The Valley of the Vardar

LET us peep behind the barbed wires. What impresses one immediately upon entering Macedonia is the immense calm, and the absolute order which reigns there.
In this Valley of the Vardar, under an implacable sun which makes the red alluvial soil smoke, men and women by thousands move about without a word, without a cry, not even one of those songs which everywhere else mounts into the sky. The countryside, as far as the eye can reach, is without a human noise. The atmosphere seems fixed in a peaceful seclusion. Something indefinable, inexplicable, makes people and things here unique on the earth. One has the sensation of entering an unknown world.
This sensation never leaves you, no matter where you may go in the annexed provinces.
Even the streets of the cities, where housewives press before the butcher's shops, where bands of children pass to and from school, remind one of nothing that one has seen before in the Balkans. Even the noise, if I may so express it, is silent.
The crowds going for a walk in the evening hours speak in monotones, as if murmuring, and the footsteps suggest the sober movement of a procession. They walk under the eye of the gendarmes who, rifle in sling and revolver at the belt, pace up and down the pavement. The people seem to have retired into themselves. To whatever class they may belong, all the Macedonians whom you will encounter in Macedonia, from Ochrida to Bitolj, from Veles to Guevgueli, in the cities and in the country, are the same.

"They are like poor people who are on a visit to rich relations," said a young doctor to me at Skoplje. The attitude of this people, whom he had imagined to be exuberant, amazed him.
Macedonia, which was for so long a field of agitation and violence, to-day reposes in the Pax Serbiana.
At Nisch the coaches of the international train, which had already been inspected before leaving Belgrade, were searched again from top to bottom. Passports were checked again with an exasperating minuteness. As for the baggage, an hour after our departure from Nisch the occupants of the compartment next to mine, Jews from Salonika, still wept with rage before the disaster which had overtaken their travelling bags.
And Nisch was nothing compared with what awaited us at Leskovatz(Leskovac) ! The women in the third class coaches were half undressed. The men had to take off their shoes.
The railways are guarded by soldiers as in Croatia; but infinitely more severely. There are sentries everywhere visible, and others who are not visible because they hide behind bushes at the approach of the trains: At every step on the narrow roads which cut the bright verdure of the plains, horsemen appear, advancing two by two like war-time patrols.
From Leskovatz to Skoplje, from Veles to Bitolj or Chtip or Ochrida, I must have seen a hundred massive gendarmes, riding frisky little horses with their carbines placed before them on the saddle.
Children and old men bow low as they pass. Only old women sometimes turn their heads. Near Priboz(Priboj), two young lads fled into a cornfield upon seeing the khaki uniforms. They were chased by the horsemen and harshly beaten in the face with riding whips because of their suspicious conduct.
"Anything we can do to facilitate your investigations in South Serbia, we will do ! " Dr. Radovanovitch had said to me.
He kept his word.
My coming was announced everywhere. In all the stations after Nisch special commissioners were the very incarnation of politeness when examining my passport. My valises were not searched, and, as a result, travelling companions, whose vest- pockets even were turned inside out, conceived an immense respect for my person.
At Skoplje, Mr. Jovanovitch, the representative of the Press-Bureau, took possession of me. He had been telephoned the night before by Radovanovitch. He and his friends did not leave me for a minute. I was presented to a crowd of amiable people, civil and military, and I had the pleasure of encountering them at each step afterwards. They followed me to the mosque where I thought I was alone ; to the old Macedonian quarters where their occupation hardly appeared to call them ; even to the French military cemetery, three miles from the city, where, without me, surely they would never have gone.
I did not, however, remain long under this supervision. On the evening of the fourteenth of July a terrible storm kept me very late at the Cercle Francais on Peter the First Street. When it rained the hardest I insisted on leaving. There was no reason to hesitate any longer. My cover was complete, for the electric current had been cut off far fear of accidents, and my all-too-faithful escorts had sought shelter.
My guide, I will not give his name, took me to a house where I found a mother nursing a little girl of ten or twelve years of age. I learned that this child, having been surprised talking Bulgarian with one of her little friends, had been bound to a bench before the class, and whipped until the blood came. Her back, her hips, and her thighs were covered by great sores. She could hardly walk, and she cried with pain when she sat down. They had warned her, however, that if she missed school or arrived late the punishment would be renewed.
