30 years since the military junta collapsed and democracy was restored
A long, happy summer night 30 years ago
In the fourth instalment of our July series, 'The Times' correspondent inAthens recalls the historic hours of 23-24 July 1974 as Constantine Karamanlisreturned to Greece
IT WAS a night unlike any other night. The spectacle was magnificent and heart-warming. Above all, this was a rare occasion for a journalist to watch happy history in the making.
Constantine Karamanlis, the former prime minister, was coming home after 11 years of self-imposed exile in Paris. He had been invited to return and restore democracy in Greece.
It was one of those rare moments when all the Greeks agreed that he was the only man who could pull the country back from the brink of war, just as a seven-year-long military dictatorship was collapsing under the onus of its own blunders.
As I rushed to the airport by taxi before midnight, I could see hundreds of thousands of jubilant Athenians lining the road to Hellenikon to welcome their own Cincinnatus. Most of them held lit tapers as on Resurrection night.
It was a rewarding sight for a foreign correspondent who had watched with great revulsion and hurt Greece suffering the indignity of being railroaded for seven years by a band of uncultured and inept army officers.
'I'm going home,' says minister
It had been such an eventful day that I had had to change the lead of my story to The Times several times to catch each of the paper's four editions.
It was clear that this was a critical day for the future of Greece. Turkey had invaded Cyprus on July 20 while the general mobilisation ordered by the Greek regime turned out to be a major fiasco. The civilian government of Adamantios Androutsopoulos, appointed by the second junta under Military Police Brigadier Demetrios Ioannides, had suddenly vanished from public sight.
One day earlier, I had tried to find out what was going on behind the scenes. So I visited an old friend who had been intimidated into becoming a cabinet minister. He was collecting his personal affairs in a carton and preparing to clear out as fast as he could.
He said: "I don't know what is going on. A cabinet meeting was scheduled this morning, but the Prime Minister and several ministers did not turn up. I do not know where they are. So I am going home!"
Adamantios Androutsopoulos was appointed prime minister after Brigadier Ioannides toppled the original junta of dictator George Papadopoulos less than a week after the students' defiance at the Polytechnic on November 17, 1973.
My friend had been sworn in as a minister by mistake. After his coup, Ioannides dispatched military policemen in jeeps to round up the people he needed to man a puppet government. When they turned up at my friend's home and ordered him to follow them, he was convinced that the soldiers intended to shoot him.
In fact, Ioannides's stooges had the wrong man. Actually, they were looking for his brother, a retired diplomat, whom they wanted to appoint as foreign minister. In the event, they kept his brother anyway and gave him the portfolio of Public Works.
Authorities stage anti-British demo
Later, I saw the British Ambassador, Sir Robin Hooper. We had become good friends during the dictatorship and met frequently with our wives over dinner to exchange views and pleasantries to dispel the gloom of those days. He complained he was having a hard time contacting the foreign minister. "He just vanished into thin air!" he said.
The British government had been openly hostile to the junta, which the prime minister, Harold Wilson, had once described as "a bestial regime". The ruling colonels never forgave the British. After the Turkish invasion of Cyprus on July 20, they staged a violent demonstration outside the British Embassy and tried to set it on fire with Molotov cocktails. They claimed the British military were helping the Turks in Cyprus.
While reporting on this violent riot, I discovered that the "angry citizens" attacking the Embassy were all military policemen who had been ordered the day before to turn up in mufti for this special job.
When they had enough with the Embassy offices, they moved round to the Ambassador's residence where, at the time, there was a single occupant: Lady Hooper, the Ambassador's wife. She sat there frightened in her bedroom while they stoned the building.
I had kept in touch with her by telephone to reassure her. I called the press minister and told him bluntly that he and his regime should be ashamed for assailing a woman stranded alone at the Residence.
The attack stopped promptly but I cannot say for sure that this was due to my intervention. Significantly, however, I had spoken to Lady Hooper using the Ambassador's unlisted personal number that he had given my wife to call him promptly in case the junta ever came to arrest me.
They never did, but this reassured my wife, who was rightly worried by the fact that I was regarded as a dangerous critic of the military regime especially because I related in great detail cases of systematic torture of jailed opponents.
Testing the regime's limits
When the dictatorship was imposed on 21 April 1967, we foreign correspondents in Athens had no idea where we stood. Would there be sanctions if we reported the truth?
