The Pontian Greeks lived along the Black Sea coast of Turkey in a region loosely referred to as Pontus by many scholars. They were descendants of Ionian Greeks who settled there, beginning in 800 B.C. Like other Christians in Turkey, the Armenians and Assyrians for example, the Pontic Greeks faced persecution and suffered during ethnic cleansing at the beginning of the 20th century. In 1923, after thousands of years, those remaining were expelled from Turkey to Greece as part of the exchange of populations between Greece and Turkey under Treaty of Lausanne.
May 19 has been recognized by the Greek parliament as the day of remembrance of the Pontian Greek Genocide by the Turks. There are various estimates of the toll. Records kept mainly by priests show a minimum 350,000 Pontian Greeks exterminated through systematic slaughter by Turkish troops and Kurdish irregulars. Other estimates, including those of foreign missionaries, spoke of 500,000 deaths, most through deportation and forced marches into the Anatolian desert interior. Thriving Greek cities like Bafra, Samsous, Kerasous, and Trapezous, at the heart of Pontian Hellenism on the coast of the Black Sea, endured recurring massacres and deportations that eventually destroyed their Greek population. The genocide started with the order in 1914 for all Pontian men between the ages of 18 and 50 to report for military duty. Those who "refused" or "failed" to appear, the order provided, were to be summarily shot. The immediate result of this decree was the murder of thousands of the more prominent Pontians, whose names appeared on lists of "undesirables" already prepared by the Young Turk regime.
Thousands ended up in the notorious Labor Battalions. In a precursor of what was to become a favorite practice in Hitler's extermination camps, Pontian men were driven from their homes into the wilderness to perform hard labor and expire from exhaustion, thirst, and disease. German advisors of the Turkish regime suggested that Pontian populations be forced into internal exile. This "advise" led directly to the emptying of hundreds of Pontian villages and the forced march of women, children, and old people to nowhere. The details of this systematic slaughter of the Pontians by the Turks were dutifully recorded by both German and Austrian diplomats.
The Pontians did try to organize armed resistance. Pontian guerrilla bands had appeared in the mountains of Santa as early as 1916. Brave leaders, like Capitan Stylianos Kosmidis, even hoisted the flag of an independent Pontus in the hope of help from Greece and Russia (which never arrived). The struggle was unequal. The Turkish army, assisted by the Tsets, who were of mostly Kurdish extraction, attacked and destroyed undefended Pontian villages. On May 19, 1919, Mustafa Kemal himself disembarked at Samsous to begin organizing the final phase of the Pontian genocide. Assisted by his German advisers, and surrounded by his own band of killers -- monsters like Topal Osman, Refet Bey, Ismet Inonu, and Talaat Pasha -- the founder of "modern" Turkey applied himself to the destruction of the Pontian Greeks. With the Greek army engaged in Anatolia, a new wave of deportations, mass killings, and "preventative" executions destroyed the remnants of Pontian Hellenism. The plan worked with deadly precision. In the Amasia province alone, with a pre-war population of some 180,000, records show a final tally of 134,000 people liquidated
In 1923, a population exchange negotiated by the participants resulted in a near-complete elimination of the Greek ethnic presence in Anatolia. It is impossible to know exactly how many Greek inhabitants of Pontus, Smyrna and rest of Asia Minor died from 1916 to 1923, and how many ethnic Greeks of Anatolia were deported to Greece or fled to the Soviet Union. According to G.W. Rendel, " ... over 500,000 Greeks were deported of whom comparatively few survived.
U.S. Ambassador Henry Morgenthau accused the "Turkish government" of a campaign of "outrageous terrorizing, cruel torturing, driving of women into harems, debauchery of innocent girls, the sale of many of them at 80 cents each, the murdering of hundreds of thousands and the deportation to and starvation in the desert of other hundreds of thousands, and the destruction of hundreds of villages and many cities," all part of "the willful execution" of a "scheme to annihilate the Armenian, Greek and Syrian Christians of Turkey." US Consul-General George Horton reported that "one of the cleverest statements circulated by the Turkish propagandists is to the effect that the massacred Christians were as bad as their executioners, that it was “50-50.”" On this issue he clarifies that "had the Greeks, after the massacres in the Pontus and at Smyrna, massacred all the Turks in Greece, the record would have been 50-50—almost." As an eye-witness, he also praises Greeks for their "conduct toward the thousands of Turks residing in Greece, while the ferocious massacres were going on.", which, according to his opinion, was "one of the most inspiring and beautiful chapters in all that country’s history."