"Do you employ corporal punishment in your schools?" I asked Jovanovitch that same evening at the Grand Cafe. "Never!" he replied. "Do you take us for Germans ? "
" Sir," the father of the wounded child had said to me when I was getting ready to leave, "you see how they treat our children ! What they do to our children they do to us all. A Macedonian woman who enters a police station or a gendarmerie is received as a prostitute ; a Macedonian merchant who gives credit to a Serb official will never be paid, and if he demands payment he is asking for ruin ; our peasants succumb under the burden of taxes and if they are one day late in paying them, they are seized and thrown out of their homes. The shepherds who go to the mountains are allowed to take only one day's provision with them ; and one of them must come for provisions each morning and give an account to the police of what he has seen, what he has heard, and what he and his companions are going to do during the day. Our letters are opened, our children questioned at school on what takes place in their homes ; we cannot even have the right to go from one village to another without permission. But never have our people been more faithful to Macedonia! When she finally falls on the Serbs our vengeance will be as pitiless as the justice of God."
"What that man told you," said a Frenchman to me (one whom a long stay in Macedonia had familiarised with things), "is, unfortunately, the truth. There is not a word you can strike out. Nothing can give you an idea of the atrocious regime inflicted by the Serb administration on the Macedonian populations. I knew the bashi-bazouks. They were lambs compared with the Serbs ! "
The father of the little girl took me through the storm to the end of the Turkish city on the other side of the Vardar. He took me to the home of some people whose address had been given me at the French consulate by one of the guests staying there.
"My God, sir," said a woman to me as we went in, "we are lost if anyone has seen you enter."
Her husband and she looked at me curiously in the light of a flickering lamp on the corner of the table. They were puzzled by this "Franski" who did not fear the police. They plied me with questions. "Are you going to Veles? To Chtip? To Negotin? To Bitolj? You will be well received because the Serbs fear the French, but you will see nothing."
The man hobbled about painfully, and his fifty years appeared seventy. His legs had been broken with the butt-end of a musket in the prison where he had been put for two years simply because his brother had fled from Macedonia. In this prison he had to polish pencils and metal penholders. He had to polish a thousand each day, and was not allowed to sleep until he had made the count. Twice a week, in the dead of night, the gendarmes would lead him to the torture chamber where each prisoner was given twenty-five cudgel blows on the balls of the feet and on the hands, which had been previously soaked for half an-hour in warm water. Food consisted of two pounds of black bread each day, and two glasses of water at noon. The chains on his ankles weighed forty pounds.
His deformed feet and hands bore frightful scars. The broken bones had knitted together above the knee without having been set in place, and they protruded through the skin.
The man who gave me the address of these poor people asked me next day what I thought about it all. "If it were not so dangerous for them I would have given you ten or twenty other addresses," he said. "All those who leave prison are in the same state, and half of them, at least, leave it only to be cast into a common grave. What takes place in these ‘houses of death,’ as the Macedonians call them, is unimaginable. But you can make a pretty good guess if you have ever seen an accused man return from a questioning by the police magistrate. I saw an accused at Ochrida who had had his natural issues ‘ buckled’ both before and behind , and was then forced to eat and drink copiously for three days. He howled with pain, but he confessed nothing-which is of little importance, since, probably, he had nothing to confess. Then they beat him unconscious in such a manner that not a tooth remained in the front of his mouth."
Dr. Trumbitch, former minister of Foreign Affairs of Serbia, Stefanitch and Meslitch, at Belgrade, and a high Serb personality of the opposition with whom I dined at the home of a common friend at Zemoun, had furnished me such details of the penitentiary regime that I was ready to listen to anything.
"If it were known," they had said to me, "what takes place in our prisons, a cry of horror would resound all over Europe. The offices of police magistrates are torture chambers. The prisons are hells of suffering and ignominy. Thousands of human beings, men and women, even children, are tormented there and suffer without hope. Political prisoners are packed into cells too small to permit of any movement, and there they are left for weeks in an unbreathable atmosphere with their own mess rising up to their ankles. They take them out only to beat them to death or to subject them to ignominious outrages. The Valaque abomination, for which the Turks have been so much reproached, is a favourite resort when all else has failed to make the suspects confess. Even old men and women are subjected to it."
The Serbian language is enforced in the schools, yet at home the children speak to their parents in Bulgarian, for their parents know no other. Yet which language moulds their souls, and their secret personality? Which of the two languages do they employ when they reflect, when they speak to themselves? That of the mothers, or that of the schoolmasters?
All the Macedonians have had to Serbianise their names by ending them with "itch" instead of "off." From one end of the country to the other all traces of "Macedonianism" have disappeared; store-signs, menus, inscriptions on tombs, all are in Serbian. You will not find a paper, a magazine, a book, a pamphlet, or a single inscription in the Bulgarian language throughout all Macedonia. And yet fifteen years ago it was the only language spoken there. The swiftness of this change may be due to enthusiasm for Serbia, but it may not be entirely uninfluenced by the fact that the smallest letter in Bulgarian may cost its writer anything from six months to five years in prison, and a dose of cudgel blows before, during, and after.
