Leaving with a heavy heart from what we had recorded in Mariupol, Ukraine, we headed towards Sartana, where, as the residents told us, the city had a population of 15,000, of which 8,000 were of Greek origin.
The distance between Mariupol and Sartana was not long, about 20 kilometres, and the road was surprisingly good. Although there was a lot of fighting in the area, the road was untouched.
Perhaps they fixed it up as the capture of the region by Donbass separatists and Russian forces took place back in March 2022, a month after the Russian invasion.
The story of Sartana
Sartana was founded in 1780 by Urum Greeks who were resettled by the Russian government from the village of the same name in the mountains of Crimea, where the Theological School of Mariupol operated from 1825 to 1831.
The Urum, also Greek-Tatars, are one of the peoples of Crimea and the Northern Azov region, who speak Urum, a language extremely close to Crimean Tatar.
There are two versions of the origin of the Urum. According to the first version, the Urums arose either as a result of the transition of a part of the Crimean Greeks to the language of the Crimean Tatars.
According to one hypothesis, the Turkish language was adopted by a part of the Greeks of Asia Minor who migrated to the Crimea. According to the other hypothesis, the Urums arose as a result of the adoption of Christianity by some Crimean Tatars.
The word, however, comes from the Arabic Rum, which means Eastern Roman (Byzantine), something that also confirms the Greek origin of the inhabitants.
But let's leave the history for the historians and let's talk about the Greeks who live there, where now after the invasion they were reduced to 5,000 out of a total of 8,000 inhabitants of Sartana.
The Greek residents had become, during the invasion, the centre of interest for the Greek media who were there early in the morning making multiple live connections.
As the Sartana people told us, Greek channels said in their news bulletins things far from the truth of what was happening in the area. This was also the reason that as soon as we arrived we were greeted with reservations.
We found them in the library where Greece was everywhere. In books, poems, souvenirs and records. A history of Greece.
We had to gain their trust and get them to talk to us. Something which was of course very difficult considering that we would be there for only a few hours. But our stay for so many days in the Donbass region and our reports about Mariupol and Donetsk softened their suspicions a little.
Their feelings are conflicting. On the one hand they are grateful that they are alive, but on the other they are angry with the Motherland and the leaders who abandoned them - an anger that was expressed without frills and with rage for the official state and the journalists who were in Sartana.
"They abandoned us. Nine months have passed since the area was evacuated and we haven't received a phone call," said the President of the Greek association of Sartana.
"Nobody cared about us. Only one lady from Germany, a Greek and a deputy mayor in Solingen who is responsible for the local authorities of the diaspora and calls me almost every day. The only one, no one else," said the President of the Greeks of Sartana angrily.
"Not even the journalists we had here and left overnight made a call. They chased us to appear on the channels, they lied in their reports, they changed what we said, but a phone call, to ask if we are alive or if we died, they didn't made," Natalia Papakitsa continued.
"Not even the Consul who did the evacuation from the Consulate. They took us on March 2nd to get our cars and to get ready to leave. There were no cars. Everything had been burned by the bombings," he continued.
"We asked them to find auto buses, like the Jews did here, but they didn't even bother with us, she added.
"We had asked them earlier to take our children and flee to Greece, to put them in a camp so that they would not be in danger. But even there they said no. They left as if hunted. We were left behind to fend for ourselves," she tells us with her eyes staring into space and reminiscing about those moments.
"And not only did they leave us helpless, but they completely forgot about us. We had nothing after the disaster. No clothes, blankets, food, nothing. And not one of them called us to ask if we needed anything, to find a way to help us," the president continued.
"Only the Greeks from Russia helped us, they sent us clothes, blankets, food. Parcels arrived from Crimea, Moscow, Sochi, Rostov. Only the Greeks of Russia stood by us. Where was Greece?" she wondered.
"Where is the President of the Greeks of Ukraine who left with the help of the Consul?" she asked without waiting for an answer as she had experienced the answer firsthand, as all those who stayed in Sartana also did.
But they also had shocking testimonies about the Azov battalion and how they fared after the self-proclamation of the "People's Republics" of Donetsk and Lugansk.
"They had laid mines on the sides of the roads so that no one could leave Sartana. They had set up roadblocks and were using us as a human shield to keep the Russians from hitting them," we were told.
"In front of my eyes," Natalia continued, "a car went to pass on the side of the road. It drove on a mine and was blown up," she said.
Seven months after the change of administration in the region, the reconstruction had begun. Although there were still problems with the infrastructure, life was getting back to normal.
She picked us up and took us to the school that had been hit by a Ukrainian missile and its roof had collapsed.
In front of us was a gem. Not even in a private school in the biggest countries would you find such a building - indoor with two basketball courts, amphitheatre, large halls and warm.
After the school tour was over, we asked to go to the cemetery.
Leaving the school across the street was a small grocery store with the Greek name FRESKADA written in Greek.
We arrived at the cemetery where our escort explained to us that those who died in the war were buried in a separate place, in the bottom row and a little further away from those who died from Covid.
While all the monuments were made of marble, those of those who had been lost in the war were simply made of dirt and only a cross inscribed with their names. As many of the dead explained to us, either they no longer had relatives to build the graves or they could not afford it.
Collecting images and stories we started to return. We stopped at a double grave. It belonged to Anatoli Balntzis, journalist, writer and former president of the Greeks of Sartana and his wife.
It had the historical newspaper "Hellenes of Ukraine", a continuation of the first newspaper of the Greeks of Ukraine "Collectivistis", based in Mariupol, which was published in the Greek language, from October 27, 1930 to December 17, 1937.
Earlier, next to the school we visited, we discovered a battered building where the history of Hellenism was kept, with historical data, many old photographs and of course the newspaper "Kollektivistis" and the photograph of Georgios Kostoprav, writer, poet, founder of the national of literature of the Greeks of Ukraine, advisor to the Central Committee of the Communist Party of Ukraine on National Minorities.
The sun disappeared and we made our way back. Throughout the route, the phrase "Greece has abandoned us", was repeated in our ears.
Spyros Sideris is a columnist for iEidiseis.