I will never forget driving with him through the village of Shen Vasilj, (Άγιος Βασίλειος), formerly inhabited exclusively by ethnic Greeks. As we struggled to negotiate the tortuous, pot-holed road, we came upon a desolate square, bordered all around by drab yellowing stone walls. On the far wall, in red ink, this slogan slashed its way across the brick-work: «ΘΑΝΑΤΟΣ ΣΤΟΥΣ ΕΛΛΗΝΕΣ.» I looked at the ruddy complexioned Bolanos out of the corner of his eye. His jaw had tightened, his lips had pursed so that I could see small rivulets of veins appearing at the corners of his mouth. Then with a twinkle of this eyes, he quipped: "Yeah, well now I think you know what these people's attitude is to Greek package tours."
If generalizations are ever permissible, one would venture to say that Cheimarriots are generally known to be stoic, inflexible and more unflinchingly patriotic than their compatriots. It is this unquestioned commitment to the Hellenic cause that has made the region of Cheimarra suffer perhaps more than any other under successive Albanian regimes. It was the Cheimarriots refusal to support the Communist Hoxha regime (after all, as early as 1914 their captain Spyros Spyromilios had declared the union of Cheimarra with Greece) that saw him ensure that they were not included in the government-sanctioned minority zone. Amazingly, they retained their language and traditions despite the official prohibitions and dire punishments in store for those who would assert the Greek character of the region. Vasilis Bolanos, who is also the president of Omonoia, the organisation that champions the awarding of human rights to the Greeks of Albania, is thus merely continuing in the tradition of his kinfolk. He does so in Cheimarriot fashion, commemorating Greek national days, raising the Greek flag and doing his upmost to convince Albanian public opinion, imbued for the large part as it is with nationalist exclusivist myths, that a Greek ethno-cultural affiliation can harmoniously co-exist with an Albanian nationality. Sadly, they don't buy it, proof of the pudding being a surreal experience I had in Tirana, at the Hotel Dajti some years ago, where I chanced upon some influential Albanian politicians sipping coffee. When I asked them why they do not recognize the existence of a Greek population in Cheimarra, they laughed slightingly, as if the answer were immediately obvious: "Are you kidding? That's electoral dynamite. The idea is to win the election, not to lose it."
So Vasilis Bolanos has soldiered on in the face of public and private harassment, under a regime that only adheres to democratic procedures when it suits its purposes. This notwithstanding, during his time as mayor of Cheimarra, Vasilis Bolanos has presided over an economic miracle in this most stunning of places, where the razor sharp peaks of the Acroceraunian mountains, the traditional mythological gateway to Hades, give way their absolutist fury to the soft lapping of the Adriatic Sea. He has been a stalwart defender of those of his constituents who have had their land (all prime real estate by the sea), confiscated by government cronies in order to be sold to European consortiums for the construction of resorts and an indefatigable and outspoken mouthpiece for all the inhabitants of the region regardless of their ethnic affiliations.
Last July, I attended a conference in Ioannina in which Vasilis Bolanos, in no uncertain terms, made it known that the Greeks of Albania could and would not be exploited for votes or domestic gain by Greek politicians and instead, emphasised the need for solidarity, unity and respect. On the way back to Cheimarra, as he related to me the many immediate infrastructural, educational and social needs of his constituents and his fear that the important work of placing Cheimarra on a solid foundation as a vibrant 21st century town would be drowned in the maelstrom of Albanian and Greek domestic politics, I asked him: "Why do you bother?" The normally placid and jovial mayor's gaze froze. "I never expected that you of all people would ask such a question." Then, his face softening, he put his hand on my knee and asked: "So tell me about this Facebook? Do you see a potential for it here?" Fast forward almost a year later, and the vast majority of Cheimarriot youth have acquired Facebook accounts. As news on Facebook travels quite quickly, they too are most interested to learn why a SAE Youth Victorian President would call their hero and kinsman a foreigner and a criminal. This is especially due to the fact that Cheimarriots, being an idealistic bunch, are possessed of the unfortunate misapprehension that other Greeks, especially those living abroad are intimately concerned about their welfare and I must confess that I, among other, am one of those responsible for the creation of this misconception. The Victorian SAE Youth President on the other hand, seems intent upon disabusing them of it, quite rapidly.
We ended up in Agioi Saranda, an absolutely charming sea-side town. Sitting on a balcony, drinking espresso and viewing the purple mass of Corfu looming just outside the bay, we awaited the arrival of the Greek deputy-foreign minister. When he arrived, resplendent in tracky-daks, a striped t-shirt and a big pipe-puffing smile, Vasilis Bolanos respectfully, steadfastly and persistently met his points, enquiries and injunctions with the dexterity of an expert fencer, his main concern being to safeguard his people from being used as pawns and patsies. In the midst of discussion as to the best way to operate Greek schools in Cheimarra, I slurped my espresso somewhat too loudly, causing the deputy foreign minister to exclaim good-naturedly: "Hang on, I know you. What are you doing here anyway?" Placing his hand on my shoulder, Vasilis Bolanos replied: "He is one of us." That moment was one of the proudest of my life.
Driving back across the Greek border, we were halted by an overzealous rookie border-guard who refused to let us in because Bolanos, an Albanian national had exceeded his permissible trips into Greece for that month. In the face of the placid Vasilis Bolanos calmly but vainly explaining his situation to the increasingly obtuse and arrogant guard possessed of pistol-envy, I exploded. "Do you know who this is, παλιόπαιδο;" I screamed. "This is the mayor of Cheimarra. Now go and bring your superior here." "I don't care if he is Christ Almighty," he yelled back but quickly withdrew into himself as his superior pushed him back abruptly and his facing beaming, strode forward to shake Vasilis Bolanos' hand, breathing: «Κύριε Δήμαρχε...» As we wound our way through the enchanting mountainous forest road, towards Ioannina, Bolanos remarked: "Well you could have at least kept your temper and been a little nicer. But you see, in Albania I'm a filthy Greek. In Greece, you saw it for yourself, I'm a filthy Albanian. It's as if nothing we do counts for anything. The idea though is to make it count among those who count."
Vasilis Bolanos is in prison, sentenced to six months imprisonment, which itself means that he is automatically disqualified from holding public office for three years. He was sentenced because he replaced the monolingual road-signs in Cheimarra with bilingual Albanian/Greek ones, in keeping with the Council of Europe's Treaty on Minority Rights, of which Albania is a signatory. Clause 11 of that Treaty allows for the erection of bilingual road signs in regions that have a sizeable ethnic minority. One would think that since the region of Cheimarra is home to a large Greek population, that this would have been totally acceptable. Not so. For the powers that be refuse to admit the presence of Greeks in Cheimarra and have now imprisoned its mayor for creating a public nuisance. In the eyes of some, this makes him a foreigner and a criminal. According to this logic, so is Nelson Mandela, Yiannis Ritsos, Alexander Solzhenitsyn and countless others. In my eyes, my friend is a hero, albeit an amiable and quixotic one and his reputation should never be belittled, for any reason.
At a time when the resources of the Greek diaspora should be garnered and harnessed for the relief of this resolute prisoner of conscience, who is quite prepared to undergo incarceration in order that his people's right to a free ethnic and cultural affiliation is recognised, it is unfortunate that Greek PM Kostas Karamanlis did not raise the issue of Mr Bolanos' incarceration during his recent visit to Albania. We wish him a speedy release as we send our thoughts and prayers to him.