Exiles Bring Greek Guilt Home
Matthew Brunwasser in Thessaloniki
Sunday, September 7, 2003
They were sent into exile and scattered to every corner of the world.
For more than half a century the Macedonian Diaspora cast out of Greece
during the countrys bloody civil war have been barred from returning
to their homeland.
Now the army of elderly refugees has been granted a temporary homecoming,
if not the return of the money and property seized during the savage
conflict that pitted them against their fellow countrymen.
Greece is finally facing up to its history of ethnic cleansing
and beginning the process of extending full rights to its minorities,
who faced decades of persecution and discrimination under successive
oppressive regimes and right-wing dictatorships.
The move comes as the pro-European government of Prime Minister Costas
Simitis pushes Greece gingerly toward a more diverse, tolerant, and
some might say European and democratic society. Nevertheless, it will
be a hard task to shake off the pervasive belief in the ethnic purity
of true Greeks.
Even the return of the Macedonian community is temporary. The concession,
announced by the Greek deputy foreign minister Andreas Loverdos in July,
only allows them to enter Greece between August 10 and October 30 and
limits their stay to a maximum of 20 days.
For many the homecoming itself is a slap in the face. Macedonian political
activists were refused at the border and there were rumours of a blacklist.
Those whose passports contained the old Macedonian-language names of
their villages were turned away and told to get new passports listing
the new Greek names.
Only 300 of the 100,000 Macedonians banished from Greece have returned.
One hundred and fifty were turned away and many more cancelled their
travel plans when they heard about the border problems.
For those Macedonians who have managed to cross the border in recent
weeks, there have been emotional reunions with family members, and visits
to villages and former homes. For others, however, there has been only
heartache. Former residents of the ethnic Macedonian village formerly
known as Dmbeni discovered the Greek army had not only changed
the name, but bulldozed all the buildings, including the graveyard,
where their relatives and ancestors were buried.
During the Nazi occupation of Greece, more than 10,000 Macedonians,
who were Greek citizens, became resistance fighters in the communist-controlled
National Popular Liberation Army (ELAS). Following liberation, they
found themselves embroiled in a civil war against the pro-royalist Greek
Democratic National Army (EDES). In 1949 ELAS finally surrendered, bringing
the war, which had lasted nearly five years, to an end.
Greeces collective memory of the civil war remains keen; strong
enough that this army of elderly immigrants is still considered a threat
to the security of the Greek Republic. The returning Macedonians have
also made Greece aware of another uncomfortable reality: not all Greeks
speak Greek and are Greek Orthodox Christian.
Panayote Dimitras, spokesman for the Greek branch of Helsinki Monitor,
a human rights group, said: "Greek society has been educated to
believe that if you are not Greek-speaking and a Greek Orthodox Christian
then you are not a good Greek or a real Greek. They have nothing to
fear from these people. They might have come and said strong words against
Greece. So what? We are a strong democracy. It was about time for these
people to return."
Pavlos Voskopulos, of the Rainbow political party of ethnic Macedonians
in Greece, adds: "Anyone expressing a different ethnic, national
or linguistic identity is often stigmatised in the public and in the
media. They are accused of being anti-Greek."
According to the US State Departments 2002 Human Rights report
on Greece: "Laws restrictive of freedom of speech remained in force,
and some legal restrictions and administrative obstacles on freedom
of religion persisted..."
According to researchers, minorities in Greece number between 5% and
10% of the population, or between 500,000 and one million people. These
include not only ethnic Macedonians, but Gypsies, Turks, Romanian-speaking
Vlachs, indigenous Albanians, and Pomaks: Muslims with Koranic names
and traditions, who speak an archaic dialect of Bulgarian.
Officially, however, only a Muslim minority is recognised,
created by the 1923 Treaty of Lausanne which ended war with Turkey.
Because it makes no distinction between Turkish, Gypsy and Pomak Muslims,
the Greek state has been able to manipulate the Muslims identities
according to countrys political interest.
The restrictions on Pomaks movement, for example, continued until
1995. The Simitis government finally struck down Article 19 of the constitution
in 1998, which allowed the state to revoke the citizenship of "non-ethnic
Greeks" who travelled abroad without permission.
But there are still laws on the books which prevent Pomaks from living
outside their traditional villages, although they are not enforced.
Voskopulos, of the Rainbow party, said: "We are talking about
a united Europe, a European identity. Everyone knows how important it
is to respect diversity. Today to discriminate against people at such
a broad level is completely unacceptable."
SCARS OF CIVIL WAR
THE Greek Civil War, which broke out in 1946, was fought between British
and American-backed government forces and communist guerrillas.
The two main forces that had resisted the Nazi occupation - the communist-controlled
National Liberation Front-National Popular Liberation Army (EAM-ELAS)
and the Greek Democratic National Army (EDES) - came into conflict after
EAM-ELAS set up a provisional government that rejected the Greek king
Constantine (right) and his government-in-exile.
Ethnic Slav-speaking Macedonians, related to kin in socialist Yugoslavia
to the north, fought for autonomy and aligned with the leftist insurgents.
To deny the communists local support, more than 700,000 villagers were
forcibly evacuated from mountains and dumped into miserable camps near
In total, around 3,000 government executions were recorded during the
By the time the civil war ended in 1949, with the surrender of the
communist guerrillas, some 100,000 people were dead and one million
Ethnic Macedonians were singled out for reprisals because of their
support for the leftists. About 60,000 Macedonians fled, including 28,000
children, across the border to Yugoslavia, the Republic of Macedonia
and the new Peoples Republic of Bulgaria. Others went as far as
Australia, Canada and the US. A 1982 law allowed war refugees to return
to Greece, but only the ethnic Greeks.
Originally published in "The Scotsman"
Sunday, September 7, 2003