Freedom or Death. The Life of Gotsé Delchev

Mercia MacDermott



Lo, a dark cloud came appearing

From the land of Macedonia,

Came from Banitsa near Serres.

There three hundred guns have thundered,

There three hundred men have fallen.

And the first gun when it thundered

Pierced tge heart of Gotsé Delchev.

Falling, cried he to his cheta:

'O druzhina, true, united,

O druzhina, true, assembled,

When, my comrades, you are passing,

When through Kukush you are passing,

And my mother comes to meet you,

And she questions you about me:

" Where, oh, where is my son Delchev? "

You will answer, you will tell her:

"Granny dear, thy son has married,

He has married Macedonia,

Married Banitsa near Serres,

With the black earth as his chosen,

Slender rifles as his sisters,

Two twin pistols as his brothers,

And black ravens as his kinsfolk." '

    Folksong [*]


From Salonika Gotsé made his way back to the Serres region, where the local cheti were to discuss the rising at a second congress to be held on Gergyovden (St George's Day, April 23/May 6) in a forest outside the village of Lovcha to the east of Alibotush. The whole area from Salonika to Pirin was teeming with Turkish troops, but Gotsé, travelling alone for the first part of his journey, as far as Negovan, picked up his uniform and gun from the village of Dutli, where he had left them, and safely rejoined his cheta. On April 19/May 2, they arrived in Banitsa, [**] a village consisting of a hundred or more houses, situated in a valley some nine or ten miles to the north of Serres.


Outwardly Gotsé was perfectly calm and even cheerful, but the strain of the journey affected his dreams. The next morning, he remarked to his comrades: 'With our life being what it is, I've already become a fatalist. Last night I dreamed that the Turks shot me through the heart. The Shtip cheta has been routed in Karbintsi. My brother, Milan, is in that cheta and he's surely been killed.' [1]


That night (April 20/May 3), Georgi Radev-Brodliyata and DimitUr Gushtanov arrived in Banitsa with their cheti. The two voivodi and Dimo Hadzhidimov, who had also come to Banitsa to discuss the situation, were lodged together with Gotsé in a house belonging to



*. There are several variants of this song. This one comes from the village of Satovcha, near Nevrokop (now Gotsé Delchev).


**. Banitsa is now called Karié.





the Trondatilov family, while Mihail Chakov and some others were in a house across the narrow street. About three o'clock in the morning, Gotsé went over to call on Chakov. Despite the hour, Gotsé was his usual gay, good-natured self, and he greeted the new arrivals jokingly: 'Good evening, good-day, boys, we've got the days and nights all mixed up.'


Then he began to tell them with animation about the dynamiting of the Ottoman Bank, the details of which he had recently learnt: "We've made the baggy-trousered hanums dance about, and in the same way we'll shake the whole rotten Turkish Empire to its foundations.' [2]


He would have continued the conversation, but, noticing that there were others in the room, he broke off, saying: 'More of that at the Congress.' Then turning to Chakov, he asked him in jest whether he happened to have any Drama tobacco. Chakov had, in fact, been saving a hundred grammes of it specially for Gotsé, and now produced it to Gotsé's great suprise and delight. The men smoked a cigarette each, chatted a little, and then separated to sleep the brief hours that separated them from the dawn. It was a glorious moonlight night that melted into a perfect May morning [3] ...


Shortly before it became light, one of the sentries posted around the village came to report that he had heard a shot. Radev had also heard it, and woke Gotsé. The latter refused to be alarmed by a single shot, and, saying that it was probably just a shepherd firing his gun, he advised everybody to lie down again and get some sleep. [4]


A little later they were awakened by an old woman crying, 'Get up, boys, soldiers have surrounded the village and are searching the houses.' [5]


It was true. With great skill and caution, the Turks had managed to encircle the village at a distance without being noticed by the Organization's sentries, and now several hundred soldiers were closing in, holding Banitsa in a ring of steel. Their commander was Gotsé's school-mate, Hussein Tefikov [6] ...


