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Chameria: 80 years on, Albanians remember Greece's ethnic cleansing of Muslims

A new generation of Albanians seeks to commemorate the expulsion and killing of Muslim Albanians from Greece 80 years ago
A Cham refugee with his child in Kavaje, Albania, in 1945 (UNRRA)

During the dying days of the Second World War, while much of Europe began to consider the possible defeat of Nazi Germany, the roots of more ethnic conflict were being laid in a corner of Europe.

As German forces withdrew from the Balkans in the summer of 1944, the Greek-Albanian border became the stage for what is remembered by Albanians today as the “Chameria genocide".

The events involved the expulsion of the Cham people, predominantly Muslim ethnic Albanians, from northern Greece.

Throughout Albania, organisations held a series of events in June to mark the 80th anniversary of the killings, which continue to strain relations between Albania and Greece.

“Chameria is an open wound for the nation,” said Shpetim Idrizi, the leader of the Party for Justice, Integration and Unity, which campaigns for the Cham issue, during a speech commemorating the massacre.

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Chameria, a mountainous region in modern-day Greece bordering Albania, is now referred to by Greece as Northern Epirus.

Though estimates vary, between 25,000 and 70,000 Albanian Chams lived in the region of Chameria in the early 20th century. By 1945, many had been forcibly expelled.

In his book on Balkan genocides, historian Paul Mojzes said that Greek nationalist forces killed at least 2,877 Albanian Chams, 475 women were raped and more than 68 villages were destroyed. Albanian Cham organisations say that at least 5,800 Albanians were killed.

This picture taken by the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration depicts Cham refugeed at a camp in Albania after their expulsion from Greece in 1944 (UNRRA)

The National Republican Greek League ethnically cleansed about 20,000 Muslim Cham Albanians, according to Mojzes, forcibly displacing them mainly to Albania. Only a few Christian Chams remained in Chameria, and much of the community was successfully Hellenised.

Among those expelled were Sildi Koqini’s family, whose grandfather was only two years old at the time.

“I was born in Konispol, in Chameria, remaining in the territory of Albania. I grew up with the love and concern for Chameria, and I have always had the desire to be actively engaged in the promotion of Chameria,” said 27-year-old Koqini, an activist dedicated to preserving the memory of what transpired among younger generations.

“History must be passed down from generation to generation. In this way, my grandfather also lives,” she told Middle East Eye.

The seeds of ethnic cleansing

In the early 20th century, a sizable chunk of the Balkans, under Ottoman rule, remained a mosaic of religious and ethnic groups.

The Ottoman withdrawal from the region changed that.

Following Albania's independence from the Ottomans in 1912, nationalist sentiments in neighbouring countries like Greece and Serbia, established in the 19th century, were emboldened. They sought to make their countries more ethnically and religiously homogenous.

For most of recent history, the region of Chameria had been inhabited by both Greeks and Albanians. That all changed at the start of the Balkan wars between 1912 and 13 when Greek forces began an irredentist campaign to conquer regions they believed to be theirs.

The Albanians of Chameria were predominantly Muslims but had lived in Greece for centuries  (UNRRA)

According to historian Renaud Dorlhiac, author of The Cham Issue in Relation to Albanian, Greek and Turkish National Projects (1908–25), Greece targeted Albanian leaders, burned villages, and confiscated land, forcing thousands to flee to Ottoman territory or the emerging Albanian state.

“By 1945, the Greek state finalised the decades-long project of ethnic cleansing by evicting the Albanians of Chameria from their homes,” said Alket Veliu, director of the Chameria Foundation "Hasan Tahsini".

“This is a historical truth that needs to be said and written. For 80 years, the Greek state has invested in Athens and Tirana so that this issue is forgotten, but we still have eyewitnesses” Veliu added in an interview with MEE.

During the communist era, few Albanian Chams dared raise the issue for fear of upsetting Greek-Albanian relations. It wasn’t until 1991 that discussions on reparations began to take off, with consecutive Greek governments seeking to quash them.

In 2022, EU parliamentarian Manolis Kefalogiannis from the Greek ruling party criticised attempts by the Albanian parliament to remember the Cham genocide, calling them “irredentist”.

The submission to the European Parliament implied a warning that Albania’s aspirations to join the European Union could be held up.

Greece has dismissed the Cham issue as non-existent and refuses to discuss it.

“The Greek state is aware of what happened in Chameria, as it caused it itself,” said Veliu. “A genocide happened there. It was recognised as such by the Albanian parliament in 1994. If we remain silent, we risk repeating such events,” he added.

For decades under communist rule, Albanians were not allowed to raise the issue of Cham refugees in order not to upset Greek-Albanian relations (UNRRA)

In 2016, Johannes Hahn, the European commissioner for European Neighbourhood policy and enlargement, mentioned the “Cham Issue” as an "existing one" between Albania and Greece that needed to be resolved.

Greece criticised Hahn for siding with Albania over a fellow EU member state.

Historical reckoning 

During a visit to Greece earlier this year, Albanian Prime Minister Edi Rama spoke of the "violent displacement of our ancestors from their homes in the north of Greece", referencing Chameria.

In the past, the Greek embassy in Tirana has condemned official Albanian commemorations related to what it describes as the alleged "genocide of the Cham Albanians" and an "occupation of Albanian territory by Greece".

According to Albanian historian Olsi Jazexhi, the Cham people, who numbered over 100,000 in post-communist Albania, have pressed the Albanian government to address the issue with Greece.

“In March 2011, the Chams formed their political party, the Party for Justice, Integration and Unity, which participated in elections, produced its own MPs, and demanded reparations from the Greek government amounting to $10.7 billion for the expulsion of Cham Albanians,” said Jazexhi.

This worries the Greek government.

Greece has criticised Albanian officials for commemorating the expulsion of Chameria's Muslims (Chameria Foundation 'Hasan Tahsini')

“The Greek state was concerned by the Cham activism and complaints made by the Chams in international bodies,” added Jazexhi. “Furthermore, Greece perceived the Cham Muslims' demands as a new front with its Muslim minorities, similar to the issues it already faced with its Turkish population, which borders Turkey,” he added.

For decades, the Turkish minority has complained about Athens' alleged discriminatory practices against the local community, issues that remain unresolved to this day. 

“Greece doesn’t want to open its gates for its Muslims who were expelled 100 years ago. If they are allowed to come back, this will change the demography of Hellenization which Greece undertook in the past 100 years,” Jazexhi said.

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