Life in the Greek Concentration Camps: Nikola's Story
This is Nikola's story, a Macedonian man who at nineteen was snatched from his family and sent to the Greek prison camps where he endured five years of isolation, humiliation and beatings at the hands of the Greek authorities.
It was April 17, 1947, an ordinary spring day when the serenity of the village was broken by a man's loud voice calling everyone to gather at the village square. I was overtaken with curiosity as I rushed to get there as soon as I could. Something important must be happening I thought when I heard the church bells ringing. Nothing had prepared me for what was about to happen.
When I got there I saw soldiers, about thirty of them, in Greek military uniforms. One of them was an officer with a piece of paper in his hand looking anxious as he paced back and forth waiting for everyone to arrive. "What's going on I asked?" All I got were shrugged shoulders, no one knew. The whispers from the crowd went silent when the officer asked loudly if everyone was there. "Yes." replied a man from behind the crowd.
The officer read a list of names, including my own. When he finished he told us to immediately report to the main road at the bottom of the village and wait there. Fourteen of us stepped forward and joined the patrol. "Is this all of them?" the officer yelled out. "Yes." replied the man again from behind the crowd. We all walked in silence as I looked around and saw my friends and neighbours. We were men of mixed ages from boys younger than I to grandfathers. When we reached our destination we were moved into the meadows away from the road and told to lie flat on our stomachs, face down. It seemed like hours had passed when I heard a familiar voice calling my name. It was my little sister. My mother, worrying about me going hungry, sent some food.
The silence was broken again when I heard sounds of trucks coming. "Everyone on your feet, we are going to Lerin," announced the officer. No one dared speak, as we all boarded the trucks. On the way to Lerin we saw people from the village of Oshchima walking on the road and called out to them not to go home, they too were in danger.
As the trucks rumbled through the dusty meandering roads to Lerin I couldn't help but wonder what was going to happen to us. I couldn't understand why they were taking us and for how long. What had we done?
It was evening when we arrived. The soldiers escorted us into the yard of Tole's hotel. The area was crowded with about two hundred men of all ages. I recognized some of them from neighbouring villages. By dusk we were escorted at gunpoint into the boarded up hotel and locked up for the night. All through the night I could hear silent whispers of men asking questions wondering what would happen but I heard no answers. The night was long and cold and I didn't get any sleep. Through the cracks of the boards I could see the sky becoming lighter. Suddenly, I felt my heart pounding as the serenity of the night was broken by a loud noise from behind. The door flung open and a couple of guards loudly proclaimed it was morning and time to get out. We were all escorted out to the yard, divided up into teams of a dozen and driven out to various locations to work. Some of us were sent to dig bunkers and others to lay barbed wire fences. We worked from dawn to dusk that day without provisions. We were thankful to the generosity of fellow Macedonians who took pity on us and gave us some provisions. After we got back from work I sent word home for clothes, blankets and money to buy food.
Three days later two men from Oshchima came and brought me a pair of shorts, a blanket and some food. My family had no money so I relied on the generosity of others to support me. Some of the captives were leaders of organizations and were able to obtain provisions for those that couldn't afford any. No one was left to starve. By law we were entitled to one tenth of a drachma a day (four drachmas bought a loaf of bread) but even then we were cheated by the commanding officer who bought himself a radio with our money.
As the days passed we spent the daytime working building bunkers and stretching barbed wire or in lockup in the dark rooms of the hotel. We spent the nighttime in the outdoors sleeping in the crowded yard of the police station. The police station was surrounded by a three-meter high barbed wire fence, to keep us in, and was guarded from the rooftop by guards armed with machine guns. A notice was posted at the front door warning the Partisans that "we would die first" if they dared attack the police station. We were being used as human shields. I remember one dark rainy night in May the police escorted us inside the hotel (out of the rain) when the shelling started. It was too late to take us back, so they quickly locked us up in the hotel for the night. Three or four policemen, upset about the Partisan attack, tried to get in and turn their guns of us. But the officer in charge offered them a different option. He told them, "If you want to kill someone go where the fighting is." No one died that night. The next night the rain returned and again we were rushed into the hotel. The day after we found out a shell had landed and exploded in the police station yard that night. Many of us would have died had we stayed there.