The "loyalty" of Macedonians in impeccable. Their deference towards all who have the slightest authority is touching. They express their joy in a loud voice at having "become Serbs again."
But this loyalty, this deference, this joy, becomes a little ironic when one discovers what it hides.
"No one needs to preach hatred of the Serbs to our compatriots," Macedonian refugees in Bulgaria said to me. "They have only to open their eyes to become filled with it."
It is true.
I have returned from Macedonia stupefied, revolted, disgusted, by what I saw there; by what I heard and learned there, thanks to the special means of information of which I was able to avail myself, in spite of the immense effort on the part of Serbian agents to prevent my discovering the truth.
I am a Frenchman who profoundly loves Serbia, and has sufficiently proved it for twenty years, yet I declare unhesitatingly that the officials, judges, priests and police who represent Yugoslavia in Macedonia are a dishonour to their nation.
Before going actually to the spot and seeing things with my own eyes, I refused to admit the reality of the accusations made by the Macedonian organisations of Bulgaria against the Serbian administration in Macedonia.
But now I know that they do not contain a word that is not true. All the cases of atrocity, violence, despotism and immorality that I have been able to check have, without a single exception, been true. Materially and morally, the annexed peoples are crushed, plundered and martyrised beyond all belief. And there is no chance of their getting justice, aid, or protection.
In Macedonia the Serbs confiscate, imprison, torture, violate and assassinate, continually, tranquilly and abominably.
Last August, at Topsider, a French official, whose name I cannot, to my great regret, publish, said to me : "They send down there the scum of the Yugoslav administration, all those whom it has been impossible to break or maintain elsewhere. They are a rabble of thieves, of sadists and extortioners. Their ignorance, their vanity, and their immorality is unimaginable."
Here are a few more of the things I saw in Macedonia. In one of the busy streets of Bitolj I heard frightful cries coming from the open window of a primary school. Two masters were beating half a-dozen young boys, who were tied to their benches " Dirty Bulgars ! " yelled the masters. " Sons of Macedonian sows ! I'll teach you Serb, I will ! "
A Croat lieutenant from Zagreb was with me at the time. " What these chaps are doing here, they would like to do with us at home," he said. "Devils, they are, not men ! "
Near the village of Orasac, between Kumanovo and Novoselo, I saw a peasant attached to a tree with his trousers down. His face, his back, and his belly were covered with blood. Three gendarmes and a non-commissioned officer stood round him. A fourth gendarme came out of a house. He was carrying a cat in a sack. They tied the cat above the peasant's knees, and then pulled his trousers up over the furious cat. All the village, men, women and children, looked on in silence. The man, his flesh torn by the enraged beast, screamed in agony. "
Let's get out of here ! " said the Frenchman who had driven me there in his car. " If we intervene they will let him go, but they'll only blow his brains out as soon as we have turned our backs."
In 1915 when the armies of Belgrade retreated beaten towards Albania, after having occupied Macedonia for two years, the Macedonians fell upon the wounded and stragglers. There were atrocious reprisals. I was one of those who denounced them to the world. To-day, knowing what I know, seeing what I have seen, I should no longer have the force to condemn them.
In 1918, when she became a Serbian province, Macedonia had more than 700 churches; she also possessed 86 colleges or secondary schools, with 2,800 students and 460 professors ; 556 primary schools with 33,000 scholars and 850 teachers. The convents and churches contained inestimable treasures--the fruits of a thousand years of Mace- donian culture and thought.
The churches, monasteries and schools have been confiscated, all the priests, all the teachers have been expelled, imprisoned, or deported into Old Serbia. The churches and monasteries, which even the Turks themselves had respected, have been pillaged from top to bottom.
At Skoplje, at Chtip, at Veles, in twenty villages around these cities, in the region of Ochrida and of Guevgueli, I found Serb masters in the schools and Serb priests in the churches. When I asked the latter what had become of such and such a precious ikon, statue or wainscoting, the existence of which had been known to me in advance, they replied with-out exception, "They have sent them to Belgrade."
In all the cemeteries and churches of annexed Macedonia, Belgrade has removed all the Bulgarian inscriptions from the altars, from the walls and from the tombs. In many cases they have emptied the tombs and the crypts of their contents.
At Skoplje, for example, more than forty corpses were torn from the Church of Saint- Dimitri.
