From: Alice Taylor
Cham Week Starts in Shadow of Threats Over EU Accession from Greece

On the first day of Cham Week in Albania, the parliament opened its doors to members of the Cham community and discussions of the annexation of Chameria and subsequent genocide of Cham Albanians.

Chams, inhabitants of Chameria, which Greece refers to as Epirus, were forcibly removed by Greece between 1913 and up until 27 June 1944. Albania reports that up to 30,000 Cham Albanians were forcibly removed from Greece, hundreds were massacred, and around 2400 died due to lack of food and other hardships on their way to Albania. The 27 June is declared the day of genocide against Cham Albanians by Greece.

Head of the PDIU which focuses on Cham rights, Shpetim Idrizi, said that it is the time to hear many stories from eyewitnesses and to not forget the “genocide” committed by Greece.

Activist and laywer, Ruko Sako who’s mother was murdered in a school massacre in Chameria, addressed the parliament through tears.

“In the massacre that took place at the school, my mother was there…This injustice was done by Europe which continues to be silent. The cleansing of the Chams started in 1913 and continued until 1944. How long will this silence last?” she asked.

In May, Greek Foreign Minister Nikos Dendias suggested that Albania pursuing the Cham issue could result in problems with its EU accession hopes.

“Greece is ready to discuss only issues that it considers to exist…there is no such issue. Any attempt to create and discuss non-existent issues” could raise issues related to accession, he said following a meeting with Albanian Minister of Foreign Affairs Olta Xhacka.

The matter was also discussed in Parliament on Monday, stirring heated emotions from those involved.

Idrizi spoke to the media about Dendias’ statement, calling it “arrogant language that should worry us” and added Greece should seek a friendly relationship with Albania.

“Which part of the Cham issue does not exist, the Cham community does not exist? Here you have them inside this room, I’m not mentioning the numbers. There is no genocide? There are thousands killed, our families, will you still hear them here from eyewitness accounts? There is no human rights issue?” he said.

Idrizi continued that elders of Chameria are stopped at the border if they want to go and visit their ancestral lands.

“I must remind the Foreign Minister of today’s Greece, but also the Prime Minister of today, neither more nor less, but the father of the current Prime Minister Mitsotakis, who in the meetings with Mr. Meksi has acknowledged the existence of the Cham issue, they have even agreed to set up mixed commissions, starting with the construction of a cemetery for the Cham partisans who fell in Greece,” he added.

Thousands of Cham Albanians were expelled from parts of Western Epirus in modern-day Greece, to Albania after the Second World War. Tensions had long been present in the region between the Muslim Chams and Greek Orthodox Christians. Over the years following the Balkan Wars, Greece refused to accept Chams and adopted policies to drive them out, citing collaboration with Axis powers as a reason.

Albania has pushed for the issue to be reopened while Greece considers the matter closed. A commission to deal with it was set up in 1999, but there has been no progress.

Cham Albanians demand restoration of property and citizenship, implementation of human rights in Greece, international recognition of the issue, and the right to return to their autochthonous lands. But for most, citizenship remains the primary issue.

Protests held by Chams over the years have been mainly ignored by both the Socialist Party and Democratic Party. Prime Minister Edi Rama has raised the issue occasionally but with no follow-through.

In 2012, two members of the PDIU party submitted a resolution to parliament asking for EUR 10 billion in reparations from Greece over the issue.

Greece, meanwhile, refuses to allow Cham Albanians to return “because they have collaborated with Italian-German invaders during the Second World War” and considers them war criminals. This means many Cham have been unable to visit their family’s graves in Greece.

The issue has been largely ignored internationally, despite attempts by the Cham community. In 2006, European Parliament backed the issue and proposed a resolution, but it was never voted on.

In 2016, Enlargement Commissioner Johannes Hahn mentioned the issue as being unresolved, sparking opposition from at-the-time Greek Foreign Minister Nikos Kotzias who asked him to withdraw and correct his declaration.