I decided to go with them. The whole village gathered in our neighborhood church of St. Demetrios for the service. In a small ossuary, divided from the sanctuary by a wall, lay the bones of my mother and my aunt in a small wooden box, mixed together as they had been when my grandfather disinterred the bodies from the rough grave. Sun slanted through the dusty windows of the crowded church as the priest began to chant and the altar boys swung the censers, the heavy perfume mingling with the odor of decay. Unexpectedly, the schoolteacher stood up to speak.
He was the only educated man in the village and he wanted to deliver a eulogy. As soon as he said our mother's name, my sisters began to wail: keening, ululating cries, the Greek expression of sorrow for the dead. The schoolteacher spoke over the commotion. She was a victim of her fellow Greeks. This is not an ordinary memorial service for the dead; she was murdered! Nearly every day of my childhood, I had watched her light a candle before this altar.
The shrieks of my sisters stripped away the veneer of control I had built up, layer by layer. Even when I was a boy, on the day my mother said goodbye, and again, when I learned she was dead, I had held my grief inside. Now it erupted. Sobs welled up from where they had been hidden for so many years and shook my body like a convulsion. The rush of emotion blurred my vision and then my knees buckled. Two men nearby grabbed my arms and supported me out of the church, propping me on the ground, my back against the trunk of one of the towering cypress trees surrounding the graveyard.
That outburst was the first and last time I lost control and abandoned myself to my grief, but when it passed, I discovered a new strength within me. At last I was ready to learn what the villagers had to tell me and to look directly at the details of my mother's death. When I began asking questions, I found that many parts of the story were still beyond my reach. The villagers who had betrayed her, who testified against her to curry favor with the guerrillas, were still in exile behind the Iron Curtain. And those who were living in Lia remembered the guerrillas only by the pseudonyms they had assumed to mask their identities.
I spent the full summer of in Lia, but when I left in the fall, it was clear that despite my emotional readiness to hear my mother's story, I did not have access to key people involved or the skills to get the truth out of them. On my return to America, I submerged myself in the business of life.
I married a woman I had known since graduate school and in rapid succession we had three children, first a son, named Christos for my father, then two daughters, the older one baptized Eleni after my mother. I began a job for The New York Times as an investigative reporter, a brand of newspaperman who is as much a detective as a journalist. I learned how to ferret out facts that others wanted hidden and to make witnesses trap themselves with their own words.
Only later did I realize that I was unconsciously honing my skills for the task I had chosen as a boy: to find out what had happened to my mother and who was responsible for her death. In July , the collapse of the dictatorial right-wing military junta ruling Greece opened the gates for Communist guerrillas living in exile to return to the country. Many of those I wanted to question about my mother's trial and death would now be accessible to me.
In Greece, I discovered that the fall of the junta and the establishment of a new civilian Government, which legalized the Communist Party, had revived Communist influence. Communist leaders were denying that such things as the execution of civilians and the abduction of large groups of children from the mountain villages had ever happened. The volatile political climate in the area left me time for little else but my job.
I spent most of my first years in Greece traveling outside the country, covering terrorism in Turkey, battles in the Middle East, a revolution in Iran and civil war in Afghanistan. By , it was clear that I had to give myself up entirely to the investigation of my mother's story at once, or never do it. I learned that some of the guerrilla leaders responsible for her trial and execution had died in exile. Others were likely to die of old age before I could track them down.
Furthermore, Greece has a year statute of limitations on all crimes - including murder. Anyone who had committed an atrocity during the war years could now return to the country without fear of punishment, and the former leaders of the guerrillas were flooding back in. In , I was 41 years old, the same age that my mother had been when she was killed.
My son was 9, as I had been on the day I learned she was dead. My older daughter resembled my mother more every day. Seeing my children grow had taught me a lesson that made my mother's story easier to confront. When I was young, I was convinced that her existence had been one of unrelieved misery, because for the last decade of her life she had struggled every day to keep us five children alive, despite war and famine, with no help from anyone.
