THEY were sent into exile and scattered to every corner of the world. For more than half a century the Macedonian Diaspora cast out of Greece during the country’s bloody civil war have been barred from returning to their homeland.
Now the army of elderly refugees has been granted a temporary homecoming, if not the return of the money and property seized during the savage conflict that pitted them against their fellow countrymen.
Greece is finally facing up to its history of ‘ethnic cleansing’ and beginning the process of extending full rights to its minorities, who faced decades of persecution and discrimination under successive oppressive regimes and right-wing dictatorships.
The move comes as the pro-European government of Prime Minister Costas Simitis pushes Greece gingerly toward a more diverse, tolerant, and some might say European and democratic society. Nevertheless, it will be a hard task to shake off the pervasive belief in the ethnic ‘purity’ of ‘true Greeks’.
Even the return of the Macedonian community is temporary. The concession, announced by the Greek deputy foreign minister Andreas Loverdos in July, only allows them to enter Greece between August 10 and October 30 and limits their stay to a maximum of 20 days.
For many the homecoming itself is a slap in the face. Macedonian political activists were refused at the border and there were rumours of a blacklist. Those whose passports contained the old Macedonian-language names of their villages were turned away and told to get new passports listing the new Greek names.
Only 300 of the 100,000 Macedonians banished from Greece have returned. One hundred and fifty were turned away and many more cancelled their travel plans when they heard about the border problems.
For those Macedonians who have managed to cross the border in recent weeks, there have been emotional reunions with family members, and visits to villages and former homes. For others, however, there has been only heartache. Former residents of the ethnic Macedonian village formerly known as D’mbeni discovered the Greek army had not only changed the name, but bulldozed all the buildings, including the graveyard, where their relatives and ancestors were buried.
During the Nazi occupation of Greece, more than 10,000 Macedonians, who were Greek citizens, became resistance fighters in the communist-controlled National Popular Liberation Army (ELAS). Following liberation, they found themselves embroiled in a civil war against the pro-royalist Greek Democratic National Army (EDES). In 1949 ELAS finally surrendered, bringing the war, which had lasted nearly five years, to an end.
Greece’s collective memory of the civil war remains keen; strong enough that this army of elderly immigrants is still considered a threat to the security of the Greek Republic. The returning Macedonians have also made Greece aware of another uncomfortable reality: not all Greeks speak Greek and are Greek Orthodox Christian.
Panayote Dimitras, spokesman for the Greek branch of Helsinki Monitor, a human rights group, said: "Greek society has been educated to believe that if you are not Greek-speaking and a Greek Orthodox Christian then you are not a good Greek or a real Greek. They have nothing to fear from these people. They might have come and said strong words against Greece. So what? We are a strong democracy. It was about time for these people to return."
Pavlos Voskopulos, of the Rainbow political party of ethnic Macedonians in Greece, adds: "Anyone expressing a different ethnic, national or linguistic identity is often stigmatised in the public and in the media. They are accused of being anti-Greek."
According to the US State Department’s 2002 Human Rights report on Greece: "Laws restrictive of freedom of speech remained in force, and some legal restrictions and administrative obstacles on freedom of religion persisted..."
According to researchers, minorities in Greece number between 5% and 10% of the population, or between 500,000 and one million people. These include not only ethnic Macedonians, but Gypsies, Turks, Romanian-speaking Vlachs, indigenous Albanians, and Pomaks: Muslims with Koranic names and traditions, who speak an archaic dialect of Bulgarian.
Officially, however, only a ‘Muslim minority’ is recognised, created by the 1923 Treaty of Lausanne which ended war with Turkey. Because it makes no distinction between Turkish, Gypsy and Pomak Muslims, the Greek state has been able to manipulate the Muslims’ identities according to country’s political interest.
The restrictions on Pomaks’ movement, for example, continued until 1995. The Simitis government finally struck down Article 19 of the constitution in 1998, which allowed the state to revoke the citizenship of "non-ethnic Greeks" who travelled abroad without permission.
But there are still laws on the books which prevent Pomaks from living outside their traditional villages, although they are not enforced.
Voskopulos, of the Rainbow party, said: "We are talking about a united Europe, a European identity. Everyone knows how important it is to respect diversity. Today to discriminate against people at such a broad level is completely unacceptable."
SCARS OF CIVIL WAR
THE Greek Civil War, which broke out in 1946, was fought between British and American-backed government forces and communist guerrillas.
The two main forces that had resisted the Nazi occupation - the communist-controlled National Liberation Front-National Popular Liberation Army (EAM-ELAS) and the Greek Democratic National Army (EDES) - came into conflict after EAM-ELAS set up a provisional government that rejected the Greek king Constantine (right) and his government-in-exile.
Ethnic Slav-speaking Macedonians, related to kin in socialist Yugoslavia to the north, fought for autonomy and aligned with the leftist insurgents. To deny the communists local support, more than 700,000 villagers were forcibly evacuated from mountains and dumped into miserable camps near towns.
In total, around 3,000 government executions were recorded during the conflict.
By the time the civil war ended in 1949, with the surrender of the communist guerrillas, some 100,000 people were dead and one million displaced.
Ethnic Macedonians were singled out for reprisals because of their support for the leftists. About 60,000 Macedonians fled, including 28,000 children, across the border to Yugoslavia, the Republic of Macedonia and the new People’s Republic of Bulgaria. Others went as far as Australia, Canada and the US. A 1982 law allowed war refugees to return to Greece, but only the ethnic Greeks.