We were transferred to Kassandra by a public bus. We made a rest stop twice, and the guards left us free to walk around the nearby residential areas. I had not been let free like this for a long time, so this was a real treat. All the guards knew that none of us would escape, so they sat and relaxed at a small bar-restaurant. There was definitely no comparison between this trip and the short distance transfers in the police wagon on the way to MPA and to the court sessions.
Although Kassandra was much further from my house, I wanted to go there because my life would not be in danger. In case of war, we would be called to serve if we were found in the military prison. This meant certain death for anyone who refused to fight. All of us at the military prison of Avlona anxiously listened to the daily news to hear if there was any imminent crisis in the relations between Greece and neighboring Turkey. All this changed, however, when we entered Kassandra. Here we escaped this danger.
My first impression upon seeing the dilapidated buildings of Kassandra was disheartening. The only pleasantry was the country setting with a span as far as the eye could see. I was assigned to the Xenophon wing, which had four cells. As funny as it may be, in the last four months of my sentence, which I completed there, I never managed to remember my cell number. Each cell had about twenty beds, (if they could be called that), full of fleas. The food was almost always nasty and insufficient. That’s why we would often shop from a mobile green-grocer who came by. Our work was harder compared to Avlona. It was farm work, which lasted four hours compared to only one hour of mandatory work at Avlona. Visits from Attica (the county of Athens) were scheduled once a month, at which time I got to see my family members. Visits were better than Avlona because they lasted longer, and they allowed us more privacy. Another pleasant surprise was that we met up with many of our friends who had been sent to Kassandra during previous transfers and whom we hadn’t seen for a long time.
Here in this prison there was a fully organized congregation with Elders and a meeting hall. We often had a visiting religious official of our faith provide us with homilies. There was even a courtroom for the spiritual committee. Here even the most unruly behaved themselves because the Presbytery was very strict. This does not mean that there weren’t any improprieties! I specifically recall a certain incident relating to the person next to me who happened to be my friend. He was a nice young man who really liked to keep all the rules of the cell very scholastically. These rules were certain agreements that we came up with to keep us from feuding. For example, we had agreed on a specific quiet time, a time the lights should be turned off, the order by which everyone would choose the type of music to play, and so forth. My friend demanded a scholastic adherence to these rules, and his insistence created a strong sense of animosity among some of the cell residents, so they decided to make his life miserable. They purposely walked with wooden shoes on the hollow floor when he was trying to sleep, they left him abusive and insulting notes, and they opposed all his requests.
This situation became explosive when his adversarial group accused him to the Presbytery and piled a plethora of ungrounded charges against him. He came to me in a state of despair and said, “My accusers are many! The Presbyters will never listen to me! I’ll try to explain all the things they do against me, but they’ll never believe me!”
“If you want my advice” I said, “do as I say, and you will win. When the Presbytery comes, do not accuse your adversaries at all. Ask for forgiveness, and tell them that you are at fault for everything, even though this is not the case. Use the example of Christ who taught us to ‘overcome evil with good’ (Rom. 12:21).”
He disagreed at first, but soon he realized that he had no other choice. When the presbytery arrived, my friend requested to be the last one to speak. His adversaries began to pile up a heap of accusations against him. He listened with exemplary patience. At the end, he was given the opportunity to speak.
“I ask forgiveness from everyone. I will try to become better from this point on. I am to blame for everything!”
A deep silence overtook the entire cell. This most unexpected answer froze them in their tracks. However, his most outspoken adversary became red as a tomato and began to go into a howling, trembling craze. “Now what do I saaay!” And he continued to howl with inconceivable words.
“All right! I understand who is at fault!” said the Presbyter, and he turned towards the accusers warning them, “Be very careful not to create another incident because you will have major problems!” Then he walked out, leaving the entire cell speechless.
This Presbyter was one of the best young men I met in my life. No one inside the walls of the jail would sacrifice their time and effort for the sake of others. But he was eager to give up his own work days in order to help others get out of prison early in full knowledge that every missed day of work would keep him one extra day in jail. We all loved him and respected him. According to a particular rule, someone could ask to be released early “under terms,” but he needed to count his days very carefully to avoid falling short of the absolute minimum, in which case they would call him back for military service, and he would be jailed all over again if he refused to serve. This happened to the so called 12-40 rank who were released much earlier under this grace period. Since they had not fulfilled the minimum days called by the law, they were re-called and re-sentenced, thus spending more time in jail than all of us.
In Kassandra, I was in charge of the dining hall where three work days counted as two. While I estimated that it would take longer for me to be released, I was fortunate to escape the harsh work in the jail farms. When the response to my request to be released “under terms” came back positive, I still needed a few days to complete the number of days demanded by law. Thus, I risked being put out too early, something that could backfire as it did for those in group 12-40. Fortunately, they allowed me to stay in jail a little while longer with the understanding that I would work in the farms in order to catch up my workdays much faster. This took place in the middle of the winter, and not being conditioned to outdoor work, I became ill. During my final days, I was obliged to work with a fever to keep them from releasing me prematurely. Finally, the day of my release came, but it was much different than what I had been expecting.
All these months, I had been dreaming of my release day, the day that I would be free to live in the outside world again. That day was now upon me, and I found myself begging the guard to let me sleep there one more night. I had a very high fever and my head pounded unbearably. I only wanted a place to lie down and get some sleep, even in a jail cell. “I don’t have the right to keep you any longer!” the guard responded with his usual indifference. “You must leave!” In a state of sadness, I pulled myself together and entered the van headed for the center of town, and from there a friendly prison guard took me to the nearest bus station in his car, and dropped me off at Moudania. I could hardly believe that I was leaving all by myself. Subconsciously, I looked around expecting to see some prison guard. I took a bus to Thessaloniki, but unfortunately I could not fall asleep on the way, afraid of sleeping through the airport exit. A few hours later, I landed at the Hellenic Airport in Athens where I was greeted by my fiancée.
I did not tell her that I was ill, and I pretended to be healthy. Even though I enjoyed her company after all this time, I could not wait to crash in my bed. A few days later, I went to Avlona to receive my prison release certificate. Upon entering, I rejoiced at seeing many of my old friends. I was received in the Presbyter’s office. Bethel made sure to always have a Presbyter, someone specifically sent by them, to provide immediate orientation to those incarcerated. They gave me a form that I needed to sign in order to validate my release. I took the paper and proceeded to read it, but for some reason they interrupted me.
“It’s OK! Everyone signs this or else they can’t get released!” By now I had read half of the form, and as I placed it on the table, I quickly read the other half. I was in shock! This paper referred to me as a “soldier,” and it was written in such a manner that by my mere signature, it would mean that I fully accept this identity. My mind worked as quickly.
“So, this was all?” I asked “Everything was a fiasco? I sat in jail for a year and a half, and now I’m accepting that I’m a soldier by signing this paper?” I should not sign the form, yet at that very moment I thought of my mother, my fiancée, and all those who signed before me, and I considered it rather foolish for me to sacrifice my freedom and my life plans for a small compromise. In the end, I signed it. I was free from jail at last, but not from guilt. I remembered once more my earlier compromise with the military blanket, and with much sadness I realized that those in charge of the Organization were the first to make these same compromises, long before me.