THE ALBANIAN NATIONAL QUESTION
CHAMERIA: WHERE WE STAND IN 2002
by Shirley Cloyes DioGuardi
Chameria, which is home to approximately 80,000 Albanians, 50,000 of which are Orthodox Christian and 30,000 Muslim, was annexed to Greece in 1913 after the Balkan Wars that ended five hundred years of Ottoman Turkish rule. The new border, drawn up at the 1912 Conference of Ambassadors in London, when the socalled Great Powers decided to support the creation of Albania as a new republic, left only seven Cham villages inside Albania in the vicinity of the town of Konispol. Known as “Chams,” this ethnic Albanian population suffered successive waves of expulsion and ethnic cleansing, culminating in the massacre of more than 5,000 men, women, and children, the forcible expulsion to Albania and Turkey of 35,000 more, the confiscation of thousands of acres of Cham-owned land, and the looting and burning of 68 Albanian villages and towns and a hundred mosques from June 1944 to March 1945. Most of the Chams who were brutally evicted from their homes and forced off their land fled to Albania. For decades the survivors and their descendants have petitioned the Greek government unsuccessfully to recognize their right to return to their land and to receive recompense for their destroyed and stolen assets, involving approximately 150,000 people and property valued at more than two billion dollars in today’s market. The Greek government, which condoned the seizure of Cham property in law at the end of World War II, has denied the survivors and their descendants even the right to visit their ancestral lands.
In spite of the fact that Greece is a member of NATO and the European Union and has signed all international covenants on human rights, the Greek government officially denies the existence of Chamerians and all other ethnic minorities in Greece. It is illustrative that Greece has not yet ratified the Council of Europe’s Framework Convention for the Protection of National Minorities. Greek citizens of Albanian, Turkish, Macedonian, Vlach, and Roma descent do not enjoy fair and equitable treatment under the law and face enormous obstacles in preserving their culture and exercising their right to freedom of expression and freedom of religion. The Albanians of Chameria, as well as the approximately 500,000 Albanians living in Greece today as temporary workers, seek equal protection under the law, freedom from forced assimilation and governmental repression, and opportunities for public employment and education in their own language. The Chamerians are not requesting autonomy for their territory, but simply recognition of their ethnicity, the restoration of their human and civil rights, the right to use the Albanian language, the restitution of their assets, and the right of return.
They seek the same rights that the Greek minority enjoys in Albania.
Given the West’s insistence on establishing multicultural societies in the Balkans, the inattention to the denial of minority rights in Greece, as well as Greece’s history of mass expulsion and extermination of the Chams, is a glaring contradiction. The Albanian American Civic League is committed to confronting the Bush administration about this contradiction in the near future. But this will be only a first step in an inevitably lengthy process that Albanians must be prepared to undertake. To successfully resolve the Cham problem, Albanians, especially in the U.S. and European diasporas, need to educate the West about Chameria and to create a strategy for “internationalizing” the Cham problem. This will not be easy, because the Greek lobby is one of the largest contributors to House and Senate reelection races in the United States, and Western Europe is reluctant to take on any issue that can potentially destabilize its neighbors to the south. But the diplomatic path must be taken and played out in 21st century terms if justice, so long denied to Chameria, is finally to be achieved.
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