‘I looked at him and he was nothing…’

Nicole Latrice Bowser, a soft-spoken mother of three young children from Memphis, Tennessee, plucked up her courage and came to Greece last week. She wanted to tell the Greek people the truth about her father, US Air Force Sergeant Ronald O. Stewart, who was murdered by the November 17 terrorist gang 12 years ago, and to lay to rest some of the demons that had been pursuing her since. She left Athens with a plea for more understanding between Greeks and Americans, saying that each had a false picture of the other. And from our talk it became clear how big that chasm sometimes is. «The main reason I came here was because I wanted the Greek people to know my father’s death was not political in any way. He wasn’t a murderer or a mercenary as November 17 said,» Nicole Bowser said in an interview before she returned home. «My father was never in combat in his entire career. He never picked up arms. He was never in a war in his entire career.» Bowser, 29, said she had found it very difficult to return to Greece for the trial. She had spent some of the happiest years of her life as a child in Greece, but the murder of her father when she was 17 changed that. She and her mother were in America when he was killed. «I wasn’t going to come at first. I didn’t think I’d ever return. I really had no desire to come,» Bowser said. Things are very different from when she was growing up here, she said. «You could play in the street day or night. I went to Tasis Hellenic so of course most of my friends were Greek when I went to junior high school. And then I went to ACS. I never had a problem having Greek friends. They always treated me with open arms. It’s bad because every memory that I have of Greece is so beautiful… But now it hurts so much to think about it, because of my father’s brutal murder, because it’s so senseless.» It was only after she spoke with the daughter of one of the other American victims, Naval Attache William Nordeen, and heard that she would not be coming for the trial, that Bowser decided to make the trip. «I’m an only child. So because my mother couldn’t come, there would be no one to speak on my father’s behalf. I wish I had a brother to do it. My mother couldn’t come. She’s still very, very upset. She’s still grieving. It’s very hard for her,» she said. «Before I came here, my family begged me not to come, saying, ‘Don’t go there, you’ll be killed. They hate Americans.’ Then when you’re here, the Greeks seem to think that all Americans want to go to war… I think that there needs to be more communication between our countries,» she said. «It’s hard for all Americans to believe that not all Greeks are violent terrorists and it’s hard for Greeks to believe that not all Americans are mercenary killers.» During her stay, Bowser tagged along on one of the anti-war marches that took place to the US Embassy. «I saw the protest last week and it was peaceful. A couple of kids threw paint but there was no violence,» she said. «I can tolerate an opinion but not the violence… Everyone’s entitled to an opinion, but your opinion is not more valuable than someone’s life.» Bowser pointed out that not all Americans are in favor of the war in Iraq. «I wish the Greeks could see US TV to see our demonstrations against the war,» she said. «It’s not the fault of everyone in the United States that this war is going on. We’re not all for it. But you don’t see our demonstrations. We see yours. They’re on CNN.» One thing that amazed her, she said, was the fact that the Greeks had never protested against the violence of the terrorists. «I always wondered, because Greeks generally are very peaceful people and opposed to violence,» she said. «I never understood why the Greeks weren’t outraged by this. Why they didn’t speak out. There were more Greek victims than Americans. They may or may not care about an American person being killed, a soldier. But they should have been concerned with their own people being killed. I never could understand why they were not more angry.» One of the principal November 17 suspects, Savvas Xeros, in a confession he later retracted, has said he pressed the button of the remote-controlled bomb that killed Stewart. «One thing I wanted to do that was very important to me was to look Savvas in the face. I saw pictures of him and I knew his name and I knew he was the one who had pressed the button that detonated the bomb. I had this image of a monster, of someone huge, who could do anything,» Bowser said. «I looked at him and he was nothing. He’s a coward that hides behind a bomb. He would not be man enough to face my father head-on… I looked at him and he turned aside. He couldn’t look at me. He’s not a man, he’s a coward.» But Bowser was taken aback when one of the defense lawyers made a speech about how understandable it was for her to be upset at the death of her father. Another lawyer, Yiannis Rahiotis, who represents alleged November 17 mastermind Alexandros Yotopoulos, declared that «black sergeants» were again killing Iraqis. «It caught me off guard. I wasn’t expecting it. I tried very hard to maintain composure but the things they said, they infuriated me,» Bowser said. «They blatantly wanted to disrespect my father’s memory to make their clients seem more legitimate. I thought it was so cruel. They have no respect for the memory of my father. They asked things that were completely irrelevant. About the Iraqi war and things that made no sense. It was like the lawyers put on a show. It was a show for reporters. It wasn’t something the court needed to hear.» Dimitris Koufodinas, who is suspected of being November 17’s chief operative, said during Bowser’s testimony last Friday that in the face of a child who has lost its father one had to show respect. «If you want to take pity on a young girl you don’t kill her father,» Bowser said angrily. «Don’t say after the fact that it’s such a shame this girl lost her father when you’ve been killing girls’ fathers for 30 years. It’s ridiculous… The majority of the victims had families, if not all of them. You can’t tell me they did not know this at the time, that these people were fathers and husbands and sons.» Bowser visited the facilities of the old American base at Hellenikon, where her father had worked, and the house where he was killed. «It’s funny, because we went there and the car pulled up and I got out and Kyria Aphrodite, who owns the building, immediately knew who I was. And she ran up and hugged me and kissed me. Some of the other neighbors came out and spoke… She showed me where my father was killed… Her son had put my father in his car and drove him to the base… She showed me where he died and I left roses there. Three. One for me, one for my father and one for my mother. It was very hard for me to go there and know. But I’m glad I went. It gave me a sense of closure. I was glad to talk to his neighbors who were just as outraged as I was – and they were Greek people and they saw it was a senseless act.»   Bowser spoke also of the great pain of losing her father suddenly without having been given the chance to make peace with him. «The last conversation I had with my father, he said he was disappointed in me for getting married before I finished school,» she said. «The last words he said were that he was disappointed with me. I lived with that for a very long time.» When her son was born, she wrote to her father, telling him that she had named him Ronald, after him. «I never knew if he got the letter or not. I never knew if my father knew he had a grandson and that he had his name. That bothered me for a very long time,» she said. It was only four or five years later that her mother learned from a colleague of her father that a few days before he was murdered Ronald Stewart had told his friends that he had a grandson who was named after him. «That was so important to me. It really changed a lot. Because then I knew that he did not die angry with me,» Bowser said. And how did she feel as she prepared to return home? «I have more peace. Less anger. I’m not afraid of these men any more,» she said of the November 17 suspects. For years she had lived in fear of them, as conspiracy theories abounded as to who they might be and how many they were. «I was petrified. For two years I had nightmares. I could not drive a car. I thought every car would explode. We had initially thought the bomb was in my father’s car, that it had exploded. So for two years I wouldn’t drive. Someone would have to start the car and I would get in after they started it,» Bowser said. In the end, though, the trip was about Ronald Stewart. «I wanted my father to be proud of me. It was my last chance to pay tribute to him,» Bowser said softly.