As bullets whizzed around me, I slowly raised a white handkerchief. The soldiers who were shooting yelled for me to come out from my hiding place. Cautiously, I approached them, not knowing whether I would live or die. How did I come to be in this predicament?
I ENTERED this world the seventh of eight children born to hardworking parents in Karítsa, a small village in Greece. The year was 1926.
The year before, my parents had met John Papparizos, a zealous and talkative Bible Student, as Jehovah’s Witnesses were then called. Impressed by John’s sound Scriptural reasoning, they began attending meetings of the Bible Students in our village. My mother had an unshakable faith in Jehovah God, and even though she was illiterate, she shared it with others at every appropriate opportunity. Sadly, my father focused on people’s imperfections and gradually gave up attending Christian meetings.
My siblings and I respected the Bible but grew up distracted by youthful pleasures. Then, in 1939, as World War II engulfed Europe, an event in our village jolted us. Our neighbor and cousin, Nicolas Psarras, a newly baptized Witness, was conscripted into the Greek army. Nicolas, aged 20, boldly told the military authorities, “I cannot fight because I am a soldier of Christ.” He was tried by a military court and sentenced to ten years in jail. We were stunned!
Fortunately, early in 1941, the Allied army briefly entered Greece and Nicolas was released from jail. He made his way back to Karítsa, where my older brother, Ilias, bombarded him with questions about the Bible. I eagerly listened in. Afterward, Ilias and I and our youngest sister, Efmorfia, started to study the Bible, and we regularly attended meetings with the Witnesses. The following year, the three of us dedicated our lives to Jehovah and got baptized. Later, four more of our siblings also became faithful Witnesses.
In 1942, the Karítsa Congregation had nine young men and women between the ages of 15 and 25. We all knew that severe trials lay ahead. So to strengthen ourselves, we got together whenever we could to study the Bible, sing spiritual songs, and pray. As a result, our faith was strengthened.
Just as World War II was ending, Greek communists rebelled against the Greek government, triggering a bitter civil war. Communist guerrillas roamed the countryside, forcing villagers to join their ranks. When they raided our village, they kidnapped three young Witnesses—Antonio Tsoukaris, Ilias, and me. We pleaded that we were Christian neutrals; yet they forced us to march to Mount Olympus, about 12 hours from our village.
Soon afterward, a communist officer ordered us to join a guerrilla raiding party. When we explained that true Christians do not take up arms against their fellow man, the enraged officer dragged us before a general. When we repeated our story, the general ordered, “Then take a mule and carry the wounded from the battlefield to the hospital.”
“But what if we were captured by government soldiers?” we replied. “Would they not view us as active combatants?” “Then deliver bread to the front lines,” he said. “But what if an officer sees us with the mule and orders us to carry weapons to the front lines?” we reasoned. The general thought long and hard. Finally, he exclaimed: “Well, surely you can look after sheep! Stay on the mountain and tend the flocks.”
So as the civil war raged around us, the three of us felt that our consciences would allow us to take care of the sheep. A year later, Ilias, as the oldest son, was allowed to return home to care for our widowed mother. Antonio fell sick and was released. I, however, remained a captive.
Meanwhile, the Greek army was steadily closing in on the communists. The group holding me captive fled through the mountains toward neighboring Albania. Nearing the border, we suddenly found ourselves surrounded by Greek soldiers. The rebels panicked and fled. I hid behind a fallen tree, which led to my encounter with the soldiers mentioned earlier.
When I told the Greek soldiers that I had been held captive by the communists, they took me to be assessed at a military camp near Véroia, the ancient Bible city of Beroea. There I was ordered to dig trenches for the soldiers. When I refused, the commanding officer ordered me into exile on the dreaded penal isle of Makrónisos (Makronisi).
ISLAND OF TERROR
The bleak, waterless, sun-drenched rock called Makrónisos sits on the Attica coast about 30 miles (50 km) from Athens. The island is just eight miles (13 km) long and 1.5 miles (2.5 km) across at its widest point. Yet, from 1947 to 1958, it hosted more than 100,000 prisoners, including active and suspected communists, former resistance fighters, and scores of faithful Witnesses of Jehovah.
