The mediators of Crete’s warring families

The elderly highlander with the thick mustache knows he must be wary of what he says. And so what if he never finished elementary school? In the streets of Livadia he has the power to change people’s minds.

“We are mountain men here. We are generous and honorable, but we are also proud and will not tolerate being insulted. This often results in situations that can also lead to murder,” he says when I meet him at a coffee shop in the village.

Christos Chnaris is an 85-year-old livestock farmer who has also served as president of the local agricultural cooperative. For the people of Livadia, however, he has always stood out for his ability to keep a cool head and ever since the 1960s they have been asking him to step in and solve differences between them. In this village on the southeastern Aegean island of Crete, his is the role of “mesitis,” or mediator, and for over half a century he has been striving to reconcile warring parties before they resort to violence.

In every village in the region there are two or three men like Chnaris who act as local peacemakers. A fist fight, the theft of an animal, trespassing, some misunderstanding, even a scuffle between kids can set off a chain of confrontation that could escalate to violence without the mediators’ intervention. Murder is the only incident over which they cannot attempt a reconciliation.

In Livadia and nearby Anogeia, as in other villages on Crete, the compromise achieved by a mediator is known as a “sasmos.” It is a process whose origins have been lost in the mists of time but it survives to this day. It is a complex institution that has become a part of the local conscience and often operates in tandem with official authorities or can even influence a court decision. Lawyers on Crete estimate that the mediators help avert dozens of crimes every year.

Three years ago at Amari in Rethymno a man shot and injured another man in the knee during an argument between their two families. By the time the case went to court, the families had reached a reconciliation. The court imposed a smaller sentence on the defendant, finding him guilty of assault rather than attempted murder.

“For the 16 years that I have had my practice in Crete, the sasmos system has operated with unflagging vigor, to the extent that courts will take it into account when dealing with criminal cases,” says lawyer Nikos Kotzabasakis.

The mediators are also often called in by the authorities to play the role of negotiator to bring fugitives to justice or to forge compromises in prison.

Kotzabasakis does not think their role interferes with his own. The mediators do not assume the role of judge – it is not their job to parcel out blame. When trying to bridge the problems dividing two sides, they make sure not to bruise anyone’s ego or mar anyone’s public image.

“Keeping the peace is the most important thing. It means nothing to take on one case, one time, that may end up in a family tragedy,” says Kotzabasakis.

“We believe the court is of secondary importance,” says Stefanos Hairetis, a livestock farmer and president of the local agricultural cooperative at Anogeia. “Courts can solve financial differences, but they don’t do baptisms,” he said, suggesting that they don’t participate in the day-to-day life of the local community. “There are cases all the time when both sides put themselves in the wrong by the way they behave. You go to court when you’ve exhausted all other means of recourse. Courts are used in the lowlands, not in the mountains of Crete.”

Respected figures

“The people who specialize as mesites are just a handful,” says Chnaris. “If you don’t know the right way to talk you could end up doing more harm than good. A single misspoken word could shoot a case to hell.”

Like other mesites, Chnaris is self-taught. “We are educated by nature and by the cases that come our way, and we know that every case matters a great deal to someone,” he says.

In 1992, a professor of social anthropology at the University of Crete, Aris Tsantiropoulos, spent a year at Livadia studying the way Chnaris works. After gaining the locals’ trust he was allowed to sit down at the negotiating table with them, observing the process from the inside.

He explains that the role of mediator is assumed by individuals who are widely respected by the local community. They are, in the local dialect, “kozoi,” people who are known to be just and whose opinion matters. They are normally above the age of 30 and livestock farmers rather than crop growers, as they are considered to be free and not constrained or prisoner to their land as the latter. Teachers, doctors and priests can also become mesites.

Father Andreas Kokkinos has overseen several mediations in Livadia.

“The existence of the sasmos means that people’s word, their dignity, still counts for something,” he says. “If we didn’t have that we wouldn’t have equilibrium.”

An agreement between two sides is often sealed by a member of one family in a feud becoming the godparent of a child on the other, creating a familial bond.

At the coffee shops in Anogeia, there is an oft-repeated story: Some 60 years ago, or 70 according to others, two villagers got into a fight and one stabbed the other. Both were difficult, stubborn men, according to all who tell the story. The wife of the injured man asked his assailant to baptize one of their children before her husband was released from hospital and able to seek revenge. Such “synteknies,” family bonds, are often forged under the most unexpected circumstances, preventing more serious conflicts.

Father Andreas has conducted baptisms even in the late hours of the night.

