6. A NATION EXTERMINATED
Next morning we boarded the train of the narrow-gauge railroad which taps the richest part of the Machva, and connects the valley of the Drina with the valley of the Save. Four box-cars followed our carriage, crammed with miserable refugees, chiefly women and children - returning to the homes from which they had fled, destitute and on foot, six months ago, before the Austrian scourge. We went slowly along a vast fertile plain, white with fruit orchards in bloom and green with tall grass and new foliage, between uncultivated fields rank with weeds, and past white houses blackened with fire. All this country had been burned, looted, and its people murdered. Not an ox was seen, and for miles not a man. We passed through little towns where grass grew in the streets and not a single human being lived. Sometimes the train would halt to let the refugees descend; they stood there beside the track, all their possessions in sacks over their shoulders, gazing silently at the ruins of their homes....
The prefect came with us, stopping the train for an hour or so at different villages, to show us the sights. So we visited Prnjavor, once a rich little place of three thousand people, now a waste of burned and smashed dwellings. At the station was a tall, rugged old farmer in peasant costume of rough brown wool, who was introduced to us as Mr Samourovitch, deputy to the Skouptchina. He pointed down into a pool of muddy water beside the railroad track, from which emerged the top of a heap of earth, crowned with two wooden crosses.
'That is the grave of my old father and mother,' he said without emotion, 'the Swabos shot them for comitadjis.' We walked on into the town, to a place where once a house stood, that now was a black heap of ashes and burnt timbers. 'In this place,' he went on, 'the Hungarians gathered together a hundred citizens of Prnjavor - they could not cram them all into the house, so they made the rest stand close and bound them to it with ropes - and then they set fire to the house, and shot those who tried to escape....This long, low pile of dirt is their grave.' The story seemed too horrible for any possibility, and I made particular inquiries about it. But it was literally true. Swiss doctors examined the spot and took photographs of the bodies before they were buried; they were all old people, women and children.
Stagnant pools from the recent rains, covered with green slime, stood in the streets. A smell of decaying bodies and neglected filth was in the air. Before almost every house at least one sinister white cross was painted on the fence to show where typhus was or had been. In the dooryard of one place, where the grass had been dug up to make one huge grave for many people, a wrinkled, limping woman stood surrounded by nine children, all under fifteen. Two were almost unable to stand, dead-white and shaking from some fever; three others, one only a baby, were covered with huge running sores and scabs. The woman pointed to the grave-mound.
'I have lost every one but these - there are my husband and my sister and my father, and my brother-in-law and his wife. And we have nothing fit to feed these sick children. The condensed milk that the government sends for the children - the president of the town gives it only to his political constituents, the dishonest Socialist!'
This woman and her children, living in miserable squalor, were all that remained of a powerful zadrouga. Two long, one-storey white houses, fronting on the street where it turned at right angles, embraced a sort of patio, carpeted with long grass and wild flowers, and shaded by an ancient oak. The entrance to the houses was from the garden, and there was another house behind, with offices, stables, and the rackia distillery, where the family made its own plum brandy. Here lived three generations, the women with their husbands, the men with their wives, and each couple with its children - not to mention cousins, aunts, uncles - more than forty people in all, who shared their land and all their property in common. The buildings were wrecked and burned; of the people, some had died in battle, others had been murdered by the Hungarians, and the typhus had done the rest.
'They did terrible things,' said old Samourovitch as we walked back to the train. 'We are happy that we paid the Austrians for all this by beating them so badly in December.' This extraordinary lack of bitterness we found everywhere in Serbia; the people seemed to think that the smashing Austrian defeat revenged them for all those black enormities, for the murder of their brothers, for the bringing of the typhus.
Through meadows gorgeous with purple larkspur and buttercups, through orchards heavy with peach, apple, cherry, and plum blossoms we went; here the Turkish influence entirely died out, and the mud houses became entirely Serb - capped no longer with red tiles, but with peaked roofs of rough wooden shingles. Then appeared once more over the westward plain the green Bosnian mountains, and we were at Losnitza - again under the Austrian guns across the Drina.
