ATHENS (Reuters) - A cash-strapped Greek pensioner shot and killed himself outside parliament in Athens on Wednesday saying he refused to scrounge for food in the rubbish, touching a nerve among ordinary Greeks feeling the brunt of the country’s economic crisis.
The public suicide of the 77-year-old retired pharmacist quickly triggered an outpouring of sympathy in a country where one in five is jobless and a sense of national humiliation has accompanied successive rounds of salary and pension cuts.
Just hours after the death, an impromptu shrine with candles, flowers and hand-written notes condemning the crisis sprung up in the central Syntagma square where the suicide occurred. Dozens of bystanders gathered to pay their respects.
One note nailed to a tree said “Enough is enough”, while another asked “Who will be the next victim?”.
The “Indignant” protesters, who staged mass protests in 2011 against austerity measures imposed by foreign lenders in return for bailout loans, said they planned a march later on Wednesday.
Acts of suicide have been catalysts for provoking popular protest in the past. A Tunisian vegetable seller triggered the start of the so-called “Arab Spring” protests by setting himself on fire in December 2010.
In Athens, witnesses said the man appeared in the busy square during the morning rush hour, put a gun to his head and pulled the trigger after yelling out: “I have debts, I can’t stand this anymore.”
Another passerby told Greek television the man said “I don’t want to leave my debts to my children.”
A suicide note found in his pocket blamed politicians and financial troubles for pushing him over the edge, police said.
The government had ”annihilated any hope for my survival and I could not get any justice. I cannot find any other form of struggle except a dignified end before I have to start scrounging for food from the rubbish“,” the note said.
The tragedy quickly took on a political dimension, as small, anti-bailout parties gearing up for elections next month pinned the blame on bigger parties and on austerity measures prescribed by European partners and the International Monetary Fund.
“When people start committing suicide in Syntagma square, then it is the final straw that tears apart social cohesion,” far-right leader George Karatzaferis told parliament.
Conservative leader Antonis Samaras, whose New Democracy party is leading in opinion polls, said he was “devastated”, while Socialist leader Evangelos Venizelos said the event was “so shocking that it renders any political comment incongruous and cheap.”
Greece is stumbling through its worst post-World War Two economic crisis as austerity measures imposed to sort out the country’s messy finances push it into a fifth year of recession.
The latest data shows suicides jumped 18 percent in 2010 from the previous year as rising unemployment, higher taxes and shrinking wages drove ordinary Greeks to despair.
Last year, the number of suicides in Athens alone jumped over 25 percent from a year ago.
The president of the pharmacists’ union in the broader Attica region, Costas Lourantos, said he recalled meeting the victim several years ago and was struck by his dignified manner.
“When dignified people like him are brought to this state, somebody must answer for it,” said Lourantos. “There is a moral instigator to this crime - which is the government that has brought people to such despair.”
Shortly after news of the man’s death, Lourantos says he received an anonymous call from a pharmacist saying she would be next to follow suit.
“I am now frantically looking to find out who it was so we can stop her,” Lourantos said.
With financial hardship fast becoming an unavoidable facet of life for many, several Greeks said they feared the pharmacist’s suicide would not be the last.
“This is the point to which they’ve brought us. Do they really expect a pensioner to live on 300 euros?” asked 54-year old Maria Parashou, who rushed to the square to pay her respects after reading about the suicide.
“They’ve cut our salaries, they’ve humiliated us. I have one daughter who is unemployed and my husband has lost half of his income, but I won’t allow myself to lose hope.”
Additional reporting by Dina Kyriakidou; Writing by Deepa Babington; Editing by Angus MacSwan and Andrew Osborn