Greece: "A promise from the army has been obtained to not intervene against a civil uprising"

Explosive revelations from a former Greek diplomat.

It is always enlightening to hear the frank assessment of a diplomat upon leaving the service, once unshackled from "the patriotic art of lying for one's country", as 19th Century American journalist Ambrose Bierce described the craft.

Leonidas Chrysanthopoulos was a career diplomat with the Greek foreign ministry. As a junior officer with the service in the 1970s, he helped assure the then freshly democratic nation's accession to the European Union (at the time the EEC). He was at different times Athens' ambassador to Poland, Albania and Canada, and finally the director general of EU Affairs in the ministry.

Last year, he finally resigned as secretary general of the Black Sea Cooperation organisation, and entered the private sector, and now feels free to speak openly about his fury at what he says Europe and international lenders are doing to his country.

“At a certain moment, quite soon, there will be an explosion of social unrest. It will be very unpleasant,” he says, referring to 15 armed incidents in the previous ten days. In the past few weeks, offices of the governing parties have been firebombed as well as the homes of pro-government journalists. The headquarters of the prime minister's conservative New Democracy party was machine-gunned, and days later a bomb exploded at a shopping mall belonging to the country's second wealthiest citizen, although no one has been badly injured by the attacks.

“It is an escalation of activities,” he worries, adding that he expects the "explosion" to occur sooner rather than later. He predicts the spark will be when new, retroactive and sizeable tax bills come due in the coming months that people simply cannot pay. “There will be further increases in armed actions. There will be bloody demonstrations.”

“These actions are condemnable, of course, but I feel that this sort of armed activity will increase as long as the government continues to impose oppressive measures against the Greek people.”

Belgian Prime Minister Elio di Rupo in Davos said that Europe should change course from austerity within six months if there is no sign of recovery. These are hopeful words to Chrysanthopoulos, but he fears it would still be too late for his country.

“We do not have six months. If the EU is going to change something, they need to change it yesterday. We even have problems burying the dead because people cannot afford the funeral expenses.” Refrigerators in the morgue were filling up with bodies until the church said that it would offer free burial for some families.

“We are heading down the road of destruction.”

Last summer, the social-democrat-conservative coalition led by Antonis Samaras launched a major crackdown on irregular migrants, rounding up 60,000 individuals out of which just 4,200 were arrested for infractions – a move that has been criticised by Amnesty International and other human rights groups.

Chrysanthopoulos says that the government has hired Blackwater, the American private military firm infamous for its activities in Iraq, which now goes by the name "Academi", along with five other international for-profit security outfits. Explaining why this has happened, he says bluntly: “The Greek government does not trust the police whose salaries have also been cut.”

There is some good news however that he hears from the contacts he maintains amongst his former colleagues and politicians. He is confident that there will be no military coup, as there was in 1967.

“There are contacts by certain politicians with elements in the armed forces to guarantee that in the event of major social unrest, the army will not intervene.”

“I don't want to go into too much detail here though as it is a delicate issue,” he continues. “But as a result of these contacts, I think this is going to be successful.”

He laments what has happened to the EU in which he spent so much of his career: “I was part of the negotiating team as a junior diplomat that brought Greece into the EU. The EU that we joined in 1981 doesn't exist any more.”

“We need a change of plan.”

UPDATE: Academi have rejected Mr Chrysanthopoulos's claim. According to a spokesperson for Academi, the firm "does not now, nor have we ever, provided security services to any entity of the Greek government."

Demonstrators throw fire bombs at riot police during violent protests in central Athens on 12 February, 2012. Photograph: Getty Images
Show Hide image

The conflict in Yemen is a civil war by numbers

Amid the battles, a generation starves.

Ten thousand dead – a conservative estimate at best. Three million internally displaced. Twenty million in need of aid. Two hundred thousand besieged for over a year. Thirty-four ballistic missiles fired into Saudi Arabia. More than 140 mourners killed in a double-tap strike on a funeral. These are just some of the numerical subscripts of the war in Yemen.

The British government would probably prefer to draw attention to the money being spent on aid in Yemen – £37m extra, according to figures released by the Department for International Development in September – rather than the £3.3bn worth of arms that the UK licensed for sale to Saudi Arabia in the first year of the kingdom’s bombing campaign against one of the poorest nations in the Middle East.

