Macedonia: Its Races and Their Future
H. Brailsford

V. The Bulgarian movement

13. The Sufferings of the Non-Combatants
 

The insurrection of 1903 was, however, very much more than an active military movement. It was also a passive demonstration in which the whole village population shared, men, women, and children. The casualties of the fighting-line were relatively small. It was the non-combatants who bore the full weight of their masters' wrath, and their miseries, losses, and privations, endured with stolid


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courage and unfaltering resolution, were a sacrifice to the ideal of liberty rarely paralleled beyond the confines of Turkey. It was not lightly risked or incurred in ignorance. A people which determines to revolt against the Turks knows very well what fate it challenges. There are memories and precedents enough to warn the peasants. The Bulgarians have not forgotten the massacre at Batak which preceded the liberation of Bulgaria. The Armenian horrors made a profound impression even in Macedonia. And least it should have been supposed that the Turks had grown milder or more timid, there was the recent object-lesson of Smerdesh. Every village which joined the revolt did so with the knowledge that it might be burned to the ground, pillaged to the last blanket and the last chicken, and its population decimated in the process. That the Macedonians voluntarily faced these dangers is a proof of their desperation. Life had lost its value to them and peace its meaning. In many of the districts which revolted the peasants had so little doubt of what was in store for them that they abandoned their villages in a body on the first day of the insurrection. The young men joined their bands accompanied by a few women, who went to bake for them, and in some cases by the women-teachers of the town schools, who were organised as nurses for the wounded. The older men, the women, and the children sought refuge in the mountains and the woods. They took with them as much food as they could carry, drove their beasts before them, and buried their small possessions. The sick and the aged frequently remained behind, imagining that their weakness would appeal to the chivalry of the troops. As early as the second day of the rising the fate of the village of Krusje (near Resna) served as a warning against delay. It was pillaged and burned to the ground with the usual incidents of murder and violation. In most of the insurgent zones the non-combatant population came together under the direction of the Committee and formed great camps in inaccessible situations. Temporary shelters were constructed from the branches of the trees, ovens dug in the earth, and all the normal life of a Bulgarian

The ruins of Zagorichani after the insurrection


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village reproduced as far as the circumstances would permit.

But not all the village populations fled when the insurrection broke out. There was Neocazi, a poor Bulgarian hamlet on the plain not far from Florina. From it only a few of the younger men had joined the bands. When the Turks swooped down upon it they were not content with burning it. They summoned the men together under the pretext of marching them as prisoners to Florina. On the road half-way they halted and massacred them at leisure and in cold blood, to the number of over sixty, for the crime of being the fathers of insurgent sons. It is said that some were tortured before they died, and others were made to stand in files that the soldiers might experiment with their rifles to see how many a single bullet would kill. Three days later it was the turn of Armensko, a village in the valley that leads up from Florina to the pass of Pisoderi. Its population is Slav in blood and speech, but it belongs to the Greek party and took no share in the Bulgarian movement. The troops under Haireddin Bimbashi, the butcher of Smerdesh, had been defeated by a numerous body of insurgents on the mountains above Armensko. They were retreating, angry and embittered, on Florina, and Armensko lay in their path. Its Greek priest went out to meet and welcome them and was murdered in the road, and then the horde swept down upon the unprepared and defenceless village. They pillaged and burned, and satisfied their brutal lusts undisturbed by any fear of resistance. Nearly all the wounded, many of them women and young children, who were brought in afterwards to the Greek Hospital in Monastir, were hacked and hewn with bayonets and swords. Sixty-eight of the villagers were massacred, and ten women and eight girls violated. There is European evidence for outrages that are almost unprintable but, after all, what Europe is prepared to tolerate Europe must not be too nice to hear. Several wounded women who managed to crawl out of their burning houses were afterwards caught as they lay dying, and violated repeatedly until they expired. [1] I was told by a Turkish officer who

1. See Blue-Book, Cd. 1875, p. 319.


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was engaged in these punitive operations that the troops had formal orders, which came, so they understood, direct from the Sultan himself, to burn all villages whose inhabitants had fled, but to spare the rest. The positive order they obeyed, the negative command they frequently forgot. The result was that if the inhabitants of a village awaited the troops they risked the fate of Neocazi and Armensko; if they fled, their homes were infallibly destroyed. It was a choice between having your village burned or having it burned and being massacred as well. Most villagers preferred the lesser evil and took to the mountains, becoming thereby rebels by definition. A few object-lessons soon taught the peasants to flee betimes, and during the later phases of the insurrection the carnage in the villages was confined chiefly to the aged and the sick. The stragglers and the dilatory were often cut off before they had quitted their homes, and the bed-ridden were frequently burned alive where they lay. No village escaped entirely from this tribute, and the number of murdered non-combatants varied from threes and fours to fifties and sixties. Dymbeni and Kossenetz, for example, large villages in the Castoria district, lost, each of them, close on sixty innocent lives.

