Rusty mortars

Rusty mortarThey say the scars of war take three generations to fade. Maybe a civil war takes even longer.

In the north, there were reminders everywhere of the German occupation and the civil war that followed. Once, walking along a remote mountain path, Alan stopped and pulled a rusty old mortar from a rotting tree trunk. We saw the rough bunkers up in the mountains, the memorials to villages burnt by the Germans, and the grim cave headquarters of the left-wing Democratic Army.

But what I remember most were the stories of those who lived through those bleak and violent years. Even before we started walking, on the bus to Florina, I chatted to an old emigre, who’d grown up in one of the outlying villages before fleeing to the safety of the town. “Then the guerrillas attacked Florina,” he said. “If they’d managed to take it, they would have killed us all.”

Later on, we met some of the left wing supporters who in the last days of the civil war had fled across the border to Albania and then scattered throughout the countries behind the Iron Curtain.  Children as young as five were taken from their families to safety, often not to be reunited for decades. They started trickling back after an amnesty in the 1980s, to find the border villages abandoned and overgrown, part of a restricted zone where no visitors had been allowed for years. There were still mines in the forest and mountain slopes denuded by napalm.

We heard how the people of Slimnitsa, then a prosperous settlement of 400 households,  saw the flames from the neighbouring village, fired by the Germans, and fled into the mountains. One courageous old woman stayed behind and persuaded them with gifts of War memorialfood and livestock to spare their homes. But only a few years later, in the civil war, the village was destroyed, surrounded by minefields and abandoned.

Further south, in the Peloponnese, we passed through Kalavryta, a member of the Union of Martyred Towns, where all the men over twelve years of age had been killed in reprisals by the Germans. In the centre of the town, there is a heartbreaking sculpture of a woman and her children dragging away her husband’s corpse.

Sun-kissed beaches and ancient ruins. That’s what first springs to mind when people think of Greece. But the blood-soaked struggles of the twentieth century have not been forgotten, especially in the north where the Left made its last stand. The dangerous tensions between Left and Right still underlie the politics of today.

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