GETTING CHUMMY OVER CHAMERIA
Indeed, right up until the end of the Cold War. Greeks who dared to voice concern over human rights abuses against Greeks in Albania were generally referred to as hyper-nationalistic, ultra-right wing radicals by certain sections of the Greek community and the press. Even after the fall of Communism, when it was apparent to all that the 'paradise' that Hoxha's Stalinist regime was supposed to be, was nothing more than hell on earth, those persons who had built their reputation and pride upon the maintenance of their particular ideology, found it hard to sympathise with the hapless Northern Epirots who have been persecuted for well on a hundred years now. In scenes reminiscent of 1923, when Asia Minor refugees fled genocide to re-settle in Greece and were called Turks, the Northern Epirots who fled poverty and persecution to settled in Greece after 1992, were called Albanians and treated as objects of derision. Further, despite the fact that the various Epirot organizations that exist throughout the world have consistently striven to showcase human rights abuses in Albania, their task is Herculean. For they do not have to convince world opinion alone. Firstly, they have to convince a doubting or contemptuous Greek world that is totally ignorant of what lies beyond its front fence and which, in its smug bourgeois comfort, still persists in labeling people who are only interested in the human rights of the Greek minority in Albania as fascists, that a sizeable minority just to the north of them is being harried out of its ancestral home and that further, its persecutors are making demands on Greek territory.
The recent debacle in Albania, where President Karolos Papoulias traveled to the Northern Epirotan city of Agioi Saranta in order to meet Albanian president Alfred Moisiu is illustrative of this point. Papoulias cancelled his meeting because his hotel was besieged by "Chamerians" (descendants of Albanians who once lived on the west coast of Epirus, and who engaged in wholesale slaughter of the Greek population under German supervision during the Second World War. At its end, they fled to Albania, fearing reprisals and trials) variously demanding that Greece 'return' what we call Tsamouria to Albania or provide restitution for properties seized from Chamerians who 'fled' to Albania. There is enough evidence to suggest that the protesters were not 'Chamerians' at all, but rather, were bused purposely from Tirana in order to make a statement, a gesture that has all the hallmarks of operation of Albanian PM Sali Berisha. The Albanians refused to move the protesters along, in a huge insult to Greece and its president and further, had the gall to state that Papoulias, who rightly left the country in disgust, was at fault for his hasty departure.
In a way, Papoulias' fate is fitting. After all, it was he who as foreign minister of Greece in 1987, agreed to the dissolution of the state of 'phoney-war" that had existed between Greece and Albania since the Second World War. That this was an admirable action is beyond doubt. What however is not admirable is the fact that Papoulias unilaterally dissolved the state of war, without first requesting and/or obtaining guarantees for the safety of the Greeks in Northern Epirus and a guarantee that Albania's irredentist claims over Epirus would be officially abandoned.
Albania has never abandoned its 'claim' to Epirus and to add insult to injury, it demands 'compensation' for those criminals and slaughterers of innocent people, who abandoned Tsamouria in order to escape reprisals after the War. As Nikos Vafeiadis, Ant1 journalist discovered in the recent documentary screened on Ant1 Pacific and pulled off half-way, only to be replaced by music clips, Albanian textbooks, even the Greek ones designed for the Greek minority publish maps where the whole of Epirus up until Preveza are designated as integral parts of the Albanian State. History books portray Greeks as murderers and enemies. All the while, the Albanian government harasses the Albanian Orthodox Church, which it sees as a vehicle for Greek propaganda, abuses the electoral process so that the Greek party OMONOIA will not be elected, ensures that schools and other facilities are deliberately run down in areas where the Greek minority lives and generally encourages a climate of intimidation and hopelessness in minority zones.
Greece on the other hand, has totally abandoned its claim to Northern Epirus. That in itself is not to be condemned as Greece wishes to avoid conflict with other nations and ensure its own security. What is to be condemned though, is its wholesale abandonment of the Northern Epirots, who variously either migrate to Greece to live as second-class citizens or otherwise, remain in Albania, in extreme poverty, at the mercy of opportunistic demagogues in Tirana, who indulge in persecution once in a while, just to re-assure their nationalist supporters that they truly do hate Greeks. It is also condemnable that successive Greek governments, instead of dynamically intervening to guarantee the safety and well-being of the Greeks of Albania, have sought to 'close' the issue by allowing them to be harried out of their homes. The first generation of the Greek community in Australia knows how heartbreaking it is to have to leave one's home. Imagine how heartbreaking and devastating it would be to be forced out of one's ancestral home, when help could be had just a few kilometers away.
Nikos Vafeiadis, during his brief sojourn in Albania, learned to his horror that Greek books have not been sent to the minority schools of the area by the Greek government since 1994 and that the Greek government subsidy that was instrumental in keeping teachers of Greek in the area have also been discontinued, causing a mass exodus of professionals who could keep Hellenism alive. Contrast this with the vast bulk of Greek government books mouldering away unused in Greek schools around Melbourne, or indeed, with the unsubstantiated rumour that the Greek Consulate in Sydney requested money from SAE Oceania to pay Customs for Greek books that are to be sent to Tasmania, owing to impecunious circumstances. The smug, self-assured diplomats who condemn others' vociferous support of the Northern Epirots' rights to freedom from persecution by parodying them, insulting them and misrepresenting them, have not been forced to endure extreme persecution under Hoxha, nor have they experienced extreme poverty or have been forced out of their homes in sheer desperation. They are to be condemned worst of all, at least if one was able to reach them, given that at Melbourne at least, appointments at the Consulate are "fully-booked" until January.
It does not seem to be a good year for Greece. Greece seems to be losing ground on the Macedonian issue, it seems to have lost any sort of edge it ever may have had over Turkey and sits idly by as the Ecumenical Patriarchate is threatened by the Grey Wolves, with the tacit approval of the powers that be. Now Albania is repeating its irredentist claims and insulting the highest officer of Greece. And indeed, it is not the first time that Albania has done so. Moisiu attempted to raise the issue of Tsamouria with former President Kostis Stephanopoulos. Stephanopoulos, a fearless defender of the rights of the Northern Epirots, given that he is of Northern Epirot extraction, angrily dismissed this attempt and countered by demanding that Greeks be protected in Albania. Now Karolos Papoulias, possibly the architect of Modern Greek mishandling of Greco-Albanian relations, is learning to his chagrin that it is not wise to underestimate a neighbour who, despite your generosity, continues to treat you as an enemy.
Politics is politics and nations such as Albania and FYROM have moulded their national identity in spite of and as a reaction to Greece. Ridiculous requests over Tsamouria and petty Balkan irredentist principalities are comical but they should be taken seriously. The protester who maintained that Tsamouria is the key to Greek and Albanian friendship is absolutely correct. Leave of the Chameria hype, and we can be chums. What should be taken even more seriously is the fate of Greek minorities in such Ruritanias. After all, we can all take a leaf out of their book, in so far as they have maintained their identity under impossible conditions. It is not fascistic or quaint to actively assist these people and protect them from harm. One would think it is our duty as human beings.
First published in NKEE on 14 November 2005