The 28 of February 1914 was 100 years ago. It is a date that falls within the last gasp of the ‘Belle Epoque’, which is as historically remote to us today, as was the Battle of Waterloo to the people of the time. More significantly, it was a time of hope for Balkan nationalities, where borders were fluid and irredentist aspirations were rife. Identities were being formed and destroyed and the technological advancements of the age infused all with a sense of excitement for the ‘modern era’ and the ‘new improved’ human, who having harnessed nature, would tread upon a path leading to a golden age of rationality and modernity.
The 28 of February 1914 also marks the declaration of the autonomous state of Northern Epirus. This declaration came about because the Works Powers, not being able to work out exactly how to divide up the region between themselves, decided to award it to Albania, without regard for the wishes of its population, and with no safeguards as to its laws and customs. As Giorgos Christakis-Zografos, the president of Autonomous Northern Epirus stated: “Under these conditions and in the absence of a solution that would suffice to safeguard Epirus, a solution it would have been otherwise easy to discover, the Epirote populace is forced to declare to the Powers that it cannot submit to their decision. It will declare its independence and will struggle for its existence, its traditions and its right.”
This plucky declaration was met with analogous enthusiasm by the Greek-speaking world. It was seen by the Greeks of Greece as yet another step towards the realisation of the Megali Idea – ensuring that all lands once ruled by Greeks are incorporated into one entity. For the Northern Epirotes, as well as sharing this ideal, it guaranteed the prospects of the area crawling out of the Ottoman yoke and into the twenty-first century. The ambitious social welfare program of the newly formed state, including free schooling and health care, also looked forward to the era of the ‘new’ human. The new state was to have freedom of expression in all languages, a gendarmerie and Greek speaking legal system, as well as a progressive system of local governance.
Unfortunately for the aspirants for local independence, the advent of the First World War and the subsequent occupation of parts of Northern Epirus by French and Italian troops ensued the ephemeral quality of the autonomous state. The treaty of Florence in 1918 returned the region to Albania and thereafter, the Albanian authorities began a targeted program against Greek cultural and religious expression in the region, culminating in the landmark 1935 World Court case, where Albania was ordered to re-open the Greek language schools it had closed down.
During the communist era, Greeks were seen as suspect owing to their cultural affiliations, and thousands were incarcerated in brutal work camps. Greeks also played an inadvertent role in prising Albania away from a dependence on the USSR, this taking place when Khrushchev suggested to Albanian leader Enver Hoxha that he should re-establish the Greek autonomous region in Northern Epirus.
Today, if one surveys the mouldering concrete bunkers strewn throughout Northern Epirus as well as the crumbling, faceless Eastern Bloc architecture of the government buildings and the rusted tank and tractor parts abandoned on the side of the road, it can be seen that the pipe-dream of 100 years ago has been shattered on the rock of totalitarianism, nationalism and despondency.
Few groups now advocate autonomy for this shattered region. For one, the ethnic composition has changed. Most Northern Epirotes have abandoned their homes and fled south in droves, while others, because they found it expedient to do so career-wise or because they were forcibly dislocated during the Communist era to the north, have become assimilated. It is no longer correct to speak just of Northern Epirotes in Northern Epirus, when they are diffused over the length and breadth of Albania. In 1914, the Northern Epirot city of Korytsa played a leading role in the struggle for autonomy. Today, the majority of its inhabitants, while Orthodox Christians, have Vlach or Albanian as their mother tongue. Of the Vlachs, a disquieting minority identifies with Romania. Even so, Korytsa is the only Albanian city that freely flies a Greek flag in its city centre. This is due to the stalwart efforts of the non-Greek speaking but patriotic Vlachs.
Traditional ways of life have also changed. The paranoid, totalitarian collectivised regime of Enver Hoxha, which did not allow people to move from their villages or even speak to others without being spied on, squeezed out initiative, the love of beauty and the progressiveness which Greeks of 1914 found so appealing in Northern Epirotes. Now the prevailing mood is one of immense fatigue and residuary paranoia. Everyone is tired, including the Albanians of the region, who are sick of being told they should be wary of a threat from the South, the illusion of which has kept them afraid for one hundred years and has never materialised. Northern Epirotes are also tired, of being afraid, of being persecuted but also of being ignored by their compatriots for so many decades as they suffered in silence.
Life is unbearably hard in Northern Epirus. Provision of basic services is intermittent and in winter, sometimes impossible. Those who remain behind eke out a living slowly and painfully, as if they were drops of water, eating away at the living rock. Meantime, the Albanian government is bent upon a course of denial when it comes to the Greek community of Cheimarra, a region comprised of seven villages sprawled upon one of the most captivating and investment-inviting coastlines of the world. The Albanian government refuses to accept that the inhabitants of that region are Greek, just as they refuse to return land illegally confiscated to its lawful Greek inhabitants.
In Athens, in Melbourne and wherever there are Northern Epirotes in the world, the century since the declaration of the autonomy of Northern Epirus has been commemorated. Impassioned speeches have been made, exalting the brave fighters who selflessly lost their lives, and curses hurled at those who allowed this region to suffer so much, or as the ultranationalists say, ‘slip through our fingers’. These clichéd speeches, orated by people who have absolutely no idea about the current situation and view history as a set of lines and maps on a page rather than the collective and needless sufferings of a wretched people, usually end with the vow that one day, autonomy will return. Conversely, those Greeks who inexplicably sympathise with the collapsed regime, deprecate those who remember Northern Epirus, identifying in the place of historic commemoration, intolerance and jingoism.
All this may be fine and dandy, the event and the region being far removed from our daily lives. Yet one hundred years on, the grandiose promise of autonomy, the hypocritical assurance of Greek politicians who have divided the political leadership of the Northern Epirotes and enmeshed them in internecine conflict, that they have their best interests at heart, and the deprecation of the last of the hardcore ideologues, who cannot accept that the regime that was to be about paradise actually proved inimical to the existence of the Greek people in Northern Epirus, is of little consequence to the Cheimarriot whose child is not allowed to consider itself Greek. Nor will it make a difference to the migrant from Dervitsiani, who returns home and builds himself a modern concrete monstrosity in the middle of his beautiful traditional village.
The romanticisation of nationalism and a lack of respect for human dignity led to the Kosovo debacle just over the border. It is well that all Greeks remember the historical day of the autonomy as an important event in our history, signifying what might have been. Let them also know, however, that to the Northern Epirote, whose very existence was denied by many Greek Australians ten years ago, and whose suffering is still denied by just as many, cares not a fig for politics or autonomy. All he wants is to live and die as he has always done, in silence but without suffering.
*Dean Kalimniou is a Melbourne solicitor and freelance journalist.