We reach them as dawn clutches at them with its rosy-red fingers, driving down from Tiranë in an rickety jeep that threatens to spew forth nuts, bolts and questionable Bulgarian tractor parts onto a road so pot-holed as to not have looked out of place on the surface of the moon. “Italian roads,” my driver explains. “They built them here when they annexed Albania in the thirties and they still haven’t been repaired.” ”Yes, I know,” I reply. “That’s what you tell me every time. You really do need to get some funding down here.” “I suppose their idea of road repairs is to fill up the pot-holes with us,” he ripostes and then breaks out into a mournful (and extremely long) epic song about the time when Captain Spiromilios landed in Cheimarra with his band of Cretan volunteers by boat and wrested it from the Ottomans. It is noteworthy not only for its complexity, but by the fact that the driver cannot roll his r’s in Greek fashion, owing to the fact that he was born in Northern Albania, where his family was exiled in a work camp - an area where r’s are definitely left unrolled, for lack of time. Consequently the song sounds as if it is being sung by Elmer Fudd, a smash hit for the Looney Tunes. By the time it is over, we have rounded the last mountain, acquired a decent sized migraine and are careering into Cheimarra at questionable speeds. For some inexplicable reason, every time I travel to Albania, I end up getting driven to Cheimarra by its mayor, Vasilis Bolanos. Quiet, observant, with a keen twinkle in his eyes, the colour of the Adriatic just metres from his home, he truly is a remarkable man.
To be mayor in Cheimarra, known in Albanian as Himarë, is not such an easy task, especially when you happen to be Greek and to loudly proclaim this to all and sundry. To publicly announce that Cheimarra is inhabited in its majority by ethnic Greeks, to raise the Greek flag over the town on Greek national day, to preside over the municipal life of a town whose walls are plastered with graffiti that reads: «Θέλωμε Ελληνικά σχολειά,» is to invite trouble. And trouble is always never far away.
Cheimarra is, in my estimation, one of the most beautiful places in the world, because it is able to harmonise earth, sky and sea in perfect proportions. It also happens to be the favourite holiday spot for Albanian bureaucrats and businessmen, and it is for this reason that vast expanses of coastal property, that belonged to Greek farmers and was confiscated by the Albanian communist regime and collectivized, is not being returned to its rightful owners but rather, is being sold to wealthy holiday makers and resort developers. There is probably some sort of spite involved in this as well. Just after the Second World War, when the ‘Albanian Worker’s Party’ seized control of the country, the Cheimarriotes were the only people brave enough to refuse to accept their rule over them. They pointed out to them that they had enjoyed autonomy under the Ottomans, with their own flag and administration, that they voted to join Greece in 1912, that for 400 years no one had disputed their control of their lands and that as far as they concerned, they were not Albanians and would not recognise any Albanian government that purported to rule over them. For this reason, communist rule over the seven villages of Cheimarra was particularly oppressive, even for paranoid Enver Hoxha standards. For starters, Cheimarra was not included in the so-called minority zone in which the Greek language was at least tolerated, albeit in a truncated form. Instead, it was considered an integral part of Albania where all vestiges of Greek culture and language were to be ruthlessly extirpated and the indomitable spirit of the independent Cheimarriots was to be broken. The relics of this are all too present. The otherwise pristine beach in Cheimarra is littered with concrete bunkers, placed there by Hoxha, in case of invasion. Ironically enough, the construction and installation of these useless and futile eyesores was the responsibility of Alfred Moisiu, now the outgoing president of ‘democratic’ Albania. The fields of the region, especially further up the mountains are also dotted by other example’s of a sinister legacy. On an excursion up one of the mountains to visit one of the last surviving teachers during the Hoxha regime, Vasilis Bolanos bent down and picked up what looked like a rust speahead on a long iron shaft, from the ground. “See this? It’s a stake. The fields around here are full of them. Apparently they thought that the Greeks would send their parachutists over here by the thousands and they hoped they would impale themselves on them. Do you know how many times we have been injured by these cursed things?” These are wounds that will just not go away, which is fitting for a region which, according to ancient mythology, marked the entrance to Hades.
