In September 2011, in Thessaloniki, Greece, Apostolos Polyzonis set himself on fire outside his bank, which had refused to ease his debt payments. He survived, and so did his anger.
THESSALONIKI — Nothing but a desolate landscape, a meager stream of water and dried-out earth, stands in front of Apostolos Polyzonis. And yet, what he describes is a vigorous river with fish aplenty, fields full of wheat and tobacco plants. With just a few words prolonging his dream, he fills up the street of Krithia with happy people and rugged tractors, opens the shutters outside his shop and checks his books, all filled with orders.
His home village of 1,500 inhabitants however seems to belong in a different era. The perfume bottling workshop closed down 11 years ago, and around it, only the smell of bankruptcy and decay are left. So Apostolos imagines himself sitting on his terrace, savoring a simple life without wealth, just the minimum so that his family want for nothing.
He sees things in the past, speaks and thinks in the past. For the past “sweetens memories” and makes the present less gloomy.
On second thought, even the pain he felt that morning of September 16, 2011, has eased. It was 9 o’clock. He had driven 30 kilometers from Krithia to the center of Thessaloniki. He had parked his old Fiat in the shade and walked past the newspaper kiosk. On the other side of the street, the security agents at Piraus Bank had been quick to recognize him. Apostolos was a regular at that branch. At the time, Pireus was the largest bank in Greece, having recently absorbed many competitors, and controlled one-third of all loans in the country.
For the previous five months, he had been coming here almost every day, loudspeaker in hand, to denounce his accumulating debts and how the bank was strangling him financially. “Thieves!,” he would shout.
Inevitably, he would also ask for an appointment, one last appointment to try to convince the bank managers to let him reschedule his debt payments to avoid ending up homeless. Some passers-by would find the scene amusing, others would applaud and others simply couldn't understand what this noisy man with sandals and a stocky build could possibly want. As for the bank, it remained deaf to his appeals — and silent.
With no appointment in sight that morning, Apostolos Polyzonis decided it was time to finally get noticed in a very real way. His plan was to enter the building, evacuate the employees, the customers, set the whole thing on fire. He wanted to make an impression. Twice already, in 2007 and 2010, he had attempted to do this at a branch in Athens. Both times, police intervened at the last minute and arrested him.
This time it would work, he told himself. He had to be quick. Apostolos reached the sidewalk in front of the bank. Too late. The green metal shutters had already come down to block access to the building. Stuck outside the front door in his shorts and T-shirt, his plans foiled, he “didn’t think.” He poured half of the jerrycan he was holding in his right hand on his chest, and flicked a lighter with his left. But only his hand caught fire. “There wasn’t enough fuel on the arm, the fire couldn’t spread. I was just seeing my hand burning, it was ridiculous,” he says today, sitting on his small terrace.
So he stroked his chest with his fist. Apostolos caught fire, without seeing a local photographer Nontas Stylianidis across the road. His pictures told the rest of the story, second-by-second. The flames spreading to his stomach, to his loudspeaker and to his feet. The policeman running to his rescue with a fire extinguisher, spraying him with white foam.
Around the world
The images of this incident in broad daylight were seen around the world. “Some people set themselves on fire in cellars, in secret. It was important to me that my action was a public one. But I didn’t want to kill myself. I wanted to protest. I am fighting because I feel guilty that my generation allowed this political class to ruin the life of future generations.”
The human torch staggering and collapsing, with his small gasoline can and loudspeaker, could have risen to be a symbol of the bankruptcy of a founding European country, of the 2009 debt crisis and the austerity policies carried out since that have led to major cuts in wages and pensions.
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Protests in Greece in 2010 — Photo: underclassrising
But this man, and his action, did not move the country. Pireus Bank understood that well enough. In the Greek newspapers Apostolos’ story was not given more space than a mere brief that suggested a fit a madness. As for the bank, it published a statement denying all responsibility and claiming its incomprehension at its client’s action.
