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An Interview with a Greek Conscientious Objector

Lazaros Petromelidis is a Greek CO who has been persecuted for his beliefs since 1992. He spoke with Kat Barton about his long struggle for recognition of his right to refuse.

KB: When did you first realise that your conscience would not allow you to participate in the military?

LP: In 1991, when I finished university and it was my time to go to the army - although I had heard about the first CO's in 1987/88 so it was not something new for me.

KB: Why are you a conscientious objector?

LP: I could never imagine myself in the army. I want to have the right to chose to serve in another way. No one questions why we must serve in the army, but why do we have an army of more than 100,000 people - it's too many - and why do we give so much money to the army?

KB: What did you do when you were first called up for service?

LP: I wrote a letter stating that I didn't want to go but was willing to do an alternative service instead.

KB: How were you treated by the military & the Greek authorities on declaring your CO status?

LP: The authorities answered my letter within 2 hours of receiving it! They said that there was no alternative service in Greece and so I must go to the army. My letter was something strange for them. Although they knew about CO's because of others, they didn't want to accept it. They asked me why I didn't want to go. They told me that it wasn't something bad, that I was an educated young man and that I mustn't destroy my life!

KB: What support was available when you first declared your CO status?

LP: I had support from the Association of Greek CO's so I was able to discuss things with people who had the same problem as me.

KB: What do your friends and family think about you being a CO?

LP: My friends accepted it as my decision. My family was very afraid because it was something very new for them. They were afraid of conflict with the army. I don't want to discuss it with them because it is difficult for them. My father told me: "It's very serious - what you're doing - think about the military court."

KB: How have your beliefs and the Greek authorities' reaction to them affected you?

LP: Between 1992 and 1996 there wasn't a problem - nobody bothered me for these 4 years. But everyone knew that in 1997 the new law would be brought in and then the military would want to punish CO's.

In those days, many of us had to be arrested and imprisoned before we could claim CO status and the right to do civilian service. It was just revenge against us older objectors.

Personally, there was a difference between me and other objectors because I decided to live at a known address - my home - whereas the other COs left their homes to avoid being arrested.

KB: How many times have you been imprisoned, and why?

LP: Three times. The first time was in 1998 for draft evasion. Then, in 1999, I had CO status but was imprisoned for refusing to perform a civilian service of 30 months. If I had gone to the military I would have performed 4 months - I cannot compare 4 months to 30 months!

The third time I was imprisoned was in 2001. Here in Greece they call you up for military service every 3 months, so you are called up, refuse, are imprisoned and then called up again 3 months later. I can't be punished every 3 months because I don't want go to the army!

Really I should be in prison right now - in December 2004 I was sentenced in my absence to 2 1/2 years in prison - maybe the time will come when they decide to arrest me. I'm in their hands - I cannot do anything.

KB: How have attitudes to conscription & CO changed in Greece since you first declared your CO?

LP: In the late 80's and early 90's, the army was considered a normal thing for Greek boys - it was accepted. No body asked "why do I have to go?" I think now many boys don't want to go so they just don't do it or they go to a foreign country. But they don't say it publicly - they are afraid. It's easy to go to the public hospital and say you're crazy or melancholic and get a paper saying you're not fit to serve. It happens often in Greece - maybe 3-4000 people per year use this method. Since I first became a CO there have been changes. The main problem is the duration of the civilian service. Now, we have a new law so civilian service is 2 times military service minus one month. I believe it's better to have that law, rather than no law. I think that year by year it will get better. Now we're not too many: no more than 100 ideological COs and about 1000 religious COs - mostly Jehovah's Witnesses - but they don't fight very publicly - they're not so active as we are. If there were more objectors, it would be better.

KB: In an ideal situation, what provisions would the Greek authorities make for CO's?

LP: We need to have the same duration for the alternative service as for the military service.

KB: What advise would you give to Greek men thinking about applying for CO status?

LP: Not to be afraid.

KB: Do you ever have doubts about continuing your struggle?

LP: No, no, no!

KB: What can you say about the Greek CO movement - as it stands, how it is developing and its future?

LP: We are not a movement but we have a voice.

The last 2 years we've had some increase in numbers because of the young people that come to us. We try to convince them that they don't need to be afraid and that we will support them if they decide to go public. This is very important work for us. Greek society doesn't discuss CO - we started the discussion at the end of the 80's and we will continue it.

We change things - but we are not many. There are some more objectors who don't want to work with the association - they declare their objection but work alone. We don't expect more than 2 or 3 cases per year - but it's better than 1 per year as we had before, so it's very good! We are few but we have done a lot compared to our power.

In 10 years - maybe earlier - Greece may have a professional army and then we will not need a CO movement like the one we have now. Instead, we may discuss about militarism in general, the objection of professional soldiers and the Greek Army in other countries. But, until the end of armies, we will continue.

Lazaros spoke to Kat Barton

Training & Action:

The international training in nonviolent action will bring together participants from Europe and Greece, who will use the training to share practical tools for nonviolent action. It will be accompanied by two afternoons of discussons around issues of nationalism, war, and the deconstruction of societies as a result which will build on the experience from the Balkans and the Middle East. It will also look at the role of militarism in Greek society, and at neocolonialism and the role NATO is playing. The training will also prepare for a joint nonviolent action on 15 May. If you are interested in taking part in 15th May activities, please contact the WRI as soon as possible