Photographed at the stake

New documentary chronicles a modern-day witch-hunt against HIV-positive women in Greece

Premiering this weekend, 'Ruins: Chronicle of an HIV Witch-hunt' tells the story of over 30 women who were persecuted as 'HIV-infected prostitutes' in a politically orchestrated campaign in the run-up to the May 2012 general elections

The identities of the women who participated in the documentary are not revealed The identities of the women who participated in the documentary are not revealed When she was little girl, her dream was to become a photographer. Camera in hand, she traipsed through her village taking shots of things that pleased her: "Everything. Little kids playing, a passerby, a beautiful flower … I'd go to different places in the village, waterfalls ... the mountainside, the sea and I'd photograph landscapes."

But her dreams have yet to come true. And they may never come true because, in the cruellest of ironies, the medium she loved was used by the Greek state to vilify and degrade her by plastering her photograph all over the media, naming and shaming her along with at least 32 others as "HIV-infected prostitutes" who, the police said, had deliberately infected men by engaging in unprotected sex.

The women had been rounded from the streets around Omonia Square, in a so-called "sweep" operation last April, just days before the May 2012 election. Many were visibly suffering from prolonged and serious drug use – vulnerable targets for police, who over a period of days detained over a hundred women in central Athens, forcibly testing them for HIV in police stations and jailing anyone found to be positive.

Only one of the women – the first to be diagnosed – was arrested in a brothel. And no "clients" ever stepped forward claiming they had slept with the other women. But that didn't stop all of the women from being labelled as prostitutes by the authorities and the media.

In order to warn the "thousands" of "family men" who purportedly had sex with them, a prosecutor then authorised the release of the women's mugshots and full-length photographs to the media along with their names, the names of the parents, and where they were from.

Those grotesque photographs are hard to forget. They depict gaunt and dishevelled figures, whose arms, necks and legs in many cases showed tell-tale signs of intravenous drug use.

The harrowing story of these victims of a modern-day witch hunt, not burnt but photographed at the stake, is now the subject of a 53-minute documentary by Zoe Mavroudi that premieres in Athens this weekend (see below).

Mavroudi's debut documentary, Ruins: Chronicle of an HIV Witch-hunt, features interviews with two of the HIV-positive women and their mothers, as well as doctors, lawyers, journalists, academics and activists who campaigned for their release.

Speaking to EnetEnglish, Mavroudi, an actress, playwright and screenwriter, recalls her shock when she heard about the "sweep" from London, where she has lived and worked for a number of years.

"I was appalled. I was furious. I looked for signs that anyone in a position of authority, political, judicial or other, would intervene, would stop this; but the photos kept coming as the sweep operations continued. A lot of people were just as furious as I was, even though we weren’t personally affected. I can’t even imagine what must have gone through the minds of HIV positive people in Greece. This was an attack on all Greeks, at least everyone with a conscience," she says.

Her documentary reconstructs how the women were rounded up (one says she was on her way to get some food at dawn when a police car pulled up and asked her to come down to the station for a routine ID check) and the largely untold story of what became of them and their families – some had children – as they struggled to deal with tragedy of diagnosis, incarceration, public humiliation and shaming.

Months in jail in Thiva followed, where the women went through all sorts of physical and psychological turmoil while nothing was done to help them or assess their condition. The last of the women were released from prison earlier this year. Eight have been acquitted of a felony charge of grievous bodily harm with intent, while at least 24 are facing a reduced misdemeanour charge.

This was an attack on all Greeks, at least everyone with a conscience – Zoe Mavroudi

As Mavroudi explains, her determination to make the documentary was fuelled by the fear that the women's ordeal would be forgotten.

"During the months following the first arrests, publicity for the case had waned. In September, the women started being gradually released. I became worried that this would go away and be forgotten. I didn’t hear about anyone else making a documentary about it and even though I hadn't made one before, the case was lodged in my head so I decided to pursue it. I managed to establish contact with some of the women thanks to the solidarity initiative for the women. I also visited the ones who remained in prison," she says.

But the documentary does much more than that. It uses the ordeal that the women were subjected to as a case study to dissect and expose the length that some power-intoxicated politicians will go for votes.

Ruins is a damning indictment of the media, particularly the television news shows and bulletins on all the major channels, who gorged on this modern-day witchhunt, fuelling a moral panic over the discovery of human "health bombs" in Athens city centre

It unapologetically points the finger at two former Pasok ministers – Andreas Loverdos (then health minister) and Michalis Chrysochoidis (then citizen protection  and now transport minister) – as the instigators of the operation, using as evidence various public statements made by the two men around the time, in which they vowed to criminalise "unprotected sex with illegal prostitutes" and clean the streets of "garbage".

Moreover, Ruins is a damning indictment of the media, particularly the television news shows and bulletins on all the major channels, who gorged on this modern-day witchhunt, fuelling a moral panic over the discovery of human "health bombs" in Athens city centre.

The failure of the most of the media to question and challenge what ministers, police, prosecutors and their own colleagues were doing to these women only serves as a reminder why Greece ranks 84th in the world press freedom index.

But the documentary also highlights the fundamental role that social and alternative media play in Greece. Mavroudi was able to use Twitter and other social networks to reach out to collaborators, many of whome are only identified by their Twitter handles in the film's credits. If anything positive can be salvaged from this grim story, it is that there is a civil society in this country that can intervene effectively to expose the abuses of those in power.   

For Mavroudi, the story doesn't stop with the documentary. She wants to see the women and their families compensated for what was done to them and legal consequences for those responsible.

"One of the reasons there is a crisis in Greece is because people in positions of power abused their power. This case is a prime example of that kind of conduct. Police officers, doctors and their superiors hid behind their institutional positions in order to persecute vulnerable, innocent people," she says.

"I don’t think any of these women or their families will be satisfied with a mere compensation unless there is also a clear message from the Greek justice system to those who orchestrated this operation."

Ruins premieres in Athens this Sunday, 15 September, at 7pm, at Benaki Museum's Pireos St annexe (Pireos 138 & Andronikou). The documentary then moves to Thessaloniki, where it will be shown on Tuesday 17 September, at 7pm, in the aula maxima of the Aristotle University. Admission to the screenings is free and will be followed by a discussion with the director and the production team. For more info, visit ruins-documentary.com. You can also follow the documentary on Facebook and Twitter

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