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MESSAGE OF THE MONTH
The Pontian Genocide
By Olga Balytnikova-Rakitianskaia, from "Orthodoxy in the World," May 19th, 2010, edited for length.
The Pontian genocide of 1916-1922 is one of the most tragic pages of Greek history. The Pontians had suffered much throughout their history of nearly 3,000 years, but the genocide was the most terrible of their misfortunes, for it deprived the Greeks of the Black sea, their native land, and not just of their friends and relatives. Remembrance of this genocide is necessary not only for the relatives and descendants of the lost; such terrible facts of human history must be known to all. For if people forget about the pain of other people, if they pass it by with indifference, they kill inside their souls a part of their "humanity." This must not be allowed to happen, lest tragedies of this kind be repeated…
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Pontian Greeks—A Brief Historical Overview
Euxinos Pontus (Εὔξεινος Πόντος) or just Pontus (Πόντος)—this is how the Greeks used to call the Black sea from ancient times. The first Greek settlements appeared on its southern coast (modern Turkey and the Caucasus) as early as 800 BC. They were founded by Ionian Greeks, natives of Attica, Anatolia, and the islands of the Aegean. The first city, Sinop, was built in 785 BC. Very soon not only the southern, but also the northern Black sea coast was completely Hellenized. Many renowned Greek men of antiquity, such as Diogenes and Strabo, were born and raised in southern Pontus.
In the 4th century BC, an independent kingdom of Pontus was established on the southern coast of the Black sea, headed in 301 BC by king Mithridates I. Since that time, Pontus began to develop independently from all other Greek lands.
The dynasty founded by Mithridates successfully ruled in Pontus until the 1st century BC. The kingdom of Pontus prospered, science and arts flourished in its cities. The last king of the dynasty was Mithridates VI, who ruled from 120 to 63 BC. He resisted the Roman expansion much longer than other Greek rulers, but was finally defeated, and Pontus lost its independence, having become a subject of Rome.
In 35 AD, St. Andrew preached Christianity in Pontus. This marked the beginning of the new, Christian era of Pontian history. Pontus gave to the world many great Saints, such as Saint Martyr Eugene of Trebizond, St. Basil the Great, and St. Philaretus the Merciful. In 386 AD, one of the first Christian monasteries was founded on Mount Melas in western Pontus—the monastery of Our Lady of Soumela (Panagia Soumela, from Pontian "σοῦ Μελᾶ", which means "on the Melas"). In the 9th century, Sts. Barnabas and Sophronius brought to the monastery an ancient miraculous icon of the Virgin Mary from Athens, the Panagia Athiniotissa, which, according to the tradition, was painted by St. Luke the Evangelist. From that time, the icon was known as the image of Our Lady of Soumela. It was regarded as the most sacred belonging of Pontus, and during the terrible years of the genocide, it "went into exile" together with the Pontian people.
In the Middle Ages, Pontus formed a part of the Byzantine Empire. In the end of the 9th century, when almost the entire Byzantine territory of Asia Minor was occupied by the Seljuks, a Byzantine general, St. Theodore Gavras, successfully defended the territory of Pontus, having thereby initiated the process of restoring its independence. And after Constantinople had been sacked by the Crusaders in 1204, a grandson of the Byzantine Emperor Andronicus I Comnenus, Alexius Comnenus, founded a new state on the territory of Pontus, the so-called Empire of Trebizond (named after its capital, the city of Trebizond). This Empire continued to exist under the rule of the Grand Comneni dynasty even after Constantinople had been freed from the Crusaders, until 1461, when the Empire was conquered by the Ottoman Turks.
Throughout the hard years of Turkish occupation, the Pontians spared no effort to keep alive their faith, language, and culture, despite numerous and often very cruel attempts of their conquerors to convert them to Islam and otherwise assimilate the local population. Only a small portion of the Pontians—the inhabitants of Oflu—succumbed to the repressions and became Muslims. But even among these people, most continued to worship Christ in secret, having become the so-called "Crypto-Christians." The Pontians of Oflu continued speaking Pontian and observing Pontian customs as well. By the beginning of the 20th century, the Pontian people could boast of almost three thousand years of continuity of rich political and cultural tradition.
