“Death commands respect,” Ismail Kadare, “The General of the Dead Army.’
When the sun rose that day, it could not be seen. All was hidden in the stultifying greyness that try as it might, could not hide the bulk of the mountain looming ominously, as it has done for eternity, over the small stone village perched precariously at its roots. Winter was only a month away and already, winds more irritated than enraged, were descending from the peaks and entering through the cracks in the window frames and the doors, whining and scolding complaints and laments that have been passed down the generations since the door of time.
The old woman, grey as the stones around here and ever so more weathered, was tying her headscarf. Unlike her sisters across the border, while she wore black, her headscarf was a brilliant white and she wrapped it over the thinning remains of her plait over and around her temples over and over again fashioning a strange square top-knot. Turning towards the creased cardboard icon next to the window, she began to cross herself. There was a knock at the door. Turning to me, shivering at the fireplace, she whispered: «Άιντε μάνα᾽μ, ετοιμάσου.»
The wooden door creaked open and a man of indeterminate age entered. In his calloused hands, he bore a clarinet with remarkable gentleness and extreme reverence, as if he was cradling his first-born son in his arms. Together, we walked down the cobblestoned path, past the road towards the fields. Once, not so long ago, these fields were closely planted with crops, watered by the great river solemnly slinking over the rocks in parallel with the road and fed by the blood and bone of those who suffered to till them. Now, the young people had gone in droves, seeking a better life in the south and the fields lay fallow and grey, a chthonic reflection of the cloud piercing mountains above them.
There was nothing to mark the spot in the middle of the field, as particularly significant: no monument, statue, or other structure to proclaim its importance. Instead, a mound of stones and a rudimentary cross, fashioned from the river reeds and tied with string. The man was gazing at the cross silently, smoking a cigarette in one hand, never letting go of the clarinet in the other. Upon finishing his cigarette, he turned to the cross and raising the clarinet to his lips, emitted a heart-rendering dirge. Its modulations appeared to emanate from under the ground, resonating among the river reeds, only to use the clarinet as a mere amplifier. As a solitary tear descended down the man’s left cheek, the old woman, pushing back her headscarf and clawing at her cheeks began to wail:
«Για σή- μωρέ για σήκω καπετάνιε μου.
Άιντε καημένε καπετάνιε και κάτσε παραπάνω.
Με τι μωρέ με τι ποδάρια να σκωθώ;
Άιντε καημένε καπετάνιε και χέρια ν᾽ακουμπήσω;
Εχώ μωρέ εχώ το γόνα τρίμματα,
Άιντε καημένε καπετάνιε, τον πλάτη τσάκισμενο.
Εχώ μωρέ εχώ, δυο-τρεις λαβωματιές,
Άιντε καημένε κάπετανιε, τρία μαυρά μολύβια.»
(Rise my captain, rise my poor captain and sit up. With what feet can I rise, with what hands can I support myself?My knee is in shreds, my back broken.I have two or three wounds, three black bullets.”
Only in Epirus, where in ancient times existed the entrance of Hades do its grey inhabitants, neither dead nor alive, presume to transcend the divide between the living and the dead and call upon the dead to rise from their graves. Again, only they have the temerity to presume to answer for those dead and explain why such a course of action is impossible.
“They were young boys, a little younger than you, when they came to Vouliarati” said the old woman, her lament over, becoming possessed with a startling loquacity. “We hung Greek flags from our windows and ran out to meet them and shower them with flowers. All of us believed that this time, they were here to stay, that our subjugation was over, and that from that moment on, we would be free.” Wiping her eyes, she continued: “Whenever we would find them, we would bring them here and bury them. All the boys that we had brought food and clothing to. Asimakis was the first. Giorgos, who was called Gakis next, then Nako. For the next fifteen minutes, she recited a list of first names and surnames that she and many other women of Northern Epirus had been reciting to themselves every night since 1940.
“Yes I remember them all, even the villages they came from. Names just like ours. Boys, just like ours who never came back. They were not here to stay. After a few months, the whole army left and we were left alone, to endure ‘them.’ For the first few years we would hold memorial services properly, with a priest like Christians. Whenever we would find a corpse or some bones in the fields, the mountains or the ravines, we would try to bring it here to be with its brothers. Then when Enver came, [here she spat on the ground], may his bones be consigned to the eternal flame, he got rid of all the priests. He said that we were celebrating the forces of fascism and reaction and we were forbidden to bury any more bodies or pray over them. All the crosses were uprooted but we never forgot where we buried them and when we worked in the fields we would whisper the prayers and recite the names of those we knew so that they would not remain unforgiven. We will never forget our boys. They fought for our freedom and when we remained enslaved, they stayed with us. God forgive them and us too.”
In a bend of the road a short distance from the approach to Vouliarati, I had already seen the remains of one of “our boys,” from the car. At a newly excavated shoulder, a human femur reflected the muted light. “There are an estimated 8,000 Greek soldiers unaccounted for,” the driver told me. “Whenever they dig around here, they always find Greek bones. Used to drive the communists mad.”
In the sixties, Enver Hoxha, the leader of one of the most autocratic and xenophobic regimes in history, permitted the Italians, who had annexed and colonized Albania, to locate and bury those of their soldiers who had perished in the mountains of Northern Epirus, paying with their lives for their leader’s decision to invade Greece on 28 October 1940. No such dignity or respect was offered to the Greek slain. A Greek invasion that never came was expected daily between 1945 to 1991 and the entire native Greek population of Northern Epirus was considered and treated as ethnically and ideologically dangerous. As a mad King Creon, he decreed that Antigone-like, the corpses of the Greek soldiers would lie, unhonoured, uncommemorated, unburied and hopefully forgotten.
Despite this, the Greeks of Northern Epirus, those whose hopes for their own freedom were pegged upon the backs of and shared the same fate as the slain soldiers of 1940, did not forget. Defying the edicts of the mad dynast, and under pain of death or torture, they secretly maintained and passed on knowledge of the whereabouts of the dead, their names and deeds, surreptitiously performing religious rites that were strictly prohibited. For, as is the case for the rest of the Greeks, 28 October 1940 was a triumph and a miracle, proving how a small but valorous people can best an unjust aggressor. Unlike the rest of the Greeks however, the occupation of their lands never ended, one occupier being exchanged for another, ever more brutal and the bones of the fallen Greek soldiers became, in the long decades of their painful solitude, their companions in suffering and dreams cherished but long betrayed.
The old lady who chanted the dirge that cold 28th of October no longer chants for she has gone to join those she tended so faithfully, and the dead she lamented now lie in a proper dedicated cemetery. Every year, Greek dignitaries, on the anniversary of OXI, Greek dignitaries visit and make effusive speeches about valour, courage and pride. And when all the mummery is done and the empty words dissipate in the ether, a solitary man raises his clarinet to his lips and calls upon the dead to rise once more…
First published in NKEE on 31 October 2015