Author’s Notes: An Incomplete Account of the Case of the Bird-Talker of Yaros

Yorgos Varlamos, Dead Bird and Cartridges, 1958

This short story first appeared in Fireside in 2020 and has just been reprinted by my dearest PodCastle. As with many of the things I write, it draws from real events in recent Greek history, so here’s a little context.

The Greek Junta 1967 – 1974

Post-WWII Greece was, overall, a pretty terrible place to live. Immediately after WWII, a bloody civil war followed (1946-1949) and the 1950’s & 1960’s were marked by a corrupt deep state that exacerbated the legacy of authoritarianism and persecution of dissident voices which started as early as 1929 (ever watched Costa-Gavras’ film “Z”? Do so, and you shall see the Greek deep state in all its glory). Post-WWII Greece has been irrevocably marked by the meddling of the UK and US governments, culminating in the establishment of the Greek Junta.

From Wikipedia:

“In 1947, the United States formulated the Truman Doctrine, and began actively supporting a series of authoritarian governments in Greece, Turkey, and Iran in order to ensure that these states did not fall under Soviet influence.[1] In 1945, officer veterans of the collaborationist Security Battalions had organized themselves into a secret society known as the IDEA (Ieros Desmos Ellinon Axiomatikon-Holy Bond of Greek Officers).[2] From 1947 onward, the Holy Bond was subsidized to the sum of $1 million annually by the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) as one of Greece’s main “democratic” (i.e. anti-communist) forces.[2] Several of the future leaders of the junta, such as Georgios Papadopoulos, were members of IDEA”.

The coup took place at a time when the centre-left party was seemingly about to win the elections. Like all countries with a personal history of fascism, the Junta added its own intergenerational trauma. Collaborators of the Nazis during WWII thrived anew. Needless to say, many went unpunished later. The leader of the Junta, Papadopoulos, even managed to found a new political party from prison in the 1980’s.

Island exile and prison

The island in the story is very real (though it was called “Youra” at the time). It is estimated that since 1947, 22,000 people in total were exiled and imprisoned on this island alone – anyone who was deemed dangerously progressive, primarily left-leaning activists among them.

Something interesting that I ommited from the story: In Yaros, prisoners were asked every day to knap stone and build their own prison. Knapping stone was a common torture in Greece, a pretty unique one. The labor under the sun was excruciating enough, but it was also the meaninglessness of the task: breaking stone, taking it from one place to the other, all day. In some cases they were asked to build miniature landmarks e.g. a miniature Parthenon. There was nothing creative or beautiful in this. It was a way to literally “build” a so-called love of country that those people apparently lacked.

Yaros was not the only prison island: between 1928 and 1971, 29 Aegean islands were used as places of exile and prison (Makronissos being another well-known island-prison). What you know as the Aegean sea with beautiful tourist beaches, carries its own darkness. Often, the very same island that is a favourite holiday destination, has been a place of torture and a “place of exception”; a place were life is reduced to its ultimate barrenness. It was not the first time either: islands were places of exile since antiquity, and they were markedly used for anti-communist purposes as early as 1929. Despite reinstating democracy in 1974, it was not the last time they were used as out-of-sight sites either.

Take the example of Leros: “Europe’s guilty secret”, the place where all kinds of “odd”, “unwanted” people were sent, from leftists to patients of infectious diseases. In Leros, mental patients from all over Europe were put out of sight until the 1990’s and treated terribly. And now Leros is once more part of Europe’s guilty secret: a place where asylum seekers are stacked on the periphery of EU borders. This practice is not unique to contemporary Greece and the EU. Off-shore management of mixed migration flows has been spearheaded by Australia, using Christmas Island and Nauru as sea-bound prisons – with the EU, that’s its watery borders: Greece, Italy, Spain. Perhaps some already know this system of small prison camps set in a vast, barren landscape (in this case, the sea) as the gulag archipelago. Alison Mountz, professor of geography, writes about this practice in detail – I credit her with the articulation of the idea of a prison inside a prison inside a prison, that sent chills down my spine and I will never, ever forget.

Why I wrote this story? I write to figure out both past and future. In this story, it is both about grappling with what this legacy has left us, with its ghosts that wander in our community, and also about facing new terrors; about finding ways to deal with shadows that resemble old threats, but are also entirely new.

This has its own challenges. Keep an eye for upcoming posts where I discuss this process in more detail.

I leave you with some relevant resources below.

As always, don’t take my words at face value. Do not accept my version of events. Look them up.


The Greek Junta

Internal exile in Greece

Dangerous Citizens by Neni Panourgia The history of Greek dissidents, imprisoned and tortured between 1929 and 1974.

Island of Outcasts A documentary about Leros.

Leros’ new migrant detention centre brings back old, ugly memories

The enforcement archipelago: Detention, haunting, and asylum on islands, by Alison Mountz.

Z (1969) by Costa-Gavras, on the assassination by the Greek deep state of a prominent centre-left politician in 1963 (for many, a direct precursor to the Junta).

On Fragile Waves, E. Lily Yu’s debut novel, drawing on the ordeal of asylum seekers in Australia.

Exile’s Museum in Athens, Greece – worth a visit!

The Gulag Archipelago by A. Solzhenitsyn

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