Sunday in Syntagma

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Sunday in Syntagma

A Night at the Opera

The plush crimson seating, subdued lighting and formal monochrome attire frame a pregnant moment, reminiscent of a Francis Ford Coppola epic, in which dynastic ties, political power, money and religious authority weave a rich tapestry of intrigue. Among Greeks and Greece-watchers who have seen it, this photo seems to have provoked an instant gut reaction. As we have warned before, a picture, however eloquent, rarely tells “the whole story”. So, for the benefit of the uninitiated, what is going on here and why the reaction?


The setting is the main auditorium of the Stavros Niarchos Foundation Cultural Centre (SNFCC) in Athens, a Renzo Piano-designed state-of-the-art cultural venue built to house the Greek National Opera and the National Library of Greece. In 2007, the Greek state and the Stavros Niarchos Foundation signed an agreement which was voted into Greek law: the state provided the land – the disused site of the old horse-racing track near the seafront in Faliro – and the charitable foundation managed by the family of the legendary shipping magnate funded and managed the construction of the building and the landscaped park around it. On the 23rd February, a ceremony marked the delivery of the venue to its new owners, the Greek people – at which the photo in question was taken (the webcast of the ceremony can be watched here).


Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras (standing) shakes the hand of Konstantinos Karamanlis, the last pre-crisis Greek PM (2004-2009). Karamanlis’s Nea Demokratia government was succeeded by PASOK in autumn 2009, followed within weeks by the discovery of a black hole in Greek government finances which marked the beginning of the financial crisis, now well into its seventh year. Since losing power, Karamanlis has kept a low profile; while still holding a seat in Parliament, he is understood to spend most of his time at his family home in the seaside town of Rafina, which reclusive arrangement, combined with his placidity and rotund physique, has earned him the nickname “the Buddha of Rafina”. In this rare public appearance, he is attending in his capacity as the signatory of the original agreement with the Niarchos Foundation. Within his own party, which was founded by his uncle and namesake, Karamanlis retains a near-inexplicable (but for blood-loyalty) hold on a distinct faction, which is rumoured to be more active behind the scenes than his own disengaged exterior suggests. In particular, some political observers suggest an underground, borderline-treasonous, rapprochement is taking place, between the Karamanlis wing of the Nea Demokratia and the current government, with the ultimate aim of providing a back-stop to the Syriza-ANEL coalition’s flimsy three-seat majority. An unlikely pairing, one might think, between the embodiment of the nepotistic political establishment and young firebrand who promised to wipe the slate clean of all that. Proponents of the rapprochement theory note the PM’s reluctance to attack the Karamanlis government’s notable contribution to ballooning government debt, Tsipras’s proposal of Prokopis Pavlopoulos, a former Interior Minister in the Karamanlis government, for his current post as the country’s president, and (more controversially) the government’s alleged support for the criminal prosecution of the former head of the Greek Statistical Authority (ELSTAT) who restated the state finances to reveal the black hole. Viewed against this backdrop, this handshake is loaded with symbolism.

In the second row, a full two seats away from Karamanlis, current leader of Nea Demokratia and scion of the Karamanlises’ rival bloodline in the party, Kyriakos Mitsotakis, sits with Ieronymos II, Archbishop of Athens and All Greece. Ostensibly a reformist, Mitsotakis has come to resemble a groom courting the daughter of a particularly god-fearing family in his eagerness to kiss icons and cozy up to senior clergy – a reflection of the continuing hold of the Church and traditional right-wingers on the levers of party power and its voting base’s values (Mitsotakis’s actual wife is seen sitting one row behind him, entertaining another church official). Ordinarily, an opening ceremony would be accompanied by a religious blessing complete with incense, basil and holy water (as is the opening of Parliament), however this was not part of the public ceremony in this case, possibly in deference to the non-smoking rules and brand new upholstery. However, the heavy clerical presence in the front row of a shipowner-funded asset is a potentially awkward reminder that both the Orthodox Church and the shipping industry have come under intensified fire for their preferential tax arrangements, which have shielded them considerably from the austerity policies that afflict the new “owners” of the Cultural Centre.