This was no ordinary search party, looking for arms or making random raids, but a powerful force which had come expecting to surprise an armed cheta. It was clearly a case of betrayal, but, to this day, the identity of the informant has not been established. Within the Organization, many names have been bandied about in the course of the bitter factional struggles which stained the subsequent history of the Macedonian movement, and people at both national and local level have been accused of betraying Gotsé, without any real solid evidence in support. The most detailed account of the Turkish attack on Banitsa is contained in a letter, dated May 7, 1903, from Caradzas, the French consular agent in Serres, to Steeg, the French consul in Salonika. According to Caradzas, a force of forty Turks looking for





rebels was passing Banitsa and, finding no cause for suspicion, was continuing on its way to Gorno Brodi, when a peasant informed them that there were in Banitsa 'people from the Bulgarian Committee', and even indicated the houses in which they were quartered. The Turkish commander immediately sent for reinforcements, and when four hundred extra men had arrived from Serres and Gorno Brodi, he proceeded to blockade the village. [7]


Thus, at dawn, when the peasants tried to drive their cattle out to pasture as usual, they found the way barred by groups of three soldiers standing at intervals of thirty yards all round the village. [8] The Turks then began a systematic search of the village, courtyard by courtyard, house by house, and assembled the inhabitants together, all the men in one place, and all the women and children in another. The men were asked whether they had guns and where the komiti were hiding. They knew that, unless they answered, the village would be burnt and they themselves might be killed, but no one answered, and the only man who wavered was hastily hushed by those who stood near him. The Turks then began to burn the village, and dragged out the village headman, the priest and his son, who was the local leader of the Organization, and questioned them, but to no avail. The priest's son was badly beaten and then shot dead as he tried to run away.


From the roof of the Trendafilov house, Dimo Hadzhidimov saw the people assembled in the open and surrounded by soldiers. When it became known that the Turks had started to search the village and were approaching the houses where the cheti were hiding, Gotsé and his comrades discussed what they should do - stay put until darkness, or attempt to escape there and then? The houses were made of stone and were surrounded by high, stout walls offering excellent cover, but Gotsé was not thinking of himself, or even of his men, but of the village. Knowing that the Turks burned villages that gave shelter to cheti, Gotsé chose to risk a withdrawal in an attempt to save Banitsa from the flames.


In defiance of the rules of the cheti, which laid down that the voivoda should not expose himself to unnecessary danger by going first, Gotsé led his party of fourteen men out of the shelter of the house into the street and thence to the outskirts of the village. They reached a little meadow near the last house in the village, beside which there was an unfinished barn. The meadow sloped upwards and was bounded by a low wall, some two feet high. Beyond it were the open fields and another barn. A group of frightened children came running towards the village from the direction of the barn in the fields, but, when they saw the chetnitsi, they fled away in even greater fear towards some other barns nearby.


Gotsé called out to them: 'Are there any soldiers up there?' But





they were too frightened to answer.


The group was some twenty or thirty paces from the little wall separating the meadow from the fields, when Chakov tried to pull Gotsé back from his leading position, suggesting that he should stay behind, while two or three of them went ahead.


'As we walked, Gotsé looked at me, but more proudly than I had ever seen him look in my life. With his cloak flung over his left shoulder, his white fez, wrapped in a bluish scarf, pulled down, and his gun slung across his left elbow, he said: 'What, Chakov? Go on, and - whatever God wills.' [9]


Suddenly the wall ahead bristled with the guns of Turkish soldiers lying in ambush behind it. Gotsé saw them and was the first to shoot. All the chetnitsi instinctively fell on their faces... all except Gotsé, who calmly reloaded his gun.


'Down, Gotsé, down!' his comrades' frenzied screams echoed across the meadow. He moved to obey, but it was too late...


Death was very gentle with him. Showing mercy to the merciful, it took him quickly and cleanly, without indignity or lingering pain. One moment he was standing in the morning sunlight, erect and utterly fearless, and the next he lay on the bloodstained earth with a bullet in his heart. It was his first and last fight.


*  *  *  *  *  *  *


That very day, in Kukush, Sultana was preparing the five ritual loaves that she was to take to church in celebration of Gergoyovden, her son's name-day. She returned from the church in floods of tears, because she had made an ill-omened slip of the tongue: instead of saying the customary formula, 'This year - five loaves, next year - a wedding', she had said, 'This year - five loaves, next year – a requiem.' [10]


*  *  *  *  *  *  *


Gushtanov and several other chetnitsi were also killed on the meadow, but eight of them, including Chakov and Dimo Hadzhidimov, managed to get into a barn from which they defied the Turks all day, listening to the screams of the population as the Turks went about their business, and to the bellowing of the cattle trapped in blazing stables, and gazing at the bodies on the meadows: 'For fifteen hours,' Dimo Hadzhidimov later told Yavorov, 'because of our bullets, the Turks dared not approach our dead. For fifteen hours, we looked upon the dead Gotsé, lying as though bent over the grave of Macedonia. For fifteen hours, our hearts bled...' [11]





Afraid to storm the barn, the Turks forced an old woman to carry straw up to the walls in an attempt to set it on fire. When fear of the chctnitsi's guns drove her back, the Turks killed her. A younger woman was then thrust forward; she set the barn on fire and fled, but she, too, was shot down by the Turks. [12] Driven out by the flames, the chetnitsi managed to escape into a nearby house, where they spent the night in a state of siege - a night that was as bright as noonday with moonlight and conflagrations. Early in the morning they managed break through the Turkish cordons by dint of throwing bombs, and escaped to tell the sorry tale.