The life of the refugee population, which soon numbered close on 60,000 souls, grouped in some dozen camps among the mountains, passed through three distinct phases, so far as I can reconstruct it. During the hot weather of the first two or three weeks of August they must have lived in relative comfort and plenty, rejoicing in their brief freedom, welcoming as heroes the bands which came and went, hailing their successes, and debating every wild rumour of the aid that was to come from Europe or from Russia. Then came a second period of perhaps two weeks during which they still enjoyed relative security, had food to eat, and did not suffer grievously from cold even on the mountain-sides. But down below them their villages were burning. They heard no longer wild tales of glorious victories, but rumours of massacre and torture. [2] The

2. The most usual tale of horror was that on one occasion or another the Turks burned men and children alive, generally in bakers' ovens. I could never come across an eye-witness, however, and in one instance inquiry showed that a wounded insurgent chief, whose dead body the Turks did burn, had committed suicide to avoid capture.


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sound of firing haunted them, and it often happened that some young woman who had ventured back to the deserted village to see what was left of her home or to visit the hiding-place where she had concealed her gala dress, returned no more, or, it may be, crept back to die, wounded and dishonoured. Lads herding the sheep of the refugees were caught if they ventured down the valleys, and sometimes hungry children straying to the maize fields would return speechless and stricken in mind. The final stage could not be long delayed. The cordons tightened their grip around the mountains, and from their eyries the peasants would suddenly become aware of red streaks upon the green foothills, or catch on the wind the shouts of drivers urging the pack-animals which carried the mountain-guns that were to shell their place of refuge. From mid-September onwards the fugitives were hunted from forest to mountain and from peak to peak. Their only safety was to follow the now concentrated bands, and sometimes the battle raged about the lair where the women and children lay, the men fighting with all their manhood to defend some shallow trench, knowing that behind them cowered wife and child expecting massacre if their courage failed or their bullets missed the mark. Fleeing incessantly, they soon left behind them their stores of food and their herds of beasts. They were now shelterless under colder skies. There were villages which lived for days together on roots and salad grasses. The younger children died in great numbers, and men and women graduated for the epidemics which were to decimate those whom the Turks had spared. Often the big camps broke up into scattered groups of starving and terrified fugitives, who returned at last to make their submission among the ashes of their homes. It sometimes happened that these fell in with prowling soldiers or marauding bashi-bazouks. Fifteen villagers, for example, from Bouno (near Resna), trudging, with their priest at their head,


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towards the town, were massacred without distinction of age or sex. The younger women fared the worst, for, when the troops could catch them, they were often carried off to the Turkish camps and there kept for some days until the last brute who desired them had had his will. Many were shot while they sheltered behind the insurgents during the latter skirmishes of September and October, and sometimes the same bullet wounded a mother and her baby. [3] It was the impossibility of feeding and protecting the refugees which compelled the leaders to proclaim the insurrection at an end with the close of October; for the weather was still relatively mild (indeed, to us who came direct from England it seemed warm), though to be sure the mountains were already snow-clad, even on their lower-heights. The Turks had made war upon the women and children, and the men dared not prolong the unequal conflict with starvation. By the first week of November the population of the revolted districts had once more settled down, part of it on the sites of the ruined villages, part of it among friendly neighbours who had saved their roofs. Long before November the towns were crowded with helpless masses of starving women, who begged their bread from door to door, clamoured about the portals of the Bishops' palaces, and slept in the abandoned and ruined houses which abound in every Macedonian town.

It was at this stage that we first saw the condition of the returning villagers with our own eyes. Those who had found a roof beneath which to shelter in some friendly village were in an enviable case. They had lost everything indeed crops, home, cattle, and household gear. They lived on the charity of neighbours, who as often as not had themselves been robbed. They owned nothing but the tattered summer garments in which they had fled three months before. They had neither blankets nor

3. One case of this kind we treated in our Ochrida hospital. It is fair to cite the contrary instances. One woman who had been shot by accident in the general fusillade when the troops rushed her village was kindly treated by the Turks, who gave her bread and water. I once saw a Turkish officer (after the insurrection) give his coat and gloves to a wounded Bulgarian woman. But such chivalry was rare.