Out of frame

The aforementioned President Prokopis Pavlopoulos, aka. the missing link in the putative rapprochement, who was seen later seated next to Tsipras, and delivering an uncharacteristically brief address; former PM Antonis Samaras, and an assortment of the Great and the Good of Athenian society, seldom seen out together on social occasions these days. Of course, the handshake captured in this photo was one of a series of unstaged greetings (more photos and observations here), a sign of courteous and civil relations among the Greek political class, even those studiously presenting themselves as untainted outsiders. Even Mitsotakis, looking excluded in our frame, is captured in other photos having an extended cordial exchange with Tsipras. Thus, the picture is potentially less sinister and simultaneously more depressing as a reflection of the political realities of Greece in 2017. It is a Rorschach test of sorts, but none of the associations are positive.

The shipping money. In his address, the Director of the Niarchos Foundation and great-nephew of Stavros Niarchos, after delivering a hopeful message about the power of cultural renewal and reinvigorated national confidence, engaged in some barely concealed live trolling. Reading aloud from what he claimed were electronic messages he had received from nameless members of the public, he voiced (in third person) an alarming level of concern for the fate of the Cultural Centre in the hands of the Greek government (examples included: “The beginning of the end,” and “Why, my good people? Is this your first time in Greece?”), before returning graciously to his own stated message of hope and confidence. Embarrassingly for the representatives of the Greek governments past and present in the auditorium, there was as much applause for the anonymised messages as for the official one – a deafening vote of no-confidence in their ability to manage for the public good. Despite the remarkable success of the building’s completion on time and on budget (all the more notable when compared to similar cultural mega-projects the world over) the moment reflects pervasive public unease around the future running of the SNFCC and the institutions housed in it by a Greek government, and a cash-strapped one at that.

The Greek people. Aside from the seating gaps in the dignitaries’ section, the auditorium was liberally dotted with pockets of empty seats, despite this being a free public event. In typical Greek fashion, the day of the ceremony coincided with a strike on all public transport, leaving only the SNFCC’s limited shuttle bus service and private transport as a means of access to the Centre. “Soft-opening” events held at the Centre have, by contrast, been extremely well attended and the park has been well-used on a daily basis. But alongside the mistrust of political authority, there is a more quiet acknowledgement of mutual mistrust among the public. Will people pick up their own rubbish? How long will it take for the first piece of playground equipment to break? Will the Greek people embrace the opera and the library? What will happen when the inevitable graffiti tags start to appear? Will people rally, volunteer and protect the place or will they rail at the authorities?

Beyond the political handshakes, it will be instructive to see how it evolves, a high-tech laboratory for a political (with a small p) experiment of sorts.

PHOTO: via

A Night at the Opera

This is not a refugee camp

I can’t see what is going on in Idomeni, the sprawling tent city on the Greek-Macedonian border. Nor can you. It doesn’t matter how many pictures you see in the newspaper and on the evening news, or how diligently you monitor your social media feed. We are inundated with visuals of the refugee crisis, to the point where one could receive a wire photographer’s reel, frame by frame, in real time if one chose to. Even we you try to opt out, newspapers will print them in full colour on the front page (“see p.5 for the report”) and people will retweet them or post them on Facebook with comments like “the picture says it all”. But it doesn’t. We still won’t see a refugee camp, because we will be seeing photos of a refugee camp.