Pontian Language and Culture
The Pontians had been developing almost independently of other parts of the Greek nation since late Antiquity; this was due to historical circumstances as well as to the remoteness of Pontus from continental Greece. Thus, the Pontian people (who call themselves "the Romei") developed their own original culture, which differs in many ways from that of the rest of Greece, although there are many commonalities as well. The dialect of the Greek language spoken by Pontians today also differs greatly from common Modern Greek—the differences are so great that some linguists regard it as a separate Pontian language, and not as a "dialect."
Owing to its partial isolation in the Black sea region, the Pontian language retains many archaic features: its grammar and vocabulary have much more in common with Ancient Greek than with the language of modern Greece. At the same time, owing to the long years of contact with other ethnicities of Asia Minor and the Caucasus, Pontian borrowed many words from Persian, Turkish, and various Caucasian languages. All these make it very difficult—in fact, almost impossible—for a Greek from Greece to understand Pontian. Lastly, the Pontian culture also retains many archaic—Ancient Greek and Byzantine—features.
Genocide: How it Happened
By the beginning of the 20th century, the Ottoman government seriously feared losing its power over Pontus, as had already happened with Greece, Serbia, and Bulgaria. This was aggravated by the fact that a substantial percentage of the Pontian population in Turkey consisted of highly educated intellectuals and successful businessmen, who occupied a prominent position in society and exerted considerable influence upon the Ottoman economy. Therefore "drastic measures" of extermination of the Greek element had been planned by the Turkish government long before—and were put into practice after 1908, when the party of "Young Turks" came into power and advanced the slogan of "Turkey for the Turks." In September 1911, the participants of the Young Turks conference in Thessaloniki openly discussed the issue of extermination of the ethnic minorities (especially Christians) in Turkey, the most important of which were Greeks and Armenians.
On July 24th, 1909, the German Ambassador Wangenheim, writing to German Chancellor von Bulow, quoted the Turkish Prime Minister Sefker Pasha: "The Turks have decided upon a war of extermination against their Christian subjects."
The martyrdom of the Pontian people began in 1914, when Turkey entered WWI as an ally of Germany. Under the pretext of being "politically unreliable," a great number of Pontian men from 18 to 50 years old were convoyed to the so-called "labor battalions" ("amele taburu") far inland. These "battalions" were in fact concentration camps, where people were forced to work under inhuman conditions, almost without food, water or medical care. For a slightest fault, any worker could be shot dead by the guards. The "amele taburu" became a common grave for thousands of Pontians, as well as other Christian men.
But, contrary to the expectations of the Young Turks, the repressions did not break the spirit of the Pontians—on the contrary, they prompted the Pontian patriots to drastic actions. Many men of Pontus left their homes and formed guerilla troops in the mountains, while among the Pontian intellectuals of the Caucasus (which at that time belonged almost entirely to Russia) the decision to establish an independent Pontian Republic finally matured. Besides the guerilla troops, Pontians also hoped to get help from the Russian Empire, which was engaged in operations against Turkey, as a German ally.
In 1916, the Russian army entered Trebizond. A few days earlier, the Turkish governor Mehmet Djemal Azmi officially handed the city over to Bishop Chrysanthos, with the following words: "Once we took Trebizond from the Greeks, and now we are giving it back." When Russian troops approached the city, they were welcomed by the Bishop himself and other inhabitants of Trebizond, who carried flowers. Everyone thought that the centuries-old Pontian dreams of freedom were finally coming true.
But the extremely difficult situation at the Austrian-German front hindered the Russians from advancing inland, while the Greek guerillas did not yet possess enough forces and weapons for independent struggle. Therefore, while the Russian troops were in the Trebizond region, the Young Turks government cruelly dealt with the inhabitants of the Pontian territories that still remained under the Turkish control: the Pontians were now officially declared "traitors" and "Russian accomplices." According to the government plan, all the urban male population of Pontus were to be put to death, and the rest deported inland. This plan was put into practice immediately.
Here is just a little example of the vast documentary evidence of that time: "The entire Greek population of Sinope and the coastal region of the county of Kastanome has been exiled. Exile and extermination in Turkish are the same, for whoever is not murdered, will die from hunger or illness." (Herr Kuchhoff, German consul in Amissos in a despatch to Berlin, July 16, 1916).
"On November 26th, Rafet Bey told me: ‘We must finish off the Greeks as we did with the Armenians’... On November 28th, Rafet Bey told me: ‘Today, I sent squads to the interior to kill every Greek on sight.’ I fear for the elimination of the entire Greek population and a repeat of what occurred last year—referring to the Armenian Genocide." (Herr Kwiatkowski, Austro-Hungarian consul in Amissos to Baron von Burian, Foreign Minister of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, November 30, 1916).
