Chrisa Kapesi of Livissi

The testimony of Chrisa Kapesi as told by her daughter Kath Tangalakis*


My mother Chrisa Kapesi was born in 1905 in a town called Livissi (today Kayaköy) in Asia Minor (today's Turkey). Situated 350km away was the city of Smyrna (today Izmir) which was known at the time as the 'Paris of Asia Minor'.  Macri (today Fethiye) was the sister town situated on the coast about 20 minutes away, both cities being populated by Greek Christians.  Asia Minor was a part of the Ottoman Empire at the time.

Livissi had a population of roughly 6,500 citizens.  About 1.5 km outside of Livissi were two Turkish settlements with about fifteen families, all farmers and cattle breeders. These Turks would help the Greeks during harvest time. The Greek Christians were mainly tradespeople, businesspeople, traders of goods, as well as professionals such as doctors, lawyers and teachers etc.

Asia Minor was inhabited by Greeks for many centuries and it was eventually taken over by the Turks, thus creating the Ottoman Empire which at one point included Greece.  In Macri and Livissi, generations of Greeks and Turks lived side by side in peace and harmony. There was no conflict among the citizens of both communities. This was not the case in Greece where Turks enslaved the Greeks and forbade them any rights and were very cruel to them.

Livissi was built on a rocky hill. The roads were about 2 metres wide both ascending and descending the hill; most were dirt roads, some were paved and others had stone steps cut into them. The houses were mostly single storey while about 25% were double storey. Each had a basement for storage of tools, wood and produce. There would also be a fowl yard which kept the household supplied with eggs and chickens for cooking.

The houses were made of stone, lime and clay. Every Saturday the houses would be whitewashed inside and out with lime and indigo-blue which is why from a distance, Livissi looked sparkling white. Because of the mountain climate, the people, both men and women, were strong and healthy. Rainwater was collected in the wells as there was no main water supply for the houses. The women tended to the housework as well as weaving their prika (dowry) using silk from silk worms cultivated  in their houses. The men were very industrious, a large percentage of them being employed in the mines. Others were tradesmen and craftsmen, working in tin and pewter as well as other trades like building and carpentry etc. When Turks required people with these skills they would go to the Greek Christians.

The plains around Livissi were very rich and fertile. This rich land allowed the Greeks to grow citrus and other fruits, their speciaity being figs. My mother kept saying 'the best figs in the world came from Livissi'. There was an abundance of vineyards too and during harvest time, the Turks would come into Livissi and help. Wine and ouzo was produced from the harvest and each farmer had their own supply for their own needs as well as producing some for sale.

There were two large churches; one being the Taxiarchis, which strangely enough is the name of the very first Greek church in Adelaide, South Australia (St. Michael's in Franklin st), and the other was Panagia Koimisis tis Theotokou.  There were also many small churches in Livissi. The Greeks were allowed to retain their language and religious beliefs. 

All in all, life was pleasant for the people of Livissi and Macri. When referring to their nationality, the people called themselves Christian Ottoman or Moslem Ottoman. Many of the Greeks actually spoke better Turkish than Greek.

The Greeks were also allowed to have their own Town Administrators and to govern themselves. That is until 1914 when the First World War broke out, at which point the Turks took over the administration. The Turks were allied with the Germans or 'Franks' as they were called, and went to war against Great Britain. The Turks wanted to rid their country of the Greeks and other minority nationalities, and in 1914 the first exodus of Greek citizens occurred. Many Greeks, mainly men, were marched away never to be seen again.

All the able bodied Greek Christian men were taken away from the farms, trades and businesses and conscripted into Labour Battalions. These battalions were set up by the Turks so that roads and bridges could be built by these Greek men, as well as any other hard tasks that could be found. The Greek men in these camps were now considered the enemy by the Turks.

