‘What’s happened to Armàki?’ There used to be a huge lone pine on the slope where Miha sets up his first summer sheepfold. It is all split and scorched.
‘The Albanians burnt it,’ he says.
We are driving along the top of the Grèklu ridge above Samarìna, Greece’s highest village. A flock of sheep slides over the bare ground. The turf, unable to renew itself for want of rain, has begun to break up under daily nibbling and the scurrying of so many sharp feet. We park the pick-up on a knoll overlooking the upper edge of the forest. It looks like a Marlboro advert, its chunky profile silhouetted against the sky. I take the food. Miha brings his World War Two German rifle. It’s an illegal weapon, but then most of what Miha does is at the limit of what is legal: a legacy of the old mountain traditions of brigandage and independence.
‘Look at this,’ he says, picking something from the ground: a piece of jagged splintered steel – shrapnel. ‘It’s all over the place. The trees are full of it too.’
Mussolini’s troops arrived on the Grèklu ridge in October 1940, drawing Greece into the war. There are old men in the village who can remember their sudden appearance, with the unmanly feathers in their hats. But it’s more likely that the shrapnel dates from the last battles of the Greek Civil War in 1949, when the soldiers of the Communist Democratic Army dug in all along these ridges to make their last stand against the Government forces and their US military advisers. Twenty kilometres to the west we could see the ridges of Mt Gràmos, the CDA’s last toehold on Greek soil, where Paul Eluard came to visit their trenches and harangue the imperialist lackeys arrayed against them through a megaphone. They were driven out of their positions by US Helldivers – the first use of napalm in warfare. From where we leave the pick-up you can just see the white stele that commemorates their defeat on the ridge above Aetomilìtsa, the last village in Greece. Beyond that is Albania. The CDA survivors withdrew there to begin twenty to thirty years of exile, leaving the Iron Curtain to clang down behind them.
Most of them were distributed around Communist Eastern Europe, but Stalin sent a sizable contingent to Tashkent. I had talked to one the previous night: he was delighted to meet someone else who knew Tashkent. He had returned to Greece in 1980 after the fall of the Colonels and the legalisation of the Greek Communist Party. He mentioned various names in Tashkent but I had never managed to track down any of the few ex-partisans who remained, although I once met an Uzbek who had grown up with their children and spoke some Greek.
Some of the CDA survivors in Tashkent were educated men and women from the cities; many were peasant lads off the mountains, at best semi-literate, who had scarcely ever seen a car or road. They got used to this alien world. They built their own houses in designated Greek neighbourhoods. They learned Russian. To hear them talk, the Soviet Union was not the shambolic, oppressive place of the new liberal propaganda. Their children went to school and got degrees, something which would not have happened had they stayed in Greece. Housing and hot water were free.
These were the villains so crudely caricatured in Louis de Bernières’s Captain Corelli’s Mandolin, a misrepresentation for which he grudgingly apologised in order to appease local opposition while the film of the book was being made on the island of Cephallonia. That some of them did villainous things is certainly true. Miha’s uncle was killed by an isolated group making its way to Albania as late as 1950; they stole his sheep and killed him, together with a hired shepherd. (There is a memorial on the ridge at Grèklu.) But a great many had signed up with the CDA as the only means of escape from the witch-hunts conducted by the postwar Greek Government against former members of the wartime Resistance, all of whom were branded as Communist enemies of the state. The gangs that hunted them down were recycled versions of the collaborationist militias recruited by the Nazis. One of their most notorious leaders was a certain Grivas, who by some extraordinary feat of rebranding managed to reinvent himself in the 1950s as General Grivas, nationalist hero of the Cypriot War of Independence against British colonial rule.
We reach the first trees above the thickly forested amphitheatre where the hamlet of Helimòdhi once lay. ‘You go left to the edge of the wood where we saw those hoofmarks by the spring,’ Miha tells me, ‘and I’ll go right. Then we’ll come back towards each other just above the road. Keep calling out from time to time, so we can communicate. There are a couple of hollows. Make sure you have a look in them.’
We are looking for cows. Miha has more than fifty of them. He turns them loose when he comes up from his winter quarters in the plain of Thessaly at the end of May and they run wild in the forest, until it is time to return in October. By then they have scattered over a wide area, impelled at least partly by fear – this year especially, for there is a bear with a taste for meat operating in the Helimòdhi area. The adults can protect themselves, Miha tells me; they form a ring and bellow and rear and threaten with their horns, a hazard that bears appreciate. But on sloping ground they are in danger: the bear can use its agility and strength to push them over; the mothers with calves get isolated because they won’t abandon their babies.
It is the same story every year. Miha never assembles his cows in time. The sheep are no problem. Every flock has its shepherd and will follow him. But the cows … they have become smoke, as the Greeks say. We drive to a point, leave the jeep and scour the forest on foot for two or three hours, down into ravines, pushing through thick brakes of young beech, searching for places where there may still be a trickle of water in a stream or at a spring (the cows have to drink). We examine hoofmarks and cowpats: are they this morning’s or last night’s? Which way are the hoofmarks heading?
