THE PERSECUTION OF CHEIMARRA
You can tell that you are approaching Cheimarra when the flat coastal road out of Avlona becomes precipitous and winding. There are no Albanian flags here. Now and again, on the mountain sides, on crumbling machine gun bunkers and on ruined buildings, the same graffiti flashes before the traveller's eyes again and again: «Η Χειμάρρα είναι ελληνική» and my favourite: «Θέλωμε ελληνικά σχολεία.» In the distance, a brooding purple mass points the way to Italy. Lurching our way through roads built by the Italian Army during their annexation of Albania prior to the Second World War and which have not been repaired since, our jeep comes to a halt. The harsh smell of the sea mixed with the stinging fragrance of thyme is all pervasive. Vasilis Bolanos, mayor of Cheimarra, gets out and stretches his legs. We have been driving non-stop for five hours from Tirana. "Well, this is it," he says. "Welcome to Cheimarra, our homeland."
The inhabitants of Cheimarra, perched precariously amidst the needle like peaks of the Acrokeraunian mountains, are known for two things: The first is their lively, uneasy temperament, borne of their own precarious position as a Greek enclave in an area where the Albanian government officially denies the existence of Greeks. The second is their fierce independence and resistance to authority. It comes as no surprise for example, to learn that the first Greek revolution of 1464 against Ottoman suzerainty was proclaimed in Cheimarra under Krokodeilos Kladas. During the Ottoman Era, the Cheimarriots proved so intractable, jealously guarding their religious and ethnic identity that the Ottomans granted them autonomy and left them alone. During the Balkan Wars, under the brilliant Cheimarriot colonel and Macedonomach Spyros Spyromilios, the Cheimarriots declared union with Greece. Their minds fixed forever upon liberty, they consistently defied the world around them. They refused to acknowledge their inclusion in the newly created Albanian state right up until the end of the Second World War and despite an oppressive climate and the exercise of terror upon them, they were the only people in the whole of Albania, that refused to 'vote' for the communist putsch that held Albania in a state of feudal vassalage under the aegis of a 'people's democracy,' until recently.
"Cheimarriots have always paid the price for freedom," Mayor Bolanos sighs, as we make our way into the citadel of Cheimarra, passing among other items of interest, a multitude of goats and Pyrrhus Dimas' home. Indeed, it is no coincidence that Cheimarra is held in popular folklore to be the gateway to Hades, entered by Odysseus, during his wanderings. This is a place of stark, fossilized beauty and of mute pain. And the Cheimarriots certainly have paid. Enraged at their opposition to him, the dictator of Albania, Emver Hoxha ensured that the destruction of Cheimarriot churches was conducted with greater efficiency than anywhere else. Cheimarriots were subject to close scrutiny, while attempts were made to alter the demographic make-up of the region, through the re-settlement of Albanians from the north. Further, Hoxha refused to admit the existence of Greeks in the region. Greek schools were banned, as was the use of the Greek language.
The downfall of the communist regime and the institution of 'democracy', has not alleviated the Cheimarriots' plight. The Albanian government still refuses to admit the Greek character of the region and goes to great lengths to ensure that the increasingly nationalistic Cheimarriots are kept under heel. In the municipal elections of 2001 for example, Cheimarriots were forced to vote at gunpoint, while gangs of Albanian bravi, especially imported were set loose in the town, wreaking havoc and ensuring that the candidate from the Greek party, OMONOIA, Vasilis Bolanos could not mount an effective campaign. It says much for the strength of national feeling in Cheimarra, that despite the climate of intimidation, Bolanos was victorious. As a result, unknown entities engaged in blatant electoral fraud, miscounting and discarding ballots so that eventually, the ruling Socialist party was held to have won the elections.
Unperturbed, Bolanos persevered. The municipal elections of 2003 proved to be bloodier than those of 2001. Peaceful campaign rallies held by OMONIA were disrupted by more Albanian bravi, who would savagely beat up anyone attending. They then fixed their attentions to the beating up of citizens as they went to vote. In one of the most extreme incidents, one that I have on videotape, a group of Albanians violently disrupted a peaceful gathering, called in order to protest against the seizure of electoral ballot boxes and the physical abuse of local electoral commissioners by an Albanian secret policeman, beating up the attendees and then stabbing one of them, near-fatally. The video footage of raw violence is sickening as is its faithful recording of the bestial ferocity of the bravi, intent on subverting democracy at any cost.
Again, despite this lamentable attempt by the 'democratic' Albanian government to pervert the course of the elections, Vasilis Bolanos was elected mayor of Cheimarra amid jubilation. He has proceeded to revitalize the region, attracting investment and a communal spirit, which is a breath of fresh air for this downtrodden region. Up until now at least.
A few days after the goodwill visit of Greek President Stephanopoulos, himself descended from Northern Epirus, to Albania, the Regional Court at Avlona sentenced the following members of the Cheimarriot Association of Greece to three years imprisonment, in absentia: Angelo Kokavesis, Vangelis Kolilas, Kostas Lazaris, Dionysis Beleris and Sophia Rapou. Their crimes? Manifold. They were accused of coercing elderly citizens to vote for the 'Greek' candidate, organizing the return of expatriate Cheimarriots from Greece to vote in the elections, and …wait for it... engaging in protests while holding Greek flags and chanting anti-Albanian slogans.
The judgment was handed down on 24 September 2004 but was only published in late October, after the conclusion of President Stephanopoulos' visit. As a result, the time for lodging an appeal expired and these hapless patriots face extradition proceedings, as all four currently reside in Greece. It says much for modern Albania that at the show trial, the only witnesses were Albanian secret policemen and members of the ruling Socialist Party. It seems that despite the rhetoric, this country cannot shake off its totalitarian past.
Both Angelos Kokavesis and Dionysis Beleris are close personal friends. Both are outspoken in their love for Cheimarra and the importance of the region enjoying basic human rights. They are now paying the price. Video footage clearly shows that that none of the sentenced Cheimarriots engaged in any alleged activity. Their only crime was to point out that Albanian secret policemen were intimidating the populace and stealing ballot boxes, through peaceful protest. It seems that in Albania, if you are Greek, you have no right to protest.
Mayor Bolanos' electoral victory sent shivers down the spines of all Albanians who have hitherto attempted to deny the unique Greek character of Cheimarra. Now, through show trials and intimidation, this bulwark of Hellenism is once more under attack while the Greek government concerns itself with other insoluble problems. Here in Cheimarra though, as opposed to the Macedonian issue, which is one of semantics and historical interpretation, we are dealing with real life people. The Greek government must intervene to ensure that the Greeks of Northern Epirus are not left to the mercies of a xenophobic and racist tyrant. Surely we can spare a thought for a forgotten people who refuse to forget their heritage and fight on, into oblivion.
Published in NKEE on 22 November 2004