But as I watched my own children, I realized that there must have been joy and laughter to reward her while she lived. Knowing that made it easier to face what I would learn. Finally, clues about the identities of some of her killers began to filter to me in Athens and I knew I could not hesitate any longer. I decided to leave my job with the newspaper and, living on my savings, to devote all my energy to the search for my mother's story. He said that he had been the year-old boy drinking at the spring on the day my mother passed by to her execution.
He told me how, in , in the northern Greek city of Ioannina, he had recognized the owner of a bar as one of the armed guerrillas who had led the condemned to their deaths. His name, said Anthony,was Taki Cotees. It took only 45 minutes to fly to Ioannina, a provincial capital of crumbling minarets and peasant women in village costume. Although the bar Taki owned had been closed, I was able to track him down with the help of a local politician I knew.
He called Taki into his office and introduced me as a friend from the United States, a writer who ''wants some information you can give him. Please help him all you can. Taki looked nothing like I expected. He was a small, frail, gnomelike man, untidy wisps of gray hair spiking out around his bald pate, his lower face caved in around an overbite. He had the sly, shriveled look of a doll made from a dried apple. The only things still young about him were his eyes, which were a startling gold color and darted about nervously. Taki promised to do whatever he could. I steered the former guerrilla to my rented car and began to drive aimlessly, leaving the city behind, meanwhile asking where he had spent the war.
He was posted in the village of Lia, Taki said. Weren't five people from that village executed? I asked. Taki frowned.
Yes, he had been at the execution himself, he said, as one of the guards. No, not on the firing squad; that was made up of guerrillas stationed higher up the mountain who had come down to the killing ground. Those executions were a very bad thing, he said, shaking his head. Did he remember two women? He thought for a moment. One was a woman with light brown hair who had a home near the church at the western edge of the village, he recalled, a house with a mulberry tree nearby.
That house had been used as the jail and he had been posted there as a guard. Taki was getting visibly uneasy, watching the deserted countryside flash by. I told him who she was. Taki became more agitated and suggested that we stop somewhere for a coffee. Once we stopped and he found himself in the security of a well-lighted roadside cafe, he relaxed a little and described what he remembered of the executions.
During several subsequent meetings with Taki, I pumped him for the names of his guerrilla superiors and the men who had served as judges at my mother's trial. His memory was blurry and he could give me only the pseudonym of one of the judges -Yiorgos Economou - but, he added, it was another judge who had been head of the court. In our last meeting, in a hotel lobby, I pressed Taki to remember details of the tortures to which the prisoners had been subjected during the 20 days he stood guard duty outside the jail in Lia.
While the guerrillas hit her, he said, one of them held her shoulders and pressed his knee against her back. When I said I did not understand, he got up and showed me. From behind, he grasped my arms just below the shoulder, then lifted his knee and placed it in the small of my back. Then he twisted my arms back at an angle that threatened to dislocate them from the sockets and pushed with his knee against the curve of my spine. He didn't apply much pressure; it was only a friendly demonstration. I felt myself in a position that left me totally helpless.
The inability to move, coupled with the pressure on the fragile vertebrae of the spine, was the surprising thing. I pictured my backbone snapping like that of a fish on a plate. A startling pain, considering the lack of force, shot up across my shoulders into the base of my skull. That one flash of pain left me weak as a child, not because of the pain itself, but because I suddenly imagined it magnified many times over, heightened by fear, and being done to my mother.
For an instant I felt a tiny fraction of the suffering she experienced, day after day, increasing in viciousness until she was killed. The reality of the pain washed my mind clear of illusion. In that split second, I realized what I hadn't yet admitted to myself. It wasn't enough to find out the details of her torments. The only way I could live with that knowledge and find some sort of relief was to exact payment in kind for the agony she had gone through.
She was one of the few prisoners in the cellar jail in Lia who had survived to tell what went on there. Dina had been on trial with my mother but she was exonerated and set free. I wanted to find out what she remembered of the judges. Dina was now an unremarkable matron with grizzled short hair.
