Macedonian Refugee Children: Exodus Anniversary

This year marks the 60th anniversary of the exodus of the "refugee children" from Aegean Macedonia (Northern Greece). The "children," who are now elderly, gathered from all over the world in Skopje in July to commemorate.

Their story is a sad one. They fled their homes amid a raging civil war and grew up separated from parents and siblings. When they became adults, they could not return to their native Greece or claim their land. For the first time ever, their demands were endorsed by the Macedonian government this year.

Some 25,000-30,000 children were exiled from Northern Greece in the later phase of its civil war, which raged 1945-1949. Most of them, according to Macedonian historians, were of Macedonian ethnic origin, whereas several thousand were Greek. They were evacuated by the Greek Communist Party, which was one of the sides in the conflict, and were sent to "democratic" communist countries in the Eastern bloc. Many of the children stayed in Macedonia and the other republics in former Yugoslavia. Others went to Hungary, Romania, Poland, and other communist countries.

The motive was essentially humanitarian in nature, to have the children safe from war, and by doing that to ease the mobilization of their parents as combatants.

Some historians yet claim otherwise—that even in that humanitarian operation there was an ulterior motive of ethnic cleansing.

After having been exiled from Greece, some of these children were brought back in the last phases of the war—as child soldiers. They were taken from their dorms in the allied communist countries, trained in camps in former Yugoslavia, and sent to the front. Poland was the only country that did not allow the recruitment of children it hosted.

Once they became a little older, many of the refugee children scattered in the migrant-friendly lands of America, Canada, and Australia.

When they fled they were told they would return shortly, immediately after the victory. Alas, they never did.

In the post-war years, their Greek citizenship had been revoked and their properties in Greece confiscated. For half a century they could not enter Greece. Those who attempted were returned from the border. In the 1980's Greece passed legislation allowing the return only of those who are "Greek by origin." Several years ago Athens made a concession allowing the entry of those who would not have the Macedonian toponym of their village of birth written in their passports.

For all of these years the "refugee children" have demanded the right to go back and the restitution of their property.

"We call upon the Greek government, in the name of historic justice and human rights as universal value, to face the unsustainable policy of the past. We want to be able to return to our homeland and we want abolition of the discriminatory laws which deny our rights," said the refugees in a statement from their meeting in Skopje in July.

Several thousand refugees gathered from all over the world in the newly built Boris Trajkovski Hall. The event was greeted by the president of the Macedonian Parliament, Trajko Veljanovski.

This is the first time that any official endorsement was given by the Macedonian government to the refugees. At the same time, Prime Minister Nikola Gruevski wrote letters to Greek Prime Minister Konstantin Karamanlis and European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso asking for recognition of the unrecognized Macedonian minority in Greece.

There has been a lot of debate in the Macedonian press recently over the possibility of legal action for the restitution of refugee property in Greece.

The Association of Refugee Children from Aegean Macedonia has recently filed a complaint with the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg. Apart from that, no individual petitions for property restitution have been reported. Some news reports operate with a number of around 4,000 claims that have allegedly already been received by a coordination initiative run from Skopje. Yet, experts claim that carrying such an initiative through Greek courts could prove a challenge. Some suggest exploring the possibility of taking legal action in courts in other countries. Legal experts further indicate that the provision in Greek law that only "Greeks by origin" are entitled to restitution of property is not in accordance with international standards.

"The Nuremberg principles [adopted in 1946] which are now legislation in more than 80 countries," says Sam Vaknin, an economist, "are not concerned with the ethnicity or the 'origin' of the refugees. If their property was seized, it is not important if they were listed as Bulgarian or even if they were or were not Greek citizens."

An Israeli citizen who lives in Skopje, Vaknin makes comparisons to the Jewish experience in obtaining compensation for the suffering during the World War II. According to him it is important that "Macedonia becomes the home state of the refugees [to give citizenship to those who do not have it], and to become their legal protector." That is to say, the government should get involved and stand behind these legal proceedings.

This is something all Macedonian governments have been shying away from since independence. Under Greek pressure in the early 1990's, Macedonia changed the provision in its constitution committing to care for its kin in neighboring states. With all the complexity of the name issue and Greek consistent claims of Macedonian irredentism, it is clear why subsequent governments in Macedonia have chosen not to get involved. It would have been the ultimate shortcut for worsening relations with Greece.

After the signing of the interim accord in 1995, which ended the Greek embargo, for 13 subsequent years relations between the two countries have been improving, Greek investment followed, and the name issue was stashed under the carpet. A perfect way to resolve it, many thought. All until the beginning of this year and the NATO summit, when Greece vetoed Macedonia's entry over the name issue.

For years after their exile there had been consistent attempts to reunite refugee children, scattered the world over with their families. Some succeeded. Some never did. In some cases it took decades for a brother and sister to meet.

The Macedonians in Greece were manipulated by Tito and the Yugoslav leadership at the time, says historian Todor Cepreganov, director of the Institute of National History in Skopje. "They entered the war deceived by promises of 'Macedonian unification' made by the Yugoslav leadership, which also had its eyes on Trieste and Istria."

Cepreganov says that Tito and Tempo (Svetozar Vukmanovic) were promising "unification" to the Macedonians as a mode for achieving their idea of domination in the Balkans. In this way they simply manipulated them for Stalin's global and Tito's regional interests.

From Osservatorio sui Balcani.

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