'Sacrificed for a future that never came': Family tragedy tells the story of Greece

Story highlights

  • Angeliki Papathanasopoulou died when Marfin Egnatia Bank was firebombed during protests against Greece's first bail-out
  • Investigations into the incident continue, while bank employees accused of neglecting safety duties are going to trial
  • Greece is in political negotiations after elections were held on May 6, the first since the financial crisis exploded
  • The first bailout was meant to save the country, but instead it has spiraled further into economic despair
The bank where she died in Athens is still shrouded in green tarpaulin and boarded off with corrugated iron. Graffiti scrawled in black across the front reads: "Traitors" and "killers."
This is where Angeliki Papathanasopoulou put in 12-hour days as a financial analyst at Marfin Egnatia Bank, working not only for the benefit of her family but also with a desire to contribute to the country she loved.
The site -- in the center of Athens, just minutes from Syntagma Square and in a commercial hub of the city -- is one door down from the historic Attikon Cinema, one of dozens of buildings torched during the city's explosive protests of February this year.
On May 6, two years since Greece took its first bailout and Angeliki died, the country held elections. No single party got more than 20% of the vote and, amid the fracturing of support, a second election will be held.
At 8am on May 5, 2010, Angeliki's husband Christos dropped her at the bank, on Stadiou Street. The couple lived just five kilometers away, in Vyronas, in the small apartment they had purchased a couple of years earlier.
Around 11am, Angeliki chatted on the phone with her mother Tota, then her older sister Sissy an hour later. Sissy was due to drive from her home in Patras to Athens that afternoon, before flying to meet her husband in Milan. The sisters discussed where they might eat together that evening. By then, Angeliki would have exciting news to share.
Four months pregnant with their first child, Angeliki and Christos were scheduled to learn the sex of their baby at an appointment that afternoon.
The plan was for Christos to pick her up at 3pm for the 4pm appointment, then they would see Sissy later. But, around 2pm, Christos took a call from his 32-year-old wife.
The bank was on fire.
A promising life remembered
Two years later, at the family home, an inches-deep pile of photographs frames the country's tragedy through a personal lens:
Angeliki as a baby, holding herself up by the tapestry chair where her father now sits to remember her; leaping across the stage in a white tutu during a ballet production as a young girl; sporting a Jackie O-esque hair-style in a photograph her father raises to his face to kiss.
The family has gathered in Aigio, two and a half hours by road from Athens, up a coastline flanked by the Ionian Sea and scattered with olive groves, lemon and orange trees.
On the dining table are delicate yellow freesias, brightening a room which is dense with love, and loss.
Sissy, who comes to the door with a wide smile, has made the short drive from Patras with her husband, Nikos Vasileiou.
Angeliki's mother, Tota, elegant in black with a simple silver cross around her neck, enters the living room carrying home-made yogurt cake, followed by braided koulourakia [Greek biscuits] and black coffee. The patriarch of this proud family, Haris, a retired lawyer, enters a few minutes later.
They greet Angeliki's husband, Christos Karapanagiotis, who has driven from Athens where he works for a shipping company, with kisses.
It is hard not to look at him without also glancing at the photograph of Angeliki on their wedding day in Loggos, the day she told her mother, "I feel like a princess," like "the center of the world."
The family recalls childhood summers, when the sisters spent the hot months of June to September with their cousins, Zeti and Angelina, at the family's beach-house in Loggos. "We would play grown-ups... from morning to midday, afterwards we were swimming and in the afternoon we would play in the mud," says Sissy, who is now a lawyer. "That was the program."
The sisters were close, exchanging letters and cards weekly and talking daily after Sissy moved to Athens to study. When Angeliki turned 18, they traveled to Paris together and spent 15 "perfect, perfect" days, says Sissy.
In Paris, they practiced their French, fell in love with the ancient Greek statue of Aphrodite of Milos at the Louvre, and bought posters of Monet and Manet to decorate their flat in the Exarcheia area of Athens. When the sisters were in their teens and their early 20s, the family traveled together to Italy, Austria and Switzerland.
