27 years after Nov17’s start, two victims’ children speak

On December 23, 1975, the gunmen of a terrorist group that was to plague Greece for many years made their first appearance, killing the CIA station chief in Athens, Richard Welch. Until this summer, it appeared that the extreme left-wing November 17 group operated with impunity, that all the efforts to track them down would be in vain. The growing list of victims became more like a list of symbols rather than of real people who had been killed at point-blank range without being given the chance to defend themselves. The families of the victims lived in the shadows. They were neither seen nor heard. That was until the terrorist group’s 23rd – and last – murder, that of British defense attache Brig. Stephen Saunders in June 2000. His widow, Heather, condemned the murderers in public, made persistent statements and called on the people of Greece to help fight terrorism. Two years later, in June 2002, the newly formed organization of families of victims of terrorism, Os Edo (which translates best as Enough!), held the first demonstration in Greece against terrorism. Later that same month, police got their first big break. A bomb blew up in the hands of Savvas Xeros, a 40-year-old icon painter who turned out to be a senior N17 operative. Within weeks police had detained 18 suspects, including alleged founder and mastermind Alexandros Yotopoulos (who denies the charges). Molly Welch-Ball and George K. Tsantes lost their fathers during N17’s rampage. They returned to Greece to take part in Os Edo events and spoke with Kathimerini. Twenty-seven years ago today, as Richard Welch, the CIA’s station chief in Athens, was returning home from a Christmas party, unknown gunmen stepped out of the shadows and, without harming his wife or chauffeur, gunned him down at point-blank range. Welch was the first of November 17’s 23 victims. After every attack, as fresh blood was spilt over 27 years, Welch’s name was tied inextricably to November 17. He was the first victim and a richly symbolic target. His murder set the pattern for most of the group’s attacks: symbolic targets killed at close range, with the attackers disappearing before claiming credit in long proclamations. The photograph of Welch’s black limousine – doors open, lights on, outside the gate of the two-story house in Psychico – accompanied by the small ID-type photograph of a balding man with a little moustache and glasses, have become symbols themselves. They would reappear almost every time November 17 did or said something. What the photographs could not show was that one of the windows looking onto the scene of the murder belonged to the bedroom where Molly Welch, 17, would have been if she had accepted her father’s invitation to spend Christmas with him. Hearing the commotion, she might have looked out and seen the murder. She had left earlier. She never returned to Greece until earlier this year, when the organization of families of victims of terrorism, Os Edo, held its first silent demonstration, just weeks before Savvas Xeros was injured by a bomb he was carrying in Piraeus on June 29. Since then, she has watched the story unfold from a distance, from the town in southern England where she lives with her husband and two children. Molly Welch-Ball joined relatives of other victims at their vigil outside Parliament last Thursday. Earlier, in a series of e-mail exchanges and telephone calls, she had spoken with Kathimerini. How have things changed for you after so many years without progress in the investigation? Now, after 27 years of having had to accept that my father’s murderers might never be caught, let alone brought to justice, everything has changed… Since my return from visiting Athens in June of this year to support Os Edo, my life has been turned upside down as news started to come out about the capture and confessions of members of N17. How do I feel? That is a good question. It is very strange to see a photograph of Yotopoulos and be told that he murdered my father. I look at his face and his hands and I wonder, «Who does he think he is to decide who should be murdered on behalf of ‘ordinary’ Greek people?» Of course I feel angry, so angry, but what can I do with that anger? The only people who see it are my husband and children. It is already bad enough for them to be at the center of such a horrible story. I feel sad; I loved my father. I have spent most of my life without him thanks to Yotopoulos. That many Greek people accepted Yotopoulos’s view that my father deserved to die is shameful. Yotopoulos had no knowledge of my father nor his work. He could make up any scenario and it was believed without question. Do you understand the politics of the time, the anger that followed the collapse of the junta in 1974 and the fact that the US was seen has having supported it? I wonder, personally, because my dad wasn’t involved at all because he was on the other side of the world. If he had been there all these years it might have been different. But he had just arrived back. In fact, he was invited back because they thought he would be a good one to help dissipate the anti-American feelings, and he was very sensitive to the feelings of Greek people. After the worst part, he came over. If he was a symbol because he was an American official, what can I say? He was there for six months. Did