Volunteers rush to help Greece fire victims

27 July 2018 - 11:09 By AFP
People try to extinguish a wildfire burning next to a church in the town of Rafina, near Athens, Greece, July 23, 2018.
People try to extinguish a wildfire burning next to a church in the town of Rafina, near Athens, Greece, July 23, 2018.
Image: REUTERS/Costas Baltas

Schools in the Greek port town of Rafina are unusually busy for summer -- overflowing with donations and volunteers, showing the vast wellspring of local solidarity for victims of deadly fires.

"You see this girl? Her house burned down, and now she's here every day helping," said Anastasios Moustikadis, pointing to a teenager tidying bottles of water.

The 40-year-old, who organises donations at the primary school-turned-warehouse, himself lost one of his closest friends in the fires when they destroyed the neighbouring village of Mati.

"I will go to his funeral Sunday, that's the only break I'll allow myself," said Moustikadis, as a batch of volunteers arrived to help distribute donations by car.

In the hours after Monday night's tragedy, when more than 80 people died -- mostly suffocated by smoke or burned alive in the terrible blaze -- a vast wave of solidarity swept the country.

"Mati looks like a war zone, it's unbelievable," said Zoi Pantelidou, 26, who has been volunteering at the town hall since Tuesday, coordinating volunteers and donations.

"I can't tell you exactly how many (volunteers) there are, the number grows every day," said Savvas Arapkilis, deputy mayor of the city.

On Thursday, dozens of people, mostly teenagers and young adults, queued patiently to register for volunteering duties.

"They are the children of the crisis, they know that we need solidarity and to work together," said Moustikadis.

 Volunteer nation 

Greece, hit by years of austerity and on the front lines of Europe's immigration crisis, has learned to rely on an organised civil society, in the face of underfunded public services stretched to breaking point.

Free dispensaries, citizen canteens and volunteer activities for refugees have flourished across the country.

The momentum after the fire has been such that Rafina's mayor Evangelos Bournous has had to appeal to citizens to stop sending food, saying they "cannot manage any more". Four municipal buildings are already overflowing with donations.

"Would you like some water," a teenager asks an elderly couple who are busy trying to clean up their charred house in Mati.

It's the third team to offer them water and food in less than a quarter of an hour.

"I take the water every time," said Sophia Tsaganou Profitou.

"It could be a month until they've restored the water," added the septuagenarian. The electricity is also cut.

Patrols by teams of volunteers has allowed them to discover critical humanitarian situations which could have escaped the authorities.

But sometimes, volunteers are patrolling an area where no residents are left. At burned houses, short notes have been scrawled outside: "We're fine" plus a mobile number at which they can be reached.

"What we're doing is just a drop in the ocean, but I couldn't continue my holiday as if nothing had happened," said 17-year-old Photini, wearing a paper mask to protect against the smell of smoke which still envelops the burned village.