Descendants remember Greek-Turkish population exchange
Sunday was the 99th anniversary of the implementation of the population exchange agreement between Türkiye and Greece, one of the biggest resettlements of the early 20th century and remembered with both pain and pride by descendants of the "exchanged".
"Mübadele" (population exchange) is an archaic word for younger generations but the elderly descendants of those forced to leave Greece for Türkiye under an agreement nearly a century ago remember it vividly and sometimes bitterly.
On Jan. 30, 1923, the population exchange agreement by the then young Republic of Türkiye, recovering from World War I and the war with Greece, was formally implemented, paving the way for some 2 million people to leave the countries they called home for centuries.
For Turks who left Greece in the following years, the exchange was a bittersweet experience. On one hand, they felt relief resettling in a country their ancestors left centuries ago, a place they were culturally and historically associated with. But it was also a troubling occasion, having to leave a country they had built their lives in and had become accustomed to, although the rising Greek nationalism in the final years of the Ottoman Empire that once dominated the Balkans, made life difficult for ethnic groups.
Ali Özgüler, 96, was born three years after the population exchange that took his family from Greece to Kırklareli, a northwestern Turkish province bordering Bulgaria. His father and grandparents took the long route through Bulgaria to reach Türkiye, "aboard an ox-drawn cart," Özgüler said. The family settled in the Lüleburgaz district of Kırklareli where Özgüler was born and has never left. A farmer and father of two, Özgüler’s memories are blurred but he vividly remembers bits and pieces from his childhood as well as the stories his father Ağuş told him about the exchange. "They went through a great ordeal while traveling here and after they settled," Özgüler said. "My father got married here and lived his life as a farmer, in a farm once owned by a Greek man, who left for Greece during the exchange. My family adjusted to life here and did not leave for anywhere else," he told Anadolu Agency (AA) on Saturday.
The family had little to make a living with when they arrived and Özgüler said the Republic of Türkiye gave them land and cows. "I long wanted to visit the village where my father was born in Greece, but never had the opportunity," he laments.
Özgüler said though they started a new life in Türkiye, poverty affected them badly, especially during the World War II years when Türkiye suffered from the impact of a war in which it did not participate. "There was hunger everywhere. People were picking and eating grass. I remember wearing (primitive) shoes without soles because we had no money to buy new shoes. We used to wear cotton sacks on our feet instead. I remember traveling for two days to sell the wheat we cultivated to buyers in other places," he recounts.
Though most were relocated to cities closer to Greece, people who arrived through the population exchange also found themselves in faraway places, like Adana, more than 1,700 kilometers (1,056 miles) away from Greece. Selma Kırançeşme’s family was among these people. Kırançeşme, who now heads a "mübadil" (exchanged people) association in the southern Turkish province, is among those with pride in the resettlement. "Atatürk made these people a great favor by taking them to their homeland," she said, referring to the founder of modern Türkiye who himself was born in Thessaloniki (Salonica), Greece. "He has a special place in our memories," she told AA.
Kırançeşme and others who settled in Adana hail from the Greek island of Crete where a massive number of Turks were relocated from, to a wide area stretching from Çanakkale and Bursa in the west to Adana and Hatay in the south. Kırançeşme’s father was just a 1-year-old when his family moved to Mersin first, before setting up new lives in neighboring Adana. "The lives of Turks were in danger in Crete after the War of Independence in Türkiye. A Greek man alerted the people of my grandparents’ village about an imminent raid (by Greek forces). They were living in an inner part of the island and moved to somewhere on the coast. Some lived in tents on the beaches, waiting for months for ships to take them to Türkiye," she said.
Traveling to Turkey was another chapter of the flight. "Every family was entitled to take possessions weighing 500 kilograms (1,102 pounds) at most to the vessels and were charged with fees for extra possessions, something most families could not afford. They had to leave with few possessions from a place they spent most of their lives. This was traumatizing," she said. But a more harrowing experience for families was having to leave their family members behind. "Every vessel had a certain capacity for passengers and when they were filled, people were not allowed to board. Some families placed their children into the vessels first and waited for the next vessels, for months. My grandmother was among those children. In some cases, siblings only found each other some 50, 60 years later. I met the grandchildren of my uncle only four years ago. We also found descendants of my grandfather’s uncle years later in the (southwestern) town of Bodrum,” she said.
Arrival in Turkey was another challenge for "mübadils." "Most of them did not know Turkish and had a hard time adjusting to their new lives in their homeland," Kırançeşme said. "The first generation was shut-in people who did not have much social contact with people in their new country. The community had consanguineous marriages in the first years, for instance," she said. "They went through a great deal of pain but did not convey it to their children," she added.
"The population exchange was painful but it was a necessity under those circumstances. Turks in Crete were in danger of genocide without the exchange. Atatürk did a great favor to these people. Our ancestors used to tell us that the Greeks were taunting families waiting on Crete's beaches by saying that ‘Atatürk will not come to get you.’ But they waited and waited and the ships finally came. Out of gratitude, most families named their newborn sons Kemal and daughters Kemaliye," Kırançeşme says.
Though it is a distant memory for many, with few survivors from the early days of the exchange, the population exchange is still remembered every year with a series of events across the country. In the western province of Izmir, located across the Turkish side of the Aegean Sea where Greece is littoral to, the anniversary was an occasion to remember the plight of past generations. The Izmir Metropolitan Municipality hosted the events over the weekend, including panels, exhibitions and screening of films about the exchange.
In Istanbul's Büyükçekmece district, the local municipality hosted events to mark the anniversary, including a symbolic reenactment of the exchange, with actors donning the costumes of the era arriving to the shore-side district on the Marmara Sea with boats. People also left flowers at sea from Mimar Sinan port, where Turks departed for the population exchange decades ago. The municipality also hosted a photo exhibition with photos of the first arrivals. "We mark the day in Mimar Sinan area, formerly known as Kallikrateia. More than 2,000 Greeks left for Greece from here and Turks come here, to this port, then," Büyükçekmece Mayor Hasan Akgün told Ihlas News Agency (IHA) on Sunday.
Akgün said Greeks who left Büyükçekmece set up a new town in Greece under the name of Nea Kallikrateia or New Kallikrateia and years later, Büyükçekmece became a sister municipality with Nea Propontida, where the Greek town is located. Lefteris Emmanouilidis, a descendant of a Greek family relocated from Büyükçekmece during the exchange, was among guest of events. "I came here to find the house where my father was born and was pleased to attend this event to commemorate these people," he said.