A Turkish soldier named Mustafa Kemal was instrumental in setting about unifying Turkey. He started out as a soldier. He was very clever and distinguished. He manipulated his way to the top and managed to get himself involved in politics. His aim was to abolish the Ottoman Empire and set boundaries for a unified Turkey. He succeeded in doing this, eventually getting himself elected as president of Turkey. Whilst all this was happening in the political arena, the people of the villages and the men who were in Labour Battalions were at a loss as to why they were treated in such a bad way.

Life in these labour camps was very hard. The men were treated with the utmost cruelty by the Turks. They also had to endure the worst of living conditions, shortage of food, no medical supplies and no shelter. Many of the men managed to escape these camps and hide in the hills or they returned and set up camps outside their villages. The Turks would search the villages for these men, and for any weapons which may have been hidden in Greek houses. The Turks would beat the inhabitants of these villages to get them to turn their countrymen in, and for any weapons which were hidden. Many Greeks resisted.

The Turkish Government had two factions in its society. One was the old Turks who had lived side by side with the Greek Christians for many years without any problems. The other group was the new Young Turks who wanted only Turks in Turkey. The Young Turks were stronger and eventually the Turkish government decided to rid Turkey of all other nationalities. This led to genocide where Turks would massacre many of the Greek, Kurdish and Armenian communities. Thousands of those people were marched into the desert and there they were left without food or water or any means of getting back. They were deliberately taken into the desert and left to die. Hundreds of thousands were killed as a result of this genocide.

After the Great War, Asia Minor was promised to the Greeks by the Great Powers. Greece wanted to expand its boundaries however the Turkish government refused to honour this agreement, so the Greek Army advanced into Asia Minor. But the Turkish Army was too strong. They had the support of the Russians who entered the picture supplying arms and transport vehicles to the Turks. The British decided to be neutral and offered no help to the Greek Army, while France and Italy withdrew their support. Without any assistance from the other countries the Greek Army was no match for the Turkish forces and had to withdraw. The Turkish Army then torched Smyrna, burning it to the ground and massacring many Greeks. Many were left homeless and destitute. The English warships were in the harbour observing the burning of Smyrna and they held off taking the Greeks who were lining up at the wharves trying to escape the inferno. Many of these helpless, destitute people swam out to these ships crying for help only to be beaten back as they tried to climb on board.  After a couple of days the British relented and started to take on refugees.

As a result of this failed attempt by the Greeks, the Treaty of Lausanne was set up in July 1923 which resulted in the Greek government relinquishing all territories in Asia Minor and a compulsory population exchange was agreed to between the new Turkey with Mustafa Kemal as president, and the Greek government. This meant that those Greeks still remaining in Asia Minor had to be relocated to Greece and likewise 400,000 Turks had to leave Greek territory and go to Turkey. Many of the Greeks that were financially able, paid for passages to Greek islands like Rhodes, Castelorizo or the port of Pireaus in Greece.  The less fortunate had to travel with whatever means they could, mostly on foot.

Before the war, life in Macri and Livissi would have been a kind of Utopia. Even for those who were not financial, there would have been an abundance of work provided by the farms and other industries. There was also the communal spirit where people would always be there for their friends and families.

My mother Chrisa Kapesi lived in Livissi with her mother Maria and her brother Kosta. She was not sure of her birth date, but she always told us it was about the 4th or 5th of October, although another document shows it as the 12th of October 1905. Her father and older brother had been killed in the war. Whether they were taken away on those labour camps or fought in the Balkan wars is uncertain. This made life difficult for my mother and her family, but they managed to survive life in Livissi with the help of their friends and neighbours, many of whom would have been in a similar situation.

With the men taken away from their farms, their businesses and their trades, all these businesses would have suffered from lack of manpower and expertise. Food became scarce because there were only the women left to tend to the farms, and any food or harvest gathered would have been taken away to feed the Turkish Army, as would the livestock. So the people who were left had to find ways to survive. Many of them would live off what fruit they could pick off trees and search around the hills for the wild 'greens' which were growing in the paddocks.

