Death after the inferno on road from Artemida
The flames rolled over the road all at once and when they came, Spyros Bilionis did instinctively what he did not want to do: he drove straight into them.
With Pandazis Chronopoulos, the mayor of Zaharo, in the passenger seat screaming not to stop he pointed his silver jeep at the inferno and closed his eyes.
Neither man is sure how long it lasted. Only that the fire, white-hot and fearless, licked at the windows of the vehicle, buckling them as if they were toffee, searing the men’s feet and burning their lips dry.
“We said ‘Hail Mary, Hail, Hail Mary’, and just drove.
I couldn’t see a thing, there was so much smoke, but I knew the road was straight and closed my eyes,” said Bilionis, recounting his experience of the deadliest fires to hit Greece since its birth as a modern state.
And then it was over. The road leading to Artemida, in the Peloponnese, was suddenly visible, a promise of life through the billowing smoke.
“I cried. I wept and said thank you, thank you, dear Mary, thank you,” continued the 38-year-old, still shaking his head in disbelief.
Athanasia Paraskevopoulou and her four children were not as lucky. Minutes earlier the Athenian schoolteacher had taken the same road and gone with her instincts: when she reached the fork leading out of Artemida she decided to outrace the flames and not drive through them.
In a fraction of a second her car hurtled down the road, as others realising their terrible mistake—that the conflagration was already upon them—desperately tried to turn back.
“If she had turned right at that fork and taken the upper road out, as I did, she would have survived,” said Giorgos Kosifas, her uncle. “But at such times you panic and that is what Athanasia did,” said the farmer who, as Artemida’s mayor, was one of the last to leave on a moped.
“She drove down that road and straight into what seems to have been a crash. Some people managed to escape, and ran into the olive groves only to die there, but when we found her she was still in the car, holding her children tight.”
Today it is scorched sandals, a pair of children’s shorts, a blackened piece of skirt and other tokens of death that litter a hill turned white by the flames.
More people died on the road out of Artemida—and of the 64 people killed in the fires, most died in this area—than anywhere else in the eight days that the blazes, Europe’s worst in a decade, have ravaged the country.
When Artemida’s inhabitants began to recover after the inferno streaked across their fields for 20 minutes, what they saw was a landscape that resembled a war zone. Twenty three people had died.
“We lived in the most beautiful part of Greece, you cannot imagine how green it was,” said Antonis Bouroyannopoulos (42) picking his way through the debris of the village church. “What has happened has taken our happiness away.”
The Greek poet George Seferis wrote: “Wherever I go Greece wounds me.” But nothing would wound him more than the sight of his beloved country today after fires that have erupted across its length and breadth and consumed thousands of hectares of forest and farmland, devastated four million olive trees, gutted an estimated 6 000 homes, created thousands of internal refugees and wrought untold damage on an mountainous ecosystem.
Not since World War II and the brutal civil war that followed has Greece suffered such privation.
In the Peloponnese, the peninsula worst hit by the fires, the signs of death are everywhere: in the stumps of still smouldering olive trees; the silver ash that carpets the land; the charred remains of carcasses putrefying in the summer heat; the trees tinged orange as if they are wearing wigs; and the thousands of others turned charcoal black, their baldness too awful to contemplate for those whose families have lived in these parts for centuries.
For the few tourists in the affected areas, it is as if they have encountered the “darkness visible” of Milton’s Paradise Lost.
“Tell me, in God’s name, how are we ever going to live in this?” cried Athanasios Karelas, one local. “How are our children and their children going to survive in land that is dead? Look, all around you, even the stones have burned!”
On Friday, the smell of charred wood, continued to hang over Olympia, the birthplace of the ancient Olympic games, which only narrowly survived being burned to the ground on Sunday.
As tourists filed into the museum to see the pristine statute of Hermes carved by the master sculptor Praxiteles, workmen were busy clearing up debris around the site.
But with fires still raging across Arcadia—having crossed over from the adjoining province of Ilia on Thursday—there was no indication of any let-up soon.
In a region whose rustic beauty has inspired poets and painters and draws more nature lovers than any other part of Greece, vast swaths of land have been turned to ash as fires, for the first time ever, have devoured fir, olive and pine forests.
“What’s so dreadful is you see it coming and there’s nothing, absolutely nothing, that you can do,” said Athina Dalaminga, throwing her hands up in the air as she watched flames destroy the spectacular scenery beneath the historic Arcadian village of Karytaina. “We really thought we had put the fire out and then it re-erupted today with the winds.”
On Friday the first psychiatrists began to arrive in the Peloponnese. And the prognosis was not good.
“People are clearly in a state of shock because they appear unable to express anything,” said Dr Giorgos Kyriazis. “But I am terribly worried that when they wake up to the reality, to the loss of relatives, homes, fields, practically everything they own, the problems of melancholy and depression will be enormous.”
Already anger has set in deep with a conservative government widely believed to have done little to prevent the fires, and to have bungled a rescue operation that went from bad to worse as the scale of the damage and death gradually came to light.
With elections scheduled for September 16, Costas Karamanlis, the prime minister, has gone out of his way to offset rising anger by offering generous compensation.
But the government’s insistence that the fires are the work of arsonists bent on destroying Greece has only brought more vilification, with many saying that the disaster has instead exposed a political system incapacitated by corruption and cronyism and a firefighting force headed by inexperienced conservative party appointees. - Guardian Unlimited Â