Anybody who sets themselves on fire must be crazy to a certain extent, emotionally frail, with some kind of suicidal tendencies. With severe burns over much of his body, Apostolos stayed six days in intensive care and several weeks in hospital. He went through all the stages: induced coma, skin grafts, long periods of rest swallowing painkillers.
“There were the exterior burns," he says, "and also the ones inside.”
Polyzonis finally woke up, and was happy, surrounded by his family. He didn’t want to die. “A soldier who goes to war doesn’t go to die. He doesn’t even think about it. He just leaves to fight.”
The image of a man on fire cannot sum up 50 years of a life of anger, that of a man who still denounces thieves and liars, calls for protests, for a democratic rebirth and the union of the people.
Polyzonis is 58 now, and has indeed spent most of his life fighting against something. Impunity and injustice, corruption and vote-rigging. Against all those who, once they are elected, break their promises. Against bankers, members of Parliament, and men of religion.
As a child, because his mother was very ill, he used to spend some of his days in an orphanage near Krithia, and remembers being the only child to challenge the cruel Greek Orthodox priest who ran the facility.
In Krithia, his immolation sparked a debate. Some people came to congratulate him. Others were suspicious of the rashness of their neighbor. "People ask me why I did it, what I was thinking. I ask them to imagine 1,000 people like me, without masks or anonymity, setting banks on fire. Then we could change the situation. Political parties organized large marches, they defied the police and the police cracked down on them.
So they said, "OK, we did our duty." But that's precisely when duties start! Parties and unions do nothing but talk, and prefer it when their members keep a low profile. Some people here want to join the cause with me. But as soon as things get real, they all run away."
All alone, almost
Apostolos is all alone. Of course, there is Lambrini, his silent wife who takes tranquilizers and does not seem to know what to do with her life. There are also a son, who is a cook, and a daughter who both left to try their luck in Germany, as well as another daughter who works in an office in Thessaloniki. She drops by from time to time to see her parents and pet the dog.
Apostolos worked as a radio operator in the merchant navy for 10 years. That is where he and his wife met. They traveled around the world. They visited countries "more democratic and more civilized than Greece, where citizens behave better." They visited some "worse also, of course." They stopped everything in 1987 to raise a family. Their souvenirs are exposed in display cases, with Nefertiti alongside Buddha, elephants with walruses and Inuits on sleds surrounded by Japanese porcelain.
She looked after the children while he developed a perfume bottling workshop, in which he employed up to 20 people at some point. In Grasse, a small town on the French Riviera where he used to get his supplies, people called him "the Greek," the man who would always come with plenty of gifts and a sly grin, to negotiate a good price for his annual deliveries.
Then came the euro, too strong, Dutch clients who started importing from China, his market slowly shrinking and soon confined to limited to be inside Greece's borders. The workshop closed in 2003, but the debts remained. For 11 years, and counting, they have been suffocating Apostolos, they fueled his anger and ended up setting him on fire.
Apostolos Polyzonis sees that the crisis everywhere he looks. It is in the hole in the chimney conduit, which he will repair when he can afford it. It is in the old, worn-out furniture, and the property he still ostensibly owns. Apostolos used to rent out to small sheds, hoping that one day his children would move there. The fast food restaurant and the beauty salon went bankrupt.
Cats are playing in the rubble, amid old broken sinks. Directly on the floor lies a bit of wood from a pallet a friend gave him so he could warm up. From here, we can see his old warehouse at the corner of the street, its shutters closed. In the middle of an incredible bric-à-brac, perfume cans lie next to hundreds of small pink bottles imported from India, stamped with the Barbie doll logo.
This is all that is left of his former, happy and prosperous life, and Apostolos Polyzonis has trouble even looking at it. "I feel such disappointment when I come back here. I didn't lose my job because I was bad at it, but because somebody at that bank only thought about their own profit, without considering the catastrophe they were causing."