Months passed and no word as to why we were still held prisoners. Lawyers came and went and still no one was released. People told us not to waste our money on lawyers, as they couldn't do anything for us.
As the days passed, some of the captives were taken from lockup and executed. We found out some were accused of collaborating with the Partisans and others of sabotage. As I learned more of their fate I began to worry about my own future. Not too long ago I too was involved in some deeds that could have brought me the death penalty. I was involved in cutting communication lines and removing telephone wires from Orovnik to Zhelevo. I helped cut up and burn the wooden bridge at Kamenlivada. Before that I helped the Macedonian Partisans escape an attack from the Greek Partisans. I remember that day well. A friend of mine and I were cutting shuma (oak branches) when a man from Oshchima saw Greek Partisans advancing towards Prespa. With axes in our hands and torbi (food sacks) over our shoulders we ran from Oshchima to Rambi to warn the Partisans. We were smart to bypass Publi to avoid the Greek police that were stationed there. When we arrived we met up with Mito Tupurkovski, a Partisan officer and fellow villager from Oshchima, and gave him the news. The Partisans in Prespa (Rambi) were all Macedonians and were being chased by the Greek Partisans for disobeying orders. The Greeks wanted them to go south and defend Ipirus but the Macedonians refused the order and stayed where they were to defend their homeland. For that they were branded traitors and chased out of the country.
Mito immediately gave orders for the brigade to assemble. The bugler sounded the alarm and the men tanning and relaxing in the sun assembled and were ready to march. I remember it was before dinnertime and beans were boiling in a large cauldron. There was no time to eat so two men tipped the cauldron sending the soup rolling down the slope like a flood. The brigade was too large to be accommodated in one village so it split up into three groups. Some went to spend the night in Dupeni and Nakolets and the rest went to Lubiano. We spent the night in Nakolets. The next day my friend and I crossed over the Yugoslav border and went with Mito's group to Lubiano. We asked Mito for advice on what to do. He recommended we arm and join his Brigade, if not to fight then to defend ourselves. Having prior engagements and obligations at home, we declined the offer, said our good-bye and left. On the way back when we caught up with the enemy patrols, they saw us with axes in our hands and food bags over our shoulders and they naturally assumed we were coming back from work. They let us pass without a hassle and we arrived home safely.
That was not all I had done in my time that could have landed me in hot water. During the occupation (1940 - 1945) I operated as a Partisan in Oshchima. With the outbreak of the Greek-Italian war and later the German invasion (April 6th 1941), living conditions in the region became harsh and Partisan activities began to escalate. Later (1943) as Partisans became more organized, activities intensified and drew assistance from the local population. Like many boys and girls my age, I joined the youth organizations voluntarily. Because I was too young for combat I was given non-combat duties. My activities were confined to Oshchima and the surrounding region. For the most part, I was responsible for guard duty, delivering messages between command posts and smuggling people through the German lines. I remember one time while walking through a German camp, stationed near Oshchima, I overheard two men speaking in Greek. I approached them and found out they were Greeks from Ipiros. A number of them were caught and imprisoned by the Germans. They wanted to escape but were afraid. They didn't know the terrain well enough to do it on their own. I agreed to help them and gave them instructions to meet me at the base of the camp after dark. To my surprise, twenty-seven of them were waiting when I showed up. I took them through the back of the village and by secluded paths to Mount Gomnush. From the hilltop I showed them the road to Statitsa and left. A few weeks later a column of men walking out of the forest approached me. They called me over to see if I could identify someone among them. I said I didn't know anyone. One of them with a big smile on his face then told me that he was one of the men I had helped escape that night and he had just joined the Partisans. One by one the men shook my hand and congratulated me for my deeds.
Twenty years later I recall sitting in a cafe in Kostur where I overheard a man telling a story. I couldn't believe my ears. It was my story, and the man telling it was one of the men I had helped twenty years ago. I went over to his table and politely asked if he would be able to identify the boy in his story. He said he wouldn't, it was so long ago. After introducing myself we were both happy and thankful that fate had brought us together again.