"We were the closest friends. I knew everything about her and she knew everything about me," says Sissy. They would cover for each other when their parents called. "I was going out late, they would call and she would say 'no she can't [talk] she is sleeping'."
Angeliki grew up to be a sophisticated, erudite and witty woman who excelled in mathematics. She studied actuarial science at Cass Business School in London before returning to Athens in mid-2004, when the country was flush with the glory of the Olympic Games.
"That was a very, very good period for Greece," Christos says. "We wanted to come back. If you have a good job [in Greece], you can have a very good life. And we had the view that it was better to spend your efforts for Greece -- we wanted to spend our efforts for Greece."
Of his wife, Christos says: "It is difficult to find people who are so intelligent and well-balanced at the same time." With a quiet smile he adds, "Einstein was a genius but he was a genius in mathematics. Angeliki was not only a genius in mathematics -- she was a genius in everything. That is something you don't find easily in real life."
Christos and Angeliki both grew up in close families, and holidays were often spent with relatives.
Sissy saw Angeliki for the last time during Easter, which coincides with Sissy's "name day" -- a tradition to celebrate the provenance of one's name. Around 30 family members had gathered in Loggos to feast on oven-baked lamb and salads put together by Sissy and Angeliki. The sisters had both observed Lent by declining meat for seven days. Angeliki retired early that day, as her pregnancy was fatiguing. "She was sleeping all the time," says Sissy. But her sister was "very happy."
Angeliki and Christos were rooted. "We had no plans to leave," Christos says. "We are Greek citizens, and we would like to support ...Greek society. This is a beautiful country."
But by 2010, the country was in desperate financial trouble.
Rebellion sparks violence
On Sunday May 2, 2010, the eurozone's finance ministers declared they would inject €110 billion into Greece to save it from bankruptcy. Greece had finally capitulated to the demands of its eurozone peers. "The alternative course would be a catastrophe and greater pain for all," declared then-Prime Minister George Papandreou.
The situation was threatening global stability. The bailout was meant to save the hard-fought "European project," but it would leave the Greek people paying dearly for their boom times. In return for the funds, the government agreed to cut and freeze pension payments and public sector pay wages. Christmas, Easter and summer bonuses were abolished and taxes were raised.
A nationwide strike was called for May 5.
Angeliki and Christos were not worried. The streets were often rowdy with protests, but it was directed at government, and attacks against people were rare. Angeliki was in a "very big company," Christos says. "We thought it was safe," Sissy adds.
There had been dozens of marches up Stadiou Street, Christos says. "Everybody had the feeling [Angeliki] was working in a safe environment. You could never forecast what might have happened."
Greece's history of being ruled by others -- invaded by Italy in 1940 before being occupied by Germany, then shredded by civil war, ruled by a military dictatorship between 1967 and 1974 and now at the mercy of the European Troika of financial masters -- has traditionally set its people against the state.
"What makes Greece different from other European countries is that the state has always been an alien," says journalist Pavlos Tsimas. "The average citizen who pays taxes doesn't feel like they are doing good for society. They feel like they are being robbed. [Because] it is not the state we ourselves made out of our revolution.
"There is always ...this resistance. This gives any part of rebellion against the Greek state some kind of legitimacy."
But this time, violence would erupt against fellow Greeks.
Protests explode
Marfin Egnatia -- like most banks -- was a target for attacks.
At around 1:30pm on May 5, 2010, about 50 masked and gloved protesters -- one group among tens of thousands of people who protested in Athens that day -- were charging up Patission Street, recalls photographer Giorgos Moutafis. They turned left into Stadiou Street, toward Angeliki's workplace. Moutafis swung in behind them, snapping pictures until he felt it was too dangerous to continue.
Moutafis recalls the group -- who he says did not belong to any political movement -- bragging of 150 molotov cocktails, chanting "burn them, burn the rich." When the group got to Marfin, other protesters begged them not to attack the bank: "No, there are people in there." But they were ignored: "F**k them, burn it, burn the rich," the cries continued. The windows were smashed, gasoline splashed over the bank's floor and Molotov cocktails lobbed in. The protests rolled on toward tear gas being exploded in Syntagma Square.