" What have they done with them? " I asked Mr. Jovanovitch's assistant who was showing me the church.
"They heaved them into the Vardar," he replied.
At Veles, the Bulgarian officers who fell in the course of the last battles of the Franco- Serb offensive of September, 1918, had been interred in the old Church of Saint- Pantaleimon. Their remains were exhumed by the Serbs and cast on to the rubbish heap.
I saw cemeteries at Chtip, at Krivolak, at Veles, at Kratovo and at Ochrida in which all the Macedonian funeral monuments had been pillaged, the names and the inscriptions in the Bulgarian language effaced, and all the tombstones torn out and shattered. These places of rest now resemble demolition works.
One of the most insistent claims made by the propaganda of the Pan-Serbs is the work of sanitation and hygiene.
"In Macedonia, where malaria, typhoid and the worst venereal maladies raged, where the whole population stagnated in ignorance and filth," Dr. Radovanovitch had said to me, "we have created one of the healthiest and most prosperous regions of Europe, thanks to the millions that France has had the generosity to advance us."
What I saw was rather different.
At Skoplje, for example, hundreds of millions of dinars have gone in the construction of a colossal Military Casino, greater than the Cercle des Armees de Terre et de Mer in Paris. A gigantic branch bank of the National Bank of Belgrade has been built, and luxurious villas have been erected for officials and officers. Yet clouds of mosquitoes still breed out of the slime of the Vardar; from the sewer-mouths, and from all the stagnant pools scattered about the old city and its suburbs. The centre of Skoplje is relatively clean ; but the old quarters, where more than fifty thousand people are piled upon one another, are never sprinkled, never swept, and remain covered with decomposing refuse. A fine "Institute of Research and Prophylaxy" is situated behind the railway station. I saw herds of syphilitics, malarials, consumptives, and women and children in the last degree of exhaustion and anaemia, file through its door. The staff were devoted, the buildings spacious, but the equipment was lamentably inefficient and filthy. I saw bed-sheets there which had not been changed for fifteen days. Even quinine and disinfectants were missing.
"There is no money ! " the director said to me. At Veles, at Chtip, at Novoselo, at Kradsko(Gradsko), at Krevolok, and all along the valleys of the Vardar, the general mortality by malaria and tuberculosis and the number of syphilitics is shocking. The misery of the peasants, of the workers, and even of the merchants, defeats the imagination. Everywhere the water which the population consumes is contaminated by the worst infiltrations.
I had left Skoplje, declaring to Jovanovitch that I was going to Bitolj, from where I would go by car to Ochrida. I hoped in this manner to free myself from official supervision.
However, this was expecting too much. I had not been in my hotel at Veles five minutes before the Inspector of Police, Djaganetitch, saluted me on the doorstep. The Intelligence Service functions very well in Macedonia ! He was a charming man, this Inspector Djaganetitch. He took me to his office later on and told me of his campaigns against the comitadjis of the ORIM.
"Do they still come as far as Veles?"
"We took the last nearly three years ago, near the village of Katzibego(Kacibeg)," he replied. "Fourteen men and two women. Fine slips of girls they were too. They kept us company all night ! "
" That must have amused you ! " I said tactfully, but ironically.
"Oh yes! In the morning when we had to get en route they couldn't stand up. But we knew the remedy for that ! A few cracks of a horsewhip on the seat, and they ran like she-goats !
"The main thing, however, was to make the dirty curs talk. You can bet they hadn't come all the way from Bulgaria without being hidden and aided along the route. We wanted the names and addresses of their friends.
" Well, believe me, sir, we tried everything ; iron wire twisted round the head or the knees with a stick, big toes crushed with a hammer. It's a rar
e thing if a chap doesn't confess before the second foot. It's even better than the one with the teeth! You know the one, I reckon. It's this way! You put the man in a chair with his head bound to the back of it. You pry open his mouth and drill one, two, three teeth. I've seen huskies collapse at the second tooth ! At the third they tell you all you want to know. It's worth more than fifty cudgel blows.
"But this last gang we caught simply wouldn't talk. No, sir. They made a sign to stop, and then when we stopped they said nothing. The women were the worst ! We drilled four teeth, two in front and two big ones. They went a bit white, but that's all. One of them spat in my face ! I could have killed her ! I wanted to set them on burning coals, as M. Lazitch had us do near Kratovo.
" Well, all of a sudden, I found this."
He plunged his hand into a drawer and held out to me an old rusty razor.
" With that in two hours I made the dirty curs denounce more than twenty traitors ; peasants, shepherds, women, even kids ! I didn't have the time to write it all down. You tell M. Chiappe (French Prefect of Police in Paris) this method when you get back to France, it'll be useful to him."
