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Historical Observations: Women and Children in Asia Minor

October 12, 2022

Athanasios Dambasis’ final article titled ‘Are there still Greek prisoners held in Asia Minor’ was published in Tachydromos of Northern Greece on July 9, 1936. He briefly reminded his readers of what happened to the captured prisoners during their early days of internment, their hardships and privations, and those lucky enough to return to Greece. This article focuses on the “large number of women and children were and are being held in Turkey.”

“It has been fourteen years since the disaster, the Greek government has to handle this issue very carefully”, Dambasis said. During 1936, Greco-Turkish relations were very cordial as both nations were concerned about Italian machinations in the Eastern Mediterranean and the political situation in the Balkans.

The Pontus region was mentioned with its reportedly large number of women and children detainees. At the same time, the Greek embassy in Ankara made numerous efforts for their return to Greece, only to be ignored by the Turkish government.

The Turks showed no goodwill in this regard. It is worth noting that thousands of men, women, and children were deported by the Turks from Pontus during the first world war. During 1921-22, two American relief workers: Dr. Mark Ward and Frank Yowell, witnessed the deportations from Pontus into the Anatolian interior and reported it to the British and American High Commissioners in Constantinople. Ward kept a diary of the deportations which is in the U.S. State Department records on Turkey.

Dambasis mentioned that the Greek embassy asked for the return of a woman who had converted to Islam and married a Turk. Interestingly, Turkish authorities had a ready answer that “she converted to Islam of her own volition and married a Turk before the Treaty of Lausanne.” He continues that in the Lausanne treaty “there is a provision that every Greek woman married to a Turk before the Treaty of Lausanne is not subject to the exchange of populations but remains in Turkey close to her Turkish husband.”

In the preceding statement above, I checked the minutes of the Lausanne Conference in the British parliamentary paper (Cmd.1914) including the Lausanne Treaty 1923, and couldn’t find any references to Greek women marring Turks. A women’s conversion to Islam meant she renounced her Christian faith, adopted a Muslim name, and lost her Greek identity.

Asking a Greek woman who had children with her Turkish husband to leave him and go to Greece would have been impossible. One such case was presented to the Greek member of the joint subcommittee, Mr. Miliotis. There were several thousand Greeks gathered in Ankara who would come under the care of the exchange sub-committee. It would have been easy for a Greek woman living in Ankara to leave her Turkish husband under such circumstances. However, the article isn’t clear as to what action Miliotis took regarding this case with Turkish officials.

Dambasis managed to interview a Greek woman named Maria who came from Eskishehir. He approached her one day and asked her “do you want to go to Greece, Maria?.” “I want [to go]”, Maria replied. “Then be ready to go with the ‘exchangeables’. But be careful not to say anything to anyone”, Dambasis said. “Will I go alone? What do you mean by alone,” Maria inquired. She understood the meaning of the term alone and that she couldn’t take her two children to Greece and told Dambasis, “well, then I’m not leaving.” The feeling of motherhood prevailed.

In another case, Miliotis asked the Ankara police to intervene to let free a Greek woman with whom he was related. When she learned of this, she protested his intervention and remained close to her Turkish husband. As Dambasis states, “of course, this cannot apply to all Greek women because many of those detained will wish to come to Greece.” Reading between the lines, this was a long-drawn-out issue and the Greek government had to take a serious interest in using the special provision of the Treaty of Lausanne. Dambasis fails to mention exactly what this special provision in the treaty says. He may be referring to articles 37-45 dealing with the rights of minorities.

“The matter concerning children is even more difficult. The Turkish government must force various Turks to hand over the children they kidnapped both before and during the Asia Minor disaster,” Dambasis stated. He outlines that Christian children were kidnapped by the Turks who all converted to Islam. He doesn’t reveal if they are boys or girls. The former were adopted by Turkish families with the latter ending up in harems. These children were separated from their Greek parents for many years and they had forgotten their identity, language, and culture. Such returnees might have found it difficult to adjust to life in Greece.

Dambasis doesn’t provide a specific date for locating and returning detained women and children. It was decided to form a joint Greek-Turkish committee under the presidency of Mr. Politis to cover the whole of Asia Minor for this purpose. Unfortunately, this decision was thwarted by the Turkish government. The Greeks thought they had fulfilled an imperative duty towards the disaffected Greek families by revealing the truth about the matter of subject hostages and women and children.

Dambasis argued that the Turkish state should have imposed a penalty on those detaining children by forcing them to return the children to their parents. Many women and children were still detained in the regions of Nicomedia, Pontus, Kiou, Kutahia, Caesarea, and Iconium with Dambasis writing about it in 1936.

During the late 1920s-early 1930s, the Grand National Assembly in Ankara passed laws making it a criminal offense to hold women and young children against their will. It was easy for police to enforce these laws in Constantinople but the further one travelled into the Turkish interior enforcement became more difficult.

In conclusion, Dambasis provides a good overview of the detention of women and children in Turkey. He outlines that conversion to Islam for women and children was common and the Turks did nothing to help them return to Greece. Converting to Islam signalled a loss of Greek identity, language, and culture for these individuals.

 

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