After three days, we have found only 11 cows. We know we are not going to find them all, for there are mothers without calves, which means the bear has taken its toll, a fact confirmed by the large and stinking wound to the hindquarters of one of the calves we have found.
Am I scared? Not really. There is no undergrowth beneath the trees in the upper limits of the forest, so I can see ahead. Besides, I’m making enough noise with the scuffling of my feet in the fallen leaves and my cow-rallying cries of ‘O-ho-ho’ to give any bear ample warning of my presence. If I stop, it is rather spooky. The light is crepuscular under the trees and there isn’t a living soul for miles, except Miha. The only identifiable sounds are the quiet sussuration of the wind and the dry rattle of falling leaves.
Finding no cows I turn back. The thick layers of undisturbed loam covered with coppery leaves make it slippery going on the steep banks. I return to where I left Miha but there is no sign of him. I call and eventually he hollers back. I think he is saying: ‘Come! Along the road.’ We communicate in Greek, although his mother tongue is Vlach, the language of the shepherd people who inhabit these northwestern recesses of the Pindos mountains in summer. I am pretty fluent and savvy now but country patois flung across ravines is not the easiest to understand and he will scold me if I get it wrong. When I find him he is sprawled on the ground where the overgrown track peters out. ‘This place is called Tourkos,’ he tells me. ‘Then’ – meaning in the old days – ‘some kapetànios had his lair in here and they caught a Turk and slung his body down the slope.’
It is beautiful. There is a ray of sunshine now and the beeches, which grow almost exclusively on the colder north-facing slopes, are green, gold and russet. The bracken is yellow and copper in the clearings. Huge thirty-metre pines intermingle with the beeches. There is a spectacular stand of them on a spur in front of us. ‘A real eagle’s nest,’ he says. He has already been out there to have a look. There is a partisan dug-out still roofed with pine trunks, commanding the whole wide bowl of Helimòdhi.
‘That’s where the bear came up,’ he says.
We saw one this morning, almost white. From a distance we thought it was one of the cows we were looking for, but by the time we got to the spot it had vanished. Cows don’t move that fast. A few minutes later we came on some sheepdogs barking frantically. Two were hunting in the woods, climbing steadily towards the point where we are lying now. There was that extra note of tension in their baying that says bear or wolf to an experienced ear. ‘I’ll come back when everyone has gone and put poison down,’ Miha says. Which is illegal, as the Pindos brown bear is a protected species. Cowardly, I say nothing. I both want to see the bears survive and understand the shepherds’ point of view. A little while later, in an earthy gully much too steep for the dogs, we see the broad fresh marks of the bear’s scrabbling paws. Somewhere in the precipitous craggy thickets below us it had holed up for the day.
We get out the lunch: cheese, olives, grapes and two sheeps’ heads. Miha hooks his fingers round the rows of pointy little teeth and yanks them apart. ‘Eat, eat,’ he urges. I nibble selectively at cold cheek, preferring the cheese and olives. He eats at the same pace he does everything: super-emergency.
‘You know,’ he says. ‘Those tracks we’ve been following were made by the cows we found yesterday. They left here to get away from the bear. Let’s go and get the ones from Foùrka that Adàmos has seen.’ We climb back above the trees. As we come out on the bare tops, there’s a flock of sheep with an Albanian shepherd. He does not look at us, which is odd. ‘It’s …’ Miha says (I didn’t catch the name) and heads straight towards him, unslinging his rifle. The man looks nervous but keeps walking. Confronted by Miha, he stops, frightened. I am beginning to understand. It’s the shepherd Miha had hired who had broken his agreement, then tried to come back and Miha wouldn’t have him.
They start talking. I can’t follow the conversation as I speak no Albanian, but I get the gist of it. Poor man, he thinks his last hour has come. On his first day with a new employer, who should he meet on the mountain top but his ferocious previous employer with a gun on his back. But he relaxes as he realises Miha is only going to scold him. He has one diseased and sightless eye, a hare-lip and dreadful teeth, and he is probably not even thirty.
It’s common to see Albanians in a wretched physical state, the result of lousy medicine, bad diet and poverty. Travelling by night and on forest paths, with a few belongings on their backs, they have been pouring into Greece through these mountainous frontier areas for ten years since the Communist regime collapsed. They are mostly illegal. Many are unskilled labourers, but some are former scientists, teachers, orchestra violinists. The Greeks exploit them mercilessly, paying them a fraction of the wages a Greek would command, accommodating them in cowsheds, outhouses, unfinished buildings and feeding them on nothing much better than crusts. But they are thankful for the work; it’s better than anything they can hope for in their lawless and chaotic homeland and the drachma is gold dust compared to the lek. They do jobs that no Greek would do for any amount of money – working as hired shepherds, for one thing.
Greek attitudes towards them are pretty appalling, as a number of Albanians complained to me during the war in Kosovo. They call them Turks, because they are – or were – Muslim, which along with Aràpis (‘Arab’) and àpistos (‘infidel’) is the generic racist term in Greek. Not being Christian puts you beyond the pale of ordinary human consideration, which is one of the reasons the Greeks were readier to believe that the Muslims of Sarajevo and Kosovo shelled their own children than that their Orthodox Serbian brothers were guilty of any nastiness. The only Albanians viewed with any sympathy are those they call Northern Epirotes: the ethnic Greeks or Vlachs trapped by the modern Albanian frontier.
