Saturday, February 24, 2024


The Balkan Wars still loom large in the consciousness of those who come from Northern Greece or the Aegean islands, for it was in their aftermath that those territories were liberated from the Ottomans, completely transforming the political, social and economic fabric of the Greek state. February marks the anniversary of the liberation of Epirus and the popular narrative is a most androcentric one, in which the heroic Greek army stormed the fortifications of Bizani outside Ioannina after encountering stiff and determined resistance, aided by groups of local guerillas. Unlike in other parts of Greece, much is made of the chivalry of the last pasha of Ioannina, Esat, who was a philhellene and whose name has been given to one of Ioannina’s thoroughfares.

If any mention is made of the women who also fought for the liberation of their homeland, it is usually as being in a lesser, auxiliary role: holding the domestic fort in order to enable their males to fight, imbuing in their children a love of country, knitting undergarments or transporting munitions. These women are barely mentioned and we don’t know their names. The achievements of those women for whom resistance took other, more unconventional for the mores of the time forms are also largely written out of the broader narrative, even though their diverse experiences in an era when the place of women within traditional society was fixed, attest not only to their indomitability but also the manner in which they managed to transcend gender norms.

 Ioannis Lappas, Consul-General of France in Ioannina, ran the Greek signals operation from his home, from where military intelligence from Ioannina and all of Epirus was transmitted to Greek Headquarters. We learn that his niece Antigoni Tzavella, of the freedom-fighting Souliot clan of Tzavellas, was immediately recruited and assumed the task of encrypting and decrypting the messages, an enterprise not without danger, as being an Ottoman citizen, she was at least at law, committing treason and would face execution if discovered. Her valuable role in disseminating intelligence would have remained shrouded in obscurity today, had it not been for the fact that she retained the notebook in which she entered the contents of the deciphered documents. In it there are handwritten dedications by Chief Interpreter of the Greek Consulate at Ioannina Nikolaos Hantelis and General Panagiotis Danglis which corroborate and praise her contribution to the liberation of Epirus. Nikolaos Handelis refers to the “... self-sacrificing zealous cooperation of the gracious Antigone Tzavella in the days of trouble...” and General Danglis writes: “I acknowledge the valuable work of the patriot Miss Tzavella, who did much to enlighten the Greek army about the Turkish forces…”

Lambrini Louli, a member of the influential Loulis clan of the Katsanohoria, went under the sobriquet “Themis,” meaning Justice. Joining the “Epirot Etaireia,” the clandestine organisation dedicated to the liberation of Epirus, she was, because of her broad learning and reputation for fairness, appointed Magistrate of the liberated territories of her region, tasked with dispensing justice and mediating disputes between the local inhabitants and the guerillas, an endeavour she undertook from her family home, which she converted into a courthouse.

Teachers were particularly prized during the struggle for liberation as they equated the renascence of their homeland with an intellectual rebirth, bringing about a more equitable society. Evanthia Soulis, a teacher from Ioannina, clandestinely preached the gospel of social and national emancipation to Greek students in Argyrokastro and Konitsa for half a decade before the war broke out. She also gathered intelligence, passed on messages and transported medical supplies from Athens to Epirus. Once, on the way to the village of Lambovo in Northern Epirus, where she was appointed as teacher, she was stopped by the dreaded Albanian warlord Sali Butka, who commanded her to turn back immediately. When she did not obey, he threatened: “I will come at night, set fire to your house and burn you alive.” Evanthia, unphased, turned her full store of scorn upon him: “What a man you must be, to pick on women.” She spat in his face and continued on her way, unhindered. According to the accounts of her contemporaries, her propensity to take out her revolver and shoot in all directions at the slightest hint of disrespect caused the occupying forces to treat her rather seriously.

