”Very bad, very, very bad,” says 65-year-old John Demetriou, rubbing tears from his lined face with thick fingers. ”I lost all my money.”
John now lives in the picturesque fishing village of Liopetri on Cyprus’ south coast. But for 35 years he lived at Bondi Junction and worked days, nights and weekends in Sydney markets selling jewellery and imitation jewellery.
He had left Cyprus in the early 1970s at the height of its war with Turkey, taking his wife and young children to safety in Australia. He built a life from nothing and, gradually, a substantial nest egg. He retired to Cyprus in 2007 with about $1 million, his life savings.
He planned to spend it on his grandchildren – some of whom live in Cyprus – putting them through university and setting them up. There would be medical bills; he has a heart condition. The interest was paying for a comfortable retirement, and trips back to Australia. He also toyed with the idea of buying a boat.
He wanted to leave any big purchases a few years, to be sure this was where he would spend his retirement. There was no hurry. But now it is all gone.
”If I made the decision to stay, I was going to build a house,” John says. ”Unfortunately I didn’t make the decision yet.
”I went to sleep Friday as a rich man. I woke up a poor man.”
His money was all in the Laiki ”Popular” Bank which was the main casualty of Cyprus’ bailout package set by the European Union. Laiki is to be dismantled. Savings of less than €100,000 are to move to the Bank of Cyprus. Anything more than that will almost certainly be wiped out as the bank is wound down, its remaining assets taken by the bank’s creditors.
Last week he heard a rumour that the bank was in trouble and went into Aiya Napa to ask his bank manager – a friend – if he should move his life savings.
”There’s no problem, nothing to worry about,” he was told.
Not so. ”I go to bed and I can’t sleep. I walk around, I have a coffee. I am thinking about my family.”
John’s tears flow. As he chokes up, his son George, who moved to Cyprus in 1990, explains.
”The whole family, we used to work at the markets. I would work at the markets on the weekend to help my parents while my mates were off having fun. Honest work in honest jobs. Now all that hard work is paying
the debts of other people and the government. It’s disgusting, to be honest.”
George says he can start again – if things get worse he and his family might move back to Australia.
”But not my dad. He can’t go back to Australia. He is not allowed to fly because of his heart, and anyway where would he live? He has no house. He will have €100,000 left to live off. Soon he’s not going to have a cent to his name.”
John has a thin hope. His money was sitting in the bank in Australian dollars instead of euros, so he wonders if it would be exempt from the bank’s collapse. But the bank’s doors are closed, so he doesn’t even know to whom he should put that argument.
”For the moment I am ‘sitting on charcoal’, as they say,” waiting to see if he gets burnt.
”It’s not Russian money, it’s not black money. It’s my money.”
There are almost 5000 Cypriot-Australians on the island. Most are – or were – self-sufficient veterans of the 1950s engineering boom or the 1974 war who came back to retire or to be with family (John is looking after his 90-year-old mother).
This week Britain stopped paying pensions into Cypriot accounts, advising expatriates to open a British bank account instead.