Saturday, May 02, 2015
"Australian soldiers, sailors and pilots saw columns of Armenian, Assyrian and Greek women and children being forced along the countryside in death marches. They saw their pitiful, bedraggled state. The homes, churches, monasteries and schools of these people became the prison camps of the captured Anzacs and their allies."
Cherie Burton, Member of the Legislative Assembly of NSW, 30 November 2010
On a drizzly Sunday two weeks ago, my daughter and I attended the Anzac commemoration at our local RSL. The main road had been closed off and we stood its side, watching as a troupe of pipers, dressed in Scottish kilts marched down the largely deserted thoroughfare, playing the bagpipes. In their wake, men and women dressed in digger costumes followed on horseback, desperately trying to control their somewhat unruly steeds. Behind them proudly marched the returned servicemen in their blue blazers, sporting medals awarded for service in the Second World War and so many other conflicts besides. Bring up the rear where the cadets and the local scouting group.
Having managed to procure, I know not from where, two Australian flags for each of her hands, my excited my two year old daughter yelled out, «Ζήτω, ζήτω, ζήτω!» as the participants marched past, an exclamation she had recently been taught at the Greek Independence Day parade. Unable to stifle a chortle, I commenced, in Greek, to point out to her the horses and especially the way they seemed to be nodding their heads and waving their tails in response, every time she waved her flags.
"Speak in English or go back to your own country," a curt, nasal voice sliced unexpectedly through my explanation. Looking up, a tight-lipped, elderly gentleman was glaring at me, his eyes partially obscured by the thick lenses he was sporting. I could not be bothered pointing him in the general direction in which I was desirous that he would remove himself, nor did I deem it fit to enlighten him that we shared the same birth-place. "Yes," I replied instead, "but isn't it great that we can cheer along these people purporting to be ANZAC's in as many languages as we can?"
In response the gentleman, unyielding, muttered something under his breath, the overtones of which I interpreted as to attesting to the intellectual capacity of my posterior. "And I'll tell you something else," I continued, divesting myself of my composure. "My people, the Greeks, contributed a good deal to the ANZAC cause. Not only were the wounded ANZAC soldiers hospitalized and cared for in Lemnos by the Greeks, but the whole Gallipoli campaign was fought in an area where 35,000 Greek people were forcibly removed from their homes and many were killed, just because the Turks were expecting the ANZACs to attack there. I don't think the ANZACs had a problem with their allies speaking Greek. So maybe you shouldn't either."
A few disinterested onlookers shuffled their feet uneasily, the confrontation having disconcerted them and the elderly gentleman pushed his way past them, giving me a hostile sideways glance as he did so. As the onlookers jostled for a position next to the war memorial, a lady of Indian background sidled up to me: "I know how you feel, but you shouldn't have done that," she whispered.
"Why?" I asked. "I was speaking to my daughter, not to him and that conversation shouldn't concern him at all. At any rate, I stand by what I said. Did you know that the Greeks in Lemnos..."
"Good God," the lady explained. "Why does it have to be about the Greeks? This is THEIR celebration. Let them celebrate it. Leave it alone."
I disagreed with this point of view entirely. Quite apart from the impropriety of seeking to dictate to a two year old and her father in which language they should discourse, to my mind, any country that actively assisted the ANZACs had a right of at least some acknowledgment if not a stake in the ANZAC commemoration. Local historians such as Stavros Stavridis have shown through their research that the contemporary Australian media was well aware of and reported on the massacre of the native Christian inhabitants of Anatolia during the war, and the accounts by high-profile diplomats such as US Ambassador Henry Morgenthau, who, with his agents and information gatherers was able, after the war to provide a full account of the suffering of these people, especially the Greeks who were forcibly conscripted into labour battalions whereby they were:
". transformed into road labourers and pack animals. Army supplies of all kinds were loaded on their backs, and, stumbling under the burdens and driven by the whips and bayonets of the Turks, they were forced to drag their weary bodies into the mountains of the Caucasus. Sometimes they would have to plough their way, burdened in this fashion, almost waist high through snow. They had to spend practically all their time in the open, sleeping on the bare ground. They were given only scraps of food; if they fell sick they were left where they had dropped, their Turkish oppressors perhaps stopping long enough to rob them of all their possessions - even of their clothes. If any stragglers succeeded in reaching their destinations, they were not infrequently massacred."
So why then is this aspect of the Gallipoli campaign obscured? Why has it taken decades for these matters to be raised and debated in Australia, and in fact have only been so debated after historian John William's article "The Ethnic Cleansing of Greeks from Gallipoli, April 1915," was published in Quadrant, on 2 April 2013?
The Indian lady rolled her eyes. "I know where you are coming from, but it's their day," she repeated. "Let them have their day. After all, do you know how many Gurkhas and other Indian soldiers fought and died in World War I?" Her eyes flashed angrily as she spoke. "To support whom? The occupiers who took our land? But you don't see us going on about it, do you? Just let it go. You have your celebrations and festivals and so do we. Let them have their day. All you will achieve by trying to take ownership of this day is resentment."
Two were the thoughts I took away with me after the speeches were over and I just managed to drag my daughter away from the horses. The first was the singularity of my own sense of entitlement in linking the sacrifices of the Greeks of Anatolia and Lemnos for and/or as a result of the ANZAC campaign with a continuing obligation (of respect and acknowledgment) to the Greek people, including Greek-Australians, a century after the commencement of the campaign. The origins of this belief surely must lie in the propaganda employed at the time to make Greeks feel that they were tied by bonds of brotherhood to those who were 'fighting for the cause of civilization.' The second was this unconscious belief that I held, that somehow, my people, by virtue of such participation and suffering, have a stake in the Gallipoli commemoration. While I did not agree with my interlocutor's arguments, I recalled that the immense contribution made by speakers of an Albanian idiom to the Greek revolution is largely glossed over and certainly not afforded any space within official and unofficial celebrations of Greek Independence. The automatic reaction of most Greeks when raising this absence as an issue is one of denial or extreme defensiveness and I have witnessed Greeks castigating participants in the Greek Independence Day parade for speaking 'unsuitable' languages, the inference being that such a practice profanes the sanctity of the celebration of ethnicity, in a manner parallel to that of my own elderly verbal assailant. This was certainly the feeling inculcated in my Indian interlocutor.
While it is proper and right to explore all aspects of historical events, ultimately, ownership of such commemorative events, linked as they are to the process of myth-making (for the qualities participants of the myth are said to have possessed are attributed to the imagined nation as a whole), is therefore an extra-ordinarily sensitive issue that goes to the heart of one's sense of self, cultivated or pre-existing. The aforementioned notwithstanding, I stubbornly maintain my conviction, that in multi-cultural Australia, a child born in this country and enthusiastically wielding not one, but two Australian flags, is perfectly entitled to celebrate any or all aspects of ANZAC day in whatever language she sees fit, as long as she gets to pat the horses afterwards.
First published in NKEE on Saturday 9 May 2015