The democratic Albanian government continues to deny the existence of the Greek character of Cheimarra. This is strange considering that its mayor is also the leader of the Union for Human Rights Party, a party that champions the rights of Albania’s minorities. This is as close to an ‘ethnic’ party as one can get in Albania. While the Albanians are free to organise political parties on the basis of race in Kosovo and FYROM, they deny this to their own minorities. Vasilis Bolanos thus receives his votes because his constituents believe that he can advance the rights of the Greek minority in his region. Despite this, the Albanian government will not permit the operation of Greek language schools in the region. This does not seem to make any difference to the mayor. He takes me to a newly whitewashed, state of the art building covered with the drawings of children. “That is our Greek school,” he states proudly. We sit in the playground, while the aged Greek school teacher recounts the difficulties of teaching Greek during the communist regime. Party cadres would take the children aside and ask them if they were being taught Greek, or whether their teacher was teaching them about God. What they did not reckon with was the response: “Yes of course.” Brutal beatings and a sojourn in a work camp ensued. We sat silently watching a herd of goats cross a bridge, walk down the road and climb the steps of the school-house. “Yes,” Vasilis Bolanos broke the silence. “We have the most well-educated goats in all of Northern Epirus.”
Being a politician in Cheimarra is not easy. Election time in Cheimarra usually consists of the Albanian government busing in busloads of ruffians, to intimidate the local inhabitants and steal the ballot boxes. In 2001, a young Greek man was stabbed in the street by some of these ruffians. Early this year, a seventy-five year old elderly gentleman, also going by the surname of Bolanos, was stabbed to death in a random attack by an Albanian, outside his home. His only crime was that he was Greek and that he was related to the mayor of the town.
Currently, Vasilis Bolanos is in jail. The reason for this has as much to do with his ardour as with his incredible naivete. For anywhere you go in Albania, you find the European flag flying next to the Albanian one, leading one to believe that Albania is on track for entry into the European Union or that in the least, it subscribes to its guiding principles. It was for this reason that Vasilis Bolanos removed the road-signs in Cheimarra last December. All countries in Europe except Albania have signed a Council of Europe agreement that calls for bilingual road signs in areas where ethnic groups in a country are concentrated. Vasilis Bolanos considered that since Cheimarra was predominantly Greek in ethnic composition, it should have bilingual road signs. Big mistake. Even in the recognised minority villages, closer to the border, bilingual road signs were only introduced in 2006, in the wake of Greek President Karolos Papoulias’ visit to Northern Epiros, and even then, these road signs were placed on the main road from the border and serve as little more than window dressing for a regime that is definitely not enlightened when it comes to its policy on ethnic minority rights.
Albania has been promising since 1991 to sign the agreement but has yet to do it. The Albanian government’s own State Committee on Minorities has repeatedly urged Albanian Prime Minister Sali Berisha to sign the agreement, to know avail. Interestingly enough, Berisha was president of Albania in 1994 when he ordered the arrest of five leaders of Omonia, the Greek political party, on false charges of espionage. They were convicted and sentenced to long prison terms but were released after 10 months as a result of an international outcry against this injustice. Berisha’s relentless efforts to persecute the Omonia leaders on patently false charges ultimately undermined his international standing, especially in Washington, and he fell from power in 1997. He moderated his stance, declaring that Albania’s minorities were an asset for the country, and his party won the 2005 elections, returning him to power.
Vasilis Bolanos’ brave gesture of defiance was interpreted by an unrepentant and hypocritical Sali Berisha government for what it is: a proclamation that Cheimarra is not the homogenous Albanian town that the authorities would have they would believe it is and that it is the repository of 3,000 years of Greek history. These things take a while to sink in. For though the road signs were removed in December last year, Vasilis Bolanos was only indicted on 28 May 2008. The fact that he was indicted just AFTER his elderly relative was stabbed to death probably indicates that the said indictment was specifically timed so as to intimidate him not to protest too loudly about the continued abuse of the Greek minority by the Albanian authorities.
In Cheimarra, we have a complete mirror image of our own community. Ours is a young community, possessed of formal rights, material comforts and freedoms. Too often however, this is taken for granted. Enrollments in Greek schools are decreasing year by year and too often it appears that our passion for our culture is dormant. In Cheimarra, Greek cannot be taken for granted and its inhabitants struggle daily against immense odds, just to remain who they are.
Just the other day, while walking along Lonsdale Street, I looked up at a road sign, which was headed by the Greek meander pattern. An insignificant gesture to some, but in distant Cheimarra, a sign-post on the road to paradise….