She was wearing a shapeless print dress, and a kindly smile revealed three gold teeth, but once she had been a beauty. Dina welcomed me hospitably into her stuffy apartment, crowded with memorabilia of her children, including the small son taken from her by the guerrillas and sent to a camp in Rumania for seven years.
She shook her head when I asked her about the judge called Yiorgos Economou; the only judge who had made an impression on her was a man with a voice so deep and terrifying that ''when he spoke you thought you were hearing Death himself. The word Katis struck me like a blow, although I had heard it many times before. Katis is simply a shortened form of an Albanian word that means judge, but it was the pseudonym of a man whom many villagers had described to me. He worked for the judicial branch of the guerrillas and assembled the evidence against the defendants at the trial.
He conducted interrogations and orchestrated the tortures. He was universally remembered as the chief judge at my mother's trial. I had often heard the name Katis from my sister Glykeria, the only one of us left behind when the rest escaped the village. On the last day of my mother's life, my year-old sister was allowed to see her while Katis stood by, watching.
Glykeria said that my mother had taken him aside and whispered to him, pleading that the girl be spared. If I were to find my mother's killers, I had to find Katis, but first I had to learn his real name. Back in Athens, I managed to uncover one solid lead: The real name of Yiorgos Economou was Yiorgos Anagnostakis, a lawyer who had returned from exile in Tashkent in and was now living not far from me in Athens.
As for Katis, there was nothing in the police files. Before my search was over, I would encounter several coincidences so unlikely as to seem invented. The first occurred on a February afternoon when I arrived outside the modern apartment building where the former judge Anagnostakis lived, only to learn that on the day I went looking for him he had died of cancer. As for Katis, the closest thing to a lead was the comment of one ex-guerrilla I tracked down that a certain retired lawyer living in northern Greece might have known Katis during the war because the man had served in a similar position as a judge at guerrilla headquarters in the Grammos Mountains.
The lawyer's name was Demitris Gastis, and he was recuperating from a heart attack in his native village of Dilofo just north of Ioannina.
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I knew that Gastis, as judge for the 11th Division of the guerrilla army in the Grammos Mountains, had sentenced many to the firing squad. I found a debonair figure of gracefully aging urbanity with a neatly trimmed mustache, square horn-rimmed glasses and wavy saltand-pepper hair. He ushered me into the cool depths of his house, where pillowed banquettes lined the hand-decorated walls.
While I explained that I was a Greek-American journalist researching a book about the civil war, the former judge listened intently, then smiled and became expansive. Did he recall the judge in the Mourgana Mountains, I asked. Yes, a man named Anagnostakis, he replied, who had unfortunately just died. There was another judge, whom the people remembered as Katis, I prompted, but it seemed that he had died in exile. He thought Katis was alive somewhere in Athens.
I hoped my excitement didn't show as Gastis sat smiling, jiggling one slippered foot, pleased at the breadth of his knowledge. When I got control of my voice, I asked if he happened to recall the real name of Katis. While I considered this unexpected stroke of luck, Gastis went on talking, saying that, if I wanted to learn details of the military operations in the Mourgana during the war, I should stop on my way back through Ioannina and interview the former chief of staff of the entire Epirus Command, Maj.
Yiorgos Kalianesis. I'd have no trouble finding him, Gastis said, because the former guerrilla general now worked as a night clerk in a small tourist hotel, Hotel Alexios. He was on duty there every night. When I entered the dingy hotel lobby and found Kalianesis stationed behind the desk, he was stil a powerful figure despite his bald pate fringed with gray hair, his rolled shirtsleeves and wrin. When I entered the dingy hotel lobby and found Kalianesis stationed behind the desk, he was stil a powerful figure despite his bald pate fringed with gray hair, his rolled shirtsleeves and wrinkled slacks.