Yet, on the ground, the numbers are meaningless. What they do not show is how the conflict is tearing Yemeni society apart. Nor do they account for the deaths from disease and starvation caused by the hindering of food imports and medical supplies – siege tactics used by both sides – and for the appropriation of aid for financial gain.

Since the war began in March 2015 I have travelled more than 2,500 miles across Yemen, criss-crossing the front lines in and out of territories controlled by Houthi rebels, or by their opponents, the Saudi-backed resistance forces, or through vast stretches of land held by al-Qaeda. On those journeys, what struck me most was the deepening resentment expressed by so many people towards their fellow Yemenis.

The object of that loathing can change in the space of a few hundred metres. The soundtrack to this hatred emanates from smartphones resting on rusting oil drums, protruding from the breast pockets of military fatigues, or lying on chairs under makeshift awnings where flags denote the beginning of the dead ground of no-man’s-land. The rabble-rousing propaganda songs preach to the watchful gunmen about a feeble and irreligious enemy backed by foreign powers. Down the road, an almost identical scene awaits, only the flag is different and the song, though echoing the same sentiment, chants of an opponent altogether different from the one decried barely out of earshot in the dust behind you.

“We hate them. They hate us. We kill each other. Who wins?” mused a fellow passenger on one of my trips as he pressed green leaves of the mildly narcotic khat plant into his mouth.

Mohammed was a friend of a friend who helped to smuggle me – dressed in the all-black, face-covering garb of a Yemeni woman – across front lines into the besieged enclave of Taiz. “We lose everything,” he said. “They win. They always win.” He gesticulated as he spoke of these invisible yet omnipresent powers: Yemen’s political elite and the foreign states entangled in his country’s conflict.

This promotion of hatred, creating what are likely to be irreversible divisions, is necessary for the war’s belligerents in order to incite tens of thousands to fight. It is essential to perpetuate the cycle of revenge unleashed by the territorial advances in 2014 and 2015 by Houthi rebels and the forces of their patron, the former president Ali Abdullah Saleh. This demand for retribution is matched by those who are now seeking vengeance for the lives lost in a UK-supported, Saudi-led aerial bombing campaign.

More than 25 years after the two states of North and South Yemen united, the gulf between them has never been wider. The political south, now controlled by forces aligned with the Saudi-led coalition, is logistically as well as politically severed from the north-western territories under the command of the Houthi rebels and Saleh loyalists. Caught in the middle is the city of Taiz, which is steadily being reduced to rubble after a year-long siege imposed by the Houthi-Saleh forces.

Revenge nourishes the violence, but it cannot feed those who are dying from malnutrition. Blowing in the sandy wind on roadsides up and down the country are tattered tents that hundreds of thousands of displaced families now call home. Others have fled from the cities and towns affected by the conflict to remote but safer village areas. There, food and medical care are scarce.

The acute child malnutrition reported in urban hospitals remains largely hidden in these isolated villages, far from tarmac roads, beyond the reach of international aid agencies. On my road trips across Yemen, a journey that would normally take 45 minutes on asphalt could take five hours on tracks across scrubland and rock, climbing mountainsides and descending into valleys where bridges stand useless, snapped in half by air strikes.

Among the other statistics are the missing millions needed by the state – the country’s largest employer. Workers haven’t been paid in months, amid fears of an economic collapse. This is apparently a deliberate tactic of fiscal strangulation by the Saudi-backed Yemeni government-in-exile. The recent relocation of the central bank from the Houthi-controlled capital, Sana’a, to the southern city of Aden is so far proving symbolic, given that the institution remains devoid of funds. The workforce on both sides of the conflict has taken to the streets to protest against salaries being overdue.

Following the deaths of more than 140 people in Saudi-led air strikes on a funeral hall on 8 October, Saleh and the Houthi leader, Abdulmalik al-Houthi, called for yet more revenge. Within hours, ballistic missiles were fired from within Houthi territory, reaching up to 350 miles into Saudi Arabia.

Meanwhile, in the Red Sea, Houthi missile attacks on US warships resulted in retaliation, sucking the US further into the mire. Hours later, Iran announced its intention to deploy naval vessels in the area.

Vengeance continues to drive the violence in Yemen, which is being drawn ever closer to proxy conflicts being fought elsewhere in the Middle East. Yet the impact on Yemeni society and the consequences for the population’s health for generations to come are unlikely to appear to the outside world, not even as annotated numbers in the brief glimpses we get of this war. 

This article first appeared in the 20 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brothers in blood