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Historical Observations: The George Kougielas Story

Both the Apogevmatini and Macedonia newspapers published an account of returning Greek POWs from Asia Minor on June 25 and 26, 1936 respectively. The latter journal contained an announcement from the Federation of War Veterans of northern Greece which wasn’t printed in Apogevmatini. An English translation is reproduced below:

Apogevmatini June 25, 1936 p.3

“Greek prisoners returning from Turkey speak. The martyrdom life in Asia Minor

Patras 24 June. The information published a few days ago about the return of prisoners from Asia Minor, most of whom come from our region, caused emotion but also amazed the public opinion of Patras.

No one could have imagined that there were Greek prisoners in Asia Minor working there under harsh conditions. And yet the stories of these ruined people, who turned into courageous men, [had] come to dispel all the existing doubts. The prisoners who returned came here to their homes and remain with their relatives. Whoever saw them from the first days of their arrival, it was impossible not to feel a sense of horror.

These were not people. They were miserable skeletons who, to recover, had to be recognized and spend many days with their relatives. Some had to recount their family history in order to become credible, that they did not die and that they returned to their birthplace and village.

Prisoner Stories

Yesterday we contacted one of these unfortunate individuals, after visiting his village, Bozaitikon, which is several kilometers from Patras. His name is George Kougielas, a young man who seems more depressed than a strong 70-year-old. His eyes had a certain glow about them, and the rest of his features, with his missing teeth, present the appearance of a resurrected [man].

What is being narrated

‘What can I tell you, he tells us, my name is George Kougielas. I confess that I find that a miracle [had to] happen, to remember the name of the people of my house and the place where I was born. I do not hide from you that there was a time when I lost everything: homeland, parents, relatives, friends. I lost myself. I had nothing left in my mind.’

So he speaks slowly, hoarsely, and stops. He lowers his face and ponders. It seems that his mind is searching for something. No one disturbs this silence. Then his face takes on a liveliness as if he had found something. ‘I’ll tell you,’ he tells me, ‘since you made the effort to get here, that I remember and that I was able to restrain myself. Do not ask for what you will hear to be very coherent. I confess that my logic is not thinking well yet. It gets a little hot and it goes on.’

[He continued:] ‘The great battle of Sangarios was over and only a few sparse shots could be heard from a hill that I dare say is called ‘Ad-Dag’. The flight of our army was the fatal consequence of that tragic defeat that cost the captivity of thousands of soldiers and filled the plains with dead Greek and Turkish soldiers.’

‘While trying to escape, the Turkish army surrounded us, I found myself with other soldiers at their disposal. They dragged us into some valleys. They were concentration camps. The years passed one after the other and we waited in vain to see our freedom, to return to our homes. The more time passed, the greater our despair. We had lost all hope and even after the signing of the peace [treaty], so the population was exchanged and we sat in the heart of Asia Minor as prisoners.

‘We spent years as martyrs. Pain and despair were the only companions. The deprivations. Hardships, humiliations, hunger, beatings, and slavery had become our habit.

‘We were not impressed by anything. In 1927, together with 800 Greek soldiers, we entered and worked in a vast estate belonging to Mustafa Bey in the village of the province of Sebasteia. Our work was unbearably hard. We got to the point where we replaced animals at work. In turn, we all had a pair of plows. And when at times, we dared to rest and sleep, the jailor would work us to the point where we would collapse from exhaustion.

‘Our guards did not see us as humans, but as a herd of animals that existed to be exploited… They wanted us for beasts, but we were not lucky enough to enjoy this treatment either.’

How they left

‘Out of despair, we thought of escaping. Many times we planned such a thing. But we found great obstacles. I didn’t tell or know anyone from outside the estate to help us. We talked every day about an escape plan. We had decided to break the chains with which we were tied and to be able to leave or be killed in the end. We would leave the moment they would give us the plows. We devised the whole plan. And when one morning we arrived at the estate and the prison guards untied our hands, we attacked them.

Continued tomorrow signed K.’

The Federation of War Veterans urged that a full-scale inquiry be set up to ascertain the number of POWs detained in Asia Minor. It was up to the Greek government to ensure their release so the detainees could rejoin their families. The Federation was going to raise this matter with King George, who was visiting Salonika at this time. I couldn’t find any evidence of the Greek government launching an inquiry into this sensitive issue. Athens’ relations with Ankara were cordial and they didn’t wish to raise this issue.

I searched the Athenian and Salonika press to see if they printed any stories about King George’s reaction to the POWs. I found none. They were more interested in the King’s tour of Salonika and his inspection of the army. I am sure the King was cognizant of the POWs but his main concern would have been the unstable political situation in Greece.

The detention of Greek POWS in Asia Minor some 14 years after the conclusion of the Greek-Turkish war, 1919-22 raises some interesting questions for further research on this issue.




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