His small brown eyes were buried in a heavily jowled face over a thick neck which disappeared into a massive torso. His receding forehead bore depressions like thumbprints - the scars of shrapnel wounds. I was disappointed to learn that Kalianesis had been transferred from our area two months before my mother's execution, so he could not provide any first-hand details of her trial. But there was a judge still living who had presided over many such trials, he said, ''a man named Lykas, although everyone called him Katis.
I tried to maintain an expression of scholarly interest as I said I would very much like to talk to this Lykas, if only I knew where to find him. I had heard he lived in Athens. Kalianesis's jowls arranged themselves into a grin; he was delighted to be of service. I found the street and began going from door to door, reading the names posted beside the bells at each apartment house, looking for the one I wanted.
Finally I found it at No. I retreated to the edge of the pavement and stared up at his apartment, where a lamp was burning behind curtained windows. I imagined Katis sitting there in the security of his living room, sleek and complacent like the other judge I had just interviewed, confident that his war crimes were buried in the past. My rational side reminded me that I had no idea who lived up there with him. I could hardly burst in and attack him.
Everything I had learned so far suggested that Katis was the one person still alive who had direct responsibility for my mother's murder, but as an investigative reporter, I had to learn the exact degree of his culpability. Was he the initiator of her torture and execution, or an involuntary agent of others? I needed to gather more evidence before I confronted him. I finally turned away and walked off through Ioannina and found a hotel room, where I sat up most of the night, trying to decide what to do.
By morning, only one thing was clear: I was going back to my village. I had to return to the place where my mother had lived and died to think things through. As I drove into Lia, I kept hearing over the sound of the car's engine a phrase that my sister and my father had repeated a hundred times: ''Tin fagane i horiani'' - ''It was the villagers who devoured her.
To my family, the Communist guerrillas like Katis were an impersonal act of God, unleashed on our village by war, like a plague.
It was our neighbors whom they held responsible for my mother's death; the villagers who whispered secrets to the security police and testified against her at the trial. This was something I had to resolve: Perhaps the villagers really were more culpable in her death than the men who had passed the sentence and fired the bullets.
My mother's world was ruled by magic, superstition, ghosts and devils to be invoked or appeased by holy oil and charms, but these were not enough to save her and her children from the war that swept into their mountains. When she saw that living by the strict village canons was not enough, when it became a choice between losing her children or her life, she discovered a strength that I now know is given to few.
Before my search was over, I had to find my mother, to see her with the eyes of an adult, and to uncover her secret feelings about the world that caged her.
I had to do this to learn how she wanted me to deal with her murderers. I had to communicate with her across the chasm of death to discover if, as she climbed toward that ravine to her execution, she was Antigone, meeting death with resignation because she had purposely defied a human command to honor a higher law of the heart, or if she was Hecuba, crying out for vengeance.
What did she want me to do? The house where Eleni Gatzoyiannis suffered so much was also the house where she had been brought as a year-old bride, where my sisters and I were born, where we played and fought. It was now a ruin, but the terrace was still there, where my mother would bring her hand-turned sewing machine outside on warm evenings to take advantage of the breeze and look up occasionally from her work to see the valley stretching away below her.
We had been hungry here, but we had been happy, too, and our memories would outlast the house. I would have to rebuild this house, stone by stone, in my imagination before I could face Lykas and the others involved. I would have to re-create her lost village - a mysterious world as faded now as a tapestry from the Middle Ages, with only a face visible here, an arm there.
When I had remade it, weaving it from the memories of scores of different witnesses scattered by war all over the world, then I would have reached the end of my search for my mother. I would understand what it was that she wanted me to know as she left our gate for the last time to climb to the ravine. When I had uncovered the truth, which lay buried somewhere in the ruins of my house and my childhood, then I would be ready to confront Lykas and the rest. But my search had to begin with the discovery of a dead woman and the child who walked out of this mountain more than three decades ago.
I had to find the story, not only of my mother's death, but of her life as well. And to do that I had to go back to the autumn of With the outbreak of World War II and the invasion of Greece in , Eleni Gatzoyiannis found herself trapped in her isolated mountain village, with the sole responsibility of keeping her five young children alive through the coming years of bloodshed and famine. The war cut her off from her husband, Christos, a vegetable peddler in America, who had supported her for the 14 years of their marriage.