Ruins of Mokreni after the rising; Turkish soldiers in a burned church


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winter cloaks. At least there was still a thatch between them and the rain. But the majority were camped among their ruins, busied during the last warm days of the autumn in clearing away the rubble from some corner of their homes and erecting some sort of "lean-to" of wood and straw against a crumbling wall. Nothing but a photograph could convey an idea of the devastation. The villages were mere heaps of charred wood and blackened stone, buried beneath a red dust, which the rain converted into mud. A few walls still stood upright, the only hope for the winter. Where the churches had not been burned they were riddled with bullets, blackened with bivouac fires, pillaged, dishonoured, and defiled with the ordure of a camp. The wells were sometimes buried under the débris of fallen houses, and in one case at least poisoned with the carcases of beasts. The mills, like the houses, had been burned, their dams broken down, the machinery destroyed, and even their stones in some cases shivered into fragments. Of the horses and oxen which the peasants owned, even after the authorities had professed to recover the loot, not one in four remained. Of the sheep and other small beasts and the poultry I doubt if one in ten was left. Even the ploughs were burned or stolen. It was rarely, too, that a family recovered the clothing and utensils which it buried before its flight the bashi-bazouks had the knack of finding spoil. Of the harvest most villages saved sufficient for four or six weeks, while a few in the upland places where the ripe crops had been left ungarnered had enough for three months at most. But more harrowing than the material ruin was the moral desolation. Women would stand on a frosty day, their breasts bare, their feet naked upon the icy ground, oblivious of cold and hunger, sobbing out some tale of how they had seen the dear head of son or husband beaten in before their eyes by soldier or bashi-bazouk. Not less to be pitied were the young men who had laid down their arms and returned to find neither wife nor home. I think of one whose case seemed to me a full world of commonplace miseries. He was a mason who worked in Constantinople to keep a family in a village near

Temporary hut among the ruins, Zagorichani; A home in the ruins, Djupanishta, 1903


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Resna. He was driven out of the capital, with all his countrymen, early in the spring, and returned home with an empty money-belt. Three months of idleness followed, and, when the lot fell upon him, he went out with the village band. His wife was struck by a soldier, and died in premature child-birth. The father cared for the baby as best he could, but he could find no work, and he came to us begging that we would provide milk to save the life of the ailing child. The quick horror of painful deaths seemed less moving than this succession of everyday troubles, each due to some political catastrophe or some national hate. Nor was the misery at an end when the insurrection ceased. Hundreds of men were in gaol or in exile in some distant Armenian town, and, as the months went by, the ill-spelt missives, without date or signature, began to arrive, which told how one village leader after another had died of typhus on the way to Diarbekir. There were other troubles too, more secret and more horrible, which would come to our ears through some kindly doctor who used his skill, where the Turks would allow it, among the village folk. Two young girls, for example, in a single village, who had passed some days and nights of shame in a Turkish camp, at last gave way to madness as they realised that they must become mothers. And all the while amid the degradation and the suffering, the sickness, and the fear of famine, there weighed upon this defeated people the sense that all its sacrifice had been in vain. The Turks had triumphed; Europe was still heedless and unconcerned; Macedonia was still enslaved ; and we, who were doling out our blankets and our flour among them, were only keeping them alive to endure fresh oppressions and further shame. [4]
 

4. The statistics of the devastation can have little meaning to those who did not see it, but they deserve none the less to be cited. One hundred and nineteen villages in the Monastir Province were wholly or partially burned. Eight thousand four hundred houses were destroyed. Between fifty and sixty thousand persons were rendered homeless. The number of murdered non-combatants can hardly have been less than fifteen hundred. For these figures I can vouch. I add the totals for the whole of Macedonia and Adrianople, which the Bulgarians collected. I cannot verify them, but probably they are not much exaggerated indeed, the figures for Monastir published in Sofia were sometimes less than those which I collected while making out relief lists in the villages. The total number of houses burned is given as 12,211; of homeless persons about 70,000; of refugees driven from Macedonia and Adrianople into Bulgaria, 30,000; of violations, 3,098; and of women and girls taken captive, 176; of persons imprisoned, 1,500.
 

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