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May 19, Day of remembrance for the Genocide of the Pontian Greeks

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Today, on May 19, 1919, Mustafa Kemal lands in Samsun to begin the second and wildest phase of the Pontian Genocide. Today, one of the darkest pages in the history of Hellenism is written. The 19th of May is a day of sorrow for all Greeks. And a day of remembrance that reminds us of the cruel and inhuman face of Kemal's Turks.

The 19th of May was designated as the Day of Remembrance of the Genocide of the Greeks of Pontus, in 1994, by a unanimous decision of the Greek Parliament.

Until the Asia Minor Catastrophe of 1922, the Greeks of Pontus who lost their lives were more than 200,000, while some historians report that the actual death toll exceeded 350,000!
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Pontians: The elite part of Hellenism that lived in the north of Asia Minor

A distinguished part of Hellenism lived in the north of Asia Minor, in the region of Pontus, after the dissolution of the Byzantine Empire. The fall of Trebizond in 1461 by the Ottomans did not alter their morale or their Greek conscience, even though they lived cut off from Greece.

At the beginning of the 20th century, the region of Pontus, to the north of present-day Turkey, counted 700,000 Greeks. Their economic activity had brought prosperity to the region, which had become a highly developing trade center. Greek schools reached 1,401. The Greeks of Pontus constituted 40% of the population and quickly dominated the economic life of the region, living mainly in urban centers.

Their economic rebound was combined with their demographic and intellectual growth. In 1865 the Greeks of Pontus amounted to 265,000, in 1880 to 330,000 and in the early 20th century they reached 700,000. In 1860 there were 100 schools in Pontus, while in 1919 they are estimated at 1401, among them the famous School of Trebizond. Apart from schools, they had printing houses, magazines, newspapers, country clubs and theaters, which emphasized their high intellectual level.

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The beginning of the end for Turkey's Christians

In 1908, the Young Turks' movement prevailed in Turkey. The Sultan's removal from power filled with hope the minorities who believed that the military, who were not attached to religion and wanted to bring a "western" air to the country, might help minorities to exercise their professions and especially their commercial activities with abroad more freely.

They could not, however, make a bigger mistake by believing that the Young Turks were more civilized than the Sultan and that their prevalence would mean better days for the Greeks of Asia Minor and for the rest of the Christian minorities of the region.

Very soon they discovered that the Young Turks' movement, apart from the "western" air, brought a violent wave of nationalism.

The Young Turks, taking advantage of the fact that the Great Powers were preoccupied with the First World War and Greece with the "Cretan Question", began the first phase of their nationalist practice for the Greek and Christian populations of the region.

Either they expelled them, or they forced them to change their faith, turned them "Turks".

The Young Turks showed their harsh nationalist face by drawing up a plan to persecute the Christian populations and impose the “Turkish way”, taking advantage of the involvement of the European states in the First World War.

The Greek state, preoccupied with the Cretan Question, did not want to open another front with Turkey.

The Turks initiated the "Working Battalions" under the main pretext of the country's security.

They sent the Greeks of Pontus to the Asian hinterland, where they worked under tragic conditions, in quarries and mines. The Pontians reacted, went to the mountains and became guerillas along with the Armenians.
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The "Working Battalions" of the Pontians (Photo: Panagiotis Savvidis)

The "Labor Battalions" of death, in the footsteps shown by the Germans to the Turks

The Turks, under the pretext of the "security of the state", deported a large part of the Greek population to the inhospitable hinterland of Asia Minor, through the so-called "labor battalions" ("Amele Tambourou").

Men who were not enlisted in the army were forced to serve in the "Labor Battalions". They worked in quarries, mines and in the opening of roads, under exterminating conditions. Most died of hunger, hardship and disease.

The Labour Battalions, also known as "Amele Tambourou", were implemented during the genocide of the Greeks of Pontus (1916-1923), in order to wipe out a large part of the population.

It is no coincidence that the "Amele Taburu" were also called battalions of torture and death, since the working conditions were inhumane, while the food and water were always less than normal.

They may not have been aimed directly at the annihilation of the thousands of those who were sent there, but at theie gradual psychological and physical weakening.

Most of them did not make it, leaving their last breath from hunger, hardships and illnesses.

The plan to exterminate the labor battalions was indicated to the Ottomans by their German allies, who aspired to exert greater influence in the region, playing a more active role in the economy and the trade.

What the Sultan failed to achieve in 5 centuries, Kemal did in 5 years
Reacting to the oppression of the Turks, the murders, the exiles and the burning of their villages, the Greek-Pontians, as well as the Armenians, became guerillas in the mountains to save what they could.

After the Armenian Genocide in 1915, the Turkish nationalists under Mustafa Kemal now were free to exterminate the Greeks of Pontus.

In 1919, the Greeks along with the Armenians and the temporary support of the Venizelos government tried to create an autonomous Greek-Armenian state. This plan was thwarted by the Turks, who took advantage of the fact to proceed to the "final solution".
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The "final solution" of the Turks
Similar to the "final solution" against the Jews by the Nazis of Adolf Hitler, a few years later, the Turks began their own "final solution" against the Christians, Greeks and Armenians.

The Genocide of the Armenians in 1916 paved the way for the extermination of the Pontians by the Turkish ultranationalists of Kemal Ataturk.
The tragedy did not take long to begin.

Three years later, on May 19, 1919, Kemal lands in Samsun and begins the genocide of the Pontians.

Guided by his German and Soviet advisors, he literally massacred the Pontian Hellenism.

By the time of the Asia Minor catastrophe, the victims of the genocide reached 200,000. Some historians speak of over 350,000 victims.

The Pontians who escaped, fled to Russia and Greece. Many Pontians arrived in Thessaloniki and in the areas in which they settled they built some of the most beautiful neighborhoods of the city. People tidy and proud, with a strong "Greek stubbornness" that helped them survive and prosper, wherever they went.

A day of sorrow for Hellenism, a day of celebration for the Turks
In Turkey, May 19th is a national holiday, where, among other nationalistic celebrations, they chose symbolically to celebrate Kemal Ataturk's birthday too as they do not know the exact date of his birth in Thessaloniki.

For Greece, however, Hellenism worldwide and for all the peoples of the world who feel solidarity, today, the 19th of May, is one of the saddest anniversaries of World History. And it is the self-evident duty of the international community to recognize this heinous crime. The recognition of the Genocide of the Pontian Greeks, as the Armenian Genocide was recognized a few years ago, is imperative.

By Eva Koutoumanou