'What happened to Gotsé?' Dyado Iliya Kŭrchovaliyata asked the survivors when they met.


'We left him under the ashes of Banitsa,' was the reply.


'The old haramiya bent his head, large tears flowed from his eyes, and, for a whole half-hour, he wept like a child, without saying a word.' [13]


And, as the news swept like a black cloud across a land that was already sated with sorrows, all Macedonia wept with him.


*  *  *  *  *  *  *


When the fighting ceased, orders were given for the bodies of Gotsé and Gushtanov [14] to be taken to Serres, but later they were brought back to Banitsa and put with the others beside the little river that ran through the village. When the Turks had departed, satisfied that there were no more komiti among the smoking ruins, the women of Banitsa washed the bodies of the five dead revolutionaries and prepared them for burial. Then they were laid to rest under an elm tree on a meadow known as Sveti Nikola (St Nicholas). [15]


It was the eve of Gergyovden, Gotsé's name-day.


This year - five loaves, next year... Wedding or requiem - it is all the same to those who marry Macedonia.


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1. Yavorov, p. 223. Milan was, in fact, quite safe, but he was killed a month later on June 12, 1903.


2. This and the other details of the conversation with Chakov and his comrades are taken from memoirs of Mihail Chakov published in Bŭlgarska misŭl. Sofia November 1935, p. 506.


3. April 21/May 4, 1903.


4. Memoirs of Georgi Radev. Gotsé Delchev, Vol III, p. 277.





5. Yavorov, p. 222. Dimo Hadzhidimov says that the woman was the mistress of the house. See Daily News, June 5, 1903, John MacDonald's report of an interview wit Dimo Hadzhidimov, who witnessed the events in Banitsa.


6. In a conversation, recorded by Ana Raikova in the presence of the author, in the village of Lyaski, July 6, 1976, Ivan Nikolov Kalin, born in Banitsa in 1885, said tha Tefikov fired three warning shots while he was still about an hour's march from th village, at a place called Kapakliya, so that the cheta could escape. Kalin, of course, heard this not from Tefikov, but from other villagers, who may or may not have been correct in their assertion. The author has heard stories of similar chivalrous gestures on the part of Tefikov towards his former school-mate, from other old people. The stories have all been at least second-hand, and my be legends born of the Bulgarian's incurrable internationalism. Tefikov’s subsequent behaviour in Banitsa and elsewhere makes it difficult to give much credence to these romantic stories, tempting though it is to do so.


7. Ministere des affairs étrangères. Archives Turquie. Politique intérieure, Macedoine. Vol XII. 21 avr. – 15 mai. 1903, p. 256. This and other consular material relating to the events in Banitsa are discussed by Prof. Hristo Hristov in his article Smŭrtta na Gotsé Delchev. Istoricheski pregled. 1971, book 2, pp 93-95.


Chakov also records having seen Turkish troop movements on the road from Dolno Brodi to Gorno Brodi on April 20, but there seemed to be nothing suspicious in their behaviour, and there was nothing to suggest that they intended coming to Banitsa.


8. Oral memoirs of Ivan Kalin.


9. Memoirs of Mihail Chakov. Bŭlgarska misŭl, November 1935, p. 508.


10. This story is told in Stamatov, Opus cit.


11. Yavorov, p. 224.


12. Daily News. June 5, 1903.


13. Iljustratsia Ilinden. Year 1, book 3, 1927, p. 12. Article by P. Chernopeev, based on Chakov’s notes.


14. Gushtanov had been head-master of the Serres High School.


15. Oral memoirs of Ivan Kalin.


Three years later on, in 1906, Mihail Chakov returned to Banitsa, and, in accordance with the ancient custom observed in many areas of Macedonia, including Kukush (See Kuzman Shapkarev, Sbornik ot bŭlgarski narodni umotvoreniya, Vol. I, p. 544), he dug up Gotsé's bones and placed them in a box under the alter of the church. After the territory had passed to Greece, Chakov took Gotsé's bones to Sofia, where they were carefully preserved until after the Second World War, when a Macedonian republic was established within the Yugoslav Federation. The bones were then officially given to Yugoslavia as a gesture of friendship, and they are now in the courtyard of the Church of Sveti Spas in Skopje. (From M.S. memoirs of Mihail Chakov, read to me by his widow in 1976).