August 29th, 2017 at 4:00 p.m. in Nicosia
Anna Prodromou (AP)
Antouanetta Katsioloudi (AK)
AP: Antouanetta Katsioloudi, a woman, a professional for many years, a lifetime activist, a friend. Quite a few identities – individual, social, collective identities – intersecting in just one person and I’m sure we could add more. Which identity, or which part of your identity, do you feel defines you the most?
AK: This is an era of many identities; people now have more complex characters. I cannot define myself with one single identity; in fact, I would say that I am a Maronite Cypriot woman. Of course, I am also a European, but I am firstly a Maronite because of the family context – the primary social environment – and this is the most decisive factor in creating a personality. Moreover, I would say that because of the sad history I have experienced – I was 22 when my village was occupied and my family became refugees in our own country and we went through some really hard times. My heart, my soul, is still with my village; wherever I have been, whatever has happened to me, I have always defined myself as a Maronite refugee from Kormakitis.
AP: Would you say that the fact that you were a refugee has defined you to a large extent?
AK: Of course it has. First of all we lost our origins, our roots, we lost our sense of security that is derived from belonging somewhere and I always define “patrida” (homeland) as the place where you were born, where you had the most influential first hand experiences, where your church, your school, your cemetery with your beloved relatives is situated. Talking about my village, home is not only your house, but it’s the fields, the forests, the sounds of the sea, the blue of the sky, the navy blue of the sea and the velvet of the mountains where the sun sets, the smells, the smells of bread baking in the oven the bells of the sheep going to their mandra (shelter). Everything. When you lose these, it is like losing part of your soul.
AP: That is so true and was unfortunately the reality for many Cypriots. A great loss for many Cypriots.
AK: Of course. And then having a huge family. I was the eldest, the only one working at that time, I was appointed as a teacher and my family lost all their resources for living. My father was struggling to raise us, because we were living from the things we grew, he was cultivating the land and he was producing everything and my mom used to say that she was unhappy that she then had to buy things. “How can I feed twelve children, the nephews and the cousins who are living with us because their parents stayed in the enclaves?” We had a large extended family at that time. You see, it’s not easy to overcome all these difficulties and then start a new life while waiting to go back.
AP: Having or belonging to a big family is undeniably very positive, but when it comes to having to provide for it, that can be quite challenging.
AK: For me, my family, my brother and sisters are a gift. They have enriched my life and my emotional world. Especially because I had four siblings with disabilities, two brothers and two sisters who, I have to admit, were initially a burden for the family, but afterwards, we managed to accept them and learned to live happily with the challenges. So, with time, I considered them as an instrument of God to make us better people, in the sense of understanding human pain, human weaknesses, supporting people who have similar problems, and I think that became the attitude of the whole family. My sister, she established an organization, an association of welfare of people with mental disabilities. It has been operating for 27 years now. This association, with the support of volunteers and of course my family and myself, has opened six day care centres for people with severe disabilities and, after the death of my sister and brother, we are now trying to set up a model rehabilitation centre for people with severe disabilities in Nicosia, which is a bi-communal program.
AP: That’s the project for which you were awarded funding?
AK: Yes. I am working with a TC friend of mine raising funds for this program and we applied again. I don’t know if we will succeed this time, but I mean, the reward is more emotional than financial.
AP: That is true. You talked about being a refugee and the difficulties you and your family faced after the war. Was the fact that you were Maronite, that you were part of a minority, did that make things more difficult for you and if so, in what way? I mean, you were living in Kormakitis, which was an exclusively Maronite village before 1974.
AK: You know, there has been always discrimination, nationalism, chauvinism, xenophobia. People didn’t know who we are and they said “why should they free their village and not ours?” They didn’t have compassion and I suffered discrimination throughout my career, in terms of promotions, evaluations as well as on a personal level, but I think all these experiences made me stronger, they empowered me mentally and spiritually and I succeeded. I received two scholarships; I studied abroad in England and the United States and had a successful career. I was promoted, but not at the appropriate time in my career, very late. I retired as a general inspector of primary education. But I do feel that I have lived a full life, I offered as much as I could and I have received a lot of recognition throughout my life.
AP: Has your female identity ever been an obstacle, I mean, did you perhaps experience more difficulties because you are a woman?
AK: Somehow yes. The very first experience of frustration was when I passed the entrance exams for the Pedagogical Academy. I was the first out of 822 candidates with the highest ever score and there was a ceremony for the opening of the year where we had to take an oath. Although I came first, they didn’t accept me because the oath said “υποστάς τη νενομισμένη διαδικασία» and I objected to the idea of saying the oath in this form as a woman, because it used the masculine “υποστας» and not the feminine “υποστάσα». They refused and replaced me with a man who took the oath instead. That was the first slap in the face I got as a woman.
AP: That is quite an interesting story, especially if you think that reaction came from an educational institution.
AK: Their reaction was unacceptable, but we are talking about 1969. At that time, there really was widespread discrimination against women. It was the spirit of the time, women were considered inferior.
AP: How would you describe the situation nowadays? Do you feel that women have a voice and they’re given space to express that voice?