During extended visits back to Greece, he had fathered four daughters in 11 years. When he left for the last time, in November , Eleni, now called by some the Amerikana, was pregnant with a son, whom she would call Nikola. The invasion of Greece by Italy and then Germany isolated the country, cutting off essential food supplies. In villages like Lia some peasants starved; others froze to death in the snow, trying to carry valuables over the mountains to trade with the Albanians for corn. But Eleni managed to keep her ragged, barefoot children alive on wild greens, milk from the goats and scarce cornflour from her miller father.
Lia became a center of guerrilla activity through the efforts of two village youths, the Skevis brothers, who were educated and converted to Communism in a provincial teachers' academy. At the end of , the German troops retreated from Greece, leaving the ELAS forces in charge of most of the country. Because they felt shortchanged in the new Greek coalition Government, the leftist guerrillas tried to seize power in Athens in December While pitched battles raged throughout the capital, the Communist secret police fanned out, killing 13, civilians in a month throughout the Athens area.
While rightist police launched reprisals against former guerrillas, the majority of Greeks turned thankfully to sowing their fields after the ordeals of the previous four years. Eleni waited for word from her husband, and finally the letters came, along with trunks of American luxuries - candy, medicine, clothing and shoes - which she insisted on sharing with her neighbors.
During this period, Eleni agreed to hide two young ELAS guerrillas in her house to protect them from the Government police; the two soon escaped over the border into Albania. The leftist rebels in exile reorganized under the name of the Democratic Army of Greece and launched lightning raids on the mountains of northern Greece.
Eleni, visiting the provincial capital of Ioannina to buy rugs for the dowry of Olga, her oldest daughter, saw a group of young peasant girls who had been taken by force to fight with the guerrillas and had escaped. Worried about what to do if the fighting reached Lia, Eleni wrote to Christos, who replied: ''If they're fighting at the spring right above the house, you stay in your home with the children. After all, who are these guerrillas? They're Greeks, fellow villagers some of them, fighting for their rights.
I have worked for my living all my life and never bothered anyone. Why should they bother my family? The guerrillas, hardened by their months in the mountains, entered the village on Nov. They requisitioned flour and livestock from each house and sent the women on daily work details: building fortifications, cooking, digging graves, carrying wounded.
When a band of young women conscripts passed through Lia, Eleni realized that her own older daughters would soon be sent to fight in the mountains. Even if they survived, she knew, they would be considered unfit for marriage in the repressive society of the village. In a desperate attempt to save her oldest daughter, Eleni decided to burn Olga's foot with a poker heated in the fire ao ahe could not walk.
It worked, but the guerrillas took Eleni's second daughter, Kanta, who was only 15 and had always been thin and sickly. After the humiliation of being forced to wear trousers in public, Kanta was starved and subjected to daily brainwashing sessions and dawn-todusk battle training, but she fainted so often from hunger and exhaustion that the guerrillas finally sent her home as useless. The local political commissar decided to set up a security-police force and prison in Lia to insure the ''cooperation'' of the villagers.
Eleni's house was chosen and her family was given 24 hours to evacuate. They moved into the two-room home of Eleni's mother in the lower village. The security police encouraged the civilians to inform on each other. The police kept prisoners in Eleni's cellar, executed them and buried them in her yard. Eleni tried but failed to shield her children from seeing the violence all around them, including the stillwarm corpses Kanta discovered while grazing the animals.
In April , all women with children under the age of 14 were called to a meeting in the village church. A female guerrilla announced a new program of the Democratic Army: the pedomazoma, the ''gathering of children. Only a handful of the mothers volunteered their children, despite efforts to sway the starving villagers by handing out food to any children who were signed up.
