Content warning: war violence, rape, sexual assault, death, abortion
It was that time of the year when the rhythmic song of the cicadas was interrupted. July. As the soul-piercing sound of the siren echoed, the sizzling summer day seemed to freeze in time when I witnessed the tiny dots on the sky falling down like the leaves of the primeval plane tree which stood in the square of my village, next to the coffeehouse. ‘Parachutes!’ my father screamed; ‘Elpida, they’re here, the enemy is HERE!’ My father grabbed me by my arm and pulled me inside our house. My mother started shrieking and repeating that everyone was going to die. She wasn’t wrong. By the end of that day, half of the villagers were slaughtered by the invaders. Aunt Maroulla and uncle Christakis were shot on the back while they were running to their car. Panayiotakis, the son of the priest, was hanged on the plane tree, while his mother was repeatedly raped and died of excessive bleeding. Surprisingly, I was still alive. I was hidden in a hole-like chamber my father had built under our house two years ago; he called it the ‘crypt.’ My whole remaining family and some other villagers who fled their burning houses were there with us.
I was sitting on the corner of an old wooden chair and the rough surface made my buttocks hurt, but that was the least of my concerns. I observed the women cry. Their swollen eye sockets seemed to vibrate due to the internal force of their inaudible wailing. The priest was there too. He was sitting alone, staring into the void. I couldn’t tell what he was grieving the most; the loss of his son or the torture his wife had to endure? Was he silently praying? How would he excuse God after what happened to his loved ones? A loud explosion forced me out of my thoughts and I stood up mechanically in an attempt to help my mother care for the injured ones. I felt out of place. I had never used a bandage before and I didn’t know what to do, as my mother was occupied and our eyes never met. The villagers started talking after a while, commenting on what was happening. ‘Where is everyone? Why are they not helping us?’ an old woman was saying to herself. ‘They betrayed us…we should have known, we should have known’ the man, I always saw sitting alone at the coffeehouse, cried. Despite the fact that the sun had long dived away, the heat of the night in that hell-hole made me nauseous. The smell of burning candles mixed with sweat, blood, and the lack of oxygen made me feel light-headed and claustrophobic.
The night stood still when I managed to close my eyes and take a nap. I wasn’t really sleeping, as the agony of being found by the enemy made me and everyone else restless. I tried to ignore the pain on my abdomen for hours; it was no longer pain that bothered me though, but an urge for immediate relief obliged me to run up the stairs of the chamber. I had to reach the outdoor toilet, which was about ten metres away from the back door of the house, at the edge of the back yard. I was standing in the pitch dark contemplating my daring attempt to relieve myself. I could hear the distant buzzing of helicopters and I could also smell burned flesh in the air. I felt the acid ascending from my stomach to my throat, and with a sudden convulsion I vomited on the kitchen floor. Weak as I was, I made my way out of the kitchen door to the outdoor toilet. While I was walking, I had fixed my eyes on the closed door of the toilet when suddenly a deafening noise made me look above me; there it was. Over my head, the plane of the enemy was so close to the ground that I could no longer feel my legs. I collapsed; I crawled to the toilet and I locked myself inside.
Shouts and car engines woke me up. I didn’t realise I had fallen asleep in the toilet the previous night and I had hastily stood up and half-opened the door. I saw men in army uniforms and guns surround my house and quickly closed it again. My heart was pounding; where is mother? Dad? Are they still hidden in the chamber? A feeling of immense guilt flooded me for quitting the chamber the night before without telling my parents. They were asleep at the time and I didn’t want to wake them up, but now I felt that I would never see them again. I started crying as I felt helpless when I saw movement through a crevice of the old wooden door. I went closer and looked on while my parents and the other villagers from the crypt were coming out of the kitchen door arranged in a line, followed by a man pointing his machine gun on them. The first in line was the old woman. She was murmuring and another man with a gun next to her pushed her, shouting words of a language I had heard before. The frail figure fell on the ground and the man shot her on the back of her head. Seconds later, the crimson pool of blood matched the old woman’s black head scarf. Suddenly, everyone started shouting and the line was disrupted. I watched on as the villagers and my parents tried to run away, but the man with the machine gun took them all down. Silence. The dust from the dried soil fell on the bodies while the men laughed. I had pushed my palms on my mouth in an attempt to drown a shriek.
It wasn’t long after that when the wooden door opened and the blinding July sunlight illuminated the tiny room. I was lying down in the foetal position when I saw two dusty black boots approaching my face and I felt a hand grabbing me with a force I couldn’t resist. The man pulled me up and immediately pushed me out of the toilet door. I had fallen down on my knees but I looked up. They were three; I saw their faces under the shadow of their green helmets grinning and gazing at me. At that moment I felt that I was no longer human. I was just a prey; a war trophy. One of them knelt next to me and pulled my hair in such a way that my face was so close to his that I could smell the alcohol on his breath. The two other men started touching me from behind; they were fondling my breasts and my privates. I hated them but I couldn’t move. I hated them for grinning and for murdering my parents. Then, I recognised their language. It was the language of the ‘Others.’ I couldn’t cry and I couldn’t understand my physical reaction as I lied supine, fixing my eyes on the cloudless sky.
