Why did it
A question of
A few weeks before the beginning of WWI, in the early summer of 1914, a series of violent attacks took place in hundreds of towns and villages along the Aegean coast of Turkey, in what was then the Ottoman Empire.
The perpetrators were gangs of irregular bandits (called çete and başıbozuk in Turkish), armed with government-issued Martini rifles and other weapons. Their modus operandi was to surround and attack villages and towns, loot all that was valuable, and drive away the population.
Their targets were the Greek-speaking, Christian citizens of the Empire – referred in this documentary as Ottoman Greeks. In Turkish, their designation is “Rum” (a leftover from the word “Roman”, as this was once part of the Easter Roman Empire, aka Byzantium) and is to be distinguished from “Yunan” (“Greek”) who are the Greeks of Greece.
The Rum/Ottoman Greeks were one among 17 official millets (religious communities/minorities) in the Ottoman Empire. Other millets were the Armenians, the Bulgarians, the Assyrians, etc. According to a 1914 official Ottoman Census, the total number of Ottoman Greeks in the Empire amounted to around 1.8 million. Of those, at least 170,000 (and according to some sources, more than half a million) fled to Greece in the aftermath of the 1914 persecutions. Some moved on to other countries like France, Australia, or the U.S.A..
Among the towns attacked were the ports of Eski (Old) and Yeni (New) Foça/Phocaea. Their entire Rum population (total: just below 20,000) fled as refugees, through mountains and sea, to Greece. This documentary is about them.
The reasons behind these violent attacks are manifold and sometimes contested, but their results are unequivocal and internationally recorded. By the time the attacks were stopped, a large part of the Ottoman Greek population of the Empire had been persecuted and thrown out of the country. You can find photographic evidence of the attacks, as well as reports by the Times of London, the Manchester Guardian, and other newspapers, in this documentary.
It is now claimed by historians on both sides (Greece and Turkey) that the forced displacement of Ottoman Greeks in the spring and summer of 1914 was a first experiment in domestic ethnic cleansing, conceived by the paramilitary branch of the Committee of Union and Progress, the political party that had usurped power in the Ottoman Empire through a coup in January 1913. This paramilitary branch was called Teşkilât-ı Mahsûsa (Special Organisation) and is widely recognised today as the mastermind behind and perpetrator of the Armenian Massacres that stared a year later, in 1915 – what most historians today call “the Armenian Genocide”.
A few weeks after the ousting of the Ottoman Greeks from Phocaea and other majority- Greek towns and villages, World War I broke out. The Ottoman Empire joined in November 1914, on the side of its ally, the German Empire. Greece entered the war in 1917, on the side of the Allied Powers. Five years later, in May 1919, as the defeated Ottomans were forced to sign an armistice, Greek troops –encouraged by their victorious allies, Britain and France– were sent to occupy a large chunk of the western coast of Turkey, “to secure peace”.
A lot of the Ottoman Greeks who had fled in 1914 now came back, on the heels of the invading Greek army. The Greeks from the two Phocaeas were among them. They rebuilt their ruined homes and resumed cultivating their lands. Often, they had to chase away another miserable bunch of refugees, who had been living in their abandoned houses: Muslims from the Balkans who, fleeing the 1912-1913 Balkan Wars, had been told to occupy the properties left by the Rum in the summer of 1914.
The repatriation of the Rum/Ottoman Greeks did not end well: never having accepted the idea of occupying forces in Anatolia, Turks took up arms in May 1919. Three years later, in September 1922, a victorious Mustafa Kemal (Atatürk), future founder of the Republic of Turkey, drove Greek troops out of Anatolia. The almost 1.8 million Ottoman Greek subjects of the Empire became refugees (some for the second time round), war casualties, or were later forcefully exchanged with Muslim populations from mainland Greece, in an attempt to stop the two countries from ever again going to war over their respective religious minorities. (It worked).
By 1923/1924, after the Exchange of Populations was completed, only 120,000 Ottoman Greeks were left in Turkey. Today, the Turks refer to the Greco-Turkish war of 1919-1922 as The War of Independence. The Greeks, as the Asia Minor Campaign, leading to The Catastrophe. It is a core part of each country’s national narrative.
Zooming back in to Phocaea:
Fleeing Turkey for the second time in eight years, the Ottoman Greeks of Phocaea scattered throughout Greece in 1922. They gathered in refugee neighbourhoods in Piraeus, Halkida, Thessaloniki, and on the islands of Crete and Lesbos. But most tellingly, by July 1924, they had founded at least two new communities named after their lost homelands: Palaia Fokaia (Old Phocaea), 43 kms outside of Athens; and Nea Fokaia (New Phocaea), 82 kms outside of Thessaloniki.
This documentary is about the story of how it all began, back in June 1914. And the story of how people –Greeks and Turks– remember these events and try to heal the transgenerational wounds they created.