Policy on the refugee crisis has been driven by images. 350,000 people had already crossed the Mediterranean by sea and 2,600 had died in 2015 but it took a photo of a drowned toddler to mobilise national leaders to start confronting the problem. Images are powerful, but there is a simple principle we fail routinely to apply:

This is not going to be a blog post about how photos are posed or faked or fabricated to serve political agendas. Errol Morris who wrote the tweet above is not given to throwaway statements. He is the director of documentaries like The Thin Blue Line (uncovering a miscarriage of justice long before Netflix’s Making a Murderer), Standard Operating Procedure (about those Abu Ghraib photos) and The Unknown Known (in which he slowly and methodically dissected Donald Rumsfeld); as a student he antagonised his way out of Thomas Kuhn’s classes in history of science at Princeton University (him of “paradigm shift” fame). A few years ago he wrote a fascinating book called Believing is Seeing (Observations on the Mysteries of Photography). In it, he researched famous and controversial photographic images to demonstrate how false the sense of objectivity is that they convey, and how easily they lend themselves to distortion – without the aid of photoshop, and often without real intent. All photos, even the most trustworthy ones, from war photography to holiday snaps, are always framed by the photographer and constrained by the circumstances in which they are taken; they never tell the whole story.

In one example, Morris considers a well-known photo showing a Mickey Mouse toy in the ruins of an apartment block in Tyre after an Israeli shelling, which was accused of being fake or staged. He interviews the photographer and together they dissect forensically the circumstances under which the photo was taken, the decisions the photographer took, and the reason why it was seen to be so appealing and so controversial. The photo has an emotional appeal – it suggests that a child may have been made homeless, injured or killed in the shelling – but no such event can be confirmed from the interview. The photographer insists that he only included the toy to convey the fact that the the photo was of a residential area. It was not staged or faked, but the subject matter was chosen and framed, despite the pressurised conditions in the midst of a war zone. Whatever its maker’s original intent, the photo escaped it once it hit the wires. The same image was used to support anti-Israeli arguments (for shelling residential areas without regard for children’s lives) and anti-Hizbollah arguments (for using civilians as human shields), and to argue for the mendacity of the media (by suggesting that and similar photos were staged to support particular agendas). I recommend reading the investigation in full because I can’t do its thoroughness justice here.

The compulsion to produce a meaningful image that will have real impact is what drives their makers to grapple with the practical, moral and emotional challenges involved in crafting them in crisis situations. Here is a statement from one of the leading photographers covering the refugee crisis today: “I believe in the power of the image. It’s time to shock people. It could be a way to prompt people into action.” Could it be though that the image overload is stopping us from seeing?

Now consider a photo closer to home. The image of a man and a woman bathing a newborn baby by the entrance to a tent in muddy terrain was tweeted by photographer Iker Pastor on 6 March with the caption “… And life goes on in #Idomeni”.

When it was published in the press a few days later it was captioned along the lines of “a woman has just given birth to her child in a small and dirty tent”. According to the Daily Mail (12 March), it was The baby born in hell: Tragic migrant mother gives birth in the squalor of Idomeni’s tent city and washes the child in a PUDDLE . On 12 March, the Spanish newspaper El Español published the background story, having interviewed the Basque photographer and tracked down the Syrian family featured in the photo. Pastor himself had not had time to speak with the family, he had just taken the photo on the fly and moved on. It turns out the baby was 20 days old when the picture was taken; by the time they were interviewed they had thankfully been moved to better accommodation. A further article, this time in the German newspaper Bild revealed that the baby had been born on a beach in Turkey after his mother went into labour and had to abandon the boat they had boarded to go to Greece. Perhaps because this background information was published in Spanish and German, it did not make the rounds of the internet as quickly as the photo. Some news websites corrected their online copy (but hey, who goes back to re-read old news?), the TV news did not revisit the story. No one corrected the bit about the baby being washed “in a PUDDLE”, such is the power of suggestion that it caused people to ignore the water bottle clearly visible in the photo.

It made me wonder about the stories behind photos such as these, also depicting children in varying states of distress and discomfort.

