30 years since the military junta collapsed and democracy was restored

The real unsung heroes

In the third instalment of our July series, a Reuters correspodentremembers how the army colonels decided that democracy 'had to be suspended'in the land where it was born


The unholy trinity (from L to R): Brigadier Stylianos Pattakos, the 'clown'; Colonel George Papadopoulos, the junta 'mastermind'; and Colonel Nicholas Makarezos, the 'economic czar'

AFTER days of being dead, the telex in the Reuters office clattered to life, and the next tape punched out announced to the world that democracy was returning to Greece after seven years of irrational junta rule. The military, unable to extricate themselves from the Cyprus folly and under pressure from the country's youth standing up to them, threw in the towel and were asking the politicians to save the situation.

The events leading up to that sunny morning began on the night of April 21, 1967, when a group of fanatic colonels beat the generals to it and staged a coup on the insane pretext they were saving Greece from drifting into the communist orbit. I was playing poker with some friends at my house on Patission Street when towards dawn we heard the rumble of tanks surrounding the nearby OTE building and severing telecommunications with the outside world. People were ordered at bayonet point to stay indoors, and the next day, a sunset-to-sunrise curfew was imposed.

For some time, there had been talk of a coup by generals supportive of the palace which, by meddling heavily in politics, had brought about an untenable political situation. But the radio blaring military music told us different. Although censorship was imposed on the Greek media, foreign news agencies and correspondents were allowed to send out stories to tell the world that democracy was being temporarily suspended in the land where it was born.

Learning that a brigadier, Stylianos Pattakos, was conducting operations from the ministry of interior on Klafthmonos Square, I phoned him for an interview. It was the first interview he granted, and it immediately became obvious that, in their naivete, these guys really believed they were saviours. It was also obvious he was not the leader - he was just in charge of the tanks. The mastermind was Colonel George Papadopoulos, who must have been surprised at the lack of resistance and who, in the following years, gradually became power crazy. The third stooge was Colonel Nicholas Makarezos, who became the economic czar.

The US factor

Growing up in Egypt and attending an Irish Mission school where our history lessons included Homer's Iliad, Leonidas and his 300 Spartans, and the bravery of the Greeks in ancient times, I must confess I was dismayed and disappointed at how the average Greek accepted the situation. The failed counter-coup from Larissa in December 1967 by then King Constantine was, to put it mildly, childish. And even the attempt on Papadopoulos' life by Alecos Panagoulis in August 1967, although brave, was not exactly suicide bombing.

To this day, most Greeks believe the coup was backed by the US. If not backed, it was certainly supported, and Vice President Spyros Agnew, of Greek descent and later involved in shady financial dealings, paid an official visit. Tom Pappas, a wheeler-dealer from Boston, for a nice fee, brought in at least $200 million in investments for an oil refinery and a steel plant in Northern Greece. In the soap opera department, Papadopoulos changed the marital law for 24 hours so he could marry his beloved Despina, with the silly wide-brimmed hats. Despina's ambition was to acquire a couple of two-bedroom apartments in Pangrati.

Of course, the economy was fiddled, and Greece had a sham inflation rate below 2 percent. The basic structure for offshore companies, called Law 89, came into being during the junta, but because of excessive red tape, the country lost a golden opportunity to become the financial centre of the southeast Mediterranean. More important, precious time was lost for Greece to join the then Common Market, of which it became a member in 1981.

Walking on thin ice

Eventually most of the Greek newspapers learned to live with the colonels, the only exception being the late Helen Vlachos who preferred to close down the venerable daily Kathimerini rather than let it be muzzled. The work of foreign correspondents was more difficult. Their articles were not censored, but they sometimes walked on thin ice. During that time, I was secretary general of the Foreign Press Association, and it was often difficult saving those who displeased the colonels from being expelled. Foreign correspondents of Greek nationality risked being sent into exile on some barren island.

The way the trio solved problems was, to say the least, simplistic. Apart from Reuters, I was also working for the Financial Times and a number of other foreign newspapers which I inherited when the late Leslie Finer (married to Greek actress Elsa Vergi) was not allowed back into the country. When David Jones, the foreign editor of the FT, and I arranged for "a day in the life of Stylianos Pattakos", we started from his office in the parliament building where he had stacks of letters from ordinary people asking him to help solve their problems. Cutting straight through red tape, he would pick a letter at random, phone, announce himself and tell the terrified devil at the other end of the line that his problem would be taken care of. The same pattern was followed at the meat market on Athinas Street. But when Jones returned to London and wrote his story, calling Pattakos a clown, it was I who sweated it out till I could convince him it really meant he was the humorous one in the group.

Those days were dark days. Plainclothes policemen from the dreaded ESA (Greek Military Police) arbitrarily arrested and beat up young people on street corners and threw them in cells and tortured them when they thought they belonged to some resistance group. Any left-leaning person was anathema. One day, two girls showed up at the Reuters office and, asking to be mentioned by name, lifted their skirts to show us their thighs and genitals badly swollen from torture and broomstick insertions. At the same time, an ESA agent who often visited Reuters and other agencies, was in the next room asking what the screaming was about.

These young people are the real unsung heroes.

Prepared for arrest

Several politicians were sent into exile on the barren Aegean island of Giaros, others, including former foreign minister Evangelos Averof and the leader of the Centre Union party George Mavros, continued to give interviews to foreign correspondents, always carrying a bunch of their medicines on them in case of sudden arrest. But there were also others who preferred to "fight" from abroad, including the late Andreas Papandreou, whose safe conduct out of the country was negotiated by the US.

The most poignant part of those pages of history was when the students decided they had had enough of this travesty. It began with the Law School on Solonos St and later moved to the Polytechnio on Patission St, where they barricaded themselves and sent out messages on their radio, relayed to the world by the news agencies. Their endless call to arms "Edo Polytechnio, edo Polytechnio" still echoes in my ears. Encouraged citizens, including my late Scottish wife Eve, braved tear gas and possible arrest to take them food. And when the colonels ordered the tank to break down the gate, it could not break their spirit. That night, in the haze of tear gas, I saw the tank hesitate as the students shouted, "You cannot do this, we are your brothers."

I kept thinking of Chris Christofferson's song "Freedom is another word for nothing left to lose". The day after, the then minister of press Spyros Zournadzis had the audacity to take foreign journalists on a tour of the Polytechnio, claiming the ravaged, blood-splattered classrooms were the work of the students.

When people finally started gathering in the streets in defiance and with the head of ESA Dimitris Ioannides having toppled Papadopoulos and plotted the ill-fated coup against Archbishop Makarios, which resulted in the Turkish invasion of Cyprus and its consequences, the ignominious junta fell.

Former rightwing prime minister Constantine Karamanlis, self-exiled in Paris after he lost the general election in November 1963, was called to lead the country back to normalcy. Thousands went to the airport to greet him on his return on July 24, 1974. That was 30 years ago. The monarchy and its intrigues have been done away with through a referendum, and Greece is now ensconced in the European Union. But those memories are hard to erase.

Next week: The Times' Mario Modiano remembers the night that the junta fell 30 years ago in Athens

ATHENS NEWS , 16/07/2004, page: A04
Article code: C13075A041


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