‘What’s happened to Armàki?’ There used to be a huge lone pine on the slope where Miha sets up his first summer sheepfold. It is all split and scorched.
‘The Albanians burnt it,’ he says.
We are driving along the top of the Grèklu ridge above Samarìna, Greece’s highest village. A flock of sheep slides over the bare ground. The turf, unable to renew itself for want of rain, has begun to break up under daily nibbling and the scurrying of so many sharp feet. We park the pick-up on a knoll overlooking the upper edge of the forest. It looks like a Marlboro advert, its chunky profile silhouetted against the sky. I take the food. Miha brings his World War Two German rifle. It’s an illegal weapon, but then most of what Miha does is at the limit of what is legal: a legacy of the old mountain traditions of brigandage and independence.
‘Look at this,’ he says, picking something from the ground: a piece of jagged splintered steel – shrapnel. ‘It’s all over the place. The trees are full of it too.’
Mussolini’s troops arrived on the Grèklu ridge in October 1940, drawing Greece into the war. There are old men in the village who can remember their sudden appearance, with the unmanly feathers in their hats. But it’s more likely that the shrapnel dates from the last battles of the Greek Civil War in 1949, when the soldiers of the Communist Democratic Army dug in all along these ridges to make their last stand against the Government forces and their US military advisers. Twenty kilometres to the west we could see the ridges of Mt Gràmos, the CDA’s last toehold on Greek soil, where Paul Eluard came to visit their trenches and harangue the imperialist lackeys arrayed against them through a megaphone. They were driven out of their positions by US Helldivers – the first use of napalm in warfare. From where we leave the pick-up you can just see the white stele that commemorates their defeat on the ridge above Aetomilìtsa, the last village in Greece. Beyond that is Albania. The CDA survivors withdrew there to begin twenty to thirty years of exile, leaving the Iron Curtain to clang down behind them.
Most of them were distributed around Communist Eastern Europe, but Stalin sent a sizable contingent to Tashkent. I had talked to one the previous night: he was delighted to meet someone else who knew Tashkent. He had returned to Greece in 1980 after the fall of the Colonels and the legalisation of the Greek Communist Party. He mentioned various names in Tashkent but I had never managed to track down any of the few ex-partisans who remained, although I once met an Uzbek who had grown up with their children and spoke some Greek.
Some of the CDA survivors in Tashkent were educated men and women from the cities; many were peasant lads off the mountains, at best semi-literate, who had scarcely ever seen a car or road. They got used to this alien world. They built their own houses in designated Greek neighbourhoods. They learned Russian. To hear them talk, the Soviet Union was not the shambolic, oppressive place of the new liberal propaganda. Their children went to school and got degrees, something which would not have happened had they stayed in Greece. Housing and hot water were free.
These were the villains so crudely caricatured in Louis de Bernières’s Captain Corelli’s Mandolin, a misrepresentation for which he grudgingly apologised in order to appease local opposition while the film of the book was being made on the island of Cephallonia. That some of them did villainous things is certainly true. Miha’s uncle was killed by an isolated group making its way to Albania as late as 1950; they stole his sheep and killed him, together with a hired shepherd. (There is a memorial on the ridge at Grèklu.) But a great many had signed up with the CDA as the only means of escape from the witch-hunts conducted by the postwar Greek Government against former members of the wartime Resistance, all of whom were branded as Communist enemies of the state. The gangs that hunted them down were recycled versions of the collaborationist militias recruited by the Nazis. One of their most notorious leaders was a certain Grivas, who by some extraordinary feat of rebranding managed to reinvent himself in the 1950s as General Grivas, nationalist hero of the Cypriot War of Independence against British colonial rule.
We reach the first trees above the thickly forested amphitheatre where the hamlet of Helimòdhi once lay. ‘You go left to the edge of the wood where we saw those hoofmarks by the spring,’ Miha tells me, ‘and I’ll go right. Then we’ll come back towards each other just above the road. Keep calling out from time to time, so we can communicate. There are a couple of hollows. Make sure you have a look in them.’