The photo of the crying girl (top left) standing in the middle of a busy highway in the rain in a flimsy makeshift poncho was also shared widely on social media. Without context, many assumed the girl was lost and started a campaign to identify her and reunite her with her family. It turned out this was not the case; her isolation was an artefact of the way the photo was framed. The photo of the little boy carrying a bag, also seemingly walking alone along the the highway (top right) was used in many media sources to illustrate a Europol report revealing that 10,000 unaccompanied minors who entered Europe as migrants were missing, and vulnerable to exploitation by criminal networks. A different shot shows him walking as part of a group. The photo of the children in the Idomeni camp holding up signs is clearly staged, and it is unclear who provided the signs in matching handwriting and idiomatic English. Though the situation is new and specific, these images fit easily into the well-established genre of “images of refugees” which has trained our eye to “read” these situations in generic ways and seek generic solutions.

You might object, with some justification, that this pedantic quibbling over details does not alter the fact that a newborn has been living in a tent in a muddy overcrowded field; or that over one third of the approximately 13,000 people camping in the (undeniably real) mud in Idomeni are children, many of whom are ill or at risk of illness; or that children are at risk of trafficking on the migrant routes, and even the ones posing for the cameras are living in miserable conditions. But since the baby photo and its original (faulty) story has taken on a life of its own, it has become a symbol of the heartlessness of Europe and the inhumanity of the Balkan countries who have sealed their borders. The photo has come to stand for Idomeni, and Idomeni to stand for all the refugees stuck in Greece, and those beyond waiting to enter Europe. It might be worth asking what this and photos like it are actually showing, and what they are hiding. Here are some relevant facts that the photos won’t tell you.

Almost two thirds of the estimated total 45,000 refugees and migrants stranded in Greece at the time of writing are not in Idomeni (UNHCR provides daily updates here). Idomeni, along with Piraeus, where migrants arrive by ferry from the islands after crossing from Turkey, are informal camps that have sprung up at natural “choke points” on the route north. They lack facilities because the Greek government does not want to encourage staying there long, if at all (Deputy Immigration Minister Mouzalas stated recently in a TV interview that became notorious for other reasons, “we did not want an official state facility on the border to facilitate and establish that route”). The same was the case with Victoria Square in Athens, which hosted an informal encampment and muster point for people-traffickers, before it was evacuated overnight by police. This “arm’s length” approach is not due to lack of funds or resources or organisation, it is conscious policy choice. Resources are being withheld from Idomeni in the hope that its occupants will abandon it for less contentious locations.

The government is committed to evacuating Idomeni too, but has ruled out using force to do it. This is justified on humanitarian grounds (though police have been used on a small scale on previous occasions), but at the back of their minds must also be the reaction that the French authorities have provoked by forcibly clearing the “jungle” at Calais. The milestone that both the government and the migrants are holding out for is an anticipated EU agreement on managing migrant flows: the migrants are hoping it will result in open borders; the Greek government is banking on their disappointment from the more likely opposite decision, to abandon the camp. Until then, they try and dissuade people from travelling to the border by issuing official entreaties and providing transport to official reception centres, without much success. In Idomeni, the residents would rather believe disinformation encouraging them to break the law with potentially fatal consequences, than be guided by official advice, which in any case appears to be sparse and confusing; three Afghanis drowned trying to cross a swollen stream following a rogue leafletting campaign earlier this week.

There are official hosting facilities for migrants established by the Greek state. Most have been thrown up in the last couple of months, in decommissioned army camps and municipal facilities scattered across the country (a map with the locations and numbers of people hosted can be seen here). Officially, Greece will have 50,000 places in migrant hosting facilities this week (UNHCR reported Greece’s reception capacity at just 11,865 at the beginning of February) and want to encourage migrants to move from the open camps to these sheltered facilities. The authorities were slow to act on this front, and the reason was not just the dire state of public finances; there were policy choices here too (we have documented the Greek national politics of the refugee crisis in previous posts, here, here and here). For a variety of reasons, either because the government did not wish to encourage migrants to stay, or to avoid providing political ammunition to the opposition by appearing to encourage migrants to stay, the local policy impetus was against providing official infrastructure. In addition, the governing Syriza party had been vocal campaigners against immigration detention centres in opposition, and therefore the optics of a camp of any sort went against their political instincts.

