Life under Occupation: A Review of Eleni by Nicholas Gage

eleniWhen Mosul was invaded in June, one of the first announcements made by ISIS was that the civilians within their territory would be treated well; they had nothing to fear as long as they followed the rules and did not aid criminals or “oppressors.” This announcement had a familiar ring to it. In Nicholas Gage’s memoir Eleni, a Communist guerrilla captain also announced that the residents of the small Greek village of Lia would be treated well. As in the case of Iraq, this was true for only a short time. In Lia, rationing, labor details, mandatory conscription and executions all become regular parts of the villagers’ existence.

The book Eleni opens with the execution of the author’s mother by a group of andartes, Communist guerilla soldiers. This opening scene leaves readers feeling devastated along with the author and yearning to revisit the scene of the crime to try to make sense of it.

During the 1940s, Greece saw the Nazi invasion as well as a civil war between Nationalists and Communists. This civil war claimed the lives of around 60,000 people in the period from 1946-1949. Some consider it to be one of the earliest Cold War proxy battles, with the Eastern Bloc supporting the communists and the US and Britain supporting the nationalists. The intensity of this conflict on Turkey’s doorstep was one of the factors causing the United States to invest in Turkey as part of the Marshall Plan in order to prevent Turkey from being lured into the Soviet orbit.

Eleni offers not only a broad geopolitical view of World War II and the Cold War, but also an intimate view of how the 20th century signaled a break with conventions that had ruled the region for centuries. This is especially true when it comes to the position of women. In the beginning the author’s mother, Eleni, clings to the rules of village propriety thinking that they can protect her family:

Ever since the arrival of the andartes, Eleni had insisted that [her daughters] wrap their kerchiefs over the lower part of their face, before tying them in back, so that only the nose and eyes showed. It was the way Greek women had always hidden their beauty from invaders.

However, she soon comes face-to-face with andartinas, female militants forcefully conscripted by the Marxists. This leads her to discover that this modesty means nothing to the male fighters, who treat women with a greater degree of equality than she has ever experienced.

The andantinas were peasant girls in their teens and twenties, with long, thick braids down their backs, but below were khaki uniforms complete with–the villagers could scarcely believe it–men’s trousers! If they had marched naked, it couldn’t have caused more of a sensation. Nikola was mystified, thinking the soldiers were half man and half woman. None of the Gatzoyannis children would ever forget their first sight of women in pants.

When Kanta, the fifteen-year-old daughter of the house is forcefully conscripted to become an andartina, she is escorted from her house with her braids laid bare, her kerchief left behind.

Intimate details such as these are painstakingly interwoven into the bigger events. Gage was able to collect such a vast amount of information by interviewing survivors of events—around 100 in total.

The work includes suspenseful, harrowing and touching stories that offer a vivid account of life under occupation, a tragic reality for many places bordering Turkey at the moment. Although it’s not a recent publication, Eleni will prove a mesmerizing read for anyone who is either interested in the region or just loves a great story.

Eleni can be purchased as an e-book from Amazon.com for approx. 12 USD. 

Dayla Rogers is a contributor to Yabangee. 

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Dayla Rogers
Dayla Rogers first learned Turkish in high school as a participant in Rotary Youth Exchange. After earning a master’s degree in education, she moved to Istanbul to pursue her dream of becoming a teacher trainer in Turkey. She currently teaches English at Marmara University. Her favorite thing to do for Yabangee is arts and culture interviews. She is also a Turkish-to-English translator and a tango dancer.

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