[MGSA-L] The mediators of Crete's warring families
june.samaras at gmail.com
Mon Sep 15 19:09:55 PDT 2014
e mediators of Crete's warring families
Mountain people uphold a tradition that seeks to prevent family vendettas
By Yiannis Papadopoulos
The elderly highlander with the thick mustache knows he must be wary of
what he says. And so what if he never finished elementary school? In the
streets of Livadia he has the power to change people’s minds.
“We are mountain men here. We are generous and honorable, but we are also
proud and will not tolerate being insulted. This often results in
situations that can also lead to murder,” he says when I meet him at a
coffee shop in the village.
Christos Chnaris is an 85-year-old livestock farmer who has also served as
president of the local agricultural cooperative. For the people of Livadia,
however, he has always stood out for his ability to keep a cool head and
ever since the 1960s they have been asking him to step in and solve
differences between them. In this village on the southeastern Aegean island
of Crete, his is the role of “mesitis,” or mediator, and for over half a
century he has been striving to reconcile warring parties before they
resort to violence.
In every village in the region there are two or three men like Chnaris who
act as local peacemakers. A fist fight, the theft of an animal,
trespassing, some misunderstanding, even a scuffle between kids can set off
a chain of confrontation that could escalate to violence without the
mediators’ intervention. Murder is the only incident over which they cannot
attempt a reconciliation.
In Livadia and nearby Anogeia, as in other villages on Crete, the
compromise achieved by a mediator is known as a “sasmos.” It is a process
whose origins have been lost in the mists of time but it survives to this
day. It is a complex institution that has become a part of the local
conscience and often operates in tandem with official authorities or can
even influence a court decision. Lawyers on Crete estimate that the
mediators help avert dozens of crimes every year.
Three years ago at Amari in Rethymno a man shot and injured another man in
the knee during an argument between their two families. By the time the
case went to court, the families had reached a reconciliation. The court
imposed a smaller sentence on the defendant, finding him guilty of assault
rather than attempted murder.
“For the 16 years that I have had my practice in Crete, the sasmos system
has operated with unflagging vigor, to the extent that courts will take it
into account when dealing with criminal cases,” says lawyer Nikos
The mediators are also often called in by the authorities to play the role
of negotiator to bring fugitives to justice or to forge compromises in
Kotzabasakis does not think their role interferes with his own. The
mediators do not assume the role of judge – it is not their job to parcel
out blame. When trying to bridge the problems dividing two sides, they make
sure not to bruise anyone’s ego or mar anyone’s public image.
“Keeping the peace is the most important thing. It means nothing to take on
one case, one time, that may end up in a family tragedy,” says Kotzabasakis.
“We believe the court is of secondary importance,” says Stefanos Hairetis,
a livestock farmer and president of the local agricultural cooperative at
Anogeia. “Courts can solve financial differences, but they don’t do
baptisms,” he said, suggesting that they don’t participate in the
day-to-day life of the local community. “There are cases all the time when
both sides put themselves in the wrong by the way they behave. You go to
court when you’ve exhausted all other means of recourse. Courts are used in
the lowlands, not in the mountains of Crete.”
“The people who specialize as mesites are just a handful,” says Chnaris.
“If you don’t know the right way to talk you could end up doing more harm
than good. A single misspoken word could shoot a case to hell.”
Like other mesites, Chnaris is self-taught. “We are educated by nature and
by the cases that come our way, and we know that every case matters a great
deal to someone,” he says.
In 1992, a professor of social anthropology at the University of Crete,
Aris Tsantiropoulos, spent a year at Livadia studying the way Chnaris
works. After gaining the locals’ trust he was allowed to sit down at the
negotiating table with them, observing the process from the inside.
He explains that the role of mediator is assumed by individuals who are
widely respected by the local community. They are, in the local dialect,
“kozoi,” people who are known to be just and whose opinion matters. They
are normally above the age of 30 and livestock farmers rather than crop
growers, as they are considered to be free and not constrained or prisoner
to their land as the latter. Teachers, doctors and priests can also become
Father Andreas Kokkinos has overseen several mediations in Livadia.
“The existence of the sasmos means that people’s word, their dignity, still
counts for something,” he says. “If we didn’t have that we wouldn’t have
An agreement between two sides is often sealed by a member of one family in
a feud becoming the godparent of a child in the other, creating a familial
At the coffee shops in Anogeia, there is an oft-repeated story: Some 60
years ago, or 70 according to others, two villagers got into a fight and
one stabbed the other. Both were difficult, stubborn men, according to all
who tell the story. The wife of the injured man asked his assailant to
baptize one of their children before her husband was released from hospital
and able to seek revenge. Such “synteknies,” family bonds, are often forged
under the most unexpected circumstances, preventing more serious conflicts.
Father Andreas has conducted baptisms even in the late hours of the night.
