Historical Fiction: The Elias Panoussos Story Part 7

From the middle of September 1922, our nation was being overwhelmed with thousands of our compatriots from Smyrna, though some had arrived before the entry of the Kemalists on September 9, 1922. Many of our islands couldn't cope with such an influx of refugees. It was beyond our nation's resources to help them. We needed international help. I had no idea where this assistance would come from.

I am glad the American and British relief agencies stepped up to assist us. They organized fundraising and gathered clothing, food, blankets, and medicines to help the refugees. The American Red Cross, Near East Relief, and the Save the Children Fund were the driving force behind the assistance given to the refugees.

Every day I would go down to Piraeus to see the refugee ships dock with their human cargo of unfortunate human beings. They had to undergo medical checks at the St. George Island quarantine station before being allowed to disembark in Piraeus. It was a sad sight to see once proud and respectful people looking in such a dejected state. I approached to interview some of them. Some gave me a few minutes to tell me their sad stories. Others weren't prepared to say anything. I tried to understand their plight as best I could.

I remember that when I visited Smyrna in 1921 these people were so happy, confident, and hospitable whenever I came into contact with them. They thought the good days would last forever. It was interesting how their situation had dramatically changed in such a very short time. I am lucky that I have a home and country to live in whereas these individuals didn't know whether they would ever be allowed to return to their homes in Asia Minor.

My feeling turned out to be correct when the Kemalists made it clear they would never allow them to return to their ancestral homeland. My prediction was vindicated with the Exchange of Population agreement concluded during the Lausanne Conference 1922-23. I didn't like this agreement but who was I to argue with the conference attendees who had all the available documents at their disposal. I was angry that the major powers who conceded to the Turkish demands on minorities and the exchange of populations. Eleftherios Venizelos did everything he could to help our refugees but he had no choice but to concede to the wishes of our so-called allied friends.

I return to the refugee situation: Athens and Piraeus with its surrounding area had become a sea of tents with refugees huddled together like bees in a beehive. Thousands wearing rags, shoeless, dirty, and surviving on small morsels of food. Mothers were finding it hard to feed their children. There were very few young men in the camps. The Turks had rounded up all the males between the ages of 17-45 and held them captive. Many of them were put into labor battalions and marched off into the Anatolian interior. As far as I remember very few of them survived.

The foreign relief agencies coordinated their activities with the Greek Government and the Greek Red Cross to help the refugees to survive during the 1922-23 winter. It proved to be one of the coldest and bitter winters in living memory. The clothing, food, and medicines saved many from hypothermia and starvation. I accompanied representatives of these agencies to see first-hand the plight of these unfortunate souls. Mothers were sacrificing their food so their children wouldn't go hungry. I saw old men wearing rags keeping warm as best they could to avoid catching pneumonia. At least the refugees were receiving the best medical care possible from our own and the foreign doctors.

After my visit, I returned to our newspaper office to write my reports about what I had seen in the camps. I would sit down at my typewriter ready to type away. I didn't know how to start and which words to choose for my story. I was very emotional about the refugee situation. Capturing this human drama with words would test my ability as a journalist. I needed to explain to our readers the suffering these poor individuals experienced. They needed to understand these people weren't going anywhere and would become part of our society.

Aside from the refugees, I couldn't ignore the internal situation which was bubbling over like a cauldron ready to explode in our faces. Athenians were angry with the royalist establishment who were responsible for this disaster. They demanded their heads. They clamored for their executions. I supported our citizens. We called them traitors. A title well deserved.

Our newspaper was Venizelist to the core and free to criticize the royalists without fear or favor. Our news reports and editorials reflected the change of direction. We didn't have to worry about press censorship as it applied during the royalist period. We were proud of our Venizelist tag. These despicable creatures were no longer in power. Thank God, they were gone forever.

A revolutionary committee (RC) composed of military and naval officers took charge. They appointed politicians to run things but the real power lay with the revolutionary committee. Most of these politicians at one time or another had served as ministers in past Venizelos governments. Eventually, the RC became the government as the politicians couldn't agree as to whether to proceed with the executions of the royalist politicians and officers. I was glad the executions were carried out.

The relations between King George II, the politicians, and the RC was an uneasy one. King George did his best to be a constitutional monarch under difficult circumstances. I suppose the most difficult decision the King made was signing the executions of the former politicians and military officers who had loyally served his father, Constantine.

The nation was trying to come to terms with the Asia Minor debacle. In time they would learn to accept their Asia Minor compatriots. I hoped my newspaper would send me to report on the Lausanne negotiations, but that never occurred. I was assigned to cover the court-martial of Prince Andrew instead. More of this in my next letter.


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