A Woman Survivor from Pontus

The National Herald

Panagia Soumela in Trebizond. (Photo by Eurokinissi/AMEN/Nikos Papachristos)

I am an Asia Minor refugee named Melina Panayotides from the Black Sea city of Trebizond. When the Kemalists won the war, the Turkish soldiers started to round us up and took us to transit camps close to the Asia Minor coast to be taken to Greece.

We marched from Trebizond down to Adana near the Mediterranean coast. Along the way, we marched in long convoys of men, women, and children passing through high snow-capped mountains, crossing wide rivers and desert and finally arriving in Adana.

Our captors never told us what our final destination would be but to be ready to leave at short notice. We were told to take very few personal things with us. All kinds of dark thoughts entered my mind. I even contemplated suicide for a short time. That was not a solution. I thought of the future of my two children, Ioannis and Maria aged 5 and 6 respectively. I didn't want them to be orphans.

As we proceeded, the elderly men and women perished from hunger, ill-treatment, disease, and starvation. The Turks moved us at breakneck speed to arrive in Adana. These poor old souls couldn't keep up with us younger ones. They were simply left to die on the side of dusty and muddy roads without a proper burial. Of course, the wild animals devoured their carcasses leaving no trace of their human existence. It was a terrible way to die without paying our last respects to these elderly folks.

The Turkish soldiers took our young men to secluded spots and executed them. Their bodies were thrown down ravines and stuffed into empty caves. Many of the young women were carried off by soldiers and irregulars to harems. Some women converted to Islam to save their lives. Other women preferred death to conversion. I was left alone by the Turks.

I had my two young children with me. Our food rations consisted of little black bread, some bean soup, and water, which were insufficient to feed us all. I divided our rations as best I could to ensure the children received the best ‘portions’ under such cruel circumstances. Sometimes I was fortunate to find and hide morsels of food such as bread to give the children without being seen by the Turkish soldiers.

The only thing that kept us going was the will to live. Despite our trials and tribulations, my faith and daily prayers to the Virgin Mary sustained us through this very excruciating time. It's a time that should never be forgotten and we must record such painful memories for posterity.

There were nights when I remembered the lovely life I enjoyed with my husband, Constantine, in Trebizond. We were not rich but lived a comfortable life making our living from a small business we owned on the outskirts of the city. I was lucky to be educated at the local Greek gymnasium for girls in Trebizond.

The education I received prepared me to take my place as a wife and a homemaker. I did assist Constantine when he got very busy in the business. It allowed me to interact with other women where our conversations centered on our families and it got me out of the kitchen. We had no servants like some of the wealthy families in Trebizond.

Constantine was a tall proud man with a black mustache who treated us well. He was a good father and always found time to play with the children. Our customers liked him as a person, including our Turkish friends. Surprisingly, we got on very well with them.

In May 1920, Constantine traveled to Smyrna to enlist in the Greek army. He was carried away by the sweeping victories of our Greek army. Even though he never visited Greece, he was very proud of his Greek heritage. He wrote many letters from the war front detailing his experience fighting the Turks. Some of his letters were censored by the military censor for security reasons.

In some of his last letters, he described the military success of our army in capturing Afion Karahissar and Eskisehir. His biggest dream was the prized occupation of Ankara. Before his death just outside Ankara, he believed our army would cut the Gordian knot in Asia Minor. His dream of defeating Mustafa Kemal never materialized. We lost the war and never cut the Gordian knot. The Greek War ministry sent me a telegram which took about a week to arrive at my home. It stated that Constantine died a hero's death for the motherland. I was devastated when I learned of his death but believed his contribution served a higher good.

I was surprised when some of our Turkish neighbors were very sad to hear of Constantine's death. They held him in high esteem and liked him as a person. This was comforting at such a difficult time for me. Of course, there were Turks who regarded him as a traitor to the Ottoman homeland and deserved to die. It is said that war brings out the animal instincts in us humans.

In the last months of the war, the Kemalists deported many of our friends and relatives from Trebizond and surrounding villages into the Anatolian desert. Many of them did not survive their ordeal. For reasons I can't explain, call it fate or luck, I was not deported and continued to run our business unmolested until the order came for us to leave.

It must have been late November or early December 1922 when we arrived in Adana. We were tired, looked emaciated, our clothes had become rags but spirits never wavered. We believed we would make it and that we did. We survived to tell our story.

We waited in the camp to be picked up by American and British ships. The camp conditions were atrocious. There was overcrowding, with people squeezed in like sardines and little or no sanitation. There were meagre rations and diseases were rife with very little medical care. Death was the victor.

The Turks treated us very badly and were beaming from ear-to-ear when the foreign ships finally came to remove us from Adana. I will continue my story another time about my experience living in a refugee camp in Greece.