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Feature 22 Jan 18

Albania’s New Greek Cemeteries Risk Reviving Old Grudges

Albania’s government has promised to build new graveyards for Greek soldiers who died there during World War II – but some Albanians fear they could turn into pilgrimage sites for Greek nationalists, who have long coveted southern Albania.

Fatjona Mejdini
The Greek soldier cemetery near Kelcyre, South of Albania. Photo: Fatjona Mejdini

Albania’s pledge to build new cemeteries for Greek soldiers who died on its soil during battles with occupying Italian fascist troops in 1941 has been welcomed by ministers on both sides.

But some experts in Albania warn that the move could, ironically, reignite decades-old resentments.

The move comes as part of a major agreement that Albania and Greece have pledged to sign. Issues of discussion are split into three blocks: past, present, and the future.

The issue of cemeteries for Greek soldiers forms part of the former, together with expectations that the two sides will end the bizarre but formant “state of war” that has legally existed between them since 1941, when Italian fascists in occupied Albania attacked Greece.

On “present” issues, two countries must agree on issues concerning Albanians migrant workers in Greece and better collaboration in fields of common interest. “Future” issues include a maritime border deal.

The planned agreements with Greece are expected to expedite Albania’s EU negotiation process, preventing any further disputes that might stall Albania’s progress.

After first meeting last November in Crete, Greece, the two foreign ministers met from January 19-21 in Korca, in southeast Albania.

In December, meanwhile, Albania agreed to build new cemeteries for Greek soldiers who died fighting Italian forces in World War II, settling a dispute that has endured for almost 80 years.

Two delegations approved a process “of checking, identifying, disinterment and [reburial of] the remains of Greek soldiers” with their Greek counterparts at the meeting in Crete.

The Albanian government turned this proposal into a formal decision on December 13, which Greek Foreign Minister Nikos Kotzias hailed as “a step showing trust “.

In an interview for TV Ora News, Albania’s Foreign Minister Ditmir Bushati on January 8 said the decision on the cemeteries was not new, recalling that in 2009 the former government of prime minister Sali Berisha passed a similar decision, although it was never implemented.

“Since 2013, we have discussed this issue also with defence ministry experts, on how to ensure this agreement. There is a joint committee of experts working on this issue,” he said.

However, when BIRN asked the Foreign Ministry for details of the cost of these news cemeteries, the deadline, who is going to pay for them and who will carry out the work, the ministry said any queries should be sent to the Defence Ministry, which is leading this process.

The Defence Ministry confirmed that it was heading the committee, but said it was up to it to release any information. So far, they are keeping important details secret.

Legacy of a forgotten war

The checking for Greek soldier remains has already started near Peshtan, a village in South Albania. Photo: Fatjona Mejdini

In the winter of 1940, occupying Italian forces loyal to fascist strongman Benito Mussolini invaded Greece from Albania, which Italy had occupied in 1939.

The battles lasted seven months and thousands of Greek and Italian soldiers died in the mountainous region and remain unburied there.

Greek military archives show that by the end of the war there were almost 14,000 Greek fatalities on the Albanian front.

Almost 8,000 war dead remain there, whether formally buried or not.

The exact number is not known.

Greek authorities have demanded new cemeteries for their war dead since the 1970s, but Albania’s communist regime refused to comply, and instead offered Greece the opportunity to exhume the remains and repatriate them for reburial.

After Albania’s communist regime collapsed in 1992, Greek calls for new burial grounds grew louder.

The Bularat cemetery in southern Albania was built during the war. On December 20, 2017 Albania gave it the status of “historic cemetery”, which means that official commemorations by the two states will be held there.

In 2000, a new Greek military cemetery was built in Kelcyra, next to the village church, with around 350 graves. This initiative was the work of the Albanian Orthodox Church.

Further progress on building Greek soldiers’ cemeteries in Albania became difficult and laden with suspicion in 2006, after the so-called “Kosina scandal” erupted.

In the village in southern Albania, near Permet, Albanian authorities found out that 70 graves of people from the village had been dug up and counted as Greek soldiers’ remains.

The local prosecution opened a case against an Orthodox priest, Fr Vasil Thomollari, for leading the disinterment, but the investigation was soon closed and charges of “violation of graves” failed.

Today, Albanian historians call the offer of new memorials a concession to Greece in a bid to abolish the official state of war that has existed between the states for decades.

They claim the move could reignite historical resentments, however, fearing that the new cemeteries could turn into sites of Greek nationalist pilgrimage rather than places of peaceful remembrance.

Digging up the past

Greeks have long had aspirations to annex southern Albania, or have pushed for what they call “Northern Epirus” to become an independent state, linked to Greece, citing the presence of many ethnic Greeks in the area.

Those attempts to change the border failed. But, while Greece no longer lays claim to this part of Albania, many historians fear that large new cemeteries will “mark out” Greek territory, and be seen as proof among Greek nationalists that Greek soldiers “died in their own land”.

These Albanians fear that it will rekindle Greek territorial claims and that arguments about “Northern Epirus” will again be used against Albania.

Beqir Meta, director of Albania’s Institute of History, notes that the Greek forces that crossed back into Albania fighting the Italian invaders then occupied the area, claiming they were liberating Northern Epirus, which they then claimed should become Greek territory after World War II.

“These new cemeteries are a milestone for the old claims,” Meta said.

However, Andre Gerolymatos, Professor of History and Director of the Stavros Niarchos Foundation Centre for Hellenic Studies at Simon Fraser University in Canada, told BIRN that Greece’s motivation was more religious than territorial.

“The bodies of thousands of Greek soldiers are scattered [across the area],” he said. “It is religious sentiment that would drive the notion of establishing cemeteries.”

He also noted that old territorial claims in the Balkans carry little weight in the modern era – especially when seen in the context of European law.

“Greece is a member of the EU and cannot make any territorial claims against its neighbours,” he said.

He added that the new cemeteries could attract thousands of tourists each year – as do those in France, Holland and other countries – giving Albania’s economy a much-needed boost.

Chams feel left out of the question

Cham community reminding the expel from Northen Greece in July 2016. Photo: PDIU 

However, Beqir Meta insists that Greece first needs to address the forced expulsion of tens of thousands of ethnic Albanians from northern Greece at the end of World War II, which some argue was an act of genocide.

The so-called Cham Albanians were expelled for having allegedly collaborated with Italian and German occupiers.

Meta believes it is unfair that new cemeteries for the Greeks have been agreed while Greece offers no progress on this issues.

He says that Albania should in turn demand new burial grounds for the Cham who died during the Greek expulsion. “Reciprocity is a necessity,” he said.

Although the Cham issue has formed part of Albania’s diplomatic agenda with Greece in recent years, it is not clear whether it was discussed as a part of the latest talks.

Cham politicians, from the Party for Justice, Integration and Unity, seek the return of their properties lost in Greece, along with an official apology.

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