Twelve Hours a Conscript
Early in the morning of 25 March, I was woken by jet planes flying low over downtown Athens and helicopters cruising the sky in formation, making the windows shake. It was Independence Day, the anniversary of the start of the Greek Revolution against the Ottoman Empire in 1821. The army was parading in front of the parliament in Syntagma Square, watched by officials from the state, the armed forces and the church.
I’d recently got back from an army camp. Military service has always been mandatory in Greece, and especially so under the emergency conscription laws brought in after the Turkish invasion of Cyprus in 1974. The situation is unlikely to change under the new government. The defence minister is Panos Kamenos, the leader of the Independent Greeks (Syriza’s coalition partner), known for his patriotic feelings that have already caused minor diplomatic incidents with Turkey and the EU.
I left school in 2005, but my military service was deferred for up to ten years as long as I was still studying. The conscription papers arrived a few weeks ago. This is standard for men who go on to higher education. They often have to abandon their jobs and families to serve for a minimum of nine months. If you don’t, because you live abroad, for instance, the consequences can be quite heavy: a fine of €6000 for not showing up, and you have the right to visit the country for only one month a year if you live abroad, with the danger of being arrested at any time if you stay for longer or come back to live in Greece.
If you live in Greece but refuse to serve you can have your passport confiscated. Dimitris Sotiropoulos, the president of the Conscientious Objectors Union, is a 48-year-old graphic designer. He refused to do his two years’ service more than twenty years ago. ‘The heavy sentencing of conscientious objectors that included incarceration stopped in 2004,’ he told me, ‘with the end of the emergency conscription law. But the state has now thought of a new way to crush objectors, by fining them heavily. This turns you from an activist for social change into a debtor. That debt gives the state the right to confiscate assets and even to arrest you.’
I couldn’t afford the fine and didn’t want to live with the potential legal consequences. Despite a medical condition that would probably disqualify me, I was still obliged to show. So there I was, in early March, reporting to a camp in the ugliest town on the Greek coast. Rows of concrete buildings built in the 1950s littered the landscape. The camp was at the top of the hill.
One of Kamenos’s first moves at the Defence Ministry was to weed out the vismata, sons of the upper class who have been sent to camps considered ‘easy going’. This was one of those camps. As I approached, a bus was waiting to pick up about sixty of them and take them to the Turkish border. Their sour faces said it all. The camp was rarely manned by more than 85 people. Now only 25 remained.
I asked another objector, A., if he thinks anything is going to change that might make military service more appealing. ‘No,’ he said. ‘Here the economy is based on camps in the countryside that feed entire societies. It also sits well with the most conservative elements in them.’
My mother and sister drove me to the entrance. It’s hard to miss how infantilising the whole thing is, as families say goodbye to their sons outside the camp. The ones who are here to serve have already had their hair cut short. I hadn’t. I knew I wasn’t army material.
I gave my name to an officer sitting behind a plastic desk and a conscript was summoned to show me round. ‘We’re having fun here,’ he said, as we walked to another building where I was asked for my conscription papers and ID card. They paid me €8.60, a draftee’s monthly wage.
I was taken to a big room with two desks in it. It smelled damp and echoed with footsteps. They asked me if I wanted to serve. I gave them my papers and they showed me to another building where others were waiting. Officers were issuing orders that appeared to make no sense. Soldiers were smoking cigarette after cigarette in the yard. An old fridge in a corridor rattled loudly. A row of army bureaucrats were working at PCs only slightly younger than the recruits they were processing. More than half had deferred for financial reasons.
‘What has changed since we took a stance in the 1980s is the impoverishment of the people,’ Sotiropoulos told me. ‘Defence spending played a major part in Greece’s debt. We were the best customers of arms companies globally. But we also lost bright people who left the country instead of doing this degrading service.’
A country of 10 million people has a standing army of 90,000 troops, one of the largest in Europe. Until recently, 3.1 per cent of GDP went on military spending. In the past two years, that figure has gone down to 2.1 per cent. Even so, of Nato members only the USA spends more. You wouldn’t be able to tell by the state of military facilities. The crisis has hollowed the camps out. There are more and more stories of accidents caused by crumbling infrastructure. At times it seems their only purpose is to keep the unemployment rate, currently at 25 per cent, from being even higher.
The uneasy relationship between Greece and Turkey is the excuse for draconian legislation, massive standing armies and high military spending on both sides of the Aegean, even though both countries are in Nato. Tension between them is also used as a distraction from domestic problems.
The price paid by young Greek men can be high. Sotiropoulos has had to change his address three times in the past to avoid arrest. ‘My passport was also confiscated when I tried to cross the borders, and when I lost my identity card, I had to live without any official papers as I couldn’t get a new one. In the meantime, I started a family. Without any papers, you live the same as an undeclared immigrant. You can’t buy a house, you can’t rent an office. You can’t even legally recognise your children.’
A. explained that avoiding the draft is a ‘continuous offence. For every other offence, you’re put on trial once. For this, they could put us on trial four times a year if the military courts had enough space. They could fine us €6000 every three months.’ There is an unspoken settlement: you can avoid the army, but do it quietly. If you go public, as Lazaros Petromelidis did, you’re in for it: he has been in court 17 times on the same charge.
Dimitris committed his act of insubordination in 1993. (Non-military alternatives for conscientious objectors were introduced in 1997.) For most minor offences, the statute of limitations would have expired by now. He is three years older than the upper limit for conscription. ‘In 2014, I was found guilty and given a ten-month suspended sentence’ he said. ‘Even if you’re 60, you’ll be put on trial. I’ve filed an appeal, and it’s not over until I clear my name entirely and create a legal precedent.’
I had a luckier escape. The army found me unfit to serve for medical reasons and sent me away the day I arrived.