Pontian Greeks—women, children, and elderly people—were evicted from their houses in 24 hours, not being allowed to take with them anything of their property, and in long columns, under armed convoy, were marched far inland. The deserted villages were plundered and burnt—often before the very eyes of the evicted. On the deportation march, people were treated with utmost cruelty: they received little food, were forced to march forward for hours, days on end, without rest, over the wilderness, under the rain and the snow, so that many of them, unable to endure the hardships, dropped dead from exhaustion and illnesses.
The convoy men raped women and young girls, shot people for the slightest reason, and sometimes without a reason at all. Most of the deported died on the way, but even those who survived the deportation march found themselves in no better situation—the places of destination turned out to be real "white death" camps. In one such place, the village of Pirk, the deported inhabitants of the city of Tripoli were kept. According to the reports of the survivors, out of 13,000 Pontians who had been sent to Pirk, only 800 survived.
In 1917, the October revolution took place in Russia, and power was seized by the Bolsheviks. Immediately after the signing of the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk, the Russian troops left Trebizond, abandoning its people to the wrath of the Turks. The Turkish army and the "chet" (criminal gangs, unofficially encouraged by the Turkish government) poured into the city and the surrounding villages, robbing and killing. To escape death, many Pontian families of eastern Pontus fled to the Caucasus.
But the struggle for independence, once started, could not be stopped. On the Russian territory, in the city of Rostov, the local Pontian activists formed the Central Pontian Committee; people donated money and weapons for the struggle, while Constantine Constantinides was sending proclamations from Marseille to the inhabitants of Pontus and the leaders of the European states.
In the meantime, the guerrilla resistance movement in the mountains of Pontus gathered force. The regions of Pafra, Sanda, and Ordu became the main centers of the struggle; soon guerrilla troops appeared in Trebizond and Kars, too. The Pontian palikare (warriors) of the Resistance fought bravely: their deeds became legends. The success of the movement was also favoured by the fact that the troops were headed by leaders of great experience and talent. In the past, some of them had served as officers in the Russian Caucasian army, and had taken part in many battles; for example, Vassil-aga had received a gilded sword from Tsar Nicholas II for his courage. As a leader of Pontian guerrilla troops, Vassil-aga became so famous for his valor and military talent, that often his name alone was enough to put a Turkish detachment to flight.
In 1919, only a year after the end of the World War I, the Greek-Turkish war of 1919-1922 began. The Greek advance in Asia Minor gave rise to the next stage of extermination of the Pontians—all of them were outlawed. All the fury of the Turks fell upon those who could not put up a resistance: the civilian population of Pontian cities and villages. Unprecedented atrocities—robberies, murders, rapes—started throughout Pontus.
Whole Greek families were shut in churches and schools and burnt alive—for example, in the city of Pafra 6,000 people, mostly women and children, were destroyed in this manner. Of those inhabitants of Pafra who escaped death by fire, about 90% (22,000) were slaughtered; all women and even little girls were raped by Turkish soldiers before being killed, while babies were disposed of by crushing their heads against walls. In the city of Amaseia and the neighbouring villages, 134,000 Pontians out of 180,000 were slaughtered; in the city of Mertzifunda, all the inhabitants were killed; in Tripoli, Kerasounda, Ordu, and many other places almost the entire male population was destroyed… And these facts are but a small part of what was happening throughout Pontus at that time.
The mass deportations continued now on a larger scale and with greater cruelty. Here is, for example, the testimony of Maria Katsidou-Simeonidou, one of the few survivors of those terrible times: "I was born in Mourasoul village, Sevasteia/Sivas district, on August 15th, 1914. I remember the deportations well. In 1918, I was about four years old, when one day I saw my father in the village square. I ran to him and asked him for the pie he brought me every day from the family-owned mill. He replied: ‘O my child, the Turks are going to kill me and you will not see me again.’ He told me to tell my mother to prepare his clothes and some food for him. That was the last time we saw him. They killed him along with another ten men.