As I sit there, locked up in the dark room of the God-forsaken hotel, I worry about the fate of my family. My father is sixty-four years old and sick, he can't look after the farm anymore. Besides he was never a good farmer, he always depended on us (his children) to do the farming. He was good at making money though, as a petchalbar (migrant worker). In his quests for work he traveled to Ipiros, Anadol (Anatolia Turkey) and even visited Canada a few times, but he was most famous for his excellent painting and stone laying work. Everyone in the region especially in Prespa knew Barba Risto from Oshchima as the best chimney builder in the region.
My oldest brother is dead. He died in 1943 from a burst appendix. He was only twenty-two years old, just barely married when he died. He was the hardest worker in my family. My oldest sister too has her own tragedy. At age thirty-seven with five children she lost her husband (Partisan) at the hands of the Greeks.
My older brother and sister are both Partisans now. My brother is a courier running correspondence between Gramos and Vitcho. My sister, married with two young girls, is a field medic transporting dead and wounded Partisans between battlefields and field hospitals. I am Nikola, Risto and Sofia's fifth child. I was born in Oshchima in 1927 and I am in jail now and I don't know why.
Later, I would learn that my youngest sister and brother were both taken by the Partisans, leaving mother and father all alone. My youngest sister was only sixteen when she was taken in 1947. In 1949 she fought in the unsuccessful and bloody battle to occupy Lerin. My youngest brother was twelve when he left with the refugee children in 1948. After spending a year in Romania he was brought back by the Greek Partisans to fight. Many like him, young and inexperienced, died fighting against the battle seasoned Greek army. My brother was only saved because many brave mothers, in protest, stood up to the Greek Partisans and stopped them from sending innocent children to slaughter.
I miss my family very much as I lie here in this overcrowded, stench ridden dark hellhole. I can only dream of freedom, of enjoying the serenity of village life, of enjoying my mother's cooking and of drinking cold crystalline clear water from the springs of Oshchima. My dreams are often interrupted by the harsh reality of hunger pain, thirst, aching muscles and my own anxiety. As if that is not enough, I also have to endure the cruelty and humiliation of the police and soldiers who blame us for their own miseries.
To make our lives even more miserable, the police one summer day hung twenty-three decapitated human heads on the fence where we slept. The heads hung over us, reeking of the stench of death, for three long days. They were placed there out of hatred for the Partisans and to remind us of what would happen if we tried anything. The guards told us the dead men were traitors and blood thirsty Partisans, but it was not the truth. I recognized a couple of them and they were innocent farmers who probably crossed paths with the bloodthirsty Greek police. Months have passed since we were first detained and still we are here and don't know why. Families, the community and concerned citizens often protest demanding our release but nothing is done.
After months of complaining, finally one day we got an answer. We were told we were being detained because we are "a danger to the security of the Greek State". No reason was disclosed as to how and why we are a danger.
After being detained for one hundred and five days, without a trial, we were sentenced to prison for an undisclosed prison term, to be served at the Greek concentration camps. With that they took us from Lerin to Solun, first by train (part way) then by trucks. I remember the train tracks were damaged and we had to get off in the middle of a watermelon farm. The workers wanted to give us watermelons but were not allowed to come near so they resorted to throwing them at us.
It was early morning when we arrived in Solun. We drove around the city from jail to jail looking for space. There was no space for us anywhere. All the jails were full. By the end of the day we were taken to a nearby camp just outside the city limits. There, we were merged with a less fortunate group who told us that they were used as human shields by the Greeks. The military often traveled in convoys and loaded lead trucks with prisoners from this camp in case the road was mined. This served as a reminder for the Partisans that if they dared to do something they would be killing their own people.
We spent two days in Solun waiting for prisoners to arrive before we were loaded up in ferries and shipped out to the concentration camps.
Twelve hundred of us were sent to the island of Aistrati (Agios Evstratios) located in the center of the Aegean Sea. When we arrived, there were already two thousand captives settled, which made the camp look like a city of tents. We spent the entire day floating in the harbour waiting to offload. It was a hot, sunny August day and the ferry was overcrowded, lacked facilities, food and drinking water. When we disembarked they dumped us among the others and left us without provisions. We were entitled to 1.5 drachmas a day but it took months before we saw any of it. In the meantime we relied on those already settled to feed us. Luckily, we were allowed to grow vegetables within the confines of the camp, which helped relieve the food shortage. We were also allowed to work during the day for pay within the locality of the island.