We see no photos of the official hosting facilities because as of 29 February the government has barred all media from those sites, ostensibly in response to requests from staff and managers dealing with overcrowded conditions. Less understandable is their reluctance to give access to observers from Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch. We simply don’t know how well-run these hosting facilities are (conditions in some of the new camps are reported to be very poor, but earlier volunteer visitors to some of the first centres in Athens reported that they were well organised and well provisioned). Migrants often walk out of them to return to Piraeus or Idomeni on foot, blaming their remoteness and lack of facilities, but mainly because they fear missing out on the opportunity to continue their journeys northwards. The result is unbalanced coverage: the unofficial camps where conditions are poor and doomed to worsen are crawling with media and NGO reporters, the official ones might as well not exist. The politics (and particularly the national policies directly relevant to the specific situation at Idomeni) remain hidden, we see only a “humanitarian” crisis for which a distant, faceless “Europe” is to blame.

There is another thing. At this point it does not look likely that the borders will re-open. The fate and well-being of those waiting at Idomeni does not actually depend on the outcome of this EU summit or the ones that will no doubt ensue, as their focus is on the treatment of the migrants that have not yet entered Europe, not the ones that are already in Greece. However, back in September European leaders agreed (reluctantly in some cases) on an internal relocation scheme for 160,000 refugees to be shared between European countries. This scheme is a drop in the bucket compared to the total numbers, but more importantly it has been painfully slow to implement, apparently due to bureaucratic hurdles and local politics (only 569 out of the allocated 66,400 refugees have been relocated from Greece, and only 0.4% of the EU-wide target overall, according to the latest European Commission figures). The relocation scheme could (in theory) provide a safe way out for a significant number of the people stranded in Greece that does not necessitate camping in squalor and risking their lives further, if governments could only be made to honour these existing political commitments. Every time they fail to do so, they chip away at what little trust the migrants have in “official” solutions and push them towards the razor wire and the people traffickers rather than towards a more hygienic stopping place and a safer route. So while it helps in the short term to make donations and send blankets and shoes, it would help more if MPs and local authorities across Europe were held to account by their own constituents (i.e. us) for their inaction.

The art historian John Berger, writing at the peak of the Vietnam war disputed the received wisdom that shocking images spur their viewers to act. In a short essay entitled “Photographs of Agony” he argued that their real effect was to cause a feeling of moral inadequacy and powerlessness. Confronted by a photograph of agony,

“Either he shrugs off this sense of inadequacy as being only too familiar, or else he thinks of performing a kind of penance – of which the purest example would be to make a contribution to OXFAM or UNICEF. In both cases, the issue of the [event] which has caused that moment is effectively depoliticised. The picture becomes evidence of the general human condition. It accuses nobody and everybody.”

It is becoming more and more clear that there is no silver bullet that will “solve” the refugee crisis, and that we will be living with its effects for some time to come (Greek officials are now speaking conservatively of two years but it will probably be much longer). A massive coordinated solution is still required to tackle the problem at source, but the local complexities also need to be appreciated and dealt with to manage what is already happening. The deluge of decontextualised images that pushes us to cry “oh the humanity” and makes us feel impotent before the inhumanity of governments, actually prevents us from “seeing” what is going on, does not encourage nuanced or critical thinking and may be blinding us to actions we can take that lie closer to our reach.

Images: Photo of girl in the rain: Yiannis Behrakis (Reuters); photos of boy on the highway (Eurokinissi); photo of children holding signs (Getty Images).

Since its original publication, this post was improved both factually and substantively by feedback via Twitter from @damomac@fly_dervish and @versendaal, for which I am very grateful.