Not all women who campaigned for the liberation of Epirus were educated or from well to do families. The correspondent of the newspaper “Patris”, in a despatch sent from Melihovo on 21 November 1912, enthused: “Heroic Souli is leading the way again. Two Souliote volunteers, Maria Kostakitsaina and Efthymia Yianni, have already taken up arms, leading their own volunteer bands.” In the columns of “Esperini” on 13 December 1912, it was reported that: "Four women, originally from Souli, fight valiantly, at the head of their own armed forces. One is called Lambro, who leads the Kypriadis band, the second is Panagio who comes from Gratsana and leads the Koletsis band, the third is Vasiliki and the fourth, the bravest of them all, is Maria Nastouli, aged 48, from the village of Giorganos who has formed her own armed band and has taken part in many battles.”

Nastouli, nicknamed Kostakitsaina, found herself leading her own armed band when the men of her village, fearing reprisals, refused to rise up against the Ottomans. Sneering at their cowardice, she took twenty of her compatriots up into the mountains and participated in many armed skirmishes, notably successfully repelling an Ottoman attack at Variades. After liberation, she was awarded two medals by the state  but steadfastly refused to wear them. Instead, she hung them on her iconostasis and would taken them down and reverently kiss them on the anniversary of the liberation of Ioannina.

The newspaper “Patris” in November 1912 also makes mention of women from the Northern Epirote villages of Kossovitsa and Lesnitsa making their way under the direction of their Captain Alexo Spironi to the front line and demanding that they be given weapons so that they may fight.

Perhaps the most thrilling story belongs to the eighteen-year-old irrepressible cross-dressing Lambrini Loli. Having fallen foul of the local aga of Kosmira for being rather vocal about her nationalistic fervour, she decided that she had seek refuge the mountains, rather than risk arrest. Being of a poor family, she had no shoes and thus resorted to knocking out an uncooperative fellow villager and absconding with his tsarouchia.

Once in the mountains, she discarded her women’s clothing and instead, donned the male foustanella, joininf the corps of guerilla chieftain Bratos, who put her in charge of his group of scouts. According to all accounts, she fought passionately against the enemy, even going so far as to annihilate an entire Turkish unit near Hani Cemal Aga and, on the eve of the liberation of Ioannina on 20 February, followed in the advance guard of Colonel Dellagramatika’s attack on the forts of Dourouti. After liberation, she also fought in the female unit of the “Sacred Band” formed for the liberation of Northern Epirus in 1914.

Though of Maniot stock, Aspasia Mavromihali, the daughter of the former Greek Prime Minister Kyriakoulis Mavromihalis, also travelled to Epirus originally to assist in the work of the Red Cross but subsequently, to take part in the armed struggle, participating in the particularly bloody battle of Driskos, with the Garibaldi brigade of Italian philhellenes.

Much was made of Aspasia’s heroism and she would go on to become the first wife of wartime collaborationist Prime Minister Ioannis Rallis. Georgios Hondrogiannis wrote a widely publicised poem about her exploits and artist Thalia Flora-Karavia, whose paintings of the battles became definitive of the period, sketched her replete with gun, cartridge belts and ready for action.

Lambrini Loli was treated rather differently. After 1914, she returned to her village and herded sheep and goats for the rest of her life. Despite Commander of the “Mixed Army of Epirus” Dimitiros Notis Botsaris putting her name forward to Headquarters for an award, she received no recognition, distinction or reward for her services from the state. Neither did the nameless women of Tseritsana, who over the course of 28 days, transported for the Greek army, 2,000 artillery shells, 650 of which weighted 4.5 tonnes each over treacherous mountain terrain, so that the Ottoman gun emplacements at Manoliasa could be destroyed.

Undoubtedly, the contributions of the women of Epirus to the struggle for liberation were met with awe and admiration by the rest of the Greeks, who, while acknowledging their achievements also struggled to fit them within the narrative of the Greek woman emerging in a free Greece with western aspirations. It is arguable that the tendency to link them with their Souliote ancestors, as women who assume male roles and transcend gender boundaries led to their “othering,” a myth-phenomenon that would repeat itself in the mountains of Epirus during the Second World War and would result in their final appropriation by the Greek national narrative. Finally, it should not pass without comment that their experiences are mediated primarily through the writings of the male journalists without their voices necessarily being heard.


First published in NKEE on Saturday 24 February 2024