Eleni desperately hoped that the program would remain voluntary and did not speak out against it, but one day Nikola, her son, hidden in a bean field, overheard two guerrilla officers say that all the children would soon be taken by force. When he told his mother what he had heard, Eleni realized she was at the crossroads she had been trying to avoid for so long. No matter what the consequences, she would not give up her children.
She resolved to gamble their lives on the chance that she could get them out of the occupied zone and began to plan a mass escape. Eleni turned for help to the tinker Lukas Ziaras, married to her cousin Soula. Lukas had six children of his own who were in danger of being taken, and Eleni persuaded him to lead the escape. Both the first and second attempts ended with the fugitives turning back, once because Lukas's infant son began crying and once because of a blinding fog. A few days after the second failure, guerrillas came to the Gatzoyiannis house and demanded one woman to join a work detail in distant villages, harvesting wheat for the guerrillas.
Eleni was forced to select, and chose her third daughter, Glykeria, who was only 14 and looked too young to arouse the lust of the guerrillas. The escape would be postponed until her return. In early June, the first group of village children was marched out of Lia for Albania and Lukas told Eleni that they could wait no longer. On the day set for the escape, a guerrilla spokesman arrived at Eleni's door demanding still another woman to go to the threshing fields. Eleni decided to go to the harvest herself. She ordered the rest of her family to leave with Lukas and their grandmother.
In the few minutes that remained, Eleni advised Olga to light a smoky signal fire when the fugitives reached the Government soldiers' camp atop the Great Ridge so she could see it from the threshing fields. After kissing Olga, her mother and her year-old daughter, Fotini, Eleni told Nikola and Kanta to accompany her to the guerrilla commissary. When she arrived, she saw that her sister-in-law, Alexo, had also been called for the work detail. Eleni charged Kanta with the responsibility for looking after Nikola during the escape. Then she turned to her son, looking at him as if trying to burn his features into her memory.
He was trying unsuccessfully to smile. She smoothed his hair with a quick gesture as he frowned in embarrassment.
Traditional Detective Mystery | Mysterious Circumstances
The third escape attempt succeeded. The fugitives set out under the noses of the guerrilla lookouts, sending the children first, pretending to play hide and seek down the mountain. All through the night, they walked down the slopes and across the foothills, barefoot, cold and terrified of land mines.
When they arrived at the no man's land of mine fields that separated the guerrilla-held territory from the Great Ridge, they had to wait until dawn to summon the soldiers to lead them out, meanwhile listening to a pursuing guerrilla patrol hunting for them in the underbrush. At sunup they emerged, hailing the Government soldiers.
Sadly, the woman who may have able to shed light on the story — Mrs Edwards — was in no position to do so. An inquest was held at the Court House in Somerton with the coroner Mr E Q Louch presiding over the inquiry, the skeletons put on display in one of the rooms downstairs. Albert Dyer told the court he had been about to lay a gas pipe when he discovered the skeleton of the first child, the remains were left with Dr Wade and Mr Valentine.
The spot where the discovery was made was at the extreme end of the room in a little recess in the floor and inside long cupboards. The first skeleton had been hidden under a board, while the others had been stashed beneath long boards that had not been fixed down. Dr Wade told the court the flesh had gone from all of the bodies, apart of the hand of one and two feet on the others. He said he could not say what sex they had been, but that two appeared to have been fully developed and the others looked to be premature. He added that the bodies could have been there five years, ten years or perhaps even The Coroner told the jury it was their duty to return an open verdict, saying there was no denying the children had been placed there for the purpose of concealment, but that whether they had been born alive was a matter for speculation.
It was for the police to carry out investigations on whether their deaths had been as a result of violent means and they would have to follow any clue. As requested, the jury returned an open verdict. The police investigations did not turn up any new information, and the mystery of the four tiny skeletons remains unsolved to this day.
By Laura Linham Senior reporter. The gruesome discovery was made in the attic in a home in Somerton Get the biggest Daily stories by email Subscribe We will use your email address only for the purpose of sending you newsletters. Please see our Privacy Notice for details of your data protection rights.
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