An orchestra performs during a ceremony to light the Christmas tree at the town center in Mati, Greece, on Dec. 9, 2018. It's been almost five months since Greece's deadliest wildfire in many decades ravaged the seaside resort of Mati, but the survivors are still facing many obstacles as they are trying to rebuild their homes and lives. Despite the pain and lost, residents here gathered on Sunday to join the lighting of Christmas tree ahead of the holiday season, sending a strong message of hope and determination to move forward. This summer, 99 people lost their lives when a wildfire swept through the coastal Mati, a city 30 km east of Athens. (Xinhua/Marios Lolos)
by Maria Spiliopoulou, Valentini Anagnostopoulou
MATI, Greece, Dec. 9 (Xinhua) -- It's been almost five months since Greece's deadliest wildfire in many decades ravaged the seaside resort of Mati, but the survivors are still facing many obstacles as they are trying to rebuild their homes and lives.
Despite the pain and lost, residents here gathered on Sunday to join the lighting of Christmas tree ahead of the holiday season, sending a strong message of hope and determination to move forward.
This summer, 99 people lost their lives when a wildfire swept through the coastal Mati, a city 30 km east of Athens.
The lighting of the settlement's Christmas tree at the yard of Mati's Sailing Association (NAOMA), where more than 700 people fled on July 23 to escape from the flames to the sea, brought hundreds of residents together to forget the sorrow and anxiety for the future for a few hours.
Life in Mati is yet far from normal, with hundreds of gutted houses still lining the blackened streets (over 1,000 were damaged according to official statistics) and hundreds of residents still staying in camps, awaiting the issuance of permits and state aid to reconstruct their homes, locals told Xinhua.
The subsidies handed out so far (the state received more than 4,000 applications) are not adequate to heal all the wounds. Several infrastructure works pledged are pending and many adults and children are still suffering of psychological trauma from experiencing the devastating fire which scorched the once heavily wooded settlement, they said.
However, they are determined to stand on their feet again and reconstruct their small paradise. This was the message conveyed via slogans written on banners raised on ruins and carols sung by children around the Christmas tree.
"We are decorating the Christmas tree and we wish that the area will not experience such a tragic event again. We are trying with all means in all possible ways to offer light and hope, gather people in various festivities so they can forget for a while what they have been through and look ahead," Michalis Schinas, member of NAOMA's board of directors, told Xinhua.
"There are still many unresolved serious problems and people are trying to keep it together and live with hope," he said, stressing the strength of solidarity.
Costas Boufis, NAOMA's Vice President, lost his primary residence that day. All he was left with was the swimming suit he was wearing.
With the emergency relief aid he cleared the basement of his destroyed home and set up a temporary shelter for his three children. He prefers this than a camp, he told Xinhua.
Many of his neighbors left Mati, saying they cannot stand the signs of the devastation. Boufis chose to stay and make a fresh start and he is eager to see soon many of the promises given to fire-stricken residents materialized.
"If one goes through the shock we have been through these two hours when havoc broke out, then he will not fear a thing. What's the worst that could happen?...The message is that we all believe that something will get done and the situation will improve... We stay here and we are trying to improve things. We need the state's support," Boufis said.
Solidarity is what keeps many residents going on, he added.
"All residents of Mati have come closer and each one of us is trying to do something to help. This is very important," he said.
Eva, who had been living in Mati for five decades, told Xinhua that her family's summer holiday house was demolished, but she retains optimism that Mati will blossom again.
"I believe that quickly we will rebuild everything, because we want this with passion...Do not forget us...We need assistance from the state so that we can stand on our feet again like before. This is what we want," she said.
Voula accompanied a group of students from a music and dance school of the nearby settlement of Agia Marina to Mati for the Christmas tree lighting event.
"The first time I told them that we would visit Mati to sing, they were asking me 'where? The place where people have died?' They did not want to hear about it," she told Xinhua.
In the end, the children embraced the idea and rehearsed hard to lend a helping hand and play their part in efforts to revive Mati and spread hope and joy.
"It is significant to demonstrate that all together we can support each other," Voula said on behalf of the schoolchildren.