It was a bright and pleasant Greece’s summer afternoon of September 1973. A soft knock on my office door, in Athens Syntagma square, grasped my attention and one of the front office girls, walking towards me with a baffled face said, “Ms. Fallaci and Mr. Panagoulis are here.” Having not believed my ears, bewildered I asked “Alekos Panagoulis?” “Yes!” she said.
Two years had passed since Iran Air transferred me from London to Athens. I knew very well of Alekos Panagoulis and was aware of his release from the Junta’s prison a couple of weeks earlier. There was no one in Greece who didn’t know Alekos Panagoulis. Meanwhile, a few days earlier, as a part of the airlines VIP procedure, I was informed about Oriana Fallaci’s booking on the next Iran Air flight to Tehran, and I planned to be at the airport that day to see her, my favorite writer, and to wish her a nice trip. Her sudden visit to our office with the company of Alekos Panagoulis, Greece’s symbol of resistance was totally unexpected and somehow puzzling.
Nonetheless, I felt delighted about meeting the two exceptional personalities face to face. This was one in a lifetime opportunity that probably would never repeat. Little would I know I would see the couple once again a few years later while passing through Rome airport when I briefly saw Oriana Fallaci in Alitalia’s VIP lounge at Rome airport.
Meanwhile, after a short walk to the ticket office, I found Oriana standing and Alexandros comfortably seated on visitors’ couch. She was relaxed with a lit cigarette between her fingers and Panagoulis, being out of Junta’s hell only recently, looked rather exhausted. I greeted and shook hands with both and while expressing my personal pleasure of meeting them, I offered Oriana to do anything I could in relation to her Tehran trip. She didn’t ask for anything specific, but it was there and then that she told me the purpose of her trip: She was going to interview the Shah.
What had unknowingly brought together a super author-journalist and a national symbol of resistance and extraordinary political person together, was about to become one of the most sensational stories of the time.
Between the fifth and third centuries B.C., the Greeks were the indisputable leader of the world’s philosophy, art, politics, and science. And today, one can easily and vividly see the Greeks’ old civilization in ever corner of the country, even in remotest villages, with the people’s friendly attitudes, kindness and hospitality. Greeks and Iranians, despite many past historic hostilities and enmity, have a great deal in common.
The word dEmokratia or democracy, comes from Greece. Despite many historic hardships and foreign assaults from forces such as the Ottoman Empire and Nazi occupation, Greece has always fought its way back to democracy. The last dark period of Greece’s history was during the ruling of military Junta or the Regime of the Colonels, 1967-1974.
Following a series of political events just prior to the Greek national elections on April 21 of 1967, a small group of army officers led by Colonel George Papadopoulos seized power in a coup d'état and established a dictatorship regime remaining in power for seven years and inflicting appalling brutality, repression and political incompetence upon the population. Before the coup, Greece operated as a monarchy and the young King Constantinel, after his father’s death, had ascended to the throne in 1964. After the coup, in 1974, the people of Greece would vote for a permanent end to the monarchy and become the Hellenic Republic.
"L'amore non è mettere le catene alla gente
che vuole battersi e che è pronta a morire per questo
l'amore è lasciarla morire nel modo che ha scelto.
Come se la libertà si potesse assassinare
senza la vigliaccheria del popolo.
Senza il silenzio del popolo.
Ma cosa vuol dire popolo chi è il popolo?
Sono i pochi che disubbidiscono?
no loro non sono il popolo,
il popolo è gregge.
Tutte le bandiere anche le più nobili,
le più pure, sono sporche
di sangue e di merda,
che con il passare del tempo
diventano dello stesso colore.
Ho guadagnato una vita,
un biglietto per la morte e viaggio ancora
in certi momenti ho creduto
di essere alla fine del viaggio
mi sbagliavo erano solo imprevisti del cammino."
The first serious political reaction to the Junta dictatorship was planned and implemented by thirty year old Alexandros Panagoulis. The event unfolded as an assassination attempt on the life of military dictator, George Papadopoulos.
Alexandros, known as Alekos, was born in 1938 in Glyfada, a sea resort of Athens suburb. He studied Electrical Engineering at the National Technical University of Athens. Attracted to politics in his teen years, he joined the youth organization Centre Union and participated actively in the fight against the Colonel’s regime, for the restoration of democracy. He deserted his military service and escaped the country with a fake passport to Cyprus and then Italy, where he organised the famous assassination attempt.
Alekos then embarked on a plan to eliminate George Papadopoulos and believed in the concept of tyrannicide, an old Greek’s term for the act of killing a tyrant. Later he said “I didn’t want to kill a man. I’m not capable of killing a man. I wanted to kill a tyrant.”
In the summer, military dictator Papadopoulos lived at his summer residence in Lagonisi, approximately 30 Kilometres Southeast of Athens. He travelled daily to his office in Athens centre, escorted by his personal security motorcade, cars and an ambulance. The assassination plan was to plant and blow up two mines at a specific point in Papadopoulus’ route.
