The Sarakina massacre – the cycle of revenge.

(The events related below took place in late January/early February 1897. A more precise date cannot be given because, unfortunately, none of the written sources give an accurate date, and at that time there was a 12 day difference between the European calendar and that in use in Crete.)

One of the immediate triggers for the European intervention in Crete was the rioting, looting and arson that broke out in Canea, the then capital, on 6th February 1897.  European levels of alarm were further raised when that evening, Cretan Christian insurrectionists cut the Suda/Canea road and occupied the Akrotiri peninsula to the east of the town.

The rioting in Canea, instigated by Cretan Muslims, was, as far as the European Powers were concerned, a further symptom of the breakdown of law-and-order on the island. Such inter-communal unrest had been growing over the previous months as the Cretan Christian insurrection spread, one result of which being the mass movement of Cretan Muslims from the countryside into the towns and the movement of Cretan Christians in the opposite direction. This movement of people, essentially ethnic cleansing, had resulted on more than one occasion in the massacre of civilians.

Sarakina Monument.

On the left-hand side of the road from Paleochora, south west Crete, to Sarakina, about 2.5km before the village of Sarakina itself, is a small marble plaque set on a concrete plinth and set up by the Community of Sarakina in 1986.

Sarakina Monument Closeup.

The English translation of the plaque reads:

‘In January 1897 in this area of Sarakina a major battle was fought between Turks and Christians that resulted in 150 Turks being killed.’

This brief description however, though superficially accurate, hides the nature of the battle and the events that lead up to it. By early 1897, the collapse of Ottoman authority and the realisation that Ottoman rule of the island was coming to an end resulted in an increase in inter-communal violence between Cretan Muslims and Cretan Christians throughout the Selino District and many Cretan Muslims, including those of Sarakina, then a predominantly Muslim village, sought refuge in the major towns.

According to the account given by the British Consul in Chania, Sir Alfred Biliotti, to the Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs, an account based on his interviews with survivors and eyewitnesses of both religions[1], in late January/early February 1897, the date is unclear in Biliotti’s report, as tensions between the two religious groups in Selinos grew, the inhabitants of the isolates and mainly Muslim village of Sarakina decided to emigrate. However, they were persuaded to remain for a time in their village by the local Christian leaders. A few days later the “…Dimarchi and Notable Christians of their commune,” told the Muslims it would be prudent for them to retire to Paleochora and that they would be convoyed there with a Cretan Christian escort to prevent them from being molested en-route. The Cretan Muslims, numbering 159 according to Biliotti, were placed in between two groups of Christians, each of about 200 men, and started the march to Paleochora. About half an hour out from Sarakina, a shot was fired in the rear of the column, apparently the result of a scuffle breaking out when one of the Muslims refused to surrender his firearm. This shot was immediately followed by “…a general discharge of firearms on the Musselman emigrants.”

Of the 159 Muslims who started, only 44 arrived safely in Paleochora and some of these reported to Biliotti that following the firing, all the wounded men and some of the small children were murdered and four Muslim women from Sarakina had apparently been forcibly taken to a Christian village. Biliotti reports that the massacre was “…deeply deplored by the (Christian) Chiefs and others” but, significantly in the light of his previously highly detailed reports of atrocities committed by both Muslims and Christians throughout the island, makes no mention of any Christian dead or wounded.

Biliotti went on to say that ‘…As soon as the news of the massacre were known at Selinos Castelli (Paleochora), twelve Christians, amongst whom a woman and child, residing there, were murdered.’  What appears to be the memorial to one such Christian is situated in a graveyard in Paleochora.

Paleochora Gravestone 1897.

Here lies Artemios Opsimakis. 27 years old. Murdered in Paleochora by the Turks. 27th January 1897.

(n.b. Assuming that this inscription, or its original, was made at the time, the date in European style would be 8th February.)

Reports of the Sarakina massacre reached England also from the unnamed Times correspondent in Chania. He describes interviewing a survivor on 21st February in a military hospital in Canea, and confirming Biliotti’s report that the Muslims had been offered safe conduct to the sea by the Christians, adding that they did so in exchange for some Christian hostages held in Paleochora.[2] His informant claimed that they were attacked by their guards and by other Christians who appeared from the mountains and that of the 154 Cretan Muslims who started the trek, only 48 escaped of whom 25 were wounded: the informant further alleged that two of his children had been beheaded.

Another view of the incident is given in a book, written about 1996, currently on sale in Paleochora. This states that the ‘famous battle of Sarakina’ was caused when ‘one of the Christians courageously asked for a gun held in quite a provocative way by a Turkish child (and) when the child did not respond to his demand, killed it.’ The book further argues that the reason for the attack “…was not merely revenge but also the gathering of loot in order to meet basic needs.” [3]

In contrast to the punishments handed down after 6th September 1897 for the murder of British servicemen and subjects in Candia, no real effort was made to address the issue of either the massacres perpetrated by Christians immediately prior to the arrival of the Concert forces, or the murders of Christians committed by Muslims on 6th September. The British were ‘…far less concerned with the punishment of those found guilty of crimes against humanity than with retribution upon those who had attacked the British forces which had been performing their duties as instructed’.[4] In the case of atrocities committed against Muslims in the countryside prior to the Admirals taking de facto control of the island, while Biliotti made strenuous efforts to record the victims and to try to start the process of getting justice, albeit within the context of persuading Muslims to return to their homes in the countryside,[5] no enthusiasm was shown by any of the Powers for following the matter up. While legally punishment of these crimes was the responsibility of the Ottoman authorities, unsurprisingly, it is clear that there was no appetite among the Powers to re-open old wounds. In the initial stages of the Intervention, at least up until early 1899 when Christian disarmament became a reality, Christian insurgents, among whom were undoubtedly some, if not all, of the criminals, were in complete charge of the countryside; as a consequence, neither the Ottomans nor the Powers were in a position to enforce their own, or any other, law. With the arrival of Prince George, the Powers were happy to divest themselves of the responsibility; matters were now in the hands of the High Commissioner and the Cretan Assembly and it was up to them to take appropriate action.

Similarly, while not pursuing the murderers of Muslims, the pursuit of Muslims who murdered Christians was quietly dropped; the International Military Commission in Canea had, at the request of the Russian Government, ceased to apply the death penalty after execution of two murderers on 23rd November 1898.[6] 

 

 

[1] House of Commons Command Paper (1897) [C.8437] Turkey #10, Inclosure No.249. Bilotti to Marquis of Salisbury (Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs) 22 February 1897.

[2] The Times Monday 22 February 1897.

[3] Pyrovolakis N. (1996?) Self published.  Paleochora (Looking Back on the Past) p.29

[4] Prichard, R. J.,  ‘International Humanitarian Intervention and Establishment of an International Jurisdiction Over Crimes Against Humanity: The National and International Military Trials on Crete in 1898’, in  J. Carey, W. V. Dunlop & R.J. Pritchard (eds.), International Humanitarian Law Vol. 1 (Transnational Publishers: New York, 2003), 1-87, p.43

[5] Ibid. 67-69.

[6] Pritchard, ‘International Humanitarian Intervention’ p. 63.

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