By Leslie Absher
A baby before the coup, brought there by her father, a young spy on his first mission. “There is much I’ll never know about his work in Greece but my love for him and Greece calls me to never forget this historic day,” she wrote to Greek Reporter, describing her complicated relationship with Greece and her CIA dad.
Today is the forty eighth anniversary of the military coup. I’ve grappled with the legacy of it my whole life. Not because I’m Greek – I’m not – but because my Dad was in the CIA. I spent my first years in Athens, brought there by my dad, for his first field mission with the Agency. Over the years, my guilt about the coup has weighed heavily. Was the CIA responsible for orchestrating the coup? And if so, Did Dad play a role? I’ve read books about the subject, talked to scholars, and a few years ago, I even traveled to Greece to search for answers. I visited many sights while I was there – our house in Psychico, the U.S. embassy where Dad spent much of his time, the Polytechnic where the uprising ended the Junta – but the place that affected me most was a museum.
I came across it by accident, finding its name in a pamphlet featuring summer exhibits. I had never heard of it before, and so I envisioned a structure with glass cases and an upscale shop to buy postcards. I also imagined that maybe, just maybe once there, I would learn the CIA hadn’t orchestrated the coup and I could let go my suspicions about my dad once and for all.
A group of older men sat in white plastic chairs along the wall, staring.
“Do you know what kind of museum this is?” one man asked.
My purple sun hat and the camera in my hand gave off the wrong impression, I knew. This was the museum of Anti-dictatorial and Democratic Resistance, the plaque outside made this clear enough, but there was something else implied by his question. The man’s face was weathered, his eyes intense and sad. That’s when I got it. I wasn’t inside a museum in the usual sense of the word. I was inside a building that was once used to detain and torture.
“I know exactly where I am,” I answered, looking him in the eyes.
Another man, thin and energetic, jumped to his feet. “Come, I will show you our museum.”
He ushered me down a hallway that had no doors, only doorways and arches. Inside the building’s large central room stood a wooden partition. Old newspaper clippings, ragged and brown, had been stapled to it.
“Where are you from?” my guide asked.
“Ameriki,” I answered, kicking myself for not using the more politically correct but longer ‘United States of America.’
His face brightened and he said something about Bill Clinton. I squinted. Maybe I wasn’t getting his Greek. Why was he talking about Clinton?
“Clinton came to Athens for a few hours. There were many protestors there—against the United States and the CIA,” he explained.
“Bill Clinton came? What did he say?” I asked.
My guide’s Greek sped up and I lost the gist.
“Did he talk about the junta?” I asked, trying to understand.
“This is what I am telling you.” A child-like smile crept across his face. “He apologized.”
I knew Clinton had traveled to Athens in the 90s but I hadn’t realized he apologized. I looked into my guide’s open face. His eyes shone. The elation was clear and I saw what can happen when a US leader, a former president, acknowledges a decades-old US transgression, the complicity in a brutal dictatorship. Such a simple gesture but so important.
Next, my guide led me to a small room, no more than eight square feet. In the rooms we’d already passed, I had noticed memorabilia. This one was empty. No furniture or photographs, just a bare cement floor. I felt a chill. A chain with a rusted metal sign hung across the threshold. I read the sign and breathed hard. Kratistiria Basanaton. Torture Chamber. I couldn’t focus on what he was saying to me. I stared at the crumbling walls, the sagging chain. People were brought here, to this exact spot. Whipped and beaten for wanting their government back. I had studied the junta and its torture methods, read books and articles, written about it over and over in my journal, but standing there made it real.
He pointed to a thin whip nailed to the wall and drew back his arm, released it, and drew it back again. I knew how whips worked. I wanted him to stop. He kept going with his cartoonish gesture, swinging his arm up and out. My heart pounded.
“Katalaves?” he asked.
“Katalava. Katalava,” I said. I understand.
He pointed down the hallway, toward the room of old men. “We are all volunteers here for an organization.”
Organization? I gave him my pen and notebook. “Grapsto parakalo,” I said. Write it please.
Hand shaking, he wrote out each word slowly. The script sat jagged like my heart: Union of Imprisoned and Exiled Resisters, 1967-1974.
They were all here. Or somewhere like here. All detained and abused. And now they spent their days showing people around these flimsy display boards with brown newspapers that will soon turn to dust. I didn’t know what to say to him. How to acknowledge what he had told me, the pain inside the place I was standing.
“Thank you for the tour,” I said, after he led me back to the entrance. The men in the room beside me were talking now, oblivious to my presence. I turned toward the door.
“To vivlio!” The guide’s plea made me turn back around. He pointed to a small spiral notebook on a stand. A long list of signatures ran up and down the pages, visitors from around the world. I stared at the last name, someone from Norway. Then it registered. He wanted me to sign. What if one of the old men recognized my last name and thought I was some kind of undercover CIA agent? They might run after me, chase me for being the daughter of a spy. A spy who did or didn’t help set up the coup. A spy who did or didn’t know about the dictator’s dirty practices. I wanted to push through my fear and shame, push past all the questions I would probably never know the answers to and just meet this moment. Stand in it despite it all and say I was here, that I know what happened in this place. I wanted it to be my apology for things I didn’t do but know occurred. My own country implicated.
I imagined Dad, who I love, standing beside me. Forget your shame, I told myself. Forget him and sign your name. I picked up the pen and wrote Amerikanida syngrafeas. American Writer. Then my name. I may not have left with the answers I sought but when I stepped out into the sunshine, the day was warm and my heart free.