Black smoke began pouring out of the windows of Marfin Egnatia Bank. Angeliki and two colleagues, Paraskeui Zoulia and Epameinondas Tsakalis, were killed by the toxic fumes.
Court documents allege a series of failings by a bank executive, the bank's external health and safety consultant and two managers -- including asking staff to remain inside and locking the main doors during the riots -- that contributed to the tragedy.
The documents say the staff were unable to access an emergency exit, with a door for disabled people that could be used in an emergency blocked by the fire. Further, they said the bank did not have a fire safety certificate, unbreakable windows, or security shutters drawn in readiness for the riots.
The bank rejects these allegations. Thirteen days after the fire, the then non-executive chairman of Marfin Popular Bank Group, Andreas Vgenopoulos, released a letter to staff denying liability. In it, he said the bank had all the statutory measures in place, including reinforced glass and an emergency exit.
It said the staff were not pressured to work or prevented from leaving, but had decided to stay inside for safety reasons. It also said the bank cooperated with external consultants, who reported to them every month and had not noted a problem. The letter said the attack was "murderous" and "wouldn't stop unless there were dead people."
A representative for Marfin said the bank maintains that position. He said the bank was in compliance with all statutory requirements, including those for emergency exits, and that there had been no request for staff to lock the doors. The representative also said the bank did not require a fire safety certificate, due to it being built before 1989.
Further, he said, the bank was confident the courts would rule in favor of the executives and there was "surprise" those who caused the incident remained free.
Within the labyrinthine interiors of the Athens courts, investigations into Marfin Egnatia Bank case inch along.
Four employees were due to go to trial in Athens on June 18, accused of causing the three deaths by neglecting safety duties. The trial has been delayed.
If convicted, the executives each face a sentence of three months to five years, which can be suspended, for each death. They also face charges in connection with the injuries of 21 people.
Up to five protesters are also being investigated for the fire-bombing of Ianos, the bookstore opposite Marfin Egnatia Bank. The inquiry remains in the preliminary stages but investigators suspect this group may also have been involved in the attack on Marfin Egnatia Bank.
Greece fractured
Today, Greece's social and political landscape is splintered, with support for the old guard of New Democracy and PASOK plummeting as parties on the edges attract support from the disenchanted.
Last month, after Greece had been forced into taking its second bailout, 77-year-old retired pharmacist Dimitris Christoulas killed himself in Syntagma Square, leaving a suicide note citing pain from the austerity measures.
Tsimas believes political support is driven by two sentiments: Anger and fear. The former support fringe parties, the latter establishment parties.
No matter what the negotiations deliver, the Greek people face a fifth year of recession, and the country remains at risk of being expelled from the eurozone.
"The numbers of really poor people has doubled," Tsimas says. "And the middle classes, who established themselves in the 80s, have lost their sense of security. They have the fright of the fall that could come every other day. " Further, he said, "there are millions in the public sector who feel betrayed."
Pepi Spiliotopoulou is owner and editor of newspaper Filodimos and Radio Egio, and went to the same school as the Papathanasopoulou sisters. Since the crisis hit, she has watched Aigio diaspora return, seeking solace in family plots which can produce the food they can no longer afford to buy.
But the country's struggles continue. Yorgos Avgeropoulos, of documentary production house Small Planet, says the greatest fear now is of "social explosion. You cannot stop hungry people entering, breaking into a supermarket. Right now if the police tear gas [people] they run. But in one moment they will stay because they have nothing to lose."
Says Pepi: "Angeliki was sacrificed for a good future. But the better future never came."
The Papathanasopoulou family do not know who was guilty of throwing the firebombs. But Christos questions a system that -- two years later, as buildings are again being torched -- is unable to assuage the country's pain. "We ask why. Who is responsible for that? Someone must be responsible for that. Some families have been destroyed. This is still recurring."
In Aigio, Angeliki's close family mark the second anniversary of her death by attending church and placing flowers at her grave.
For Sissy, Angeliki has never left. "My sister is around me all the time," she says. "I think about her every minute of the day. She is beside me and next to me, her spirit is around me. This is the way I see it, and the way I want to see it."