Kosmas, an ageing migrant, remembers his war time experience


Instead of a Prologue

From the earth to the fire

All your journeys

Your dreams green

Your sorrow yearning

So that in your hands may blossom the debris

And that you may accept the curse as a blessing.

(Archbishop Stylianos)

In modern times, success stories have often dominated the Greek migrant narrative. The above poem by our Archbishop Stylianos adds a new dimension by using the Orthodox synthesis of opposites; Christ’s cross (a symbol of denigration) becomes the symbol of life and hope. The narratives we will reveal in this series of Lychnos aim to retell our parents’ and grandparents’ migrant memories. Not all were glorious or heroic, but deserve to be told through the lens imbued by our Archbishop’s positive vision. Having seen life turned upside down, these migrants allowed the debris of a difficult past to shape their new life, and to leave us a rich heritage that reflects their living faith.

After the war on the Albanian front all I wanted was to be at home. It was the winter of 1941. I was part of the Greek army and had fought in the anti- aircraft division against the Italian forces that were part of Hitler’s Axis troops. We had tried very hard to defend our border. The civilians had also helped us by confusing the enemy. Italians would get our civilians to show them directions yet the peasants were cunning and would lead them on false paths. It really was a combined effort, the army and the civilians all contributed to Greece’s defence. We had begun in good spirits. It was embedded in our psyche, to be proud to protect Greek soil. We even had young women sending us warm knitted socks and letters full of admiration and encouragement. It was a national struggle.

As the battle drew out many of us felt that we didn’t want to fight these Italians any more than the Italian soldiers wanted to fight us. They were just following orders, but their heart was not in it. We had all come to see the ugliness and the reality of war. The cold, the winter, the hunger and the misery quickly dampened all our spirits. Our assignment was over after many months. It was pointless to continue our defence at Albanian border as Germany had come to Italy’s aid, and Greece was now under occupation. As we retreated down the Albanian mountains near northern Epirus, the sound of guns was still in my ear. All I could hear were ugly shouts, bombs exploding and the cries of dying men.

The previous day my commander had ordered me to shoot. He had been right behind me. “Shoot those men!” I felt him staring at me from behind. I was stuck. If I didn’t obey orders I’d be shot. But you know you always have a choice. No one can make you do what you don’t want to do. I don’t know how I did it but I managed to fake. I made out as though I was aiming to shoot but then I tripped and misfired. Why I thought, these Italians they order us to shoot, they don’t want to be here anymore than we do. I couldn’t shoot them, especially as they were in such a vulnerable position. I was never really good at taking orders that didn’t make any sense. Even when I was hunting I couldn’t shoot animals that couldn’t defend themselves, or have a chance to escape. Those in charge liked the power. I had no taste for such power freaks.

Source: Lychnos April / May 2017