So we engaged in what is known in international affairs as "limits testing". Day by day, we would become bolder and more critical, to check out how much they would tolerate.
They tolerated a good deal. They tried to intimidate us by having agents follow us so openly that it resembled a comic movie. I still remember the group of three or four secret agents standing near the corner of Omirou and Skoufa streets where I had my office, whispering audibly as I passed every morning: "He is the one!"
Many colleagues had a harder time. Leslie Finer, the outspoken correspondent of the Observer and the BBC, and David Tonge of The Guardian were expelled. Costas Tsatsaronis of Der Spiegel was detained briefly and threatened. Janet Damen, who had succeeded Finer for the BBC, was openly threatened by the press minister of the Ioannides regime and frightened into leaving the country.
Averoff phones Karamanlis
On the eve of the junta's downfall, 23 July 1974, General Phaedon Ghizikis, whom Ioannides had appointed president of the Republic, and the chiefs of the Armed Forces agreed to invite the politicians the junta had once deposed to consult them about the formation of a national unity government. Ioannides was not present.
The meeting lasted five hours. Then there was a break, and by the time the meeting resumed, Evangelos Averoff, the former foreign minister, who was there, had already telephoned Constantine Karamanlis in Paris to urge him to return immediately and assume the reins of power.
The military chiefs endorsed Averoff's initiative and Karamanlis promptly flew from Paris to Athens aboard the French President's jet.
The regime press services were completely disrupted. We had no access to the official sources, and a swarm of special envoys sent in by the world press to cover a Greek-Turkish war felt stranded and uninformed.
However, a deus ex machina suddenly came to fill the gap, quite promptly and very elegantly. He was Charles Wainwright, the British Embassy's Information Officer. Throughout that crucial period, he would gather the press at midday to pool the news and brief them on the day's events. Even Greek media reporters were there.
The British Information Office was then located in a posh building overlooking Syntagma Square. This then became the hub of our news-gathering operations. We would go there for the daily briefing but also to receive calls and share the news with our colleagues. It was there that we found out what happened at the meeting of political leaders.
The news soon filtered out. There were jubilant scenes in the streets of Athens and shortly afterwards throughout the country. The military authorities became alarmed. But the crowds were too good-natured to be a threat.
In my report, I said: "Pedestrians waved and cheered the hooting, flag-waving procession of cars that roamed the streets of Athens. Total strangers embraced and exchanged good wishes." To those familiar with usual Athenian street manners, the extreme politeness with which people treated each other came as an unexpected surprise. I had received these tit-bits from my wife who had gone off with Lady Hooper to watch the unusual celebrations. At one point, however, the police used loudspeakers to urge people to disperse, reminding them that martial law was still in force.
Lady Hooper and my wife decided to return to home base. But the crowds were getting thicker and thicker; so, exercising caution they repaired to the French Embassy. The French Ambassador was immediately alerted and for some reason assumed that the British Ambassador's wife was seeking political asylum. The two ladies had a hard time dissuading the French diplomat from giving them an armed escort to return to the British residence, a few blocks away.
Constantine Karamanlis was sworn in the same night as the head of a National Unity government. But the episode of the seven-year dictatorship was not yet over. Army units were still under the command of Ioannides' trusted officers. They resented this humiliating defeat. It took Karamanlis just over six months to secure the country from possible subversion and, eventually, have the protagonists of the two military coups arrested and put on trial. In the early days, he himself would often sleep nights aboard a friend's yacht for security reasons.
It so happened that Karamanlis's return was the most important news in the world that day. The story I had filed from an airport pay phone at 2am had made the final edition of The Times. In fact, it was the lead story across four columns.
What was unusual was that it announced Karamanlis's return to Athens "this morning". It is not often that a newspaper can report same-day news to its readers. This may now seem commonplace because we are used to instant news via TV or the internet. It was not so at that time.
I had finished for the day since the swearing-in of the new government would be tomorrow's news. I decided to return home. It was 3am and the airport was practically deserted -- not a single taxi in sight.
Suddenly a big car stopped next to me. The man at the wheel took pity on me and offered me a lift home. It turned out that when a parliament was elected a few months later, he was elected speaker.
Next week: Australian journalist David Glass takes a closer look at the months leading up to the fall of the junta
, 23/07/2004, page: A06
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