I remember another time when a Turk warned our village, saying that all the young men should leave because the next day, Topal Osman would be coming. Indeed, those that departed, were saved. They still killed fifteen men, including the teacher, the village president and the priest. Topal Osman had caught three hundred and fifty men from neighboring villages. He had them bound, murdered and thrown into the river that ran through our village. I still remember the echo of the shots. They were hauling the bodies by ox-cart for nine days to bury them. Most of them were unrecognizable, as their heads had been cut off.
In 1920, around Easter, the Turkish Army came and told us to take with us everything we could. We loaded up the animals, but the saddle-bags tore open and most of us were left without food. On the deportation march, the Turkish guards would rape the women. In the Teloukta area, about half our group was lost in a snow storm. From there, they took us to a place without water, Sous-Yiazousou; many died of thirst. Soon afterwards, as we passed a river, all of us threw ourselves at the water; people fell over each other in the rush; many drowned. We reached Phiratrima, which was a Kurdish area and they left us at a village near a bridge. It was here that a pregnant girl gave birth, to twins. The Turks cut the newborns in two and tossed them in the river. On the riverbank, they killed many more of the group…"
The Pontians of the Caucasus, who had access to means of communication, were calling to the leaders of the European states for help. But Greece was preoccupied by political wrangles, as well as by the failures on the Anatolian front; Great Britain occupied a "neutral" (de facto anti-Greek) position, while the rest of the "great powers" openly opposed the interests of the Pontian people. The only hope of the civilian population of Pontus was now the guerilla Resistance. The guerillas were still fighting heroically, but even they, having been left completely without support and lacking even the possibility of being supplied weapons (while the Turkish army of Kemal constantly received money and weapons from the Bolsheviks), could not change the course of the war. It was practically impossible to defend the independence of Pontus at the time when its inhabitants were facing the danger of total extermination. The chief goal of the guerillas was now to save their people from death: they fought against the Turkish army for the life of Pontian Christians and conveyed the refugees outside Pontus. Over 135.000 Pontians who found refuge in the Caucasus region and over 400,000 evacuated to Greece owe their lives to this heroic resistance of the guerillas.
On July 24th, 1923, a year after the defeat of Greece in the war, a peace treaty was signed between Turkey and Greece, which included the convention for the exchange of populations. In accordance with this convention, the remaining Greek population of Pontus was deported to Greece.
This eviction from their homeland did not affect the Muslim Greeks of Oflu, who were considered "co-religionists" by the Turks and therefore escaped persecutions, as well as those few families who managed to pass themselves off as "Turks." These people had to lead a double existence of "Crypto-Greeks" ever since, finding themselves in an even more difficult position than other Crypto-Christians. On the whole, according to the estimations of contemporary official sources and modern historians, about 350,000 Pontians were slaughtered by the Turks between 1914 and 1923. The survivors were expelled from their homeland and live in exile to this day.
Nowadays, compact groups of Pontians live in the Caucasus (Southern Russia, Georgia, Armenia) and northern Greece (the provinces of Macedonia and Western Thrace). A considerably large Pontian diaspora exists in Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Germany, Australia, Canada, and USA; Pontian communities can be found in many other countries around the world.
In Pontus itself, according to Turkish sources, about 300,000 Muslim Greeks live today; approximately 75,000 of them still retain Pontian language and customs (as had been mentioned above, many of these people are Crypto-Christians). One can say with certainty that "Crypto-Greeks" also exist in Turkey, although their numbers, for evident reasons, cannot be estimated. Thus, the total number of indigenous population of Pontus still living in the territory of Turkey approaches several hundreds of thousands of people.
At present, the Pontian Genocide is officially recognized only by Greece, Cyprus, Armenia, Sweden, and the American State of New York. This is not due to any doubts as to the historical fact of extermination of the Pontian people; after all, official documents of those times and testimonies of eye-witnesses of various nationalities provide sufficient evidence for the reality of the genocide. It is instead due to insufficient awareness and (which is even more important) insufficient interest of the international community. The issue of international recognition of the Pontian Genocide has been raised for the first time on the 27th September 2006, at a meeting of the EU Parliament. At present, May 19th has been established as Commemoration day of the Pontian Genocide.
Pontians around the world do not lose hope of restoring historical and human justice. And this means that there is also hope for the Pontian people to return to the land of their ancestors. The activity of Pontian organizations under the slogan "Pontus is alive!" (Ζεῖ ὁ Πόντον!) has this return as a goal. As a Pontian folk song says, "our people will flourish and bear fruit once again."