“Families are very big here, a lot of children, a lot of young people, and you can’t always tame them all to conduct a discussion,” says the 40-year-old. “You sometimes need the sacred rites as well.”

The process adopted by mediators depends on the case brought before them. They start getting a feel for the issue and talking about it with the two sides as soon as a disagreement become common knowledge. They often use friends and relatives as a means of approaching the people at the center of the argument. The negotiations can run on for days, even months, during which one side may be ordered not to walk down a particular street so as not to run into their adversaries. Once the two sides agree to seek a compromise, a meeting is arranged on neutral territory, often the mediator’s home.

As Aris Tsantiropoulos describes in his book about blood feuds in the mountain of Crete, a meal that is attended by the two most influential members of each warring side follows an agreement.

Tracing the roots

Chnaris, the oldest mediator in Livadia, believes that the institution of sasmos dates back to World War II and the German occupation.

“We went through lawless periods. There were times when laws simply didn’t function and we had to protect ourselves before it all turned into a jungle,” he says.

Tsantiropoulos has found evidence suggesting the existence of the institution during the Venetian conquest.

“The two families would sign an agreement in the presence of a notary to cease all enmity,” the academic says. In fact, 33 such documents dating from 1612-39 have been found in the archives of a notary named Ioannis Krousos, who described them as “instruments of love.” They consist of agreements written up by the warring parties themselves or by the notary to settled disputes regarding theft, rape, arguments and so on.

Centuries later, another form of reconciliation emerged on Crete. Before the civil war that gripped the rest of Greece made its way to the island, entire villages publicly vowed to cease all hostilities. Again, individuals of a certain standing in the community would guarantee the truce and the minutes of the agreement would be published in the local press.

One example of such an arrangement was found in the archives of “Eleftheri Kriti” (Free Crete), a newspaper which acted as mouthpiece for the parties of the National Liberation Front (EAM), on the front page from May 16, 1947. The top story was a reconciliation agreement between the residents of Skaliano. They had gathered five days earlier in the village and in the presence of a priest and the teacher decided to be more loving and united in the future, and for their reconciliation to be based on mutual respect of their respective political beliefs.

Throughout the island’s history blood has been shed and vendettas have been declared where compromises could not be reached. Even today there are families that still wear black in public to signal grief, villages that have been deserted by violence, and places where church fetes are no longer held. Death in a blood feud is, according to Tsantiropoulos, “a wrinkled death,” in that there is nothing heroic about it and its wounds runs deep and long.

This is why mediators come under a great deal of stress until an agreement is sealed. If they fail, they risk their own reputations as well and feel responsible. At the age of 85, Chnaris is no longer prepared to take risks. He walks tall through the streets of his village and always grabs tightly onto the arm of anyone who shakes his hand. Until three years ago, he was an active mediator.

“I didn’t miss a single agreement,” he says. “Now I am gradually retiring because I need to protect myself. I can speak my mind and give some directions. But if a deal falls through and someone is injured or killed, you bear part of the blame.”

Despite the fact that he has more or less given up the work, Chnaris still remembers all of the cases he mediated. But when I ask him to mention a couple, he refuses to go into any depth. “They are asleep and I don’t want to wake them,” he says.

Life in the villages of Mt Psiloreitis

In the larger villages on the slopes of Rethymno’s Mount Psiloreitis, with populations of around 2,000 residents, where the wind chisels the rock and scores lines on faces, life moves to the beat of a very different drum.

Efforts are being made to curb the use of guns, yet at any festivity there will be some man with a gun in his belt.

Most locals marry young and have many children. The majority are livestock farmers and on the streets two in three cars are off-road vehicles, used to climb the steep, remote roads to their flocks.

Rustling was and remains one of the main sources of problems between the locals. Enemies will steal each other’s animals when they feel threatened.

In Livadia, locals reached an agreement in the 1960s to abstain from animal theft. But in 2011, 47 such cases were reported to the police and in 2012 another 26 in all of the Rethymno regional unit.

Ten days before I arrived at Livadia and Anogeia, another case of animal theft had taken place. It wasn’t certain whether it would be reported to the authorities, but the mediators were already on the case. They would find out who took the animals and after approaching them get them to agree to return most. The thief would probably get to keep a few of the animals – to save face – and the owner would never learn who it was. The mediators would simply tell the owner where he would be able to find his missing animals at some remote location.

Around 20 years ago, Giorgos Manouras knew the family that had stolen his animals.

“They stole sheep from us and we were angry. I reached a sasmos. With one thing and another, if you don’t have a sasmos, people may die,” says the 43-year-old livestock farmer.

“How you talk to each person and make them understand a situation makes a difference.”

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