Whenever I monitor birds on the lower hills I pass what is left of the village. I stay with a path that dips into a bowl of grassy slopes, edged with the echoes of homes. The ruins are thinly scattered, a rumour of earlier lives. The stone walls that once enclosed gardens and dining rooms run like flat silver streams branching into myriad tributaries. In place of wild trees there are domesticated varieties, now wild and ungovernable themselves: plum, apple and pear. The village church, a great bulk of honey-coloured stone in evening’s slanted light, is the only building worth the description. Nothing else holds a shape, nothing else fills its intended form. But even the church has been sheered off along its walls, so that it’s become a nursery for trees, a wild and elaborate enclosure.
On the last weekend of August I worked from a whale-backed hill that rose softly from the rim of the ruins. As usual only birds and summer’s drowsy silence encircled me. So when I soon heard voices drifting across the parched and weary hills I searched with great interest for their source. I found four men sat in the shade of a tree, unexpectedly dressed in their casual best. A trio of women hoved into view, the last in the line armed with a black umbrella as a shield against the sun. Other figures soon emerged along the path I had walked, a ribbon of different ages carrying the tools of the day, video cameras and mobile phones. A man led the unlikely congregation, throwing his arms to the left and right of him as he spoke, emphasising this or that in the landscape, or so I assumed – I watched the procession through a telescope from a few slopes away. But when a Greek police jeep crawled into view along the road, stopping to observe as well, I had a feeling these people had once belonged here. Everywhere, in the most unexpected moments, there are stories.
I met one of the men as I wove down the slope. He looked up from the ground and greeted me in Slavic. When I replied in Greek he slowly answered with the same. “I was born here,” he said, sweeping an arm towards a few scattered stones. “This was our house. I was five years old when we left in 1948.”
The end of a terrible decade, made worse in Greece by a Civil War that followed straight on from the other. As Hitler’s armies fell away, the two Greek resistance movements that had so valiantly opposed him returned to their ideological roots, seeking control of the country’s direction in the absence of a defining leadership. The pro-royalists, backed by the American and British governments, sought to restore the monarchy through the return of the exiled King of Greece while the Communist partisans believed the country’s secular future was to be found in the establishment of a leftist state.
The Greek Civil War cost around 158,000 lives, though immeasurable others were swept from their lands and villages, divided from their families, left homeless and bereft. The traumas still linger close to the surface of Greek society. By the end of the vicious, communal conflict, the pro-royalists had gained the advantage through the enormous support of external states, and some of the war’s final battles were waged around the Prespa basin as soldiers and civilians funnelled north in the hope of fleeing the country from the bombardment and shelling.
Ritso now lives in Skopje, the capital of the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia. “The war destroyed the village. My mother and father took our family out through Albania when I was five.” He pointed to a haze-shrouded ripple of hills. “After that we lived in Czechoslovakia, and then in Tashkent for a while. It was Soviet back then, of course. But the whole village burned, from the napalm.”
Along with aircraft and financial support, the American and British governments – determined not to allow Communist control of Greece, and therefore critical access to the Mediterranean – also gave the Royal Hellenic Airforce napalm to be used against the partisan guerrillas fighting from the mountains of the north. Some of the forested slopes that were napalmed and razed by fire in the 1940s have never recovered, and neither have the villages.
“There were about six or seven hundred people living here,” said Ritso.
“But where are all the stones from the houses?”
“They were taken for building houses in Greek towns.”
Ritso filled in a map from memory, possibly his own from the age of five, but more likely that of his parents. A map re-inscribed over time, lent depth and detail through stories voiced in exile. He showed me how the houses in his neighbourhood stood close up to the next, where the lane passed between them, how the village fields rose up the slopes.
“And this was the cemetery.”
“Where?” I asked, looking helplessly around.
“Right here.” An empty flat of grassy earth spread away from us, where a few stunted trees had staked a tenacious claim.
“But what happened to the graves?”
“Most of them were destroyed because they had Slavic names on them. Many people in our village supported the Communists. They only left the church alone because we’re both Orthodox people.”
Emerging from over half a millennium of Ottoman control, the many nascent countries of the Balkans emphasised nationalism, along with cultural and linguistic homogeneity, as the foundation for a new state. In the wake of this limiting idea countless acts of violence and abuse were committed on all sides. And some of them still are; in place of plurality the modern fragmentation of the region into smaller and more easily defined states testifies to the endurance of the idea.
“While the Greeks were fighting the Turks so were we. During the Ilinden Uprising in 1903 a committee of men from this village met in a cave just up there to organise resistance.” Ritso pointed to the limestone hills where I often work. “Somehow the Turks found out and sealed the cave with stones while they were still inside. They killed them alive.” Everywhere, in every stone and hollow, in every stretch of empty grass, there are stories.
“We always come on the last weekend of August.”
“It’s the village saint’s day.”
“Which saint is it?” I asked Ritso.
Ritso couldn’t remember the name in Greek and I couldn’t think of any major saint’s days that fell at the end of August.
“The mother of Christ,” he suddenly said.
“Mary?” I found myself saying in English.
For a moment I was confused. The Feast of the Assumption of the Virgin Mary is one of the most celebrated days in the Greek calendar, falling on the 15th of August. But then I remembered that some countries of the Eastern Orthodox Church still follow the Julian calendar so that Christmas falls on the 7th of January. In this case the devastated village was being honoured a full thirteen days after all the other villages in Greece which shared the Virgin Mary as their saint, further isolating its identity. It stands noticeably apart from the others.
Finally Ritso asked me what I was doing among the ruins of the village, and I told him that I was surveying the birds of the area.
“Make sure you tell them there are people here, as well as birds,” he said. But even then, as we clasped hands outside his house of fallen stone, I knew that by the following day only echoes of their presence would linger. A spray of dying flowers by a grave; footfalls in the dust; a dropped wrapper or rind.
The police jeep had moved on by the time I’d finished my shift and I walked out past the few remaining graves and then along the road. Looking down into the bowl of village ruins I saw the entire group that had travelled on this Orthodox saint’s day – those who’d come by chartered bus as well as car – gathered in the long shadows of shimmering poplars, picnicking beside what was left of a home.
This is the second in a trio of tales from around the lakes, loosely concerned with the nature of borders. Many thanks to Cait at the wonderful Farmhouse Stories for penning the elegant phrase, “explorations along the intersection of three countries,” which has inspired me to place these pieces together. In the next post we’ll travel from Greece to a village in Albania where a few committed individuals and organisations are working at bridging the many differences that so often accompany borders. Until then, happy wanderings…