Macedonian Human Rights Movement International
Skeptical Macedonians Welcome Lifting of Ban

The Greek government announced during the summer of 2003 that the issue of the Macedonian political refugees would finally be resolved in time for the Detsa Begaltsi's Third World Reunion. Instead, the Greek government reversed its decision and chose to impede the reunion in any way possible.

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By Stathi Paxinos

Eurolang - The European News Agency for Minority Languages

It is an announcement the Macedonian community has been waiting on for more than 50 years. Reports from Greece say the Government has recently announced that Macedonian political refugees, who have been blacklisted from the country, will now be allowed to visit their birthplaces in northern Greece.

The announcement, which comes after a temporary lifting of the bans in August, has been welcomed by the Macedonian community in Australia, albeit with some scepticism, as a promising first step.

Newspaper reports from Greece have stated that Macedonian political refugees who acquire new passports that have names of people and places in Greek, not the Slavic-based Macedonian language, could re-enter the country. However, Efthymis Aravantinos, the Greek press consul in Canberra, would not confirm the reports, although he said "serious progress" would occur after the national elections, which must be held by May. The Republic of Macedonia representative could not be contacted.

The move is designed to heal the pain of former child refugees, such as brother and sister, Angelo Hatzelis and Helen Hatzeli, and their cousin Andy Filipov, who were aged between three and six when they were wrenched from their parents and forced to trek across mountains to the northern border at the height of Greece's brutal civil war in 1946-49, in which 100,000 people died. They spent nearly 10 years in Red Cross shelters in Romania before arriving in Australia as teenagers.

Thousands have been exiled around the world for more than half a century after their fathers fought with the communists in the 1946-49 struggle against the Western-backed Greek government forces. Greek suspicion towards the ethnic Macedonians rose again during the 1990s when Athens and Skopje wrangled over the right of the former Yugoslav republic to call itself Macedonia.

But, the present Greek Government has been making some concessions. Last August, hundreds of now elderly exiles from around the world were allowed to return to their places of birth for 20 days. Deputy Foreign Minister Andreas Loverdos said the move was designed to go some way to reversing past "wrongs".

Mr Filipov, 61, who returned to Greece in 1998, said "just because you love your nationality that doesn't mean you are working against the Greek Government".

Ms Hatzeli, 58, tried to enter Greece in 1998 but was turned back because her passport listed her birthplace as Rula, a town the Greeks call Kotta. The border guard demanded that she point to the town on a Greek map, which she could not do.

"What do we do? Who are we? What are we? I like Australia, I've been here 45 years but I still feel like I'm wandering, I don't know where I belong," Ms Hatzeli said.

The experience left her sceptical of the Greek Government, which she said was just seeking goodwill in the lead-up to the Athens Olympics.

George Fountas, president of the Greek Orthodox Community of Victoria, said the step was a positive move to heal the differences from the civil war.