STEVE INSKEEP, host:
A different kind of political controversy is sweeping Greece. Last week's forest fires killed scores of people across the country. And now the government faces criticism for its handling of the disaster.
Here's NPR's Sylvia Poggioli in Athens.
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SYLVIA POGGIOLI: A week after the devastating fires broke out, thousands of people turned out in Athens' Central Syntagma Square. The protest was not organized by a political party. Word was spread on Internet blogs and mobile text messages. There were no speakers and nearly everyone was dressed in black to express mourning.
Mr. THEODORE DIMOLIDIS: It's a devastation our country that never happened before. No invader. No one did it.
POGGIOLI: Theodore Zimolidis(ph) says his grandparents' village in Peloponnese has been burned down.
Mr. ZIMOLIDIS: And you know, our roots got burned. Not only the house; it's the root of our civilization. Now it's like we are crippled - no roots.
POGGIOLI: Nearby, Daphne Ziyumi(ph) and Mariah Papadion(ph) held a poster with the words It's Parliament That's Responsible.
Ms. DAPHNE ZUYUMI (Protester): I feel like we are in war because the enemy is invisible. Something like that we don't know we don't know who to blame that way.
Ms. MARIA PAPADIONE (Protester): Not only the government. It's everyone's fault, I think - mine, yours, everyone.
POGGIOLI: These two young women's mixture of confusion, rage and anguish reflected the mood of the crowd of protesters and the country at large. Over the last week, at least 1,500 homes have been burned down and thousands are homeless. Mountain ecosystems and rural livelihoods have been wiped out. The flames even threatened Olympia, birthplace of the ancient games and destroyed areas on the outskirts of Athens.
One of the most devastated is along the slopes of Mt. Penteli, 15 miles north of Athens.
Unidentified Man: (Greek spoken)
POGGIOLI: At this fire monitoring station, dispatchers at headquarters are checking in over the communications system. Beyond the station, there's a vast expanse of blackened land, its forest of trees now reduced to scorched twigs.
Penteli has been the victim of devastating fires over the last decade and no fewer than three blazes this summer. Once a thickly forested mountain, its hills are dotted with comfortable villas.
Mr. HARRY VAN BEZENDAL(ph) (Resident, Greece): And this used to be forest, and they're all relatively new houses. I'm sure that a lot of it is illegal.
POGGIOLI: Harry van Bezendal, half-Dutch, half-Greek, has lived near here for most of his life. He's devastated that the recent blaze wiped out new saplings that had been planted a decade ago.
The land grab for new construction has been fueled by an economic boom and made possible by the lack of a forestry registry, which together with corrupt zoning officials makes it easy to change the status of the land.
Greek forestry officials blame arsonists for more than half the fires that have raged throughout the country this summer, and 79 people have been arrested. Polls indicate the majority of Greeks believe the fires are part of an organized plan and conspiracy theories are widespread, including suspicion that foreign agents want to destabilize the country.
But the fires were also predictable. This summer, Greece has suffered a record three heat waves, high winds and severe drought. And the government has been criticized for negligence and for its understaffed and under-equipped firefighting system.
The fires have had an affect on the electorate leading up to the September 16th election. The latest poll indicates a large increase in undecided voters and disaffection with both the ruling conservative party and with the opposition socialists, who were ousted four years ago after governing for a decade.
Political analyst Panos Polizoitis(ph) hopes that Greece's devastating summer of fire could have at least one beneficial effect - to break the grip of a paternalistic political system in which the conservatives and socialists have alternately held power for decades.
Mr. PANOS POLIZOITIS (Political Analyst, Greece): I think this could be the beginning of a grassroots movement that would give a stronger voice to civil society. It is very difficult to gauge what impact this will have on the next few years, but I do really believe that politics is changing in that sense.
POGGIOLI: Sylvia Poggioli, NPR News, Athens.
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