The March for Chameria

By Ilir Ademi

The Balkan Peninsula is ethnically and linguistically one of the most complex areas of the world. Within the last two decades, the world community was alerted many times about the repression of the various ethnic minorities in the Balkans as it was the case with the Bosnians and Kosovar Albanians in the 1990’s. Although each minority’s circumstances may take different forms in Greece, there is one common characteristic to all of them, conflict, persecution and assimilation. Greek policies of assimilation continue to be used against its Albanian, Vlach, Macedonian, Turkish, Pomak, and Roma minorities. This assimilation of minorities in Greece has not fully been addressed by researchers and analysts. Albanians of Greece are mainly Orthodox Christians or Muslims by religion. Ever since the mid-twentieth century, Greece pursued a sophisticated assimilation policy against Albanians, also known as Arvanites, by alleging that they are Greeks, and denied their ethnic, cultural, and linguistic rights. Chams are considered to be “Achilles heel” according to analysts since they would create a significant precedent balancing Greece’s stability.

Marshimi Çam – The Chams’ March

Ethnic Albanians in Greece today exist into three groupings: Orthodox Albanians or Arvanites, Cham Albanians, and Albanian nationals as post-communist period economic migrants. Every year thousands of Albanian people who originate from the ancient region of Chameria, the birthplace of Pyrrhus, march near the border checkpoint between Albania and Greece to commemorate their plight and suffering, and honor their ancestors who where ethnically cleansed by the Greek Nazi collaborators of Napoleon Zervas. After a mass expulsion of over 35,000 men, women, and children, and Greek crimes against nearly 5,000 innocent civilian Albanians, Greek politicians still claim today that these individuals were collaborators of the Nazi regime and deserved to be massacred and expelled. The Greek government today denies Chams ever existed and its citizens were thus silenced by the totalitarian and longstanding theocratic regimes. After the Marshall Plan, the United States policies and programs implied and supposed that Greece would be an important ally and a stable democracy in the Mediterranean basin. With the Schengen visa liberalization program put in place a few years ago, many Chams optimistically believed they would have the opportunity to visit their ancestral lands and resettle in their properties. They were wrong. Many of them were stopped and abused at the border checkpoints and their passports were often torn by Greek customs agents. The Greek Consulate in Tirana has always denied issuing entry visas to Albanians born in Greece, so the latter are denied the right to put a bouquet of flowers on top of their ancestors who are buried there, in their thousand-year old lands. Unfortunately, Greece does not allow the latter to freely speak in their mother language, Albanian, in public. They have no right to register as Albanians and are not recognized as a minority. Evidently, these acts are fundamental human rights abuses based on the principles of freedom of movement and those of property rights.

Who are the Arvanites?

Albanians of Greece are primarily autochthonous populations. Also, due to many continuous Albanian migrations and population movements in the Middle Ages, there now exist a substantial Albanian ethnic presence within Greece’s political borders. According to the Arvanite League of Greece, today exist nearly 420.000 Arvanitika-Albanian speakers in Greece in Attica, Boeotia, Southern Euboea and Peloponnese. These estimates however do not include the Albanian speakers of regions of Thrace and Epirus. In most Cham villages, people older than 40 speak Albanian only at home. In a visit in 2010, our representatives met a lot of individuals and locals were moved to tears as they conversed in Albanian and asked for more frequent exchanges. To illustrate, the Plaka district in central Athens near Acropolis was the Albanian quarter of the city with its own law courts utilizing the Albanian language. Giorgos Margaritis points out in his book “Unwanted Compatriots: Chams and Jews” (2005) that while Christian Orthodox Albanians were constant targets of Hellenization (a form of forceful assimilation), Muslim Albanians and Jews on the other hand, were either exterminated or expelled from their ancestral lands by the Greek government and its military.

Who are the Chams?

Chams or Thyamides/Chamides are an ethnic subgroup of the Albanian nation residing in the geographic area near the Bistrica river, all the way to the Cham villages (Tsamohoria/Τσαμοχωρια) of Preveza and they number 300,000-500,000 people. They are known to be industrious, entrepreneurial, peaceful and honest people who throughout the centuries have set up trade and merchant centers in the coastal areas beginning from Patra, Gumenica, Vlora, all the way to Durrës and Lezha. This advantage made Chams become significant economic, cultural and political actors in the Byzantine, Ottoman, Greek, and Albanian societies. The city of Janina, today Ioannina, was officially Southern Albania’s capital for nearly 200 years until 1913. February 1913 marks the 100th anniversary of Janina’s occupation from Greece and Chams mourn to this day with the folk poem “Në male përmbi Sajadhë – Over Sayada’s mountains”. Chams are considered to be “Achilles heel” according to analysts since they would create a significant precedent balancing Greece’s stability or existence.

Chams marching near Qafe Bote in 2012

Albanians also have a strong collective memory that is not reinforced through educational and social systems instilling hate in children who eventually grow up to be confused, hateful, and blind nationalists. Similarly, the young Golden Dawn followers today are simply reacting to the globalization phenomena of migration, free trade economies, by using Albanians as their easy prey. Chams have coexisted with other groups for many years in Greece, Albania, and elsewhere and this shows that Greek society is capable of hosting/treating non-Greek groups with respect and dignity. Setting aside the terror and oppression against Albanians and Arvanites in Greece, Chams nevertheless positively recollect celebrating important Christian and Muslim holidays among themselves including the Aromanians/Vlachs.

