Tragedy befalls Northern Epirus, all for speaking Greek
Imagine gentle reader if you would, that our winter of discontent is turned glorious summer and that you are sunning yourself on a typical Melburnian beach - say Brighton, accompanied by your two sisters. (If you don't already have two sisters, here are two that our imagination prepared for you earlier.) As you lazily turn over to permit the Australian sun to fry an egg on your back, you turn to your sister and ask in Greek: "Pass me the sunscreen, will you."
Almost immediately, two burly brutes who have beached themselves on towels next to you and who have hitherto remained unnoticed stand up and towering over you, demand: "What did you say? How dare you speak Greek. If you want to speak Greek, go to Greece and sun yourself on the beaches here. This is Australia. NEVER speak Greek here ever again."
In a fit of pique, you exclaim as indignantly and ungrammatically as possible: "Get stuffed. I'll speak whatever language I want." Whereupon your two burly interlocutors, joined imperceptibly by another two, apprehend you by the armpits and unceremoniously drag you towards the sea. Upon reaching the briny, they hold your head under the water with the full intent of drowning you. You throat fills with water, your heart begins to pound at the sides of your rib-cage and seconds before you lose consciousness, you are dragged from the water and your imminent faith by some concerned passers-by who cannot believe the crime that is unfolding before their eyes.
Truly this is a scenario that could plausibly only erupt from the impassioned union of a surfy Australian soap opera and Greek Australian pretensions to television drama. For in this country, such overt displays of racism are, thankfully, few and far between. In Albania, and in particular along the coastline of Cheimarra to Agioi Saranta, where the above drama unfolded, such occurrences are commonplace.
Cheimarra in Greek mythology, a collection of seven villages straddling the space between the Acroceraunian mountains and the pristine, jewel-like Ionian coast, was said to be one of the entrances to the underworld. The Cheimarriotes, a hardy, war-like people, were granted autonomy throughout Turkish rule and fought for the union of Northern Epirus with Greece during the Balkan Wars, only to see their homeland incorporated within the Albanian state. Because of this, and because unlike other Greek regions of Northern Epirus, they refused to collaborate with the communists during the Second World War, the Stalinist regime of Enver Hoxha refused to include the region within the arbitrarily appointed 'minority zone' where Greek could freely be spoken. According to the Albanians, no Greeks lived in Cheimarra and therefore speaking Greek or reading Greek was outlawed.
Appreciate then the surprise of Albanian citizens, imbued with decades of nationalist propaganda, learning after the fall of communism that not only does this "Albanian" region consistently return Greeks to parliament and councils in state and local elections, but that 85 per cent of the local population identifies itself as Greek.
While some try to explain away this disturbing phenomenon by positing that the Cheimarriotes are deluded Albanians who have fallen victim to Greek propaganda (if so, they are the only ones in history to do so,) others resort to more insidious means. I remember stopping in the village square of dusty Shen Vasil (Άγιος Βασίλειος), a once Greek village that is now purely Albanian, to buy some water. On the wall of the square in large Greek handwriting, a sign proclaimed: ΘΑΝΑΤΟΣ ΣΤΟΥΣ ΕΛΛΝΗΕΣ. It is only when one reaches the outskirts of Cheimarra and sees such graffiti as: Θέλωμε Ελληνικά Σχολεία, that one begins to shake off the uneasy feeling that comes with traversing ethnic fault lines.
Some Albanians from Kosovo, who come down to the coast from their landlocked region and unexpectedly come across such manifestations of Greek identity as the displaying of Greek flags or use of the Greek language by locals feel particularly aggrieved and on occasion, moved to violence to re-establish Albanian hegemony over the region as they see it. In 2010, ethno-martyr Aristotelis Goumas was dragged out of his shop in Cheimarra by Albanians who took him to task for speaking Greek on his premises. They ran over him repeatedly with their motor vehicle and killed him. Though arrests were made, no conviction was recorded against the perpetrators. This event was largely ignored by the Greeks of Greece and by the Greeks of the Antipodes. And rightly so. After all, since we have all embraced monolingualism with such fervour, why should we care if certain people, who have been denied the use of their mother tongue for forty years, are now prepared to die for the privilege of speaking it? If anything, their insistence on preserving their language in the face of torture, exile and prison shows up our paltry efforts, wherein most of the latter generations cannot manage even the most basic of conversations in Greek, as all the more ineffectual.
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