Pointing to the machines, he says, "With that, I used to earn a living, to save some money and support my daughter in her studies."
Bad luck, bad checks
Well before the global recession, his business had run into trouble. An unscrupulous associate one day took the money and ran. One of his clients paid with bad checks. This all started what he calls the "dark circle" in 2003. So the financial crisis, five years later, is not the cause of everything, but it did put an end to any possibility of him being able to stagger the debt of a ruined businessman. The bank changed personnel. In Thessaloniki, the new financial adviser was not interested in talking or refinancing. He just wanted the money back.
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In Thessaloniki — Photo: Andreas Lehner
At the time, Apostolos remembers, the phone would ring until late in the evening, with private loan companies offering one-stop solutions to finance a wedding or summer vacations. Ruined and harassed by creditors, unable to get the smallest delay, he let his anger explode, fueled by the "rotten" rhetoric and hatred. From then, for the coming months he protested, alone in front of the Parliament, the Prime Minister's office in Athens and his bank in Thessaloniki.
Into his loudspeaker, he shouted that the banks were destroying everything, families, proprietors, employees, people and feelings. Until that morning of September 16, 2011. "I was so desperate. My daughter had asked me to send her money. I only had 10 euros left in my pocket," he recalled. "Just enough to buy myself the gasoline. I did what I did… 10 euros, that's not enough to live, for anybody. I felt useless."
Lambrini opens the kitchen pantry and takes out a bag of pasta, offered by the food bank. "A poor man's food," Apostolos grumbles.
The spaghettis' transparent packaging carries the European Union flag with its 12 golden stars, which officially symbolize "the ideals of unity, solidarity and harmony among the peoples of Europe."
Apostolos can't stand seeing them anymore. "We feel like beggars, it takes all self-respect away from people. Every time I open a European Union packaging, it reminds me that somebody else is paying for my food. At first, I thought that Europe would be one for the people, that it would support the poorest countries, defend equal salaries, working and life conditions. But the gap has widened between countries. I still dream of such a Europe, one that fights!"
Until this day comes, Apostolos Polyzonis still protests, alone, in parks, in front of banks and electricity providers. Resourceful, he has been restarting his friends' electricity meters, after their supplies had been cut when they could not pay their bills. He also helps his neighbor write letters to prevent his house from being repossessed. In exchange for a few bank notes, he helps with movings and small construction jobs. During good months, he earns 200 or 300 euros.
In the European elections in May, he voted for Syriza, the radical left coalition, with no real conviction. Apostolos Polyzonis has become distrustful, skeptical of everyone and everything. Last year, on April 21, he sat on his terrace and began writing. Six weeks later, he had a 20-page letter, which he sent to the finance minister, other cabinet ministers, the justice department and the media. It was a scathing attack on politics.
"The people of Greece did not generate debt," he wrote. "They produced the wealth that you shared with your masters and crafty men. You seized every occasion to slander them and call them thieves and corrupted. Your bribes were the citizens' enrollment tickets for the vote-rigging armies of your parties. You overloaded the public sector with useless civil servants and now you accuse them of having destroyed the state! You are the ones who transformed them into slackers who now hang their heads! You drove the people towards misery."
At the end of his letter, Apostolos describes himself as a man with no dignity and no self-respect, sitting on his terrace for hours, unable to do anything else than running the most murderous thoughts through his mind. Then he asked for his debt to be canceled. "If you satisfy these just demands, I will once again be a human being… I wish to become once again the man I used to be, for myself, for my relatives, for society… I will become a Free Greek Citizen again."
His plea was left unanswered, and no media organization ever published his letter.
One year later, he still spends hours on his terrace. Ensconced in a plastic chair, he rolls himself cigarettes and drinks coffee after coffee. He didn't "become" anything again. Apostolos Polyzonis is still this desperate man, with an anger burning inside, warning the visitor walking away from his house with an ancient proverb: "Don't rejoice in seeing your neighbor's door on fire. The fire might spread."