The death of bullying victim Vangelis Giakoumakis

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Vangelis Giakoumakis Anthropologists state that the outsider is both dangerous and in danger.

I learned this lesson long ago and in a small way when I started at a new school in a clannish farming community, where the alpha girl and her loyal clique seemed to regard me as a threat: I had come from a bigger town, my father was a teacher at the nearby high school, and I was good at both sport and lessons.

In the days before mobile phones and the Internet, the bullying was a pale shadow of persecution today – She’s gonna bash ya up this time, for sure – but it was still a burden. My mother, in whom I confided, trotted out the time-honoured saw of ‘Sticks and stones may break your bones, but names can never hurt you’.

The anxious feeling was slow to leave, however. The later reading of Margaret Atwood’s novel Cat’s Eye,for example, was a painful experience, and a salutary reminder of how cruel little girls can be, while an unexpected meeting with my adversary, whom I’d not seen for decades, caused my heart to give a great lurch, and left me feeling tearful and winded.

Here in Greece, a 20 year old youth learned the anthropologists’ lesson in the hardest way possible. Vangelis Giakoumakis (pictured) was a Cretan from near Rethymnon, but was studying at the Dairy School in Ioannina, in faraway Epirus. The TV photos show a sensitive-looking lad, slightly built, and with a shy expression. But one picture in particular is heart-wrenching: Vangelis is clearly on the verge of tears. Subjected to concentrated and constant bullying, he eventually could bear no more, and so he wandered away to a lonely death: he lay in a ditch and slit a wrist, not far from the scenes of his torment. But it was nearly six weeks before his body was found.

I was once with friends in a Cornish churchyard. A local man was also there, and his conversational gambit was ‘You’re not from here, are you? You’re foreign.’ One friend was a Londoner, but had lived in Cornwall for forty years. ‘How many years does it take?’ she asked. ‘Three hundred,’ came the laconic reply. It seemed obvious that we were irredeemably other. So, it would seem, was Vangelis, although for very different reasons.

Who knows, really, what triggers bullying? Except that bullies, who are always cowards, invariably select as victims people who seem weaker and thus vulnerable to pressure, both physical and psychological. Vangelis seems to have been the sort who could not or would not fight back.

Perhaps he didn’t know how, although he managed to change his accommodation after his room-mate proved to be a smoker with a taste for the high life. But this change was not enough to enable him to put up with the taunts, slaps and punches, the time spent locked in cupboards, the water stoppages when he was under the shower and covered in soap, the being chained like a dog and dragged around the school’s corridors. There was also, predictably, a measure of cyber bullying.

The scenario was complicated – and all the complications may never be known – by the cultural expectation that the Greek male must always be a  pallikari, a ‘real’ man, and so noted for bravery and gallantry. This expectation, it seems to me, is particularly marked among Cretans; ironically, some of the bullies were themselves Cretan, so that Vangelis may well have felt himself caught between his extreme suffering and a kind of peculiarly tribal loyalty.

The whole distressing episode has been headline news for weeks, for complaints were made, apparently, and then covered up and not acted upon. The head of the school has been forced to resign, and the Riot Squad was called when a large group of locals and students, chanting ‘murder, not suicide,’ broke the gate into the school grounds in an unsuccessful attempt to storm the building itself.

Crete is its own world within the Greek one, and so it was that gunshots, applause and loud farewells sounded as Vangelis made his last journey, accompanied by large crowds. TV cameras found the face of Vangelis’s broken mother, a sight I will not soon or easily forget.

Justice is often elusive. But it is now strongly rumoured that certain students are afraid to leave the school grounds. Perhaps they, too, are learning extra lessons, those that involve being other.


Gillian Bouras

Gillian Bouras is an expatriate Australian writer who has written several books, stories and articles, many of them dealing with her experiences as an Australian woman in Greece.

 

Topic tags: Gillian Bouras, Vangelis Giakoumakis, Greece, bullying, youth

 

 

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Thanks for your heartfelt article Gillian. Though shy I was at school, apart from odd times, I did not suffer greatly from bullying. However I understand, and my heart goes out to those who find despair the only recourse. I recall witnessing a situation in my primary years at a Victorian country school; also a clannish farming community; possibly similar to yours. Only here the outsider won! As was the custom the 'new boy on the block' was tackled by the 'local bully boy' of whom everyone was wary but saw as invincible. Quite a crowd gathered anticipating seeing another newcomer get a blood nose. In the meantime (also customary) a teacher wandered out, but when in his astuteness realized that the new boy was winning; procrastinated a little, and only stepped in when the fight was over and the local bully in tears. He then chided him as being nothing but 'a great blubberer'. What a great day and end to a fight we all thought! Allegiances changed. The word got around; the kid from NSW was a hero; and indeed he was, and had humility to go with it. I am sure those who bore witness would have childhood memory of the dusty schoolyard justice that was served that day.
John Whitehead | 08 April 2015


