Where Are We Going? Testimonies of Movement, Pain and Exchange


Asli Saban, Visiting Fellow, Institute of Migration Studies

The Convention and Protocol on the Exchange of the Greek and Turkish Peoples was signed on January 30, 1923, which envisaged the exclusion of Turks in Western Thrace and Greeks in Istanbul. Approximately, 1,700,000 people were exchanged under the Convention. This figure comprises 1,200,000 Turkish-origin people living in Greece and 500,000 Greek-origin people living in Turkey. The population exchange between Greece and Turkey was meant by both governments to help ensure harmony through the creation of ethnically homogeneous nations, supposedly free from sectarian strife. When Lausanne was signed, the Ankara and Greece governments made various preparations to meet the needs of migrants coming through an exchange. Despite all these preparations, migrants who came to Turkey, like the ones in Greece, experienced various difficulties arising from misimplementation.

The Marmara Region welcomed the highest number of migrants among the geographical regions of Turkey, with more than 260,000 migrants – 100,000 of whom were settled in Turkish Thrace. The Aegean Region (13%), the Black Sea Region (11%), the Central Anatolia Region (10%) and the Eastern Anatolia Region (2,5%) followed the Marmara Region, which hosted more than half of the total population (58%). The South-eastern Anatolia Region (0,5%) has been the geographic region receiving the least share of the exchange across Anatolia.

Turkey allowed only the Muslim migrants (c. 17,000) to stay, while Christian refugees were usually sent to Syria, Palestine and Egypt, where they were settled in refugee camps. Nonetheless, in 1941 and 1942 several thousand migrants remained for a few months in the western part of Turkey, in towns previously populated by Greeks (Çeşme, Nazilli, Manisa, Aydın). Many Turks in these areas were Lausanne refugees from Greece.

Before and during the population exchange process, conflicts had appeared and continued in Turkish and Greek minority settlements in Anatolian provinces and the Balkan peninsula. Gangs used violence against Turkish minorities in villages in various Balkan countries. When Turkish and Greek minorities were informed about the exchange process, people believed they would return one day to their homes. People didn’t take much of their stuff. Some of them only took their keys because people thought the exchange would not be permanent. Many Muslim people were brutally killed by Greek gangs in Thessaloniki during the implementation of the exchange. Likewise, many Greeks faced violence and were killed in the Anatolian Region during the process. For both parts, it was an exhausting and painful journey on foot, by train and, finally, by ferry, carrying migrants across the Aegean across the sea from Greece to Istanbul and vice versa.

Male, the second generation (75 years old)

“My father came from Greece to Denizli province in 1922. He always told me how I survived during the painful journey from Greece to Anatolia. When I was born, Greek soldiers came to our house and told my family they had to leave their house immediately. My mom was cooking a meal in the kitchen. She just took a few things, among them the house key because, she thought, they would return to their home soon. After that, my father, my mom and my grandmother started to walk from their village to the center of the city. However, nobody told them anything. On their way, my family came across their neighbors and relatives. On their way, Greek gangs started to take people’s money and stuff. If people didn’t want to give them anything, they immediately used violence on them or took their children. My mom was afraid of Greek gangs, and she didn’t want to give her money or precious belongings. She put me behind the brushwood to protect me from them. She thought gangs might kill us both. Eventually, she passed the control, and gangs left the place. While my mom was walking, she was thinking about me. For two days she walked, suffering and crying because she was thinking of me. When my mom ultimately arrived at the city center, another neighbor took me under her care and reunited me with my mother. This touching moment marked the end of our arduous journey, which had taken an unimaginable three months from Greece to Turkey.”

Female, the second generation (80 years old)

“My family came from Greece to Anatolia in 1922. My family undertook the treacherous journey from Greece to Anatolia by embarking on a ferry from a harbor in Greece. They were trying to reach the İzmir province in Turkey. Exhausted, we reached the city center and found solace in temporary tent shelters. It was a relief after the arduous and grueling expedition. Tragically, some individuals were unable to survive the harsh conditions of the tents, succumbing to their hardships before reaching the safety of Turkey. The displaced families were confined to the tents where they had to wait for their names to be announced, signifying their opportunity to approach the ship.

Despite the intended capacity of accommodating only 500 passengers, the ferry was flooded with almost 1,500 desperate souls, including the elderly, the sick, and numerous infants. Regrettably, many lives, both young and old, were claimed during this prolonged voyage. Those who lost their loved ones had no other option but to weigh down the diseased with a piece of metal and wrap them in a burial shroud, only to make the depths of the icy waters their final resting place. To this day, the memories of our family remain haunted by the grim remnants beneath the cold embrace of the Aegean Sea, rendering us unable to consume any seafood. It serves as an emotional reminder of the agonizing journey endured by our ancestors, etching a painful chapter in our collective history It wasn’t a population exchange; it was a painful journey.

Memories of witnesses demonstrated that the population exchange was encouraged to keep people’s memories and experiences alive. All memories repressed parts of their lives and lifestyles that had been important years earlier. Witnesses had no outlets for expressing the traumas they had witnessed and experienced which isolated them and their stories from the majority of the Turkish population.

In addition, stories about the population exchange reflect the close ties between trauma, victimhood and identity –both national and individual – when considering the psychology of ethnic conflict in the specific case of the Greeks and Turks. In short, the Greek-Turkish population exchange had significant personal and psychological effects on the individuals and communities involved, as well as long-lasting implications for the relationship between Greece and Türkiye. The exchange had a profound impact on the perceptions of immigrants on their roads and belonging. These were passed down through the generations of their descendants, contributing to a legacy of trauma and uncertainty around issues of home and belonging.”