AK: A lot of things have changed. Women do have a voice and I feel that they do have space, but there is a lot more to be done. Still, how many women are there in the parliament? How many female ministers? How many women are heads of department? Things have developed yes, but not to the extent that they should be. There is no equality in reality, only in words. You know, I am also volunteering in a church and I am working with programs, interfaith and interreligious programs. I am the national coordinator of the Ecumenical Forum of European Christian women that is operating in 35 countries in the EU, where women from different denominations are working together through networks in order to empower women to confront the problems in society, to face women’s issues from the perspective of the church, any church. And there is a lot of discrimination. In some denominations, women can worship, while in others it is considered to be unacceptable; however, in our organization, we build on similarities, on common beliefs, on the spirit of Christian faith, which is about the love for your enemy not for yourself and your friends and we are also working to bring women together to overcome their differences, to bridge the gaps and to work together for peace and reconciliation.
AP: Your voluntary work goes beyond that though. I know that you were involved in the creation of a museum in your village, Kormakitis.
AK: Yes, when the crossings opened and we went back to our village, we realized that most of our heritage had been destroyed or stolen. So, we set up an organization to save our heritage and to communicate it to the rest of the people. It’s about preservation, restoration, but also the development of the village. Because it was a village mainly with old people, it’s quite risky, as there are no younger generations to continue the traditions. If you have a village with 90 old people, what is the future? We achieved a lot of things within a very short time. We studied our architecture, people went back to restore their houses, we tried to help them understand and to maintain the traditional architecture of the houses, we studied the architecture and we produced a book with the help of Naso Chrysochou, that showed the basic characteristics of our traditional architecture. We produced a map of the area, because the authorities there tried to change all the place names. We produced a map with the help of an expert from Holland and then, with the 30,000 dollars we received from SAVE, which was a branch of the UNDP, we renovated a church, a medieval church that was in a mixed village at that time, a Maronite and TC. However, that village is now inhabited fully by Turks – the village of Kambyli near Myrtou and Asomatos. They had used it as school and also as a storage house for sheep and so we renovated it. We also raised funds and we landscaped the surrounding area.
AP: I think you go regularly to Kormakitis, every weekend if I am not mistaken?
AK: Yes I do go every weekend to Kormakitis. Sometimes I stay longer. When we were setting up the museum I was living there. Kormakitis has revived, not completely, but a lot of people go there during their weekends, for holidays and Christmas and weekends and there are many visitors. Personally, I take all my friends and people from abroad. When I was collaborating with the University of Athens, whenever someone was coming to visit, they would ask “will you take us to Kormakitis, its famous around the world” (laughing). And at the museum, a lot of things that would have been destroyed have now been preserved in good condition, it’s like a representative sample of our culture, but not everything of course. It’s in good condition because people, you know, they can relate to the objects as they have a sentimental value for them, so they don’t always give us their best, they give us what’s worn out.
AP: What are your thoughts on the recent announcement that would allow Maronites to go back?
AK: For me, it’s a trap. The solution is an agreement between the two major communities; it’s not the affair or the decision of one single community. That has been troubling our community so far. So, I think both communities want to get us out of the problem. Because if we say we want to go back, and we do, when they make the decision on the final solution to the overall problem, they will tell us you have decided. For me, if it’s a gesture of goodwill to let us go and create the requirements for a solution and what I mean by that is that the people of Asomatos and Ayia Marina of Skylloura, if they want to go back, there is nowhere to stay. Some houses have been demolished and others are in a terrible condition. You know for 30 years, I refused to go because I thought I would be recognizing their state. Of course, it was a misconception, because states are not recognized by individuals. My parents passed away without me going, they visited the village and they thought I was denying my roots. When the crossings opened, my family demanded that I go and get involved in the restoration of the village. I changed my attitude because now I believe that you are a patriot if you claim what you own and work towards that. So by going back, renovating the house and going, you are establishing that this is mine, I want it, I will use it and whatever you do or say, I want it and I am there.
AP: Are you optimistic or hopeful about the future?
AK: No, I have always been pessimistic because I know history. When they occupied my village, I was crying. They came from Morphou with the tanks and they demanded to speak to the mouktar, the preacher and the teacher, who explained that we were Maronites. The people were happy because they didn’t kill us, we didn’t suffer. We could hear in the news, what was happening in other villages and our people were saying “thank God we are alive and we are secure, they didn’t do anything bad to us” and I was crying and my neighbours said “why are you crying?” And I said “if you knew the history, you would all be crying”; they never freed any place that they occupied. A few years ago, I went to Antakia I didn’t know it was actually Αντιόχεια, the Cradle of Christianity where the followers of the new faith were called Christians and you could smell Christianity everywhere and I read a leaflet at the hotel that it was Antiochia of Syria, they had occupied the district and they are still there.
AP: My last question is if you think there is a different approach, something that could help changing the existing situation?
AK: You know, I was brought up in an environment that was not politically oriented. I was educated in a system where there was hatred against Turks and Muslims and I had to go back to my village to get to know the people there and discover that we are all in the same situation, we are all suffering for the same reasons, we share the same pain, we’re all humans and I needed so much time to understand that it is a man-made problem, the Cypriot problem. We should strengthen people, develop the awareness that we should stick together, work together for peace and stop relying on the motherlands and expecting others to solve our problems. We should work together to create our future. I got to know, the people, I met architects working on the restoration of our house and then plumbers and electricians and then teachers and I made friends that are working with me for the charity, they come to our church and I go to their funerals. I think this awareness can foster networks and develop new understandings and partnerships for a better future. I hope that this cooperation will help our island.
AP: Thank you very much!
AK: Thank you!
© 2017 ANNA PRODROMOU ALL RIGHTS RESERVED