It was that time of the year when the rhythmic song of the cicadas was interrupted. It was that time of the day when the enemy raped me, near the corpses of my beloved parents and I was left for dead under the burning sun. Hours later, I was found bleeding by two women from a nearby village who managed to flee the massacre and took me with them to a makeshift shelter built by the government. I opened my eyes and slowly looked around. I was lying down, but I was no longer on the dried soil. I was on a torn mattress inside a white tent. There were other people there, most of them women and children. Actually, I could see no man in that tent. I felt a punch on my stomach when I pictured the lifeless bodies of my parents lying in our back yard. ‘What’s your name?’ a voice interrupted my thoughts. ‘Elpida. Who are you?’ ‘I’m Sophia. My sister and I found you bleeding and unconscious on our way here.’ So, they knew. They knew what had happened to me and I could no longer pretend that it never happened.
Months had passed since I had woken up in the white tent. Life was mundane and manageable, as international help arrived weekly with dried food and drugs arranged in packets. Several people in army uniforms, different than the uniforms the men who murdered my parents wore, helped in the camp and guarded the place at night. Sometimes, officials from the government came to visit along with people with cameras and microphones. Some of the women timidly asked the officials about their relatives, others cried and screamed for answers, but the officials ignored everyone after they had given their perfectly staged speeches. One of those days, government officials came with two high-ranking priests. I realised that one of them was the archbishop himself, as he wore a golden mitre, adorned with several icons. The sight of the powerful man in the camp was unintelligible due to his rare public appearances; what is he doing here? I caressed my belly and looked on safely from the distance of the tent window.
Three weeks before that day I was informed that I was pregnant after a necessary health check. I was not alone. Many women were raped and were now carrying the seed of the ‘Other.’ I was only seventeen, but younger girls at the age of eleven and older women fell pregnant too. The elderly women who were raped chose to remain silent and isolated. Since the rape pregnancies became known, more and more officials visited the camp. One day, when I was standing in the queue for the daily meal, I overheard two men from the government discuss the ‘absolute need’ for some ‘race clean up’ and the ‘extermination of the illegitimate and despicable fetuses.’ I was one of those women who carried an ‘illegitimate and despicable fetus.’ I felt embarrassed, dirty, unwanted, and immediately turned my eyes on the ground when I met the gaze of the suited men.
The day for the abortions was arranged one week after I had overheard the government officials. I had told no one. I did not even mention anything to Sophia and Irene, the women who saved me on that dreadful day. I felt that it was my duty to obey the men who ruled the nation, the archbishop, and everyone who had an opinion on these unwanted pregnancies and the fate of the unborn children. It was supposed to be a secret though, as the Church did not permit abortions under any circumstance. It was one of the biggest sins, a cold-blooded murder of God’s purest creation. Somehow, however, these creations were the ‘Others’ who were not considered pure enough. I remembered my parents; I owed them. Even though I felt guilty for giving up on the unborn and offering it as a sacrifice for the ‘race clean up’ of my country, I knew that my parents would never accept the offspring of their murderers being born of their beloved daughter. As I entered the dark room in which the masked doctor would perform the secret, yet necessary abortion, I had accepted that the innocent was to be exterminated and surrender to oblivion.
Years after the unborn was exterminated, I am happily married with three children running around. They are a consolidation for my losses; the loss of my parents, the loss of my village along with my innocence, and the loss of my unborn child. My country, however, remains occupied, and my husband doesn’t really understand why I always jump out of our bed every single year when I hear the haunted siren sound, which announces the morbid anniversary of that sizzling day of July. My husband doesn’t know that I was raped. My husband doesn’t know that I went through an abortion, which according to the officials would purify me, and the whole nation. On the contrary, this abortion torn me apart because I had to lie for the rest of my life. I lied to my husband, I lied to my children, but most importantly, I lied to myself. The seventeen-year-old Elpida was somebody else; she was now a shadowy figure, an unlucky girl who got raped, got cleansed, and remained a secret. The officials promised to help me and the other women, but they lied. All those women were left alone to drown in the waves that followed the day of the abortions and whoever made it, it was due to their own strength. I remembered the interrupted song of the cicadas and I realised that I was also flowing in oblivion, just as my unborn child was.
My interview is arranged to be aired at 15:00. I’m going to talk about the war, my village, and the innumerable incidents which a seventeen-year-old girl witnessed during that dark time. Six days ago, I received a phone call from a reporter who investigates the life of young women who survived the war and their welfare during the aftermath of the invasion. The reporter had found out through some of these women that illegal mass abortions took place, organised by the government and supported by the Church. The reporter asked me whether I would be kind enough to share my own experience and I immediately said yes. I understand that this will be a huge scandal for my small country, but I don’t think about it that much, as I feel the need to redeem myself. What about my husband and my children? That would humiliate them…My second thoughts tortured me until the very day of the interview. As I’m sitting on the armchair in the studio waiting for the interview to begin, I’m thinking of the unborn. You would be an ‘Other’ but I could raise you…why not? You would speak two languages, and you would have three siblings. It wasn’t your fault for what I’ve suffered. We could live together with the ‘Others’ in a unified country and you would no longer be the unwanted one. You would be my baby and I would be your mother, the one who chose to give you life despite of what had happened. I begin responding to the questions of the reporter. At the same time, I’m turning my head towards the window as I hear the cicadas resume their triumphant song. I’m smiling; I will finally give life not only to my own unborn, but to all of the unborn children of that day and I will be the voice of all those silent women who were forgotten somewhere in-between the rising July sun and the siren sound.