Very insightful article... Having done 19 months of national service i was surprised not to witness similar cases like this. Keep up the Great Work Mrs B!!!
Stathis T | 08 April 2015


Oh, Gillian! This is heart-breaking. Just last night on ABC TV there was a segment running for over 18 minutes on deaths in the RAN of a series of six able much-loved young men who had suicided at/out of the WA base of Stirling. There were a number of factors but bullying appeared among them - and not necessarily fellow boatswain ranks - but from officers - and recommendations of psychologists/medical staff over-ridden - two who had died were sent to sea against specific instructions that it not happen - one dangled by his feet over the rear of the ship as it steamed/sailed across the Indian Ocean - in fact! Depression caused by being far from home - in hyper-macho contexts - without proper guidance - or protection. The grieving of the families made clear in the story - but their refusal, too, to accept the attempts by the RAN to whitewash. There were six we know of - but maybe others since leaving the Navy - or maybe others still to come. And all of them looking just like young Vangelis about whom you have written. About bullying - I think if you scratch most of us we have some tales to tell of feeling/being taunted - pushed aside - ridiculed. It happens amongst children - but I have seen it well practised among adults too - and not just by those on the cusp of young adulthood. Although I didn't have all the linguistic skills necessary to deal appropriately with it while I was teaching in Japan - whenever I noticed something untoward I would call it: "Ijime" (ee-jee-meh)! As I did in my days teaching in Australia when I could suggest that what I was seeing looked like bullying. Students could back off - rethink their behaviours. Or tell me they were "just joking"! Not a big difference between "just joking" and bullying, though - it's very definitely the narrowest of spacing along a spectrum. In Japan I would speak of my concerns with other teachers in the staffroom - who could confirm my suspicions - or wave my anxieties away. But your story of Vangelis - and the current focus on the RAN are far more serious - I think the resignation of the Agricultural College Principal was appropriate - it would be important here in Australia to see some political heads rolling (both sides) since approaches from parents have been brushed aside - and to RAN systems of care, too, which clearly need great overhaul!
Jim KABLE | 08 April 2015


Thank you Gillian for this sad but never-the-less story; one well told. Your empathy, Christianity and just plain 'love and respect' for fellow citizens come through magnificentally.
No honourable person could argue with even one word or phrase. Thanks for again reminding us of just how easily other human beings can be hurt.
Indeed bless you for it. And thanks by the bucket-load too.
Graeme | 08 April 2015


A well written, succinct, sad and sobering article, Gillian. Abuse, of which bullying is a manifestation, would appear widespread in Greece, Australia and elsewhere. I am glad the head of that school was forced to resign. To me responsibility stops with the person in charge: he or she should know what is happening. Vangelis' suicide was a dreadful thing. There are others who do not suicide but who live with the deleterious consequences of being bullied for the rest of their lives. There are several Commissions and Inquiries on in Australia at the moment dealing with people who have been victimised, including raped, in several institutions, including religious and military ones, in this country. There is, I think, something which the national psyche has ignored for too long. It needs to be faced just as Greece needs to face its own similar problem. There is no "quick fix". There is no band aid solution. There is something rotten in the woodwork.
Edward Fido | 09 April 2015


Thanks Gillian for this. I was just recently on a bus in Sydney when two teenage girls got on the bus and started ranting about one of their school mates who was 'trying too hard' - that seemed to be her only 'fault' in their eyes.

I read recently an account of school yard bullying where the recipient, years later, was writing of an idea that what was critical was their own inability at that time to 'rise above' the abuse.

That person was Thérèse of Lisieux, a Saint and Doctor of the Church. Goes to show that the best of us struggle with such things and need to grow to overcome struggles such as school yard bullying.
Tom | 10 April 2015


One of the most damaging aspects of bullying for me is that there is rarely any closure, or reconciliation, even years after it's happened. Bullying is done in such a cowardly and opportunistic way that the perpetrator probably wouldn't even realise the damage they'd done, and have been carried away by the herd mentality. And the victim, as in my experience, often sees others being bullied in more nasty ways and feels themselves lucky in a perverse way. Growing up in a Catholic sport mad school, bullying of the less sports-adept was the norm. The only comfort I see now is that many of my schoolmates who were bullied are now at the top of their field as a reward for their nerdish behaviour at school, and a couple of the thugs have ended up in jail for more serious forms of bullying.
AURELIUS | 15 April 2015


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