For a while we were allowed to roam within the confines of the island unabated. After the authorities got organized they were determined to encircle our camp with barbed wire. We angrily protested and after pleading to the United Nations they abandoned the plan. After that, they selectively separated about three hundred of us, myself included, and relocated us in a valley next to the main camp and placed us under armed guard. We were grouped twelve people to a tent. Twice a day one person from each tent was allowed to pick up provisions from the main camp. Three times a day we were required to report for roll call. Without exception, three times a day the roll call alarm was sounded just as we would start eating.
No one could have survived alone with the meager allowances they gave us. To survive we had to pool our resources and negotiate prices to purchase provisions wholesale from the mainland. We did our own cooking, cleaning and improvements to the camp.
In February 1949, all prisoners under the age of thirty-two were mobilized from the various concentration camps and shipped out to a military camp on the island of Makronisos located south east of Athens. There, about six hundred of us formed the first battalion. Living conditions in Makronosos were much worse that in Aistrati. We were under the constant watch of the military police who used agitation, abuse, beatings, starvation, and humiliation to control us. They were ordered by higher authorities to break our spirits. Many of the guards even enjoyed their jobs. I remember one particular guard who took pleasure in torturing. He was a small and loud man who loved to use his heels on the bodies of his victims. He frothed at the mouth as he exerted himself kicking prisoners and screaming profanities at them in the service of his country. I also remember one day when he came back from vacation, a changed man. We found out that he had spent a month in the hospital in Athens after meeting up with some of his former victims.
Microniso was by far the worst experience in my life. No one and nothing deserves to be treated the way we were. Routinely in the hottest hours of the day, we were forced to run up hill single file between two rows of policemen, while they beat us with sticks to unconsciousness. Rarely did anyone make it to the top standing. It was a sad sight to see especially the streams of blood running downhill painting the sand red. What was even sadder was the aftermath, the humiliation of being forced to sign false confessions of acts we never committed and on top swear loyalty to the same regime that imprisoned and beat us.
After a while many of the captives became crazed with fear and had to be isolated in wire cages. Even a glimpse of a uniform threw them into a frightful screaming fit.
On many occasions we had visits from the Greek and sometimes the foreign (French and English) press but no one dared complain. The same policemen that tortured us were walking among us exchanging uniform for prison clothes every time we had visitors. The press was reporting fair treatment and compared our prison to paradise with our blessings. In fact we were so afraid that we would have agreed with anything. If the guards said pigs fly we would agree. At one point the authorities were so convinced of our rehabilitation that they allowed us to vote in the national elections. To their surprise we didn't vote the way they expected.
The elections however, brought change and improvements to our situation. We could finally complain without the fear of retribution. Unfortunately, everyone was so convinced by the exemplary reports in the press that no one believed us. Even the minister of corrections who paid us a visit in person one day refused to believe us. He found the mere mention of abuse preposterous until some of the men, one by one, dropped their drawers to show him their mutilated genitals. He and his visitors were so shocked at the sight that they brought up charges against the general in charge. The abuses inflicted upon us were not limited to our bodies, we were forced to work for free like slaves and on top of that we were robbed of our prisoner entitlements. With our money they purchased building materials and with our labour we built them sleeping quarters, offices and recreational facilities. Even after we complained, not even a drahma was returned to us. We had to do with very little to survive. We survived because we were able to organize the people into a skillful labour force willing to work for anyone and for whatever they could afford to pay us. After almost two years of enduring life in the military camp, it was time for some of us to be released. To qualify however, each had to sign a statement admitting to crimes and swearing loyalty to Greece (the ruling regime). We were given two choices. Sign a confession and leave or remain a prisoner. We were allowed to withdraw previously signed confessions given that most were signed under duress. Macedonians received the most abuse. How could one tell a Macedonian from a Greek, by his confession? Without exception all Macedonians, even the uneducated farmers, were accused of being members of the Communist Party (NOF). To the Greek regime at that time it was the worst crime one could ever commit.
In time, one by one we abandoned our ideals and gave in to the pressures of our captors. I remained loyal to the end. I roamed the campgrounds alone for three months often wondering what wrong I had done to deserve this.