Hastily, all that had been said to me at Zagreb, at Sofia, at Belgrade, about the procedure of interrogation in the Serb prisons came back to me. I remembered the stories I had heard of noses and ears slashed, palms of the hands and balls of the feet beaten, points of the breast ripped out with pincers, the genital parts twisted, red-hot irons applied to the loins and under the feet.
I cited these to the Inspector.
He laughed. "Good Lord, no, sir. We had to do worse than that. Do you think that a chap whose big toes have been flattened, and who suffers the thunder of God with his teeth gives a damn about that sort of thing.
" I had them all piled there in the corner, stark naked, and one of them I had held before me, his legs spread out, a weight of twenty kilos on each foot. . . . I was sitting there where you are.
"'` You don't want to say anything? "' I said.
"Each time that he said `No' with his head, the sergeant gave him a rap on the nose or the eyes with his fist, whilst I advanced my chair a notch. The third notch, and I was near enough to touch him.
" ` Well, you see this razor? If you refuse to reply, I am going to use it on you. After that the rope ! But if you tell us which way you came in, who took you in and informed you on the road, we will take care of you and set you free. Understand?'
"First, I made two slashes on his loins. He talked when I took up my razor again-two pages of it."
"And you gave them their liberty?"
I heard myself saying the words as a man in a ghastly nightmare.
The fiend before me laughed. "Gave them their liberty? Why, what are you thinking of! It was that, sir, that made them talk! When the first one had said all he had to say, they took him downstairs ‘to see the doctor’. At the door they put a rope around his neck and strung him up the tree in front of the little coffee-house, on the square there. The whole fourteen went like that.
"That affects you, eh? I can see that you don't know these curs !They had killed a dozen of our men, and at Kratovo and at Krupiste they had burned the homes of Serb colonists with the people inside. The comitadjis of the ORIM! It’s wasting rope to hang them !A bullet in the belly, two or three strokes of the butt-end of a musket on the head, that's all they're worth ! They are brutes, good for nothing."
"And the two women," I asked. “They died without having confessed?"
"Without having confessed? Ah! I guarantee you that it didn't take long to settle them. We gave them the candle."
And so this also was true !This ghastly atrocity which Dr. Trumbitch told me about at Zagreb, and Professor P___at Belgrade.
"Why, yes, the candle!" went on Djaganetitch. "Naturally, the woman is warned. If she persists, they stand her up, light a candle or a good pocket- lighter, and raise the flame little by little until it is thrust into her genitals."
"And then?"
"And then they were strung up with the rest of them. But we have never seen another comitadji in this region since, not one. They know what's waiting for them. The sub- prefect could go alone as far as Karaslar, by deserted roads, as safely as if he were on the terrace of Kalemeigdan."
I had a talk with this sub-prefect, M. Nikolitch. He also was full of " information. "
"Do you intend to visit Kratovo?" he asked. "When you get there go and see Lieutenant Mina. He's a veteran of the armies of King Peter who dared go all alone to a region infested with revolutionaries and traitors. A real Serb ! He had a score of his old comrades at Kratovo. He installed them on the abandoned lands and in the houses. M. Jovanovitch didn't tell you the story of the marriages, did he? Ah! you must hear it. It's one of the things for which His Majesty complimented Mina.
"Mina and his bachelor comrades at Kratovo could find no one to marry, because the women would not have a Serb. But that wasn't for long! One Sunday, Mina assembled the village and told his comrades to choose a girl each. They took eleven women whose husbands had fled to Bulgaria, and who cried that they were already married.
" ‘ I annul your marriage !’ said Mina. They refused. So Mina had them tied to benches. They were whipped by their future husbands until they could cry no longer. Then Mina warned them that they would do it again the following Sunday, and each Sunday after, until they gave in.
" For three Sundays Mina thrashed them thus, and then they said ‘Yes.’ Mina had a minister come from Serbia, and they were married."
I met one of the "re-married" women. She was playing on the doorstep with the son of her Serb husband, a fine lad of three or four years of age. She showed such a tenderness for him that I, knowing the story from my guide, was stupefied.
In answer to my question she replied : "I want my son to love me so much that it will be I, living or dead, who aims his rifle on the day of our liberation."

"Whatever you see you must plainly tell," Dr. Radovanovitch had said to me at Belgrade. "We do not fear the truth ! "
I have accepted his challenge as the challenge of the Pan-Serbs. I have been, I have seen, I have heard.
... And now I am telling the world ...

[Back to Index]