Albanians are blamed for everything from forest fires to gonorrhoea. There’s something in it. Before their arrival you could leave anything on the mountainside or in the forest and it would never be touched. Now it is stolen at once. Countless forest huts have been burnt and isolated buildings broken into and vandalised. In 1997 Miha’s cousin was killed shearing sheep by an Albanian former employee. His nephew was on a military patrol that arrested a convoy of 14 mules carrying guns and drugs. As we return to the jeep we see a column of smoke rising from the depths of the vast woods to the north. ‘Albanians,’ Miha says, and he must be right – no one else would be lighting a fire in such a place.
We drive into the next valley and leave the jeep at Adàmos’s sheepfold. There is some excited talk in Vlach: Miha telling the story of the bear. It’s about four o’clock when we start up the mountain. The ground is more open here. I climb slowly through a fringe of pines and out on to bare ground where the frost-shattered rock is smeared with lime and olive lichen. The sun has sunk to a point where the angle of its rays is almost parallel with the incline of the slope so that when I look up the trees ahead are haloed with light. And there on a little shelf of level ground, belly-deep in some reed-like sunlit grass, a creamy-coloured cow is watching me intently, as if to say: ‘Hello, you here?’ Miha says they recognise me, remembering my voice from year to year, associating my appearance with going home for the winter. I whistle for Miha. When he comes over and the cow hears his voice she moos in answer. He says they are thankful to be found and rounded up; it makes them feel safe. There are nine of them altogether. They fall into line behind a black one with a clanking bell. Every group has a leader, Miha says, even the youngsters. It is a question of personality and intelligence.
As usual I am detailed to drive these cows to the ridge above Helimòdhi where we are gradually assembling our forces; Miha goes off in the jeep to see to some other task. I am beginning to feel a little resentful. I come as a friend, not as an unpaid Albanian slave. I want some time to see other friends in the village. What is more, cows are hard work and I do not want to be responsible for them all the way down to the winter village, some ten days distant. Miha and I have had our problems about cows before. Out of meanness he will not engage an Albanian cowhand in good time and takes advantage of my willingness. And I’ve just learned that the Albanian shepherds who’ll be taking their flocks down with me are all new, which means that I shall have to direct them, too, as they don’t know the route of our transhumant journey and Miha cannot always get to us with the vehicle. The route is across country: not a road but a direction, as he once told me with some exasperation when I kept asking questions about the way.
I reckon it is going to take me a good three hours to get these cows to Skoùrtza. They are slow, cumbersome creatures and it is hard to direct them in open country. Where I would take a direct line downhill, they want to follow the contours. I am never sure whether to run about hither and thither trying to bend them to my will or trust their instinct and let them choose. Once I am convinced of their good intentions I resign myself to following patiently behind making encouraging noises. We meet a young Albanian skulking along the riverbed, keeping away from the road. He has been walking for three days. He has been in Greece before and speaks some Greek and I try to persuade him to come and work with us as a cowhand; that way he would stand a much better chance of dodging the police who for some incomprehensible reason have decided now, for the first time in ten years, to start rounding up illegals. But he already has a job to go to, he says. When at last I get to Skoùrtza, it’s nearly dark. The two groups of cows greet each other affectionately, lowing and mingling. There is no sign of Miha and it is cold. The night wind is beginning to blow. I wait for a while and then start to walk. I know the way and the track gleams silvery white in the starlight.
By the time I decide to give up, I see headlights coming down the track. I flag the pick-up down and pile in beside three other shepherds going back to the village. I have been coming here for twenty years now, so I’m known to a lot of people. I go into one of the four or five cafés round the square frequented by off-duty shepherds and the old-timers who prefer the rigours of life in Samarina to the relative comfort of their lowland winter homes. I have done this autumn drive with the flocks five or six times now and suddenly I don’t want to do it any more, at any rate not like this, in a rush, with a gang of Albanians I don’t know. I am tired and I don’t want to look at the backsides of cows for another ten days. I have tried to explain to Miha but he will not listen. Sharing and negotiating are not part of the way people do things up here.
The only thing, I decide, is to slink away in the night. I get up in the dark, leave a note and steal out of the village like a common thief at four in the morning. A few dogs bark but otherwise I am not disturbed. The asphalt reached Samarina this year – delayed for forty years by the inefficiency and incompetence of contractors and local officials – so my departure is swift and silent. The black tongue of tarmac is easily visible between the overhanging trees and banks. I am wearing my head torch but do not use it, for fear of giving my position away to any Albanians who might be travelling under cover of darkness. From time to time I stop and listen intently for the sound of voices or other footsteps, but there is nothing.
About six o’clock, just above the last trees, I lie down among some juniper bushes to rest for half an hour until it gets light, then slip over the ridge. I feel guilty for leaving Miha in the lurch and I hope I haven’t ruined a twenty-year friendship. On the other hand, I am greatly relieved to get away from those cows. Perhaps it’s time I stopped pretending to be a mountain shepherd.