Shadows on Mount Psiloritis

In the time of innocence, two or three decades ago, thieves from the village of Zoniana used to steal sheep from neighboring villages on the slopes of Mt Psiloritis in central Crete and, as everyone said, they enjoyed the support of powerful political figures. I remember a shepherd, high up on the mountain, explaining why he or one of his two teenage sons was always with the sheep – and always armed. «The guy from Zoniana is sitting up there with binoculars, waiting,» he said, pointing to a ridge. Bare peaks and slopes and unseen paths were all that separated our county from the villages of Zoniana and Livadia on the northern slopes of the mountain, home to the island’s most renowned sheep thieves. The rustlers and the shepherds were all armed but this was nothing noteworthy: Cretans have always prized their weapons. And sheep stealing, though a plague, seemed to be taken in stride by the shepherds. There seemed to be an unwritten code: When someone fell victim to thieves, he would find the thief and either steal the culprit’s own sheep or the two sides would reach a settlement by other means – it was not infrequent for them to cement the peace with a marriage between rival families. There was no place for the police or other state machinery. Ancient traditions that governed behavior in primitive, stock-raising societies were being stretched to breaking point. It’s worth remembering the character of Nestor in «The Iliad,» bragging about his skill as a cattle rustler. Closer in time and place, the British traveler Robert Pashley, who visited Crete a few years after the Greek War of Independence began in 1821, wrote of revolutionaries from Sfakia in the west who spread out over many counties to foment revolution. While the island remained under Turkish rule, the rebels had to live off the land – and off their sheep stealing. So, rustling and keeping weapons illegally (especially after the brutal German occupation in World War II) were wired into the Cretans’ collective memory as acts of proud rebellion and resistance. But as the years passed, this particular part of Cretan society was suddenly revolutionized by roads, four-wheel-drive trucks and heavy weaponry. The thieving turned into a lucrative business, with whole flocks stolen, slaughtered and shipped off the island within hours. Then came even easier riches with the cultivation of cannabis. When Albania collapsed and its arsenals were looted, Crete was suddenly flooded with automatic weapons and ammunition. The exaggerated «rebellion» now became a dangerous cartoon. And worse, it became a profession. Rich and armed, with no checks on their arrogance, gang members began lifting ATMs from public squares in broad daylight, training their guns on passers-by and not even going to the trouble of wearing masks. It was a small step from that point to last week’s ambush on a police convoy that had the temerity to head toward Zoniana after a long absence by any state authority. But in guarding the sanctity of their village, the gangsters of Zoniana seriously injured a young police officer, who is in critical condition with a bullet in his head. The gangsters crossed the red line: They were revealed for the common criminals that they are and provoked the rage of the whole country and, at long last, a reaction by the authorities. But the most important development is that we may be seeing the end of the cycle of silence and fear that allowed the criminals to act with impunity for so long. For decades, an important village with a rich history has been dominated by a criminal elite. Once again we see how a minority can impose itself on the majority, as long as the few are armed and merciless. And when this violence is rewarded by the state’s tolerance, those who depend on their honest work to earn a living stay silent. They endure, they leave, or they join the gangs. It is a rule that when one member of a group grows more powerful than everyone else, he will impose his will on the others. In this way, when the sheep thieves of Zoniana became peddlers of cannabis and cocaine, and powerful players who would deal with political and state figures from a position of strength, the outlaws were in power. Unaccountable, this power was absolute and brutal – and it inspired such arrogance that the regional governor, the police chief and the police force as a whole became the target of attacks. The fact that police have once again set foot in Zoniana is a start. But the police and TV cameras will leave. The fugitives will return. The villagers – good and bad – will be alone with each other again. The war will end only when the closed society that sustains and rewards the brutality of the black-shirted thugs realizes that it has been living in a warped world of violence and crime that leads only to isolation, catastrophe and shame.