The Lady of Ro’s memory lives on

KASTELLORIZO – Maybe even the Lady of Ro would back the European Commission’s recommendation for Muslim Turkey to start talks on joining Christian Europe. There are certainly no doubts of Turkey’s worthiness among the 220 residents who revere the Lady of Ro’s memory on this often-tragic rocky Greek outcrop of Kastellorizo, a stone’s throw from Turkey’s southern coastline. Unlike some in capitals far away, such as Berlin and Paris, Kastellorizians, living just 800 meters from Turkey, scoff at worries of a flood of Turkish immigrants. While Greece officially backs Turkey’s EU membership, it is still a surprise to find the view shared even more vehemently on this remote eastern Aegean island which, due to the Lady of Ro, has long been a symbol of Greek defiance in the endless territorial disputes with Turkey over Aegean Island. Ruled for centuries by the Ottomans, forerunner of Turkey, as well as at war as recently as the mid-1970s over Cyprus, Greece’s warming ties with Turkey are seen by many as an example of how the past can be left behind under the umbrella of Europe. So who was The Lady of Ro? Retired Greek Admiral Michael Agapitos, a Kastellorizian who spent his life protecting Greek shores from the Italians, the Germans and the Turks, knew her well and tells the story. To Greeks, she was a Joan of Arc or Boadicea-like figure whose weapon was just a fluttering Greek flag, not a sword. Born Despina Achladioti in Kastellorizo in 1893, when the island was a thriving seafaring community of 14,000, she sailed with her husband and aging mother to the then-nearby deserted island of Ro shortly before the start of World War II. The island is named «Ro» because its shape resembles the same letter in the Greek alphabet. «She had no special connection to the island,» said the 79-year-old admiral. «Who knows why she went? She never said.» Eking out a living with a few goats, chickens and a vegetable garden, the Lady of Ro also took one other duty on herself. Each day, facing Turkey – which was within easy eyesight – she would raise the Greek flag and pull it down at sunset, whatever the weather. She did it until her death in 1982 aged 89. «No one told her to do it. She never understood why all the fuss. It was just in her heart.» The Lady of Ro remained on the island after the death of her husband – just several years after they arrived – and her mother whose body she rowed for hours back to Kastellorizo. Throughout World War II, alone now, she watched from her island as Kastellorizo was invaded by Italians, badly bombed by Germans and all the island’s residents were eventually evacuated by British forces to then Palestine and Egypt. «Each day she kept raising the flag,» Agapitos said. Act of patriotism However, it was not until Greece and Turkey went to war over Cyprus in the mid-1970s that the Lady of Ro’s legend spread from her small world of the seas around Kastellorizo. «Some Turkish journalists sailed to Ro and raised a flag there,» the admiral said. «The people of Kastellorizo heard about it and set off in boats to raise their own flag. «But the Greek flag was already flying thanks to Despina.» Greek newspapers seized on the story as an example of Greek pride and courage at a time when the country was recovering from Cyprus and a seven-year-long military dictatorship. Despina was buried with full military honors on the island where a small Greek military unit is now based. Lt. Michael Zoulofous, a reserve officer and British-educated physicist who was in charge of 10 soldiers there for October, said her lonely life was hard to imagine now. «We spend just up to a month here. Solitude is the big problem. It was other times, other minds when she was here.» Like Despina, soldiers raise and lower the flag each day. Would she have approved of Turkey’s EU admission? «If Turkey respects other nations, I believe she would,» Agapitos said. «She had a Greek brain. Greeks are not fanatics.» The only school on Kastellorizo, student population 49, still teaches the story of the Lady of Ro. It also teaches the children about the European Union. «We tell the Lady of Ro’s story portraying it not to provoke Turkey, but to reaffirm Greek identity,» said headmaster Ioannis Tsolakidis, who is proud that Despina’s niece attends the school. «I don’t think Turkey is a threat,» Tsolakidis said. «No one in Greece worries about it joining the EU.» With the Turkish port of Kas just minutes away across the narrow straits compared with several hours to Rhodes, the nearest Greek island, Kastellorizians have long demystified the threat that Turkey poses. «When we run out of everyday supplies we don’t shop in Greece, we shop in Turkey,» said Costas Apoutsis, a young man whose family has run the island’s main travel agency for many years. He said if Turkey joined the EU, Kastellorizo would become an «open port» in a boost for tourism. «There would be no visa formalities for travel between Greece and Turkey instead of the present situation where on both sides a blind eye is turned only for day trips. «Maybe we could even get electricity and water from Turkey,» he said.