Everybody had to find what they could to survive and to be there for each other. My mother and her brother were barely educated and had very little idea of what was happening in other parts of the world. There was no TV or radio to tell them of the horrors of what was happening in Smyrna and other parts of Asia Minor. They were unaware that some high officials in the Turkish and Greek government had decided the fate of all the Greeks living in Turkish territories. In short, they had no idea that the events that were taking place would soon turn their poor but peaceful lives into a horrible nightmare, testing their courage and endurance, where only the strong would survive.

My mother recalled the day when they found out about the evacuation. She was sitting in a meadow with some friends, laughing and joking, when they saw a band of Turkish soldiers on horses, brandishing their swords and rifles, galloping at full speed into the village square. It was then that the inhabitants of this and other villages were told the terrible news that they had to leave immediately with only what they could carry. How can we possibly know how these poor people must have felt? How confused and frightened they must have been. They had to leave their homes, their belongings, their lives, and leave their village, not knowing where they were going or how they would get there. What would they encounter on their journey and how would they survive? They were not given an explanation as to why they had to leave, in fact they were told they would be allowed to return to their homes one day. They had very little time to get organised. They would take only what they could carry and this meant food and water as well. So you can imagine that they were not able to carry very much.

Before they left, some of the more affluent Greeks managed to sew their gold coins in their clothes. Some buried their riches in the ground with the belief that they would return one day to claim them. The Turks were wise to these tricks and massacred many of these Greeks for their gold and left their bodies to rot on the roadside.  The Greeks who lived near the sea-ports and were lucky enough to get passage on boats, were stopped by the Turks before they boarded. The women were made to strip, and their clothes were searched for any hidden gold or jewellery. After the men had paid for their passage, they were beaten and threatened with death if they did not hand over any other money they had on them. Turkish crowds would gather at the pier and shout that these men should be killed then and there as they might come back to fight the Turks. All in all, it was a horrific time for the Greek refugees. Many did not make that journey to Greece.

My mother along with her mother and brother and friends, set off on their trek accompanied on part of the journey by Turkish military. The lucky ones who had donkeys were able to load up the animals to carry their belongings. The others, like my mother's family, had to carry whatever they could. and that included food as well. As they travelled along the road she recalled the feeling of utter despair when she saw her countrymen lying dead or dying on the roadside, some from fatigue some from being killed by the Turks. They were in no position to help anyone along the road as they had to look after themselves. Although there was the constant fear of being attacked by the Turks on their journey, they did get some help from some of the Turkish women as they passed through the villages. These women gave food and water to Greek Christians showing some sympathy for their plight, probably because they looked so poor and destitute. The marauding Turks left this group alone and they were able to continue their journey to the unknown. 

The Greek government had organised ships to go to the Turkish ports to transport the Greeks to Greece, however the refugees had to walk from their villages to the closest port. These ports could be miles and miles away. The Greek refugees did not know where they were going or why. On their trek many of them suffered from exposure, hunger, fatigue and a complete loss of hope, just following each other trying to survive day by day. My mother's mother Maria however did not survive. The journey had taken its toll and she died in my mother's arms on the roadside, her spirit just gave up. I figure she must have been in her early forties at the time of her death, a relatively young woman by today's standards. However life had given her a bitter pill to swallow. She had lost a husband and son and now she had lost her home as well. She had no way of knowing what the future had in store for her and her remaining children.

To add to this terrible tragedy she could not even have a decent Christian Orthodox burial. There was no priest to say a prayer over her. The only thing they could do was to cover her up and leave her on the roadside. Even as I write this, I experience an immense sadness and tears well up in my eyes just trying to imagine how terrible this ordeal must have been for my mother and her brother. They were now alone, innocent to the horrors of life, not knowing how they would survive the rest of this dangerous journey. The few friends traveling with them rallied around and took the young teenagers under their wing and continued their journeys. Little did they know that this journey would bring them hunger, heartache, poverty and eventually take them to a distant country that they probably never heard of - that being Australia.

* This testimony was published with the narrator's own interpretation of events during that period.


Further reading:
Persecution and Extermination of the Communities of Macri and Livissi (1914-1918)
Kayaköy and Fethiye
The Testimony of Grace Papageorge