This is not a refugee camp

Front Row


Four TV presenters, an actress, two recording artists, a male model, a dancer and a lifestyle magazine try to stay afloat by dressing up as refugees. The caption reads: “We are all refugees. Famous Greeks are photographed to remind us that millions of lives on the road need our help. Is it time we did something?”

Regular readers will know that this blog was at the forefront of the humanitarian dress-up trend, so we do not even find the idea original. A sample of the reactions on social media captures the mixture of bemusement and snark which ensued.

For context: DownTown is a lifestyle magazine, relaunched recently after almost three years of enforced hiatus. DownTown, along with sister publication Nitro, was emblematic of Greece’s pre-crisis bubble: airbrushed celebrity photos, and the accompanying lifestyle, big watches, fast cars, bling and nightlife. The lifestyle of πρώτο τραπέζι πίστα (próto trapézi písta) – front row at the bouzoukia – and conspicuous consumption. DownTown’s publishing company went bust; its owner was forced to sell some of his properties including his holiday home on Mykonos to pay the bills; he now fronts a lame weekly Letterman/Kimmel knock-off. The rights to the DownTown title were acquired by its last editor, who has relaunched it with an unrepentant mandate to “do what we’ve always done… the things that really occupy us… showbiz gossip, rumours, whispers, and having a laugh”. In tune with the times, then! It is entirely possible they thought “hotspot” was the latest celebrity hangout. Maybe they are already busy bidding for the rights to the “hot migrants” Instagram account.

More context: A few thousand ordinary people at a non-celebrity, non-sponsored event organised last Sunday in Syntagma square “did something”: without TV cameras present, they collected mountains of essentials and toys, transported, sorted them, and delivered them to the refugee camps.

At least two of the participants in the DownTown cover have since expressed their remorse.



Front Row

Apokries – the 2016 costume collection


Carnival is almost upon us. Should you find yourself in the countryside between now and the beginning of Lent in mid-March you might experience something resembling a traditional Greek carnival celebration, complete with phallic implements, cross-dressing and animal-themed bawdy. If, like me, you grew up in a city, your experience will be much tamer, “westernised” and child-oriented: key elements include plastic clubs, streamers and confetti, and flammable store-bought costumes (actually ours were homemade, which I’d like to think were the envy of our friends!).  Whatever the theme, carnival is a release-valve from the everyday, an opportunity to subvert the norm, and, engage in a Bakhtinian (if you’re pretentious) party before lent sets in.

If you’re planning to dress up and join in the transgressive fun, you had better start preparing your costume now. Why not take some tips from those who have been playing dress-up all year?

BOYS – “Military” Collection

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This year’s surprise hit. Armchair war-gaming enthusiast Defence Minister Panos Kammenos did his best to squeeze into army fatigues at every opportunity, while PM Alexis Tsipras “pulled rank” to defeat him at “Armed Forces bingo”. Pick your wing-man and try your hand “up there with the best of the best”!

BOYS – “Farmer” Collection

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The men of the moment, the farmers are taking the country by storm with their inventive and versatile looks, politically incorrect PR stunts and imaginative accessories/weapons. Are you an “anarchist” farmer kitted out for full biochemical warfare, or a “hipster” farmer direct from Brooklyn to audition for a modelling contract? There’s loads to choose from!

BOYS – “Establishment” Collection

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While the PM and his posse go ostentatiously tie-less, the “establishment” appreciates that the necktie is one of the few means of expression remaining to the oppressed male minority. The “budget” costume option, can also be worn to weddings, funerals, court hearings etc.

GIRLS – “Role Models” Collection

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Fed up with princesses and Little Red Riding Hoods? Try a modern girl’s costume. You don’t have to lose your femininity to go into (and out of) politics – just ask shape-shifting revolutionary Rachel Makri. You too can don the iconic red glove in solidarity with the darlings of the revolution, reinstated Finance Ministry cleaners turned court clerks, just like platinum-selling popular songbird Haroula Alexiou. Or you can play at being PM for a month, like Supreme Court President Vassiliki Thanou, and issue writs to anyone who disses you. And there is alway the perennial favourite for grown-up girls – the sexy key worker – this year’s model comes without drugs due to shortages.

