Archive for April, 2010

Few were rescued

“We were to come in, run close along the pier let go the front and rear anchors and then shell the Turkish quarter…They just fired a few blank charges at us as we came in.”
ON THE QUAI AT SMYRNA by Ernest Hemingway

The strange thing was, she said, that the ships would turn on their searchlights on us at night. They were in the harbor and we were all piled up on the pier begging them to take us on board. Save us. The nights were especially hard. We could not see who had died and it took just one of the women to discover that her child went missing or dead under the human pile and the wailing would start. It was the signal for all the women to start all at once. And sometimes the men would join us. What was left of them. They would scream and curse at our fate. And we cried for our fathers and brothers who were taken away, our dead mothers and sisters, and children. Our places and the things we lost. Then the ships would turn their damned searchlights on us and we would panic less the Turks spot us and we would stop wailing as suddenly as we had started for that fear.

Once a sailor walked up to a Turkish officer and he said something to him in English. Some from the crowd laughed and he became livid without understanding what was said to him. He went up to one of their officers and demanded the immediate punishment of the sailor. He chose an interpreter from among us. The officer called the sailor and asked if he had offended the Turk. He told the Turk that the sailor would be punished most severely, most severely. He ordered the sailor to get on board. We could see that he didn’t intend to punish him for a mere misunderstanding. The Turk seemed appeased and they both laughed like they were old friends. As soon as the British officer left, the Turk turned on Myrsina’s boy. He pulled his pistol and shot him through the heart because he thought the boy was smirking. A boy not yet twelve.

The worst, she said, were the women with the dead babies. The sailors wanted them to give up their dead babies. Several times they tried taking them away. I suppose to bury them somewhere in the sand beyond the pier, she said. But the mothers would not give their babies up. Not without a proper burial they protested holding on to them, cradling them and tearless. Besides they were not christened yet and not a priest in sight to at least say a prayer. But they could not hold on to them for too long though because the bodies began to smell and the flies gathered and laid eggs. Then the sailors piled them in carts throwing lime on their tiny bodies and took them away; buried them all in unmarked graves. One day Persephone died. She was wounded and sick. Her boys carried her for the last thirty miles on a stretcher they made; two sticks and a blanket really. The sailors gawked pocking and prodding her. Something about the way she had died. An officer came. He was also curious and tried stretching one of her legs. It was stiff as if she was dead for days. He left shaking his head. They took her away. By then there was no protest.

I was one of the lucky ones. I got on board and managed to bring one of Melpo’s daughters with me. She hang on to my dress like she was mine. I was pregnant. Ripe to give birth to a little Turk. I was raped when they pushed us out of our village. I suppose they had figured taking the pregnant women on board first was a decent thing to do. So many of us giving birth on board all at once. Some of the babies were stillborn. I wondered what would happen to mine. The pregnant would crawl in some dark corner in the hold and would let go. The sailors would throw some tarp over us instead of sending the ship’s doctor to assist and would let us go at it alone. But we were glad we were alive and didn’t mind. Really we did not mind a bit. Oh we were so glad to get off that pier and did not mind anything any more.

I remember the harbor, she said, as if it was yesterday. Plenty of dead people and drowned animals floating around. Horses and mules and donkeys and men banging against the hull as we pushed out of the harbor. A soldier from the Peloponnese, a peasant like us, leaned over the parapet and cried. He said he was a pack animal leader and was forced and broke the legs of his mules and pushed them into the shallows. He hated his officer, a city chap, who made him do it. Orders said the officer, orders. But who would give such orders to kill the innocent beasts? What did his mules do? It was like that throughout the campaign, he said. Officers who never fought a war and did not know what they were doing. He was inconsolable.

Then one day they would not take any more of us on their ships. They were coming in with the wind behind them and it was blowing hard. We heard cannon fire from the land. Just a couple shots really and the ships turned head to tail and left in a hurry, out of the reach of the canons. Big ships with plenty of batteries and acting so cowardly. They left and we expected the slaughter to begin any moment now at the quai without their protection. Still we were grateful. And when we were far away the night lit up like a candle at the direction of Smyrna and we could hear faint music. Brass and percussion. Like in a parade. It was over.

Vasilis Ergatikos


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