he sense he was in any danger? I was with him in his last four months, in Athens. He couldn’t grasp that he was in danger in Greece. He said that he was safe. He loved Greece. Maybe he was coming into a situation that he had not had a chance to get a grasp of either. He arrived in July 1975. He was in South America. It wasn’t even as if he was in Washington. He was in Peru… When I was with him he showed no concern for his own safety. I think he generally did not feel he was a threat or a target. And N17 did not exist. People had nothing on which to base fear for their lives. Because he was the first one… He did not think he would ever be killed by a Greek. He was very happy to be in Greece and he was very happy that it was a democracy again. In the beginning, before people believed that an unknown Greek group called November 17 had killed Richard Welch, there was much speculation that he was the victim of a feud between intelligence agencies. Did you ever hear any rumors as to who might have been behind the murder? Would you believe that we heard nothing in the past 27 years about the investigation from either the US or Greek governments! My stepmother was told after the first year of the investigation that the US government had got nowhere. We, naturally, were not to know that all this time would go by. We could only trust in the authorities to do their job and inform us of any progress. As a family, we have always felt that the Greek government has had no desire whatsoever to investigate fully the crimes of N17. And now, with the statute of limitations having run out for my father, it seems particularly cruel to know that time has been allowed to slip by (for whatever reasons) and to add insult to injury, my father’s murderer will not be punished for this crime. However, we can at least welcome the news that he is in prison and hope he never tastes freedom again. How did you get involved in Os Edo? We wanted to raise awareness. You know, 27 years had gone by and we felt there was no desire to catch these guys. We didn’t really know about N17, obviously, because my dad was the first victim. We had to wait for years to build a pattern. We didn’t know at the time, there was nothing to look back on. That is why we waited and waited, because everything was at the beginning and everything was new. And then 27 years passed. Did you feel that N17 would never be caught? Absolutely. Without doubt. Then there was the reception in June for the families of the victims of terrorism. That’s really what dragged us out of being far away and just living our lives to being in the forefront again, making us ask questions of the Greek and US governments. That was for me the most important thing that happened in 27 years: To be invited and to meet the other relatives and meet George Momferatos (a driving force in Os Edo) and hear about Os Edo. This came out of, I think, the fact that (US Ambassador) Thomas Miller is very dedicated, and now I know he has been working for years to get the investigation to produce some results. What contacts did you have with Greek and US officials during this time? Personally, there was none. My stepmother told me this summer that an FBI chap came to her apartment one year after the attack and said they had got nowhere… You can’t keep asking the same question. Gradually we just accepted that we weren’t going to hear anything. How do you feel now? My crusade, if you want to put it that way, is to look behind the title at the man, at the human being who was a father and we loved him. He was doing a job. I am quite shocked when I go to Greece and hear the opposite. I can’t imagine what they think an intelligence officer does. In those days I know there was very much the Soviet threat. It’s a different era now from the one in which he was working. If people look back I think they forget what was happening post-World War II and in the ’60s and ’70s compared to now. The world has changed in many, many ways. George K. Tsantes, 43, is a partner with Accenture, an international consulting firm, in Washington. He was not in Athens on November 15, 1983, the day on which gunmen of the November 17 terrorist gang pulled up on a motorcycle next to the car in which his father, George Tsantes, a US Navy officer, was a passenger, and murdered him and his driver, Nikos Veloutsos. His younger brother, Nick, now 41, was also in America. Their mother and sister, who was then 16, were in Athens. This was George K. Tsantes’s first return to Greece after those murders. He spoke with Kathimerini a few hours before Os Edo’s vigil outside Parliament on Thursday. What happened to your family? You were among those who were never seen or heard in all these years. We focused on recovering. We went through a lot of pain, every day. We focused on getting on with life. We followed my father’s principles: to work hard, to work smart, to do your best. I think we succeeded. We made families. There are now five grandchildren that my father has never seen, and they never had the opportunity to interact with him. Which is a big shame. We never forgot. But each time you looked at what was going on in Greece, there just wasn’t a climate… it would have been impossible for my mother to have become a Heather Saunders (the widow of November 17’s last victim, who campaigned publicly against the group). The climate wasn’t right. N17 