There was a typhus hospital, which we visited. It had once been a school. As the Serbian doctor opened the doors of room after room, a sickening stench of dirt, filthy clothing and airlessness came out. The windows were all closed. The sick - mostly soldiers in the wreck of their uncleaned uniforms - lay packed closely shoulder to shoulder upon foul straw spread on the floor. There was no sign of disinfectant. Some leaned weakly on their elbows, scratching feebly for vermin; others tossed and chattered in delirium, and others lay whitely still, their eyes half open, like the dead.
'It gets better every day,' said the doctor, rubbing his hands. Two weeks ago we had four hundred here - now there are only eighty-six ...' He glanced meditatively at the sick men lammed so close together that they almost lay upon one another. 'Then we were crowded.'
At dusk we sat at a café table in the great square of Losnitza, drinking Turkish coffee and eating black bread and kaymak - delicious yellow cheese-butter. In the dim evening light oxen knelt by their carts, and peasants all in white linen stood in bright groups, talking. From ten different doors of drinking-shops about the immense space, floods of yellow light poured, and there came bursts of violin music and singing. We got up and strolled over to one; the proprietress, a scrawny woman with yellow hair, caught sight of us, and raised a shrill yell: 'Why do you stand there in the street? Why do you not come here and sit at my tables? I have all sorts of good wine, beer, and koniak!’ We meekly obeyed.
'We are Americans,' I explained as best I could, 'and we do not know your language.'
‘That's no reason why you can't drink!' she cried brazenly, and slapped me on the back. 'I don't care what language you drink in!'
Inside two gypsies were playing, one a fiddle and the other a cornet, while an old peasant, his head thrown back, intoned through his nose the ballad of the Bombardment of Belgrade:
The bombardment of belgrade
'A dream had Madame Georgina,
The faithful spouse of Nicola Pachitch
The well-known Serbian prime minister;
In her palace in the centre of Belgrade
She had a dream, and this was her dream:
' Northward the earth trembles -
Trembled Srem, Batchka and Hungary -
And a terrible darkness
Rolls south upon Belgrade,
The White City that rides the waters.
Athwart the gloom lightnings cross,
And thunder follows after,
Smiting the houses and the palaces,
Wrecking the villas and hotels
And the fine shops of Belgrade.
From the Save and the Danube
Soar the roaring water-dragons -
Spitting thunder and lightnings
Over Belgrade, the White City;
Blasting houses and streets,
Reducing to ruin hotels and palaces,
Smashing the wooden pavements,
Burning the pretty shops,
And upsetting churches and chapels;
Everywhere the screams of children and invalids -
Everywhere the cries of old women and old men!
As if the last terrible Day of Judgment
Broke over Belgrade!
'Then in the night Madame Georgina awoke,
Asking herself what had happened,
And began to weep,
For she knew not how to interpret her dream.
Then awoke Nicola Pachitch also
And addressed his faithful spouse:
' "What is the matter with thee, faithful spouse,
That thou risest in the night
And wettest thy cheek with tears?
Of what art thou frightened?
Tell it me, my faithful spouse,
Whom God bless!"
Then spoke Madame Pachitch:
' "My master! Pachitch, Nicola!
This night have I had a terrible dream.
I have dreamed, and in my dream have seen many things.
But I cannot interpret them,
Therefore am I miserable and worried."
And she began to tell her dream...'
(Three hundred lines more, consisting mostly of accurate prophecy by Mr Pachitch on what actually occurred.)
Over the sharp, crumpled house roofs westward the swollen cupola of
a Greek church rose black against the warm yellow sky. And there were great
trees, spread like lace across the In inament, where already faint stars
glittered. A thin crescent moon floated up over the shadowy Bosnian mountains,
the heart and birthplace of Serbian song - dear land so long an exile....
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