How Oxfam started and the mysterious green box…

By Lauren O’Hara

A LARGE, green, metal box has suddenly appeared outside Prada and Louis Vuitton in the heart of Athens. At first I thought it was just another rubbish collection bin but on one side there is a small white plaque and a hole.

The plaque reads that the installation is the work of George Hadjimichalis, and the hole provides a grotesque peep show into a past world. Photos hidden within depict scenes from the 1941-42 famine in Athens when over 300,000 Greeks died from starvation.

We had just come from a Sunday stroll around the newly pedestrianised areas of the Acropolis. Beneath, in the squares of Plaka, under warm winter sunshine it is not tourists eating, but Greek families at tables filled with food – so much food, that often in our parsimonious British way, where it is rude not to finish everything on your plate, we are horrified at the amount of waste.

But we are now used to the over-ordering generosity of Greek and Cypriot hosts, where a full stomach is to be applauded and leftovers simply mean that there has been enough to satisfy everyone.

Pressing my face against the box, I look through the small vent. A loop tape of black and white photographs flickers like old Pathe News. The images are shocking, almost too shocking to watch; heaped dead bodies of emaciated children in a large dumpster; row on row of stick thin people left lying in the streets – the same streets where we stand now in all their glitz and glamour.

And I remember a conversation a few weeks ago with Professor Richard Clogg, who told me that the charity Oxfam was so named not only because it had been founded by academics and social reformers in Oxford, but because it had been a response to the horror of the famine in Greece.

The famine was brought on by the Nazi occupation. It had been formed to persuade the UK government to allow food through the Allied blockade of Greek ports to the starving civilians: its original name, the Oxford Committee for Famine Relief. The dilemma for Churchill’s government was that a lifted blockade might mean the food would reach the wrong mouths, fuelling the war and occupation. Eventually the pressure was rewarded and the blockade was lifted but not before many had died.

The images in the green container, of those caught up in conflict through no fault of their own looked worryingly familiar, like the images on our TV screens from Gaza. Where, yet again, as Sophocles wrote in Electra in 406BC “the end excuses any evil” we see governments’ actions justified by outcome.

Back home, I switch on the news to hear the Israeli, EU and American aid packages being promised to rebuild and help the Palestinian families who have suffered, no doubt to be administered by agencies like Oxfam. But the image of the children in a Greek dumpster stays with me and, one can only imagine what pictures 50 years from now a green box that mysteriously appears in Gaza will show…

Copyright © Cyprus Mail 2009

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