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Sunday, March 6, 2016

The Face of Courage



Chevi & daughter, Anastasia
Imagine you are a young child running for your life, from an enemy of whom you’re certain wants you dead or enslaved. You’re being guided by the one person you trust the most: your mother. And yet at the very moment that you feel freedom is but a breath away, you are sent to your death by that trusted person. 

This is the story of Anastasia Lykas from the villages of Souli, in Epirus Greece. She was my mother-in-law, Chevi’s, great grandmother and her spirit remains in one of Chevi's daughters, a namesake—Anastasia, a woman of strength and determination.


Near the village of Zalogo atop the majestic cliffs that overlook the Preveza Bay and its lush green valley, stands a monument to those brave women who fled their enemy in 1803 during the Souliotes  War. One of them was twelve-year-old Anastasia Lykas. The monument is barely visible from the main road, but it remains an important tribute to the memory of those women, forced to make an unforgivable choice so their children would not experience an even greater horror.






The following is an excerpt from the memoir, THE NIFI, and it is the rendition of the Souliotes women's plight which Chevi often shared with her children:

The Souliotes were tough people who were in constant conflict with Ali Pasha, the ruling Ottoman leader of that area in the early 1800s. The European powers were interested in weakening the Ottoman power, so they encouraged conflict by providing the Souliotes with weapons and ammunition through the port of Parga. But in the winter of 1803, after much fighting, they were badly beaten by Ali Pasha’s fighters. For their surrender, the oppressive ruler had promised them a safe retreat to the Ionian Islands—enough time to gather their possessions and then a departure without fear of harm. The Souliotes accepted the offer, though wary of their enemy's promise, and they began their journey to the coast.

Anastasia was a young girl of twelve. Her last moments in her home had been spent wrapping food and possessions into a cloth, to be tied into a sling-like carrying case. As she and her family descended from the village square with the other refugees, a shepherd from across the peak reached them breathlessly. He talked excitedly to the men, his arms waving, crying as he spoke—telling them of Ali Pasha’s betrayal, the rapes, the mutilations—innocent blood spilled as the warriors carved a trail of mayhem in their advance toward Souli. The exodus became a frenzy of fear as the women fled with their children and the men prepared to defend them from the approaching fighters.

In their earlier preparation for retreat, Anastasia had known that she could take only what she could carry, and had put on every article of clothing she owned, but as she fled, it became a heavy burden and she fought to keep pace with the others. 

Hours after fleeing, in the dim light of dawn, from the height of their position, they could see a band of moving horses and men approaching with a speed that could not be matched. They cried for their sons, their brothers, their husbands and continued their retreat, fear pushing them onward, knowing what had befallen those who had not escaped.

Suddenly, they came to a stop; a deadly ridge lay before them. Their mindless fleeing had trapped them high above a green valley with no hope for retreat and if there would be no escape for them, then death would be a kindness. There was no panic, no crying, only silence as the December wind came up the side of the cliff and called to them. 

Quietly, one of the older women began to sing. Then, connecting to each other with outstretched arms, the women slowly began to dance, until that older woman disappeared over the edge while the others continued with the smooth sound of their song.

And then one more was gone, and then another.

Anastasia watched the edge grow closer. She did not understand that death awaited until her mother's hands grasped her tightly and she was hurling through the empty air, and then they were separated as the wind pulled them apart and Anastasia felt something, perhaps the branches of a pornari tree, digging deep into her forehead and the warm blood running into her eyes. Her body, encased in the layers of clothing, hit against rocks, down, down, down. Pain. Breathless.

And then it was over.

Her back lay against the green grass. Her eyes, a warm liquid seeping into them, stared upward. They were lost in the blueness of the sky. 

But she was alive! 

Unable to move, she lay for some time, fighting for breath and slowly the air found passages to her lungs, filling her with strength as she pulled herself to her feet. Chevi's great grandmother, Anastasia, would live her life and share her story!
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Chevi believed her great grandmother had survived the fall because she'd worn so many layers of clothing. Though they slowed her down and first threatened to be her demise, that padding and possibly a bit of luck, saved her life. 

Chevi also liked to point out that life was unpredictable and sometimes was held together by a thin thread. That small decision her great-grandmother, Anastasia, had chosen in wearing all of her clothing, though it might have seemed fool hearty at times as she fled, was that which allowed Chevi to exist and raise her own family a few generations later. 





The monument is a beautiful gesture to some courageous women and the scenery around it is as beautiful as the sculpture. If you sit quietly on the edge and look out at the sea, you'll hear the whisper of a song and feel someone lightly pass you by.











5 comments:

  1. I can not find any words on this; my heart tho is so filled with compassion for these brave dear women.

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  2. Linda has there ever been a documentary about these women? If not, I will make one. Can I interview for a story on my site www.greekamericangirl.com? This is a story that must be told

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  3. Linda has there ever been a documentary about these women? If not, I will make one. Can I interview for a story on my site www.greekamericangirl.com? This is a story that must be told

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    1. Hi! How are you? I imagine there have been documentaries about this in Greek, but I am not sure about English. It's a famous place in Epirus and you can visit both the village of SOULI from where the women started, as well as the cliff with the monument from where they jumped. You have a wonderful website. Yes, of course I'd be happy to answer questions but I'm not sure I know any more than that which is posted here. Contact me at AuthorFagioliKatsiotas@gmail.com if you want. I hope I can help.

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