- Searching for a Brother Lost in Albania’s Gulag
The history of the Cold War has been written in broad strokes that obscure the heroism of individuals, except for a few that Hollywood has lifted up and embellished for eternity. The peculiarities of that era left little space in history books for the lonely heroic figure who acts on idealism and defies fate. He or she usually lives only in the memories of loved ones, and on occasion inspires the lyrics for folk ballads. Nowhere was the Cold War fought more intensely than the Balkans. It was there that Stalin and Tito sparked a civil war to expand their empire, and it was in Albania where the Central Intelligence Agency attempted to overthrow a regime and start what would later be dubbed the “rollback of communism.” This is a story of a unique man who fought the Cold War with his own lonely battle, got caught in a web of treachery, and paid the ultimate price. It is written with some reluctance, but it must be told. It is the story of my brother, Grigorios A. Stavrou, a story kept under wraps for fifty years until his nation, Greece, decided to lift him from the anonymity imposed by the nature of his work: espionage against the regime of Enver Hoxha in Albania.
Lifting the Veil of Secrecy
On 19 September 1991 a solemn ceremony was held in the ornate office of Greek defense minister Ioannis Varvitsiotes. It was intended to honor a fallen soldier whose heroism was formally described for the occasion by the deputy chief of the Greek intelligence service, General Byron Bozios. “His services to the nation and his unique sacrifice,” said the general, “rank him among [End Page 47] the most heroic figures of modern Greek history.” The honored soldier was my brother Grigorios, a member of the Greek intelligence service, who was betrayed, caught, tortured, tried, and executed by the Albanian Sigurimi on 18 August 1953. He was twenty-three years old. I ventured to Athens from Washington to receive the Medal of Exceptional Deeds on behalf of the Stavrou family, including our long-dead parents.
The minister of defense presided over the ceremony and made brief remarks. He was followed by the ranking cabinet member, Miltiades Evert, and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs, General Ioannis Veryvakis. When it came my turn to respond, I could not do it. I broke down in uncontrollable sobs, releasing thirty-eight years of emotions that official secrecy, bordering on callousness, had imposed on me. The honor came too late for my parents. They died not knowing what had happened to their son, because I did not tell them. On the advice of senior intelligence officers, I had long agreed to keep his death a secret, supposedly to spare my parents unbearable grief but in reality to protect sources and methods. “Your parents should live with the hope their son is alive,” said Major Petros Dontas, commander of my brother’s intelligence unit. “You are now a big man. Why tell them and speed up their death?” The “big man,” loaded with a big secret, was seventeen at the time.
The last time I saw my brother alive was at a festive occasion on 25 January 1953, his name day. For more than fifty years I have lived with the burden of a terrible secret and the guilt of my inability to make amends to my parents. But I have been trying to get to the truth about their son’s death, always facing the daunting tasks of separating legitimate national security concerns from bureaucratic inhumanity and outright lies. I was determined to fulfill a promise I made to my parents on 10 August 1956 — the day I started my own odyssey to the United State as a political refugee — to find the truth about Grigorios’s fate. I knew I would never see him again but refused to accept the idea of not finding out what had happened to him and why. My mind would always revive the image of Grigorios dancing with unusual passion in celebration on his last name day.