Roots of Greek Extremism

Greek extremism is ingrained in the Modern Greek state and this has directly affected the Cham Albanians and Albanians of Greece in general. Extremism of the Golden Dawn party type is popular today in Greece because a significant number of Greek citizens depend on the public sector (i.e. local government, army, police, and secret services). Therefore it can be inferred that is not embraced simply as a reaction to the migrants or minorities but also as a function of their immediate interests in not “diversifying” the labor marketplace. Greek society has shown that it needs migrants and minorities to feed the economic prosperity but also it needs their cultures to showcase the fictional “Greek” elements of these cultures.
The inhuman treatment of minorities is not reflective of a democratic European country which in its educational system, funded by European Union funds, still absurdly emphasizes that its spiritual capital in Istanbul, Turkey, is Greece’s capital. Following this chauvinistic byzantine logic, since 1991 the Greek Orthodox Church has established deep roots into Albania and hence violated the self-determination of the Albanian Autocephalous Orthodox Church. Analysts argue that this was done to leverage their position and use the Greek-speaking Vlach population near the Chameria region as an argument to cover-up of the crimes perpetrated by the Greek Army near the end of WWII. As Greek historian Thanos Veremis asserts, the educational system was primarily an instrument of the Greek Church to homogenize minority population masses. This tool however, failed in creating divergences and a full-scale assimilation, because these minorities learned Greek in school but still spoke their mother tongues at home and that reinforced their non-Greek identity. History shows us how Greek Bishop Dorotheos in the mid-1940s directly planned the massive attack on the Cham population with the departing Nazi army.
Unfortunately today, the less extreme, moderate and reasonable voices of Greek intellectuals and civil society are still to weak to be heard in a cacophony complete with accusations against Germany, the West, conspiracy theories, and imperialistic plans to disintegrate Greece…

What Do Chams Want?

It has been shown that since 1991, Chams sought justice, dignity, and an acceptable resolution to the Cham issue. Chams still demand the return to their properties, homes, and citizenship which have been rejected, denied and blocked by Greek government since 1945. Today elderly Chams born in cities like Ajdonat/Paramithia, Filat/Filiates, Gumenica, Preveza and Margëlliç/Margariti are not allowed to visit their homes and properties. Today we observe that the border checkpoint are irrelevant even though the borders drawn in 1913 by the British philhellenes did not match the ethnic demographic realities, with Albanians living far beyond Albania’s “Londonian” borders. Positive solutions and change in Greece will be the resettlement of Chams in Chameria, the compensation for their confiscated properties, the double citizenship for those that apply, the opening of Albanian schools for historically inhabited Albanian areas of Chameria like Arta, Preveza, and Albanian speaking areas in Atica, Livadhi, Korinth, Thrace etc.

Do Chams Seek Border Changes?

No, a border change may prove to be irrelevant or even detrimental to all Europeans. Although decades have passed since the terrible Cham genocide, this march symbolizes the courage, vitality, and determination of Albanian people, whether they are from Kosova, Tetova, Tuzi, Tirana or Konispoli. Subsequently, the Cham issue is not a local, or regional issue, it is a European issue. It is believed that the total wealth of the Chams in real estate properties and investments surpasses 1 billion dollars. With the integration of Albania into the European Union, it is believed that borders will be less significant, allowing people to freely move and exchange their cultures, and strengthen the markets and economic development. Europe has benefited and will benefit from a strong Albanian presence in the Balkans which is composed of a young, intelligent, motivated and diligent workforce.

Cham Albanian Efforts

In December 2012, the PDIU (Party for Justice Integration & Unity) party presented a draft resolution to be passed before the Albanian parliament in the spring of 2013. This document was disgracefully rejected in 2004. Now the resolution mainly aims to reactivate the Treaty of Friendship between Albania and Greece and abolish the Law of War Decree between Greece and Albania No.2636/1940 and 2637/1940 respectively which are still active legislation. This document also calls for the establishment of bilateral ad-hoc committees to jointly work on resolving the Cham issue. Other areas that this document charges the Albanian MFA, Ministry of Education and Science and Greek government to work on the recognition of the minority status, the erection of two monuments in Paramithi and Filat to recognize the loss of innocent women, children, and elderly who were massacred by Greek Army units, with the proper conveyance of this tragic events in school textbooks. Charging the relevant diplomatic corps with resolving the issue is another important element of this document. The Albanian American Organization Chameria (AAOC) fully supports this important initiative by PDIU and has been providing full support for this resolution.
The Chams’ march is a consequence of the last Balkan wounds that are still open due to the active Greek and Serbian nationalistic campaigns against non-Greek and non-Serbian peoples in the 19th and 20th centuries. If the Chameria resolution does not get passed, the Cham problem may land “in the hands of nationalists” and the path to resolution may take the same form as it did with Kosova. Subsequently we may also see that the Albanian element in Macedonia and Presheva igniting a new conflict inevitably further spilling into Chameria. Most importantly, the march symbolizes the demographic reality that Greece has to accept. Although 3 million Arvanites where silenced in the past century for various causes, 1 million Albanians, who emigrated to Greece after the 1990’s have inevitably become a conscious Albanian part of the backbone of the ever-changing Greek nation.
Coincidentally, the ancient location where the march ends is called “Qafa e Botës” meaning the mountain-pass of the earth. Perhaps this place name hints that it is the gateway to the breathtaking Cham landscape. Chameria’s impressive landscape did not even escape Lord Byron’s poetry and penmanship. As a romantic poet, he writes about the same qualities that many Cham Albanians still possess today.
Finally, Chams could serve as the bright and optimistic nexus between Greek and Albanian relations otherwise the Cham march will repeat in 2013 and annually until the issue is resolved by Greece..