In 1950 all remaining captives (about fifty) were rounded up by armed guards, tied up at the hands in pairs and shipped out to the port of Lavrion located on the mainland near Athens. Three of us were civilians, the rest were captured Partisans (prisoners of war). When we arrived we were taken off the ship and left tied up. Without provisions in the outdoors, we waited for two days before the authorities came to pick us up. We were driven to the port of Piraeus and from there were taken to Crete to a place called Souda near Khania. We spent the first night in the local jail with some local criminals before we were released to the streets.
I must mention that at the same time we arrived in Crete a crisis was brewing in the community. It involved the kidnapping of the daughter of a politician from the right wing party, by the son of a prominent man from the left wing party. We were left to fend for ourselves for forty days before the crisis was diffused and the authorities turned their attention to us. We spent two days hungry on the streets before a woman, in passing, showed some interest in us. She wanted to know where we were from. We told her most of us were from Lerin. She too was from Lerin, married to a civil servant in the local government. She took pity on us and got her husband, who had access to army-surplus supplies, to help us out. She gave us some pots, plates and utensils while her husband provided us with canned beans, canned meat and sardines. Through family connections she also found us some work at a government construction project. Even some of the local people took pity on us and occasionally donated food and clothing.
When the kidnapping crisis was over the authorities split us up into three groups. Twelve of us were sent to Dafnes a village near Iraklion located in the center of Crete. When we arrived we were dumped in front of the police station and told to set up quarters in a wet basement. We refused to stay in the wet and for a while we lived on the streets. To keep us from causing trouble, the authorities offered our services to the locals in exchange for room and board. I took on a job as a cobbler's assistant but I was no good at it so the boss fired me. He said he hired me to make profit, not to support me. Another man offered me a job digging ditches in his vineyard. After I finished one ditch he took me to another place. There I met a couple of young men my age that were working for a neighbour. Out of curiosity I asked how much they were making? Eighty drachmas a day was the going rate. Discouraged by the fact that I was working for nothing, a few days later I quit. As well as working for nothing, the farmer hardly cared about me and often left me without provisions. After that I joined four others who had done the same. We pooled our resources and rented a run down warehouse for forty drachmas a month. We did odd jobs in the community to earn money for expenses.
By now I was getting desperate about going home and seriously began to look at ways to get out. Of all the civilian people from the community that I asked for help only two showed any interest. They advised me to retain a lawyer and recommended one in the city of Iraklion. One day, together with another man I went and met with the lawyer. Before he would help me though he recommended I bring him letters of character reference. With those, he would make appeals on my behalf through official channels. I did as he asked and then waited. Months passed and no reply. It appeared that all my inquiries were ignored, my pleas fell on deaf ears. At one point I got so upset that I stormed into the police station and demanded to see the police chief. He was kind enough to see me and offered to answer my questions. Without hesitation I got to the point and bluntly asked, "Why am I still here?" He was honest enough to tell me that as far as my record was concerned his office had nothing against me, the problem was at the Lerin district. He told me, "Your neighbours don't want you back." On his advice I then petitioned the Ministry of the Interior. A month later, the local police sent me to the Iraklion office where I got news of my release. The same police chief I visited earlier gave me my papers to freedom. I was so happy I decided to spend the night in the city. I rented a hotel room and even went to a movie.
The next day walking down the street I was stormed by the police and arrested for skipping town without permission. I showed them my release papers but they refused to recognize them. They had papers of their own and I had to serve more time.
Locked up in a cell I pleaded with them to talk to the chief but they refused. Finally, one of them went to the post office (the police station had no telephone) and called the ministry. When he came back he apologized and released me. My papers superceded those from the Lerin district and I was a free man. The next day I got my ticket and left. I was eligible for free transportation but I had to go back to the police station to obtain it. I didn't want to go back so I paid my own fare. I took the ferry from the port of Piraeus to Solun then the train from Solun to Lerin and arrived in Oshchima on January 17th, 1952, penniless and with no material possessions. I found my home empty, looted of all our possessions. Everything was gone, my father's tools, our farming tools, furniture and clothing, everything. My parents, along with ninety-percent of Oshchimians, abandoning everything and fled the country in a hurry to avoid death by Greek bombs. When the war was over no one was allowed to return. My entire family was now gone and I was left all alone.
