During the last few days, our rival newspaper Makedonia in Salonika featured several articles on its front page about returning Greek prisoners of war in June-July 1936. This was an extraordinary claim. I couldn’t imagine that after the signing of the Lausanne Treaty in 1923 that there would be POWs still detained in Turkey.
I asked my editor (Tachydromos) to follow up and conduct our own investigation into this matter. He agreed and I was off to Patras to interview these returnees. I wanted to find out firsthand about their experiences confined all those years in the depths of Asia Minor. The strange thing is, the Athenian press avoided this issue.
I arrived in Patras and arranged to meet the five returnees at the house of Ioannis Papamichalis. It was a big house with a comfortable lounge room where the interviews took place over several days. Ioannis’ brother Grigoris, along with Petros Mandalis, Markos Sotiriou, Nikos Polonidis, and Charalambos Petratos were prepared to tell me their personal accounts.
Our first session was spent getting to know each other and talking about general things such as how they found Patras after all these years.
Grigoris remembered Patras being a small town before the war but now was a growing city. I told him the increase in population was due to the influx of Asia Minor refugees after September 1922. They told me they were all happy to be back on Greek soil.
The next day, the interview started. Grigoris spoke on behalf of the others. We sat down in the lounge room sipping our coffees and smoking our Greek cigarettes, allowing the interview to proceed smoothly. I posed a question and let Grigoris speak freely. Sometimes Grigoris stopped and asked one of his friends to clarify or clear up some point/issue that he couldn’t remember. This was very helpful in filling gaps in the narrative.
“Grigori, tell me in your own words what you and your colleagues experienced in Turkey?” He was silent for a couple of minutes with his eyes staring at the ceiling. “Where do I start,” Grigoris asked in low voice. “During August 1922, the Turkish nationalists captured us near Eskishehir as our army was retreating back to Smyrna. We were taken to this internment camp somewhere outside Ankara. We spent the next four years there before they ‘transferred’ us to somewhere else in Asia Minor,” he recounted with some bitterness. Grigoris’s colleagues shared the same feelings.
“In the internment camp, we were treated very badly by the prison guards. If we questioned an order, they would whip us and sometimes rifle butt us in the stomach. We were treated worse than animals. We were forced to work in the infamous labor battalions fixing roads and repairing farmhouses or whatever needed to be mended. We five were together from the time of our capture till we escaped. We formed an inseparable bond between us that helped us to survive this hell on Earth,” Grigoris recounted.
The next day, he got into the nitty-gritty of his experiences and that of his friends. “In 1927, the Turks decided to move us to work in this large estate (tsiflik) belonging to Ahmet Bey near the village of Tourhal in the province of Sebastia (Sivas). We worked twelve-hour days, especially during spring and summer when the days were long. Our work days in autumn and winter tended to be slightly shorter. We worked in the fields, repairing buildings, and even as house servants. The Bey employed guards to ensure we didn’t escape. The consequence of escape would be a bullet in the back. One day, the Bey decided to use us like animals to plow his fields. It was degrading to be treated in this matter. We couldn’t describe how we felt being meted out of this treatment. The animals were treated better than we. We were seen as cattle to be exploited for the pleasure of the bey. One time, I was so depressed that I even contemplated suicide. Luckily my friends talked me out of it,” Grigoris said.
On our final day, Grigoris was ready to reveal more of his experiences. “At the Bey’s estate, we felt a sense of hopelessness, depression, forgetting who we were, our families, friends, country, and Patras. Our chief goal was to survive this hell on Earth. We hatched a plan over several weeks to escape while I wondered what freedom would be like after all this time. Anything was better than this hell hole. One day, we were taken to this field, chained up to work. Once our chains were removed, we attacked the guards and managed to take possession of their rifles. We fired back at them and escaped into the nearby forest. Over the next two weeks traveling at night and resting during the day, we arrived somewhere on the Black Sea coast. One Turkish villager saw us and told us that the Turkish authorities were looking for us. This venerable Turk helped us to get on board a Russian ship bound for Constantinople. From there we finally arrived in Athens and then caught the train for Patras. We told the military authorities of our ordeal and they told us they would investigate our claims. There are still Greek POWs detained in Asia Minor,” Grigoris said in a restrained voice.
I tried to figure out whether Grigoris and his friends approached and received assistance from the Greek Consulate in Constantinople and how they managed to leave without drawing the attention of the Turkish authorities. I asked him to elaborate on this point. “I don’t have anything more to say about it, I hope you understand,” he said. I didn’t press him for an explanation on his last point.
Returning to Salonika, I wrote four articles detailing the experiences of these returnees. Our newspaper ran two editorials asking the King and the government to investigate these claims. Despite having good relations with Ankara, it was incumbent on the government to find out more about our detained POWs. Some families still wanted answers about their missing loved ones after all these years. Would the King and government act responsibly in this matter? The answer was NO. They were afraid this might cause a rift in good relations with Turkey.