When I arrived in early 1949, the prisoners were divided into several camps. I was placed in a low-security camp along with several hundred other men. About 40 of us slept on the ground in a canvas tent designed to hold 10 people. We drank putrid water and ate mostly lentils and eggplants. The constant dust and wind made life miserable. But at least we did not have to haul rocks endlessly back and forth, a sadistic torture that broke the bodies and minds of many unfortunate prisoners.
One day while walking on the beach, I met several Witnesses from other camps. How we rejoiced to be together! Taking great care to avoid detection, we met whenever we could. We also discreetly preached to other prisoners, some of whom later became Jehovah’s Witnesses. Those activities and heartfelt prayer helped to sustain us spiritually.
INTO A FIERY FURNACE
After I had been through ten months of “rehabilitation,” my captors decided that it was time I put on a military uniform. When I refused, they hauled me before the camp commandant. I handed the man a written statement, saying, “I only want to be a soldier of Christ.” After threatening me, the commandant handed me over to his second-in-command, a Greek Orthodox archbishop decked out in full religious regalia. When I boldly answered his questions from the Scriptures, he angrily roared: “Take him away. He is a fanatic!”
The following morning, soldiers again ordered me to put on an army uniform. When I refused, they beat me with their fists and a wooden baton. They then took me to the camp infirmary to confirm that my bones were not broken and dragged me back to my tent. This daily ritual continued for two months.
Because I would not compromise my faith, the frustrated soldiers finally tried a new tack. Tying my hands behind my back, soldiers savagely beat the soles of my feet with ropes. Through the intense pain, I recalled Jesus’ words: “Happy are you when people reproach you and persecute you . . . Rejoice and be overjoyed, since your reward is great in the heavens, for in that way they persecuted the prophets prior to you.” (Matt. 5:11, 12) Finally, after what seemed to be an eternity, I fell unconscious.
I awoke in an icy cell without bread, water, or a blanket. Even so, I felt calm and composed. As the Bible promises, “the peace of God” was ‘guarding my heart and my thoughts.’ (Phil. 4:7, ftn.) The following day, a kindly soldier gave me bread and water and an overcoat. Then another soldier gave me his rations. In these and many other ways, I felt Jehovah’s tender care.
The authorities viewed me as an incorrigible rebel and took me to Athens to face a military court. There I was sentenced to three years in prison on Yíaros (Gyaros), an island about 30 miles (50 km) east of Makrónisos.
“WE CAN TRUST YOU”
Yíaros prison was a huge red-brick fortress holding more than 5,000 political prisoners. It also held seven Witnesses of Jehovah, all imprisoned for their Christian neutrality. Although it was strictly forbidden, the seven of us secretly met together to study the Bible. We even regularly received smuggled copies of The Watchtower, which we copied by hand to use in our studies.
One day while we were secretly studying, a prison guard stumbled on our gathering and confiscated our literature. We were summoned to the deputy warden’s office, fully expecting that our sentences would be extended. Instead, the deputy warden said: “We know who you are, and we respect your stand. We know that we can trust you. Go back to work.” He even assigned some of us easier duties. Our hearts swelled with gratitude. Even in prison our Christian integrity could bring praise to Jehovah.
Our steadfastness also brought other fine results. After closely observing our good behavior, a prisoner who was a professor of mathematics was moved to ask about our beliefs. When we Witnesses were released in early 1951, he too was released. Later, he became a baptized Witness and a full-time evangelizer.
STILL A SOLDIER
As for me, after my release, I returned to my family at Karítsa. Later, along with many of my countrymen, I migrated to Melbourne, Australia. There I met and married Janette, a fine Christian sister, and we raised a son and three daughters in the Christian way.
Today, past the age of 90, I am still active as a Christian elder. Because of my old injuries, my body and feet sometimes ache, especially after I share in the preaching work. Nevertheless, I am as determined as ever to be a “soldier of Christ.”—2 Tim. 2:3.