Macedonian Human Rights Movement International
Tense Greek homecoming - Macedonians: Refugees from an unacknowledged minority visit their villages after 50 years

By Matthew Brunwasser

THESSALONIKI, Greece - For the first time since the Greek Civil War ended more than 50 years ago, ethnic Macedonian refugees have been allowed back to their former homes and villages in Greece.

From Aug. 10 until this week, the refugees have been allowed to visit for 20 days. But the attempt at righting the wrongs of the past, while improving relations with the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, as Greece calls its northern neighbor, has not gone smoothly.

Many of the would-be homecomers were turned back at the border. Macedonian activists were refused entry, and many groups accused the border authorities of having a political blacklist. Those whose passports contained the old Macedonian-language names of their villages said they were turned away, told they would have to get new passports listing the new Greek names.

About 300 entered, according to the Greek Foreign Ministry; at least 150 were turned away. But many more heard about the border problems and canceled their travel plans.

"They have nothing to fear from these people. They might have come and said strong words against Greece. So what?" says Panayote Dimitras, spokesman for the Greek Helsinki Monitor, a human rights group. "We are a strong democracy. It was about time for these people to return."

For those who made it, there were emotional reunions with relatives, visits to villages and former homes. Some took rocks as souvenirs from abandoned houses. Others found their past obliterated. Former residents of the ethnic Macedonian village once known as D'mbeni had found that the Greek army not only had changed the name but had bulldozed all the buildings and the graveyard.

The gestures toward the refugees and the Republic of Macedonia come as the solidly pro-European government of Prime Minister Costas Simitis pushes Greece gingerly toward a more diverse, tolerant and, some might say, European and democratic society.

The bloody Greek Civil War, from 1946 to 1949, was only one of the violent episodes to convulse the Greek Republic in the modern era. The first "proxy" battle of the Cold War saw the U.S. support rightist monarchists in their mountain campaign against 30,000 communist guerrillas. Ethnic Slav-speaking Macedonians, related to other Macedonians in socialist Yugoslavia to the north, wanted autonomy and fought on the side of the leftist insurgents.

To deny the guerrillas support, more than 700,000 people were forcibly evacuated from mountain villages and dumped into miserable camps near towns during the civil war.

Brother killed brother on both sides; 3,000 government executions were recorded. When it was over, 100,000 were dead, 1 million were displaced and the country was in shambles.

Ethnic Macedonians were singled out for reprisals because of their support for the leftists. About 60,000 Macedonians fled, 28,000 of them children. They went north across the border into Yugoslavia and the new People's Republic of Bulgaria. Others went as far as Australia, Canada and the United States. An 1982 Greek law allowed return to Greece for war refugees, but only ethnic Greeks, not Slavs.

When Yugoslavia crumbled in 1991, the constituent Republic of Macedonia declared independence, and Greece vociferously objected to its use of that name. The name belonged to its northern province, Greece insisted, and to its own beginnings as a nation.

It also feared that the impoverished nation of 2.3 million Macedonians might still have designs on Greek territory - to "reunite Macedonia" and realize the dream of the Macedonian guerrillas who fought the Greek Civil War all those years ago.

It took diplomats from afar to work out an agreement on the name - thus the unwieldy Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia.

Officially, Greece has no ethnic or linguistic minority citizens, even though researchers say minorities in Greece account for 5 percent to 10 percent of the population, from 500,000 to 1 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.

The only minority recognized by Greece is the "Muslim minority" created by the 1923 Treaty of Lausanne that ended a war with Turkey. It defined exemptions from the population transfers of the time, to allow some Turks to stay in Greece and some Greeks to stay in Turkey. The Greek state makes no distinction among Turkish, Gypsy and Pomak Muslims.

"The national line is that there are no minorities in Greece, that we are all Greeks," says Pavlos Voskopulos, a member of the secretariat of the Rainbow political party of ethnic Macedonians in Greece.

"Anyone expressing a different ethnic, national or linguistic identity is often stigmatized in the public and in the media. They are accused of being anti-Greek."

Greece's collective memory of the civil war remains keen enough that this army of elderly visitors seems threatening.

Greece's policies were forged when the country faced security threats and political instability while incorporating the northern regions into the country. Thrace, where most of Greece's Muslims live, was not incorporated into Greece until 1923, and the southern part of Macedonia didn't become part of Greece until 1913.

The region that Macedonian refugees are crossing into today bears little resemblance to the one they left generations ago. Most of the remaining Macedonians have been assimilated. While they might speak Macedonian as a first or second language, most identify themselves as Greeks first.

The Rainbow political party in Florina, in northern Greece, says it advocates a gradual approach to broaden a Greek society that it accuses of discriminating against minorities. It does not seek separate institutions, such as Macedonian-language schools. But by trying to encourage respect for diversity, it finds itself in the center of controversy and conflict.

"The doctrine is that modern Greeks are the children of the so-called ancient Greek civilization and this makes them have a superiority complex," says Voskopulos.

"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."

Feelings in the region are still very sensitive. In 1995, when passions around the name dispute with the Republic of Macedonia were particularly high, the Rainbow office hung a sign outside its door saying "Rainbow - Florina Committee" in both Greek and Macedonian.

The local prosecutor ordered police to remove the sign, and a mob led by the mayor attacked and burned the office. Then Voskopulos and three colleagues were charged with "having caused and incited mutual hatred among citizens" for having hung up the sign.

They were acquitted in 1998 after a wide spectrum of international protest. Voskopulos has tried to bring charges against the attackers, but various Greek courts have declined because of "lack of evidence."

The problems faced by Rainbow are tightly connected to the scramble of politics, identity, history and territorial ambitions of those inhabiting this complicated place called Macedonia.

Ancient Macedonia, after all, was the Greek-speaking empire of Alexander the Great, and for Greeks there is no tampering with that aspect of their national identity.