On August 13, 1968, due to a couple of unpredictable incidents, only one of the two mines detonated and the assassination plan was not fully carried as Papadopoulus escaped the plot. Alekos failed to get away from the scene and was arrested within hours of the incident.
From the day of his arrest, Alekos endured uninterrupted interrogation until his release at the end of August, 1973. He was subject to brutal physical and psychological torture, cigarette burns, beating, stabbing, and whipping with steel lashes. For a long time he was strapped to a cot and many days and nights went by without eating and sleeping. Much of the torture was to obtain his signature on a pre-written confession which Alekos did not sign.
In November of that year, a mock court was staged for his trial. Though a lawyer was appointed, no communication was allowed between him and Alekos. At the end Alekos Panagoulis was sentenced to death twice and twenty years imprisonment. He accepted the verdict without argument. He continued to endure extreme hardship, torture and beating after his sentence.
Three days after his trial, Alekos was taken to Aegina, an island near Athens, in order to be executed. A petition was handed to him to sign which said he would be pardoned by the president. To the utmost surprise of the officer who served it on him, he resolutely rejected the petition and no one could convince him to change his decision. But petition was meant to be used as a pretext as Greece’s military dictator had already decided to prevent the execution and kept Alekos Panagoulis in the dark. Why had he decided to stop his shooting? Because Panagoulis, without knowing, had become a hero and symbol all over the world. Huge public outcry had taken over the world. Everywhere, demonstrations and rallies took place to save his life. The Pope had sent a message. Heads of state and dignitaries had tried to intervene; large numbers of telegrams poured into Athens and government representatives visited the capital. Alekos Panagoulis was then, transferred to solitary confinement in a tiny, empty cell at Boiati, a military prison thirty kilometres away from Athens.
Alekos then planned his escape by making friends with his guard who sympathized with him. The two managed to escape together and stayed with a friend but were soon by their host who gave in to a government bribe. Alekos would try again to escape unsuccessfully.
On Tuesday August 21, 1973, Alekos was granted a pardon and was free to leave his cell and prison. This would be the beginning of another dilemma, a clash between his natural desire for freedom and his conscience. He didn’t like to receive a pardon from someone he hated to and wanted to assassinate. He told the prison chief, “I haven’t asked anyone for any pardon,” and the guard replied that he was granted one anyway. Alekos would then openly insult in front of the military chief and released anyway.
The ceremony for the release was over and he walked out of the prison, greeted by a large group of people, among them his mother, all in black outfits.
Oriana Fallaci was born on June 29, 1930 to a middle class family in Florence, Italy.
The early years of her life saw the reign of Benito Mussolini, the World War II dictator of Italy. Fallaci’s writings clearly alluded to her country’s political environment and recent history. She grew up in a politically conscious environment with and a father who was member of an underground resistance movement. Oriana became a member of the Corps of Volunteers for Freedom to fight the Nazis. During the war, Nazi forces occupied Florence and captured, jailed and tortured Oriana’s father. The war ended in 1945, when Oriana was 15. While she experienced all these events at an early age, they would be major influences on her life and writing. Many would later consider her to be "the greatest political interviewer of modern times." At the age of 16, Fallaci realized the power of words and soon became an avid writer.
Fallaci, now living in New York, became a different kind of journalist, full of stamina, a feminist icon, with extraordinary power and intelligence. She has the power to read into people’s mind. She interviewed a large number of personalities, freedom fighters and heads of state such as, Huun Thi An, Nguyen Van Sam, Padre Tito de Alencar Lima, Henry Kissinger, the Shah of Iran, Willy Brandt, Indira Gandhi and Zulfikar Ali Bhutto.
When interviewing the Shah, he told her, he didn’t want to continue for one more minute, but she intelligently kept him talking openly for another half an hour. As to her interview with Khomeini, for which she waited ten days to be received, the New Yorker wrote: “Fallaci asked [an] insolent question: ‘How do you swim in a chador?’ Khomeini snapped, ‘Our customs are none of your business. If you do not like Islamic dress you are not obliged to wear it. Because Islamic dress is for good and proper young women.’ Fallaci saw an opening, and charged in. ‘That’s very kind of you, Imam. And since you said so, I’m going to take off this stupid, medieval rag right now.’ She yanked off her chador.”
Inception of a romance
After Alekos Panagoulis was released from the Junta’s prison on a hot day in August, Oriana Fallaci flew in from Rome to interview him. She went form Athens airport straight to his parents’ house at Glyfada.
The house was filled with people, friends, fans and family, who had come to see him. When meeting with Oriana, the words said by Alekos were, “Hello, you have come.” He then took her by the hand and led her away from the crowd to a room to talk peacefully. In a corner of the room their stood several Greek books and on top of them a bunch of read roses. He picked one and gave it to her. He then told her that those books were all hers, which had kept his company in the seclusion of his cell. To get one of them he had gone on hunger strike, he explained.
The interview that started in the afternoon lasted until dark. At night, when she was about to leave, to his intimate invitation and persistence, she stayed at the house.
