ATHENS (Reuters) - An Athens vendor who watched his drinks kiosk and all its contents burn to the ground during running battles between riot police and anti-austerity protesters has reopened, now deeply in debt, three months later.
Dimitris Ptohos, whose name means “poor Dimitri” in Greek, saw a telecommunications transmitter, set alight by rampaging youths, roll down the central Syntagma Square into his kiosk at the height of the mayhem, and set it ablaze.
“It was a nightmare,” said Ptohos, who had guarded his kiosk through the night with the help of a few friends armed with sticks. “The kiosk caught fire and all I could see was my children’s futures burning.”
Now Ptohos, 40 years old and married with two small children, gets a knot in his stomach at the sound of chanting protesters heading for the square in front of parliament.
But he was determined to borrow the cash needed to start again from scratch, having lost his life’s savings as insurers had refused to cover his business. His first priority, he said, was not money but pride.
“Why? Because you want to stay in the game, even if you lose money,” Ptohos told Reuters from the gleaming, refurbished kiosk that has been built on the same spot as the old one.
“You want to contribute to society. You don’t want your mother to call you lazy.”
His kiosk, like tens of thousands around Greece, was part of daily life in the capital of 5 million.
Its charred shell had been a stark reminder of the clashes in June, along with the splintered windows and broken marble paving slabs that still dot the city center.
Ptohos says he bears no grudge toward the protesters.
In the weeks leading up to the violence, business boomed as Ptohos supplied basics to the makeshift camp that sprang up in Syntagma Square as it became the center of protests against the government cutbacks designed to tackle Greece’s debt crisis.
“THEY PUT BREAD ON MY TABLE”
The protesters who camped out in the square, young and old, would gather around his kiosk to discuss politics, poverty, the future and the austerity program over drinks and snacks, the air thick with smoke from their cigarettes.
Ptohos sold them iced tea and chocolate in the morning and tins of chilled beer at night.
“They’d come and ask me what I think about things. (The kiosk) was a place where anyone could express their opinion about politics, philosophy, psychology, life,” Ptohos said.
“The atmosphere was great and I have nothing against the demonstrators ... I thank God for sending them, they put bread on my table.”
Running a refreshment kiosk in Greece has always been one of the “closed professions,” and those who do not inherit an operating license can pay hefty sums to get one, often hundreds of thousands of euros. It is the same for taxis.
Since 2008, when weeks of riots over the shooting of a 15-year-old boy by police paralyzed central Athens, insurance companies have refused to renew their contracts with kiosks in the area, Ptohos said.
“I brought up my two children, often in this kiosk, and now their future has been destroyed,” Ptohos said.
“When I die they will inherit my debt,” he said, explaining that he had had to put down his home as collateral to get a loan from the bank to buy the license six years ago.
This time he had to go to friends to raise the 40,000 euros needed to rebuild his business, stock up and carry on.
Ptohos pointed to half-empty shelves that, before the protests, were stacked high with goods.
Each of the two dozen shelves was worth about 500 euros, said Ptohos, whose seven-year-old and 18-month-old children are now living with their grandparents.
“There was nothing left after the fire eventually subsided,” he said.
”I’ve lost everything. Water, electricity, they have been cut off and I‘m about to lose my home.
“I need to lose a lot of weight and find a rich woman,” he added wryly. “That’s the only thing that can save me.”
Editing by Peter Millership and Kevin Liffey