A number of Pontians wrote about their experiences and recorded in memoirs or simple testimonies the nightmarish events that they had lived through. The most famous of these was Elias Venezis with his book entitled: "The Number 31328," which chronicled his servitude in a Labor Battalion . One eyewitness who survived the genocide and settled in Greece was Savas Kantartzis. The following is his vivid description of the massacre of the inhabitants of his native village of Beyeilan in the region of Kotyron in Pontus, by a paramilitary unit led by Topal Osman, now honored as a national hero of modern Turkey. The tragedy of this village is the tragedy of hundreds of other Greek villages and thousands of Greeks, in Chios in 1821, in Pontus in 1916, in Asia Minor in 1922, in Constantinople in 1955 or in occupied Cyprus in 1974...
“At daybreak, on Wednesday, the 16th of February, 1922, a nightmare begins. News spread that Tsets (Kurdish irregulars) lead by Topal Osman are coming to our village. Everyone is frightened and apprehensive. Some men hurriedly escaped into the surrounding forest, others hid in special hiding places in their homes or stables, all well camouflaged. Women, children and the elderly locked themselves in their homes, hearts pounding and awaiting their fates. More than 150 Tsets, entered the village yelling and shooting. followed by villagers bent on plunder from the neighboring Turkish villages.
As soon as they entered the village, the atmosphere was electrified and the horizon darkened as if a storm was approaching. They screamed curses and kicked doors in, ordering the inhabitants out into the village square. They threatened to set fire to the houses unless everyone came out. In a short time, women, children and the old ones found themselves crying and trembling in the streets. They sensed what would happen to them and many attempted to escape. The Turks and Tsets had foreseen such an eventuality and had blocked every avenue of escape. No one could leave. A few were shot and fell dead or limped back wounded.
These men revealed, once and for all, their criminal intent and it was now apparent to the entire terrorized group of women and children that had been thrown into the streets, their cries rising in despair. Nothing they did now could soften the hardhearted cruelty of the henchman that had been chosen by Topal Osman for this “patriotic” expedition. These sadists began to enjoy the great fun of inflicting pain and torturing their victims. They kicked, struck, and yelled, pushing them toward the village square.
The mothers, stood pale and disheveled in the bitter cold, trembling with fear while holding their clinging infants in close embrace. The young girls, some with their old parents and others with old women or holding up the sick, were herded like sheep, ready for slaughter, into the middle of a pandemonium punctuated by heart-breaking cries and lamentations. Then they ordered their victims to enter two pre-selected houses in the vicinity of the square where they could complete their crime. They herded this unwilling flock into the houses with kicks and shouts. There was no doubt now about the fate that awaited them. The Tsets crammed over three hundred into those houses, anxious to finish their macabre enterprise. When they were sure that no one remained outside, they locked the doors oblivious to the cacophony of cries and supplications for mercy that reverberated in the surrounding mountains and forests.
The final phase of this tragic event needed only a few handfuls of dry grass set alight to create a firestorm that engulfed the two houses in bloodcurdling screams through the pungent black smoke. What followed during the next hour cannot be adequately described…
Crazed mothers clutched tightly, with the all the force of their souls, their crying babies to their bosom. Children cried for their mothers. The girls and the other women with the elderly, the children and the sick, screamed and seized each other as if they wanted to take and give the other courage and help until their hair, clothes and bodies were engulfed by the flames. Piercing cries, maniacal screams and thunderous, wild howls of people, overcome by terror and pain. They beat and flayed the air and the walls to no avail. Hell on earth!
Some women and girls, in their despair and pain, threw themselves out of windows, preferring death from the bullets to the blazing inferno. Osman's men who looked on smiling, enjoying the spectacle before them, were more than happy to accommodate these poor women by shooting them dead. The screaming began to dwindle, replaced by the noise of the crackling timbers and the crumbling walls falling on the smoldering bodies. Nothing remained but the ash and ruins of what used to be two homes in the town of Beyialan.
The tragedy of this village, described in all its horrific details, was repeated in other Christian villages throughout Turkey. We pay bitter homage to our dead without hate or vengeful thoughts but we should not forget their sacrifice or let the nation who murdered them forget its crime.