Pappou Niko's eternal exile
Part two of Dean Kalimniou's
13 Jan 2014
"I told him that though we did not trust the Greek ELAS, because we considered that they were being hoodwinked by the Albanian communists, who were more nationalistic than the fascists, we would not assist him to fight against fellow Greeks. Our main aim was solely to liberate our country and protect our people. Under no circumstances would we spill the blood of our own people, communists or otherwise. At this, Zervas seemed crestfallen. He told me he would have to get in touch with the High Command in Cairo and obtain orders before he could pledge any assistance. I was given a pair of army boots and I made my way back to my village and set about obtaining recruits for the Front.
The second time I was sent to Zervas, he was not at his headquarters and I was told he was deliberating with EAM representatives. I did not have enough money to remain in Ioannina to wait for him and I returned home. A few weeks later, I was sent to Zervas again, as we were being subjected to extreme pressure by the Albanian communist forces and their propaganda machine. When I asked Zervas for a commitment he replied:
"Well, I don't really have any need for any more soldiers. But if you want to spill blood, we can perhaps find a place for you and your men within our ranks."
I told him that we were not interested in participating in his quarrel with the Greek communists. The only thing we wanted to do was to liberate Northern Epirus, something that he manifestly had absolutely no interest in.
"I do care about Northern Epirus," came Zervas' reply, but there is no other way than this."
"You promised me other things, last time," I told him.
"I promised you nothing," he spat.
Not being able to restrain myself any longer, I called him a liar and a traitor to his face. He turned purple and calming himself with difficulty, said softly. "I am not a liar. My hands are tied. The British have ruled out any sort of liberation campaign in Northern Epirus. But we need you to supply us with information as to the position and number of Italian troops in Albania. I know you are a fervent patriot. Get us this information and then possibly in the future, we can do something about Northern Epirus."
I left despondent and furious."
Inevitably, Nikos and his fellow front members would see their most fervent hopes shattered. Having no support either from the still exiled Greek government or any of the resistance groups, the Front was powerless to stop the well organised onslaught of the Albanian Communist party, which, with the help of its Greek counterpart, was telling the impressionable villagers of Northern Epirus that under their rule, land would be redistributed, wrongs righted and their minority status would be respected. During the course of his life, Nikos Syrmos would relate the many occasions in which members of either the Greek ELAS or the Albanian Communist party would make contact with them in order to attempt to force them to join their ranks. In time, members of the Albanian merchant class, Muslim clerics and landowners would also seek them out, in order to ask for protection, as it been made known that these groups were to be liquidated should the Albanian Communist party come to power.
At this time, representatives of the Front decided to join the communist party only in specific attacks against the Axis, provided that the latter will recognise the autonomy of the region in the post-war period. Although the Albanian communist leaders agreed and assurances of the British allied mission were given, they secretly marked Vasilis Sahinis for liquidation. Nikos Syrmos was present during all of the negotiations that took place between the resistance groups. At one particular meeting in the city of Argyrokastro, Nikos, who was a delegate for the Front, after being reassured by the Albanian communists that their collaboration was underwritten by the Greek ELAS, noticed that no delegate from that organisation was in attendance. He walked out of the meeting, which was supposed to launch the united front of all resistance groups in Albania, causing a mass walkout by all the other Greeks in attendance. From that moment onwards, Nikos Syrmos was a marked man.
In September 1943 Italy surrendered to the Allies and her place in Albania was taken by Nazi troops. The Northern Epirus Liberation Front was to take the initiative for a short period, fighting against combined armed groups of Germans and Albanian nationalists. The results were devastating, as the Albanian nationalists engaged in a flurry of looting and burning Greek villages, shooting the inhabitants by firing squads and hanging the village priests. Nikos Syrmos witnessed the massacre of Greeks in Leskoviki at the hands of Albanian fascist collaborator Safet Butka. It was while the Greeks of Northern Epirus were being subjected to this vicious bout of ethnic cleansing that the Albanian communists, who occupied the city of Argyrokastro on 17 November 1943, tortured and killed the leader of the Northern Epirus Liberation Front, Vasilis Sahinis.