Cypriot woman, Pontian boy and Senator gather at Greek Genocide Memorial in Victoria

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Anastasia Di Loreto (nee Karatzia) is one of an intimate gathering at Ray Brahman Gardens, Preston, Victoria to commemorate the Armenian and Greek Genocide on Saturday, May 18. She shares her experience of being chased from her home in now-occupied Cyprus, aged 10, with The Greek Herald.

Huddled around the world’s only Monument for All Victims of Genocide and Other Atrocity Crimes, Anastasia listens attentively as Father Vassilios Kourtessis performs a Trisagion.

Fr Vasilios Kourtessis said a prayer for victims of Greek Genocide.
Fr Vasilios Kourtessis said a prayer for victims of Greek Genocide.
Gathering at the monument.
Gathering at the monument.

Organised by the Return to Anatolia group, Father Vassilios prays to honour several hundred thousand Greeks killed by Ottoman Turks in massacres, executions, lootings, and forced deportations including death marches through the Syrian desert.

This dark period in history ran from 1913 and continued until 1923, creating 900,000 refugees.

Anastasia is a victim of another period of ethnic cleansing. As candles are lit and white carnations drop into the monument, her thoughts travel to her childhood home in Kyrenia, Cyprus, on 20 July 1974.

“The day before the bombing started, my mother and I returned from visiting a friend and a Turkish plane scraped over us, we noticed how low it flew. We woke up the next morning to the bombarding of Kyrenia,” Anastasia remembers.

“My father was not with us because he was a firefighter on night shift, and we didn’t have a phone, so he rang the neighbours and told us to leave with them in their cars.”

Anastasia’s family, her mother and three brothers, took to the mountain where they reunited with their father.

Anastasia Karatzia became a refugee at 10 when Kyrenia was bombarded
Anastasia Karatzia became a refugee at 10 when Kyrenia was bombarded.

“We left without taking any of our belongings and slept on a basement floor with thousands of other people,” she says, tearing up as she recalls how they were bombed again and were forced to leave their refuge.

“We went to the left, and other groups went to the right. By sheer luck, we chose left because those who chose to go right encountered Turks and were killed. It was a fear-for-your-life situation.”

After living with relatives, a second invasion on August 15 left them stranded again, but by November 16, the family had arrived in Australia.

“I went to Preston Girls High and found some normality, but I’m still affected by it. You never get over it. Never,” she says, remembering visiting the site of her childhood home in Kyrenia in 2008 to discover that it had been demolished and apartments built in its place.

Young Sebastian attended the commemoration with his yiayia Helen Papaioannou. Aged 10, he has – thankfully – not had to experience the rude awakening from childhood that Anastasia has been traumatised by since the age of 10.

“Being Pontian is getting to do a lot of fun things!” he says, focusing on the food, dancing and Pontian culture.

Sebastian Papaioannou, 10, blows out candles at the Monument
Sebastian Papaioannou, 10, blows out candles at the Monument.

His yiayia Helen has also told him the story of his great grandfather, Anastasios Tsitiridis – one of the two siblings who survived the Armenian and Greek Genocide from a family of 12 children.

“His older brother Kostas was a refugee in Athens after they lost touch with each other during the Genocide, however they were reunited through the Red Cross,” Helen says.

Quizzed about the meaning of Genocide, Sebastian told The Greek Herald that he is still trying to understand it.

“I’m still young and I need time to process it,” he says. He adds it doesn’t matter what colour skin someone has, “we should all just live together.”

Independent Aboriginal Australian Senator Lidia Thorpe, arriving late, compliments Sebastian on his wisdom, and suggests he enter politics when he grows up.

Lidia Thorpe drops a white carnation into the monument to honour victims of Genocide.
Lidia Thorpe drops a white carnation into the monument to honour victims of Genocide.

“We need you to make it fairer,” she says.

Addressing Sebastian’s yiayia, the independent senator says she is a “yiayia” too, having two children with her ex-husband, a man from Pyrgos in the Peloponnese. She remembers visiting Greece during winter and having an authentic and meaningful experience with the locals, climbing mountains, and chatting with yiayiades in village squares.

“I also visited the Parthenon and wanted to start a rally to bring back the stolen sculptures,” she says, feeling a connection with Greeks who also suffered loss due to “colonisers.”

“My friend with me said, ‘you can’t start a rally in someone else’s country’; but we need justice,” Senator Thorpe says.

She takes a global approach when it comes to justice.

“I’ve just come from the rally at Moonee Valley Racecourse protesting the genocide in Palestine,” she says having interrupted the Victorian Labor State Conference ahead of the prime minister’s arrival.

“I’m going from one genocide fight to this genocide commemoration right here, while surviving my own genocide, which is what goes on in this country to my people every day.”

Senate Inquiry into Genocide Bill

Senator Thorpe urges victims and survivors of Genocide to make a submission for the inquiry into her Private Senator’s Bill – known as the Genocide Bill – by July 5 2024.

Independent Senator Lidia Thorpe and Sofia Kotanidis of Return to Anatolia
Independent Senator Lidia Thorpe and Sofia Kotanidis of Return to Anatolia.

“This is an opportunity to bring Genocide into the public awareness,” she says.

“Right now, in this country, the Attorney General has unchecked power to block prosecution of genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity from proceeding in our courts. This power is called the AG’s fiat,” she says.

Her Bill would open the door to the prosecution of atrocious crimes in the Australian legal systems that the Senator sees as a “barrier to justice” for victims.

Whether it is the Greek Genocide, Cyprus, family murders in the Middle East, or a black mother who had her children removed, the Senator says the Bill would give more power to the victims when seeking recognition for atrocities committed against them.

She is inviting Greek and Cypriot groups and individuals to submit their stories to her so that a compelling case is made for the bill.

“We only have one chance,” she says, urging victims to speak up. “Recognition can bring healing.”

Gathering at the monument, with John Pantazopoulos as MC
Gathering at the monument, with John Pantazopoulos as emcee.
The gathering was small but their stories were meaningful
The gathering was small but their stories were meaningful.

Anastasia tells The Greek Herald, “We feel like we are not heard.”

“It is 50 years, and nothing has been done. They’ve taken our property, our lives, everything,” she says.

Sofia Kotanidou, president of the Return to Anatolia Group, organising the commemoration, and Helen say they didn’t even know about the Genocide until they found out by accident in adulthood.

“My father said, ‘I didn’t tell you because I didn’t want you to grow up hating the Turks. It was all politics’,” Helen says.

Sofia remembers the melancholy of her grandmother who always spoke of a golden-haired child they had to just leave for dead in their escape from Asia Minor.

Both Sofia and Helen now make sure others know.

Anastasia agrees, “When we die who will tell our stories? Our children must know.”

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