Etter at en gjeldstynget mann i Thessaloniki sist fredag gjorde et selvmordsforsøk ved å helle bensin over seg og tenne på, gikk de spektakulære bildene av hendelsen verden over, og tilfredsstilte for en stakket stund øyeblikkets sensasjonsjag.

Gitt at det å ta sitt eget liv vanligvis er en eksepsjonelt ensom affære, skjer det som oftest uten at det påkaller allmennhetens flyktige oppmerksomhet. Men til tross for at selvmord gjerne kamufleres som ulykker i mange kulturer — ikke minst i den greske, siden den ortodokse kirken i slike tilfeller ikke avholder begravelsesseremonier — lar de seg gjenfinne i statistikken.

Data fra det greske helsedepartementet viser da også at selvmordshyppigheten i landet er blitt omtrent fordoblet til seks pr. hundre tusen sammenlignet med tiden før krisen. Sammenlignet med fjoråret var det 40% flere som tok sitt eget liv i det inneværende årets første fem måneder. Det medisinske tidsskriftet The Lancet opplyser at Hellas har sett en av de største økningene blant alle de kriserammede europeiske økonomiene.

En representant for en gresk nødtelefon for folk med selvmordsplaner, opplyser at de av og til mottar mer enn hundre anrop pr. dag, sammenlignet med fire til ti tidligere. Det er gjerne finansielt ruinerte menn mellom 35 og 60 år som ringer, dypt fortvilte over å ha tapt sin status som familieforsørger.

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Wall Street Journal forteller en sterk historie om en frukt- og grønnsakshandler i Heraklion på Kreta som til slutt ikke orket mer. Historien tyder på at det var tale om en snill hedersmann, dvs. det er ikke nødvendigvis fødte latsabber med lav moral som havner i et gjeldsuføre. Kanskje ville han tvertimot ha klart seg hvis han hadde vært mer pågående og skruppelløs.

Vaggelis Petrakis took his own life.

For Mr. Petrakis, a burly, mustachioed man of few words, a local custom of free-flowing, often informal lending kept his business afloat for years. But after Athens in late 2009 disclosed a budget deficit far worse than previously reported, touching off the Greek debt crisis, he found himself squeezed between banks that would no longer lend and customers that could no longer pay.

Mr. Petrakis grew up in a poor olive-growing community in the mountains of Crete. As a small boy, he walked from village to village selling loukoumi sweets, similar to Turkish delight, from a homemade wooden box.

“He always kept the last and best piece for me,” says Georgia Petrakis, who was growing up in the same rural district. “We were in love since we were children.”

When she was 18, they married and moved to town. Mr. Petrakis worked day and night selling livestock feed from a truck, and would fall asleep exhausted while cradling their infant son. He found a job working at the wholesale food market and began to save to buy his own store.

Finally, in 2000, when he was 47, he managed to combine his savings with a bank loan and launch his own wholesale food business. “We felt we had almost made it,” Mrs. Petrakis says.

Life was getting better. Greece adopted the euro. The economy thrived. The family sold produce to hotels and supermarkets. Mr. Petrakis bought some land in the mountains, where he kept animals and liked to relax.

Etterhvert begynte imidlertid kredittproblemene i den greske økonomien å melde seg:

But the hotels and supermarket chains often paid late. They gave small suppliers such as Mr. Petrakis postdated checks that couldn’t be cashed until months later.

This practice had long existed in Greece, but it exploded when it became a credit-driven economy in the 1990s, says Constantine Michalos, president of the Athens Chamber of Commerce and Industry.

Small businesses had little choice but to accept payment this way. In doing so, they were in effect acting as banks, lending to their own customers for several months for no interest.

“This was a para-banking system of enormous size. It is one of the main reasons for the crisis,” Mr. Michalos says.

Small businesses struggled with cash shortages because they had to pay their overhead when due, but wait months for hard cash from customers. Mr. Petrakis managed the same way other small entrepreneurs did: To get money quickly, he took his customers’ postdated checks to banks and sold them at a discount.

If he had a check for €1,000 that couldn’t be cashed for five months, a bank would give him €800 right away, then another €100 on the date the check became cashable, his lawyer, Aggelos Zervos, says. The bank would keep the remaining €100.

Though this gave Mr. Petrakis the cash he needed, it ate into his revenue and margins. “Without realizing, we were slowly going bust,” Mrs. Petrakis says.

Then, after Greece’s debt bubble burst, these postdated checks started bouncing frequently, including checks written by Mr. Petrakis’s customers.

Some were longstanding friends. One was a relative who owned a supermarket. When Mr. Petrakis asked the customers to pay up after their checks bounced, they refused or made him wait longer, often bluntly telling him it was his problem, Mrs. Petrakis says.

“People he thought were friends changed their behavior,” she says. Her husband had always been “very correct,” and was dismayed by constantly finding himself arguing with old business partners. “He became more and more withdrawn.”

Disse omstendighetene gjorde at Petrakis ikke lenger klarte å betjene sin gjeld:

Through the years, Mr. Petrakis had taken out extra bank loans, bringing his total bank debt to around €600,000, or about $850,000.

Now he began falling behind on loan payments. Banks were threatening the family with forced sales of their assets, including their home.

Så gjorde han et skjebnesvangert feilgrep:

In desperation, Mr. Petrakis turned to a harebrained scam. In spring 2010, he obtained a fake postdated check in the name of an Athens company with which he had no dealings. He tried to sell it to a bank at a discount in the usual way.

Mr. Petrakis knew the check would bounce when it matured in the fall, and the bank would come to him wanting its money back, but he hoped by then to have money to repay the bank, says his lawyer, Aggelos Zervos. “He knew this was not right. All he could gain this way was time,” the lawyer says.

The bank spotted the fake and called the police, who arrested Mr. Petrakis and searched his house. There they found his father’s old World War II rifle, a common memento here, and charged him with possession of an unlicensed gun as well as financial fraud.

Det var først da det hele avstedkom offentlig skam at det brast for den arme Petrakis:

“Vaggelis was so ashamed, he couldn’t look me in the eye,” his lawyer says.

He was freed pending trial. A local newspaper wrote about a “check forger.” Mr. Petrakis wasn’t named, but “word got around,” Mrs. Petrakis says. “We felt ostracized.”

It was in July of last year that her husband first tried to take his own life by swallowing gasoline. In the hospital, his wife told him, “I don’t want you to do this ever again.” He promised not to.

“We’ve been through so much, we’re going to make it,” she told him while lying in bed at night. He agreed.

On his first day back at the fruit and vegetable market, however, he got into a loud argument over money with an orange grower. The man called him a “crook,” says a fellow grocery wholesaler who came to his defense.

“For Vaggelis to be called a crook here at the market was a big offense. I would have killed the guy,” the fellow wholesaler says.

Derfra var veien til selvmordet kort.

Mr. Petrakis turned pale, took his car keys and drove off. His wife ran behind the car, screaming for him to stay. His family searched for him throughout the day and night.

Mr. Petrakis collected his hunting rifle from home and wrote farewell notes over four pages of an old calendar. The banks had destroyed him, he wrote, and he had lost his honor over the check affair. He warned that others on Crete would suffer his fate.

“Please forgive me,” he wrote. “I love you very much.”

At 5 a.m., Mrs. Petrakis heard her husband’s dog whimpering in an olive grove by the field where he kept his animals and used to go for peace of mind.

In the dark, she tripped over him beneath an olive tree. He was still alive but, with a gunshot wound in his head, could no longer speak. He died in her arms.

 

Wall Street Journal: Greek Crisis Exacts the Cruelest Toll