“Families are very big here, a lot of children, a lot of young people, and
you can't always tame them all to conduct a discussion,” says the
40-year-old. “You sometimes need the sacred rites as well.”
The process adopted by mediators depends on the case brought before them.
They start getting a feel for the issue and talking about it with the two
sides as soon as a disagreement become common knowledge. They often use
friends and relatives as a means of approaching the people at the center of
the argument. The negotiations can run on for days, even months, during
which one side may be ordered not to walk down a particular street so as
not to run into their adversaries. Once the two sides agree to seek a
compromise, a meeting is arranged on neutral territory, often the
As Aris Tsantiropoulos describes in his book about blood feuds in the
mountains of Crete, a meal that is attended by the two most influential
members of each warring side follows an agreement.
Tracing the roots
Chnaris, the oldest mediator in Livadia, believes that the institution of
sasmos dates back to World War II and the German occupation.
“We went through lawless periods. There were times when laws simply didn’t
function and we had to protect ourselves before it all turned into a
jungle,” he says.
Tsantiropoulos has found evidence suggesting the existence of the
institution during the Venetian conquest.
“The two families would sign an agreement in the presence of a notary to
cease all enmity,” the academic says. In fact, 33 such documents dating
from 1612-39 have been found in the archives of a notary named Ioannis
Krousos, who described them as “instruments of love.” They consist of
agreements written up by the warring parties themselves or by the notary to
settled disputes regarding theft, rape, arguments and so on.
Centuries later, another form of reconciliation emerged on Crete. Before
the civil war that gripped the rest of Greece made its way to the island,
entire villages publicly vowed to cease all hostilities. Again, individuals
of a certain standing in the community would guarantee the truce and the
minutes of the agreement would be published in the local press.
One example of such an arrangement was found in the archives of “Eleftheri
Kriti” (Free Crete), a newspaper which acted as mouthpiece for the parties
of the National Liberation Front (EAM), on the front page from May 16,
1947. The top story was a reconciliation agreement between the residents of
Skaliano. They had gathered five days earlier in the village and in the
presence of a priest and the teacher decided to be more loving and united
in the future, and for their reconciliation to be based on mutual respect
of their respective political beliefs.
Throughout the island’s history blood has been shed and vendettas have been
declared where compromises could not be reached. Even today there are
families that still wear black in public to signal grief, villages that
have been deserted by violence, and places where church fetes are no longer
held. Death in a blood feud is, according to Tsantiropoulos, “a wrinkled
death,” in that there is nothing heroic about it and its wounds run deep
This is why mediators come under a great deal of stress until an agreement
is sealed. If they fail, they risk their own reputations as well and feel
responsible. At the age of 85, Chnaris is no longer prepared to take risks.
He walks tall through the streets of his village and always grabs tightly
onto the arm of anyone who shakes his hand. Until three years ago, he was
an active mediator.
“I didn’t miss a single agreement,” he says. “Now I am gradually retiring
because I need to protect myself. I can speak my mind and give some
directions. But if a deal falls through and someone is injured or killed,
you bear part of the blame.”
Despite the fact that he has more or less given up the work, Chnaris still
remembers all of the cases he mediated. But when I ask him to mention a
couple, he refuses to go into any depth. “They are asleep and I don’t want
to wake them,” he says.
Life in the villages of Mt Psiloreitis
In the larger villages on the slopes of Rethymno’s Mount Psiloreitis, with
populations of around 2,000 residents, where the wind chisels the rock and
scores lines on faces, life moves to the beat of a very different drum.
Efforts are being made to curb the use of guns, yet at any festivity there
will be some man with a gun in his belt.
Most locals marry young and have many children. The majority are livestock
farmers and on the streets two in three cars are off-road vehicles, used to
climb the steep, remote roads to their flocks.
Rustling was and remains one of the main sources of conflict between the
locals. Enemies will steal each other’s animals when they feel threatened.
In Livadia, locals reached an agreement in the 1960s to abstain from animal
theft. But in 2011, 47 such cases were reported to the police and in 2012
another 26 in all of the Rethymno regional unit.
Ten days before I arrived at Livadia and Anogeia, another case of animal
theft had taken place. It wasn’t certain whether it would be reported to
the authorities, but the mediators were already on the case. They would
find out who took the animals and after approaching them get them to agree
to return most. The thief would probably get to keep a few of the animals –
to save face – and the owner would never learn who it was. The mediators
would simply tell the owner where he would be able to find his missing
animals at some remote location.
Around 20 years ago, Giorgos Manouras knew the family that had stolen his
“They stole sheep from us and we were angry. I reached a sasmos. With one
thing and another, if you don’t have a sasmos, people may die,” says the
43-year-old livestock farmer.
“How you talk to each person and make them understand a situation makes a
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