UNISEX – “Humanitarian” Collection – NEW BIGGER RANGE!!

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Fancy yourself a humanitarian for a day? Take your tips from these veterans in the cause of (posing with) the refugees, and bask in the warm glow of praise for the hard work of others. Outfits come in formal, beachwear and “off-duty celebrity” editions. Grannies and small brown children NOT supplied. No actual volunteering or crisis management experience required. Prior record of threatening to “flood Europe with jihadis” no disqualification. Celebrities by prior arrangement with media only. WARNING: Life vests may not function as advertised.

Main image of reveller dressed as politician with the sign “I voted for the memorandum” pelting himself with yoghurt, Kozani 2012, via Μασκαράς (maskarás, lit. carnivalist, denoting both disguise and lack of seriousness) is an insult that politicians are intimately familiar with.


Where the wild things are


In 2013 the Greek conservation charity Arcturos returned a controversial €5,000 donation made by the neo-Nazi party Χρυσή Αυγή (Golden Dawn). Golden Dawn had attempted to capitalise on their charitable activity, advertising the fact that their founder was an “animal lover” – presumably not in the sense that they claim Pakistani immigrants “love” their goats, but in the manly, shirt-off in the woods, bonding-and-defending-the-Lebensraum-shooting-at-road-signs sense. Arcturos founder Yiannis Boutaris responded that no amount of money would be enough to “launder” the reputation of the party whom he described as Nazis and killers (he added for good measure that he would happily accept a donation from the Greek Communist Party). Barely a month later, a couple of dozen members including the leadership of Golden Dawn were arrested and charged with being the latter, if not the former.

Whatever Golden Dawn’s motivation, this recent photo demonstrates that they reacted to rejection with typical good grace, respect and above all… love. And they memorialised it with the visual equivalent of kicking a puppy.

Being something of a professional cynic, I was prepared to be sceptical about Arcturos, with its slick anthropomorphic branding, its stylish merchandise and its painfully cute videos of rescued bear cubs. But on our recent visit to the bear sanctuary that Arcturos set up over twenty years ago outside the village of Nypmphaion, in the mountains above lake Kastoria in northern Greece, we were impressed by their efforts. We were given a brief, informative and refreshingly unsentimental tour by a volunteer. The sanctuary houses bears that have been rescued from captivity, either as dancing bears (a common form of entertainment throughout the Balkans, outlawed since the 1960s) or from zoos, or have been hurt in motorway accidents or shootings. The bears in the sanctuary are maintained purely for public awareness purposes, we were told – the only other rational alternative would be euthanasia, since they lack the life skills to survive in the wild or raise cubs. This is certainly not a zoo, and you may or may not see bears on the mountainside when you visit (we definitely saw one and caught a fleeting glimpse of another).

The sanctuary though is only the tip of the iceberg. The charity’s efforts are mainly focussed on studying and protecting the wild population of bears, wolves and other endangered and protected species in the Greek countryside, as well as preserving the Greek sheepdog breed. Their innovations include the devising protective measures for farmers who would otherwise come into conflict with the bears (electric fencing for beehives, effective insurance cover for farmers among others), and intervening to reduce deaths and habitat fragmentation caused by the new high speed road network in the area. Arcturos is only the most public face of an active local conservation effort that is finally starting to reverse the catastrophic population decline of the last century.

In a country which, let’s face it, does not have the best tradition of environmental consciousness or volunteering, it is good to see a cause like conservation entering the mainstream and appearing (even momentarily and controversially) on the political radar. So, thank you, Golden Dawn, for the gift of publicity, and thank you again for the reminder.

Image: photo by Atlantis Host, December 2015.

Where the wild things are