still had their Robin Hood status. So I think my mother rightly focused us on what we could have control of – our lives, our careers. I was already an adult when this happened. I can’t imagine how it would have been it I had been, say, six years old. Maybe you were lucky you were away. I think being away from the reporting that goes on here, it is so sensational, a lot of it… Not having to look at the bloody pictures. They still use them. Did you see any of this in America? You hear about it and of course it would make you angry… I live my life knowing I’ve already lived the worst day of my life. On a bad day at work or anywhere else, I think about this, and the fact that I have come out of it intact. At least I’d like to think that. Were you kept informed of the investigation? No. Once in a while someone would contact my mother and there was nothing good to report. We were never contacted by the Greek government… No one ever reached out. I contacted Greek ambassadors, nothing came of that. Even after Xeros (Savvas Xeros, the first N17 suspect arrested), nothing came of it. But Miller has been extraordinarily good about keeping the families informed, taking a direct, personal interest. And in helping Os Edo he is helping the Greek victims’ families as well. No one in the world would be better than him. I have tremendous respect for him. Did you hear any theories as to who may have been behind your father’s murder? His killing helped create the myth that November 17 was a very well-connected unit with great intelligence. I actually believe the entire truth has not been exposed. My father’s case was at the transition from the first generation (of N17 operatives) to the second generation. We’d all love to know the truth. I don’t know if it will come out. I don’t have any conspiracy put together that I can share… Even in the investigation, there is no trigger man in my father’s case. In the 1980s there were some reports in Athens that an Anastasia Tsantes, ostensibly a niece or cousin of your father, had been recruited by US officials to infiltrate Greek terrorism groups. My father was an only child. So she couldn’t have been a niece. Anastasia Tsantes – no one in my family knows of such a person nor came into contact with such a person. This story was connected to other stories that were so outlandish… And I’ve been to Icaria… Icaria! I know. That’s where my father’s family came from. Another one of those ironies. [Four suspects in the case, the Xeros brothers, are from the same island.] Will you attend the trial? I will be here for parts of the trial, certainly. I think my entire family will come. Probably not all together. We’ll spread it out to try to maximize the coverage. Having seen the N17 suspects in the press, what do you think of them now? In 27 years they have a body of work. But they didn’t stand up and defend what they did. They have run away from their own confessions. They have denied their actions, like everyday thugs. That is the most surprising thing to me. For a while, it was widely stated in some American circles that parts of the Greek State apparatus may have been involved with N17. Having seen the suspects, do you believe that? We don’t know everything. I think the current government is doing all they can within the system here to achieve the right results. I’d leave it at that. The pain of being Greek Your being Greek must have made things even more difficult, especially with the way in which N17 vilified your father. All of my blood is Greek. My grandparents from both sides emigrated from Greece. So it was particularly painful. I go to the Greek Orthodox Church most Sundays. I live in Washington, where so much of the architecture is inspired by ancient Greece. I just think – I can’t speak for Molly (Welch) and the other families – that for us, being Greek you can’t help but be reminded. I think of my dad every day. Living in Washington, I visit Arlington Cemetery quite often. I went there before coming here and laid a wreath. We only heard little bits about what people were saying about my dad, about the Americans. He loved Greece, he did all he could to promote Greece. And then this event happened… Again, it wasn’t the Greek people, it was this group. But it was very hard. What has made it much easier to deal with has been the tremendous effort of Public Order Minister (Michalis) Chrysochoidis and other officials, they have really been difference-makers. I can respect that and take that at face value. Now it seems people are trying to bring about real change, and to bring about a good result – convictions for these crimes. Back then, Greece was a very different place, after the junta. I felt that this revolutionary spirit, and, at least, tolerance of this behavior, was condoned at the time. With the unfortunate event of the murder of Brig. Stephen Saunders, a lot of years had passed. Conditions were riper (for public reaction against terrorism). I think also that the United States and its resolve against terrorism changed after Sept. 11. In the US, people didn’t have a great understanding of terrorism. That has changed. I think that also gave (US) Ambassador Miller more resources… Terrorism gets the attention of a lot of people for a short while, but it takes away from a few people for the rest of their lives. That’s sad.

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