The Satchelist: An antagonistic chat with Angelique from Greece

The Satchelist: Angelique from Greece
 "We have a lot of problems," says Angelique, who is Greek-born but living in Lebanon, "it is not like here, which is so calm and so nice." Her carefree, savoir faire demeanour belies a frustration burning inside, one that so many Greeks feel right now, to the point that tales ending in the loss of life are all too frequent. 

One might ask, where is the global support? Have financial policies aimed at curbing Greece's profligate spending habits been too harsh, the people on the street overlooked as sights have been set on curtailing the upper echelons of power? 

As prices have risen, public funding has been cut and unemployment has reached unprecedented highs. Some people have lost hope. There have been 1,750 suicides in the past two years, but many more remain concealed out of family shame or are omitted by the public media (possibly for public health initiatives). It is the great Greek Tragedy of our time.

"It's not the mistake of the people – it's the politicians, the corruption, and the governments," says Angelique in broken English. "The Americans, the Europeans obliged the Greeks to buy arms in the war against Bin Laden and they could not afford to pay for them. This was a big problem. And they boycotted the Olympic Games. Do you remember what the English said? 'Don't go to the [2004 Athens] Olympic Games because it's dangerous'? In my opinion, we have to break away from the European Union."

Her anger is palpable; the conversation not entirely comfortable. She questions why Australians are indifferent, ignorant to the plight of the Greeks. I say we're not, nor were we during World War II when Australia and New Zealand sent troops with the British (albeit with reservations) to defend the Greeks from Hitler and Moussolini's combined ambitions.

She says we are in cahoots with the Americans, whether directly or indirectly, it doesn't matter. "Who created Bin Laden?" she asks. "It was the Americans. They used him against Russia, he was fighting with them in Afghanistan."

Angelique and her husband Pierre have lived between Greece and Lebanon, a country no stranger to conflict. The Lebanon Civil War lasted from 1975 to 1991: "It was horrible, a big, big disaster, the most dirtiest war," she says. And while a new war was ignited in 2006, "Now it is okay, but it is always tense," she says. 

You can understand why they might feel hostility, or outright disdain, towards people who have not experienced civil unrest nor war and feel so keenly the strangeness of an atmosphere of relative ease in Australia, which is home to many a Greek-born migrant and many asylum seekers. "It is another world to yours," says Pierre.

On February 24, 1941, Australian Prime Minister Robert Menzies had written after meeting with British Prime Minister Winston Churchill to discuss allied military operations, "We cannot leave Greece in the lurch." Lest we forget this great legacy of friends across seas, nor our similarities.

"The Greek spring with its white and piercing light, its floods of sun, its clean sharp water and, above all its exiled eucalypts, is closer to home than anything they have seen since they left Freemantle," wrote Kenneth Slessor, official Australian correspondent, Athens, 30 March 1941.

After enduring a disastrous campaign in which 2535 allied servicemen (320 Australian) lost their lives and 25,328 were taken prisoner, while watching those Greeks residing in small villages lose their lives and homes, in April 1941, the allied troops withdrew from Greece and into Crete.

But in one last fight with the Germans on April 21, Australian gunners opened fire and inflicted enough damage to cause the enemy to retreat to Lamia. The next morning, the Germans retaliated. Six Aussie gunners were killed and three were seriously wounded.

This before the "nightmare drive over the mountains through the blackness of the night with no head lights," as penned by Sister Sylvia Duke of the 2/6th Australian General Hospital of those last days in Greece. And notably, the Greeks did not dessert the Australians in defeat. It was reported that one elderly Greek lady tearfully proferred gifts – a tray of sliced cake and glasses of Restina – as they evacuated the beaches at Kalamatta.

Yet another tragic saga in the life of an embattled country, which thereafter entered a "long, dark night of enemy occupation" under the hellishness of Hitler whose Nazis saw the country as yet another one to plunder for their war effort. More than 450,000 Greeks suffered from malnutrition, and a further 25,000 were executed for guerrilla and partisan activities or for being Jew (of 80,000 only 10,000 Greek Jews survived).

Should the British and Aussie contingent have been there to defend the Greeks at the height of German power? The question was bitterly debated (and called "the worst Chinchillian strategy of the war" in reference to the British PM), but it is still nonetheless looked upon fondly by the Greeks and so too the Australians given food, clothing and shelter in their hour of need.

In late May 1941, Compton Mackenzie, author of Wind of Freedom and champion of the Aegean, wrote: "When darkness fell upon May 31st 1941, and mercifully hid from the German bombers the ships bearing the last soldiers that the Royal Navy could evacuate from Crete, the Hellenic people entered that dark night of the soul which for national and individuals alike is the Divine test of their spiritual life." 

See also:
'Warning to London 2012 Olympic hosts as Greece struggles with economy and security: an interview with political sociologist Minas Samatas' at Security Games

Greece and Crete, Australians in World War II, Australian Government Department of Foreign Affairs, 2011

Girl With a Satchel