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Greeks grapple with the meaning of a very public suicide

April 5, 2012 |  9:26 am

Athens square
REPORTING FROM ATHENS -- Greeks engaged in deep soul-searching Thursday in the wake of a public suicide by a 77-year-old pensioner whose decision to take his own life outside parliament became an instant symbol of the economic pain gripping this austerity-hit country.

Dimitris Christoulas, a retired pharmacist, shot himself in the head Wednesday after declaring he could no longer bear the burden of his debts. His death sent shock waves across the country, drawing thousands of people to an impromptu protest in Syntagma Square, the site of the suicide and a focal point of public protest.

Clashes erupted Wednesday evening when militant youths began pelting riot police with sticks, stones and oranges. Police used tear gas and stun grenades to disperse about 1,500 demonstrators. No injuries were reported, but at least 10 people were arrested during the clashes.

It was unclear whether calls Thursday, through Twitter and other social networks, for similar protests would bring crowds into the streets. Still, the suicide left pundits and politicians debating the need to address rising rates of joblessness, homelessness and economic despair as the country braces for additional belt-tightening measures to fix Greece's broken finances.

Squeezed by five years of recession, Greeks have seen unemployment rise to 20%. Crime has surged by a shocking 125% in the last year alone. The number of suicides has doubled.

"In these difficult hours for our society we must all -- the state and the citizens -- support the people among us who are desperate," Prime Minister Lucas Papademos said.

Christoulas left behind his wife, their 37-year-old daughter and a lengthy suicide note lambasting the government.

“The government has annihilated all chances for my survival, which was based on a very dignified pension that I alone paid into for 35 years with no help from the state,” the note read. “I find no other solution, now, than a dignified end before I start searching through the trash for food.”

With elections due next month, the conservative newspaper Eleftheros Typos called Christoulas a “martyr for Greece,” saying his suicide was filled with “profound political symbolism” that could “shock Greek society and awaken the conscience of the political system.”

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-- Anthee Carassava

Photo: Mourners gather Thursday in Athens' main square, where a retiree committed suicide the day before in despair over his economic plight. Credit: Simela Pantzartzi / EPA

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