The next day, her assignment completed, Oriana was supposed to leave Athens at seven in the evening. In the afternoon, while roaming around the garden, Alekos grabbed her hand and took her into the house. He showed her a chair and asked her to sit and the two exchanged conversation:
“You are not leaving.” “Not leaving?!” “No. You’re not leaving.” “Why shouldn’t I, Alekos?” “Because I don’t want it. And if I don’t want it, I don’t”
“Listen to me, Alekos. I’ve finished what I came to do. There’s no reason for me to stay.”
“Finished what?” “The interview, the assignment. I was here for an interview, an assignment, remember? And I have completed it.”
“You weren’t here for an interview, you were here for me. You’re here for me.”
“For you, the way I was for others I wrote about, in Bolivia, in Vietnam, in Brazil.”
“Liar.” “Listen to me, Alekos. I don’t go around looking for affairs and—“
“Neither do I.” “Being on the same side of the barricade, having the same ideas and feelings isn’t enough to be more than friends, comrades, and—“
“I know.” “I don’t even speak your language and—“ “That doesn’t matter.”
“I live in another country and—“ “Doesn’t matter.”
“I couldn’t, I can’t change my life for –“ “Doesn’t matter!”
“But it does matter. All these things matter.”
A romance was in the making between the interviewer and interviewee.
Alekos ultimately admitted to Oriana, “I love you.” For a second she was about to apologize and admit her love too! But instead she went to the next room and put her stuff in her hand bag to leave for the airport. When Oriana said goodbye to his mother, Alekos said, “I’m coming too.”
No conversation was exchanged between them all the way to the airport. They shook hand and said goodbye, but after she had taken a few steps, he shouted “Agapi!” (my love) and gave her a V sign and said, “You’ll come back! I’ll win! You will come back!”
She received three telegrams from him in four days, saying he was waiting for her. A week later, when she was in Bonn and supposed to leave for New York, she received a letter from him informing that Alekos was admitting to a clinic. With it came a short poem: “Forgotten thoughts of love / revive / and restore me to life.” She then came back.
They spent days together. He had not given up challenging the Greek regime and continued to do all sort of things to incite arrest and involved Oriana in couple these confrontations.
He was being closely watched by the Greek police and then realised he was limited and could not conduct much of resistance activity. He decided to go abroad, an idea which was originally initiated by Oriana which he originally did not favour. The two finally left together.
Oriana Fallaci and Alekos Panagoulis were lovers for the next three years. Fallaci and Panagoulis lived together and shared a passionate relationship. According to Marcia Seligson in the Los Angeles Times, “he told her: `I don’t want a woman to be happy with. The world is full of women you can be happy with. I want a companion. A companion who will be my comrade, friend, accomplice, brother. I’m a man in battle. I always will be.’ She became all those things, surrendering her own full and independent life to follow this difficult, maddening, towering man. She lived an emotional pendulum of anguish/bliss; there was no serenity, no future, only thrills and chills.”
Alekos Panagoulis, a Greek hero, resistance fighter, poet became an elected member of Greek parliament. On May 1, 1976 at the age of 36, he was assassinated by political enemies in an ambush masked as an auto accident. Within months of his death, Fallaci started writing her famous book, Un Uomo, translated, “A Man.” A book she dedicated to him and which she considered her most important work. It was published in 1979. In this book she wrote, in details, the story of Alekos life, fights, prison days and their love.
Oriana Fallaci, the world renowned and controversial journalist died from lung cancer in her hometown, Florence, Italy, on September 15, 2006. She was one of the most extraordinary and courageous women of our era. Her loss was mourned by millions around the world.
The end of the Junta
The Junta’s regime was toppled by a national uprising in 1974.
The topple began on November 14th of 1973, when Athens Polytechnic’s students started a demonstration against the Junta and were joined by masses who marched from the Polytechnic to Syntagma square at city centre. The regime used tanks and artillery to crash the demonstration. The students broadcasted, via an underground radio station, the right time for overthrowing the Junta. They called for fellow countrymen and women to join them in central Athens.
Three days later, in the early hours of November 17th, military police arrived with tanks at the Polytechnic University and stormed through the gate killing at least 34 demonstrators, injuring hundreds, and arresting thousands.
The rebellion would nonetheless spread throughout the country. November 17th would follow with a series of events which brought down the Junta’s regime and restored democracy.
Con la voce di Orianna:
Video: Oriana Fallaci il 18 giugno 1976 dichiarava il suo voto per i radicali. Fu anche l'occcasione per ricordare il compagno Alekos Panagulis, ucciso da meno di un mese in Grecia. "io ero...io sono, io sono la compagna di Alessandro Panagulis. Di Alessandro Panagulis che fu condannato a morte per avere voluto la libertà. Che il 1 maggio è morto per avere cercato la libertà, la verità. Le creature come lui sono gemme rare, irripetibili, però sono anche esempi da seguire, strade aperte da percorrere e io spero che questi uomini e queste donne con una rosa in pugno si ricordino, una volta in parlamento, di come ci stava nel suo paese Alessandro Panagulis, e cioè denunciando, rischiando, accettando di essere solo e a costo di farsi ammazzare."
Nikos Deja Vu