Population Exchange by Angela Caldin

Imagine for a moment that an arbitrary decree came out of Brussels requiring that all the French people living in the UK (about 400,000) should move back to France, and all the British people living in France (about 200,000) should move back to the UK. There would be no appeals or exceptions to the ruling which would take no account of wealth or status or business ties, but only of nationality. Imagine too that the people involved could only take with them what they could carry. They must leave behind their furniture and most of their possessions, taking only those few things that would fit into a medium- sized suitcase.

Picture the chaos engendered by such a decree: people forced to leave their houses, their jobs, their friends and their roots to go back to a place they may have left long ago and have no real connection with anymore. Children would have to leave their schools and their schoolmates, to be plunged into a new unfamiliar system. Beloved pets would be left behind with no guarantee that they would be fed or looked after. A disastrous and terrifying uprooting for all concerned which sets the nerves jangling just to think about it.

But that’s exactly what happened in the 1920s at the end of the Greco-Turkish war. The 1923 population exchange between Greece and Turkey was based upon religious rather than national identity, and involved the Greek Orthodox citizens of Turkey and the Muslim citizens of Greece. It was a major compulsory population exchange, or agreed mutual expulsion.

The ‘Convention Concerning the Exchange of Greek and Turkish Populations’ was signed at Lausanne, Switzerland, on 30 January 1923, by the governments of Greece and Turkey. It involved approximately 2 million people (around 1.5 million Anatolian Greeks and 500,000 Muslims in Greece), many of whom had been forcibly made refugees and denaturalised from their homelands well before the treaty was signed. It appears that leaders of both Greece and Turkey, as well as some circles in the international community, saw the resulting ethnic homogenisation as positive and stabilising. But the challenges for those involved were incalculable: forcible removal from one’s home, having to abandon a well-developed family business and then having to rebuild a life in a strange place. There were other practical challenges such as providing shelter for those expelled; there are still, in Athens, residential areas that were hastily erected on a budget to house the fleeing Asia Minor population. To this day, both Greece and Turkey still have properties, and even entire villages that have been left abandoned since the exchange.

Victoria Hislop, in her wonderful novel ‘The Thread’ writes about the forced expulsion of the Muslims from Thessaloniki and how they were torn from their homes and neighbours from one day to the next. She describes the chaos down at the port as everyone scrambled to get on one of the boats which were just disgorging the many Greeks fleeing from Smyrna. I can’t recommend this book enough – it is a fantastic read and brings history alive by concentrating on the story of a few individuals against the backdrop of the dramatic history of Thessaloniki.

These forced migrations of people continue to this day.  Approximately 3 million Burmese have been compelled to flee to neighbouring countries, an estimated 500,000 people are displaced by conflict in eastern Burma and another 800,000 Muslims in western Burma, known as the Rohingya, are stateless and lack the most basic of human rights. Refugees from Somalia now number well over a million. Hurricane Katrina redistributed over one million people from the central Gulf coast to various cities across the United States, creating the largest diaspora in the history of that country. Tens of thousands fled from Christchurch, New Zealand, after the earthquake, leaving their houses and possessions behind. The recent alarming floods in the north of England have ruined homes and destroyed businesses from one moment to the next, and forced people to go and live with relative and friends.

Sometimes I wonder, as I sit here in my comfortable, secure home, with my treasured possessions around me, how I would cope with being suddenly uprooted by some decree or disaster and the extremes of loss that it would entail. Grief, that sister emotion to loss, would no doubt take over with its several stages of denial, anger, stress, depression and finally acceptance. I would perhaps come to appreciate the little I still have all the more and I might find I am tougher than I thought. The instinct for survival is so strong that people cope in the most horrendous of circumstances. Remember the dreadful Australian bush fires when people fled from their burning homes? Remember the tsunami and the Japanese earthquake? Remember the partition of India and the subsequent conflict in Pakistan? Whether these migrations are man-made or caused by the power of nature, the consequences are devastating.

Yet those who survive find the strength to start again. They put down new roots, receive help, make new relationships, and find ways to earn a living. The human spirit is strong and finds ways to deal with what fate throws at it. We can only hope that if we were tested in this way, we would rise to the challenge and the drive for survival would keep us afloat.

The Thread by Victoria Hislop – Headline Book Publishing (2012) – Paperback – 480 pages

 ISBN 0755377753

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