The day after my arrival, as required, I reported to the police station in Zhelevo. I showed the authorities my release papers and in return I received my identification card and travel pass which restricted me to a radius of thirty kilometers.
Three days later I received a summons to report to the military headquarters at Zhelevo. The moment I walked into the office, the man in charge looked at me and said, "You will die at a blink of an eye." He then told me to turn around and go home. To this day I am still pondering the meaning of his remark.
A day later I received another summons to report to Zhelevo for an interview with the plain-clothes police. When I inquired why I was summoned, one of them asked me what was happening in Oshchima. To this I recounted my days events, i.e. what I did that day, which fields I visited, and so on. He then asked me not to be naive and to tell him what he was interested in, i.e. my neighbours activities, not my own. After telling him that I didn't associate much with my neighbours, he got upset and told me to leave and come back the next day. When I asked why I had to come back his reply was, "To can keep an eye on you." His smart remark made me mad so I asked, "Why don't you give me a bed next to yours so that way you can keep an eye on me all the time, even when I am asleep?" He became furious and told me off. He then changed his mind and told me to see him once a week on Sundays.
The next Sunday he again asked me, "What is happening in your village?" Again I gave him the same answer. This time he told me to get lost and never come back, which suited me fine. I think he was trying to make me into a collaborator to spy on my neighbours.
A little while later, the police again summoned me to Zhelevo. This time they gave me a letter with instructions to report to the military authorities in Maniuk, Kostur. After I arrived there and showed them the letter, they told me to go back home. They said there was no need for me to be there, as they hadn't asked for me. I didn't even care to speculate about what games the police were playing with me.
A couple of years later, the plain-clothes police again summoned me to Zhelevo. This time they confiscated my travel pass. They also informed me that until further notice, I was under house arrest and confined to the borders of Oshchima. No reason was given except that I now needed permission from the chief of police to travel.
One day I got sick and needed medical attention so I went to Zhelevo and paid a visit to the police chief. The chief got furious about my leave without permission. I explained my situation that I needed to see a doctor and the closest one was in Lerin. He refused to give me a pass and made all sorts of excuses about how I could escape if he was not careful. I told him again that I was sick and needed to see a doctor. He said he needed to see a doctor's report first, to prove that I was really sick, before he could issue me a travel pass. So I asked, how was I to do that when there is no doctor in the vicinity? He said that was my problem and not his. I asked again, what am I supposed to do now, die? He said yes! Die! That will solve both our problems. I did see a doctor but without permission. A truck driver helped me out.
Another time I was going back to Oshchima from shopping in Zhelevo when suddenly a jeep screeched to a halt. It was the plain-clothes policeman. He jumped out of the jeep and started yelling at me in front of another man sitting in the jeep. "How dare you leave Oshchima without my permission?" he exclaimed. My temper was rising and I had had enough of this man so I yelled back at him. In front of his companion I said, "If you think I am so dangerous then why don't you arrest me right now, and put me away for good?" Without a word, he stormed back to his jeep and left. Two years passed before I got my travel rights back.
I left Greece in 1965 and immigrated to Canada. I went back to visit family in the Republic of Macedonia in 1975 and decided to visit Oshchima one more time. I found my house all locked up. When I inquired, I found out a Vlah family was using it, as a barn to store winter-feed for the sheep. The new owner told me the Greek Government gave him the house and he refused to let me in. I pleaded with the man and told him I just wanted to see it one more time. My father had built this house, I was born and raised here, also my children were born and raised here. Still he refused to let me in.
I got upset and complained to the authorities in Lerin who couldn't help me either. They said, if I wanted a house they would be glad to give me one down south in Greece proper. When I showed dissatisfaction, they told me if I didn't like their answers I could sue the Greek Government. From there I went to see a lawyer who firmly advised me to drop it before I ended up in jail. He said, "You know they are perfectly capable of sending you to jail and they will do it if you don't stop right now." I was still upset and after returning to the Republic of Macedonia I made a point of seeing the newspaper editor of Nova Makedonija. I asked him to write a story about my ordeal but he too refused me. The editor told me he wanted to, personally, but his country couldn't risk upsetting relations with Greece.