every conceivable level. Forest fires are not new in Greece, but they are getting fiercer, in part due to climate change. That was known, but no one did anything about it. In June there were fierce fires, people died, but nothing was done. Then there was one heat wave after another -- unlike an earthquake, people could see this calamity coming. But still nothing was done … There were no initiatives -- on a local or national level -- to develop the fire brigades. No one was prepared, no one coordinated. Disaster plans hardly even made it onto paper, never mind into practice."

"People in Greece like to wallow in self pity and victim mentality. Wherever you look there is the denial of responsibility."

"This should be the beginning of a serious debate: Greece has to get itself in order … The Greek know that after catastrophe, tragedy and apocalypse there is catharsis -- purification through misery, fear and shock."

The Swiss daily Neue Zürcher Zeitung writes:

"Prime Minister Costas Karamanlis is under immense pressure. He is being blamed for the failure to equip the firefighters and for the chaotic crisis management. He is right when he talks about arson. For the past two days he has expanded his repertoire of excuses … He talks about an asymmetrical threat to Greece and, in the manner of George W. Bush, swears to his people that he will fight the enemy, the unknown arsonist. Awards of up to €2 million are being offered for his capture. The slogans for the election campaign are basically 'Who will give the most money to the victims?'"

"For those who know the situation on the ground, this completely ignores the causes of the forest fires … A law that allows the conversion of the forest areas for economic use under certain circumstances."

"Already back in July the WWF had called for an EU-wide law that would forbid construction on any burnt off forest areas ... Real estate speculation, negligent forestry, ineffective politicians, and rubbish dumps are the real causes of the disaster."

-- Siobhán Dowling, 2:15 p.m. C.E.T

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