It seemed as if Çamëria was yet another post-Ottoman community doomed to be “unmixed” via population exchanges. As Isa Blumi shows, however, Çamërians resisted, defending a community experts dismissed as chimerical.
Isa Blumi is Associate Professor at Stockholm University within the Department of Asian and Middle Eastern Studies
The peoples of the region known to Hellenophiles as Epirus and as Çamëria by its Southern Albanian (Tosk) Muslim and Orthodox Christian inhabitants afford a remarkable, overlooked example of how one part of the southwestern Balkans navigated the collapse of the Ottoman Empire. Anticipating that formal agreements thrashed out at Lausanne would ordain the organized expulsion of many from their homelands, these communities refused to comply. Aware that allowing the League of Nations (LoN) to categorise them as Muslims or Orthodox Christians would entail being labeled ethnic Turks or Greeks, these communities forced the LoN to recognize them as Albanian-speaking Muslims and Christians. As such they were worthy of protection from the “exchange” agreements synonymous with the Lausanne Treaty.
Under Ottoman overlordship since the 14th century, Çamëria (also spelt Tsamouria, Tzamouria) became a district in the province of Yanya/Ioannina. The region became intimately involved in global processes, leading to significant migrations to Southern Italy, Tunis, Syria and, most importantly, Egypt and the industrial cities of North America. Natives of Çamëria established a thriving diaspora in the latter, and secured the support of numerous American and British politicians.The Albanian-speaking diaspora in Boston, New York, and Chicago strove to contest the agreements signed by Entente Powers during and after World War I, taking their cause to the LoN, which eventually opened special sessions to debate the issue.
Setting the terms of the debate in 1919, the Official Greek Memorandum to the Paris Peace Conference claimed no interest in ruling over Muslims, only the Christian Orthodox population. However, because the populations were so “mixed,” the region would have to be divided along a religious criterion:
It would be contrary to all equity that, in a given people, a majority which possesses a higher form of civilization [Christian] should have to submit to a minority [Muslim] possessing an inferior civilization.
While lobbying the League, locals challenged the claim that all Orthodox Christians in Çamëria were Greeks and Muslim Turks. Albanian counterclaims emphasized that they were a distinctive people whose origins, kinship, language, and race constituted the “most ancient [race] of the Balkans” – an “Arian”, rather than “Turanian race.” Boston-based natives of Çamëria thus co-opted Venizelos’ earlier references to race and nation: they constituted a homogeneous “race” whose distinctive language, clearly spoken by the majority of the inhabitants in Çamëria, disqualified both Turkish and Greek claims over them. In the words of Boston-based Sevasti Kristo Dako, “… being Albanian by race, language, customs and feeling distinguishes him entirely from the neighbouring races, and gives him that proper individuality, which enabled him to resist for centuries all endeavours to denationalize and assimilate.”
Such references to Albanian distinctiveness nodded to Wilsonian “principles” while attracting the interests of powerful industrialists such as the American Charles Crane, Lord Robert Cecil (South Africa’s representative at the LoN), and British Foreign Secretary Curzon (sometime governor of Egypt with strong connections to the powerful Tosk Albanian diaspora in Egypt). These influential supporters secured groups linked to Dako and Albanian Prime Minister Fan Noli access to the LoN. As a result, Çamëria natives were able to influence those seeking solutions to a regional crisis-in-waiting, access unavailable to the other Muslim and Christian communities facing deportation under the terms of the Lausanne Treaty.
Both Americans and British officials openly supporting these Çamëria natives initiated the “fact-finding” commission eventually sent by the LoN. Led by Finnish geologist Jakob Johannes Sederholm, the commission interviewed locals between December 1922 and February 1923 in order to determine if the inhabitants of the region were ethnically Greek or Turkish, or warranted exclusion from the forthcoming “exchanges.” The delegation concluded that “the sentiments of the majority of the Orthodox [Christian] population of Southern Albania are not to be described as Greek nationalism.” The delegation identified the population ethnographically, by its “maternal tongue … the language spoken in family life,” rather than that employed in “plebiscites or other political manifestations.” The resulting determination that these Çamëria natives were not to be included in the eventual agreement between Turkey and Greece to “exchange” their respective “minority” populations secured two decades’ reprieve from forced migration.
By the 1930s these same people would again become targets for expulsion by Athens. With large numbers of Anatolia’s Pontic Greeks now settled in Çamëria, pressure to assimilate or expel the native population intensified. By the end of World War II, the newly established United Nations and its Relief and Rehabilitation Administration faced the last wave of expulsions, leaving an unmarked legacy of the Lausanne Treaty that set a precedent, even if Çamëria natives were able to thwart expulsion for one more generation.
FEATURE IMAGE: Refugees from Çamëria temporarily housed in Albania, circa 1945, SOURCE: United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration, ref. S-0800-0001-0005, Title: Albania – Displaced persons, Folder, S-0800-0001-0005-00033: Title [Albania] The best dressed among the refugees – and only too happy to be photographed, https://search.archives.un.org/albania-displaced-persons (Accessed December 18, 2021)
 For details see Triadafilos Triadafilopoulos, “Power politics and nationalist discourse in the struggle for ‘Northern Epirus’: 1919-1921.” Journal of Southern Europe and the Balkans 2.2 (2000): 149-162.
 By the 1860s, the vilayet constituted 17,200 km2 and encompassed all of Epirus, and thus the entirety of the region and peoples under discussion here.
 Delegation Propaganda analyzed in Е. P. Stickey, Southern Albania or Northern Epirus in European International Affairs, 1912-1923 (Stanford 1926), 79.
 Eleftherios Venizelos, Greece Before the Peace Congress of 1919: A Memorandum Submitted by Elutherios Venzelos (New York: The American-Hellenic Society and Oxford University Press, 1919), 2-3.
 Illias Vrioni, “Letter from the President of the Council of Albania,” League of Nations Official Journal (July-August, 1921), 478-480.
 S. K. Dako, Albania’s Rights, Hopes and Aspirations (Boston: Atheneum, 1918), 3.
 On the links between Curzon and the influential Cham diaspora in Egypt, see Isa Blumi, “An Ottoman Story Until the End: Reading Fan Noli’s Post-Mediterranean Struggle in America, 1906-1922,” Journal of Balkan and Black Sea Studies 5 (2020): 121-144.
 Details of these interactions that lasted for years, consult League of Nations Archives, C.380.1924.VII, “Administrative Commissions – Exemption des Musulmans sujets grecs d’origine albanaise de l’échange des populations grecques et turques.”
 One version of the final report is found in J. J. Sederholm, “Albania: Report of the Commission of Enquiry in Albania on its Activities from December 19th 1922, to February 1st, 1923,” League of Nations Official Journal (May, 1923): 491-502.
 Е. P. Stickey, Southern Albania, 34.