The Balkans from within,
Reginald Wyon

The insurgent provinces



THIS was our plan. It had originated the night before in the brain of my American colleague, a young man of such youthful aspect that an aged Vali once asked how a child of his age could be entrusted with the important post of Special Correspondent. As the train curled and snorted up the slopes to Vodena we recapitulated our intentions. We were booked through to Monastir; in fact, as our passports were vised for that town we could have done nothing else, but an hour's run before our destination was Florina, and near by a village called Armensko. Now at Armensko one of the most appalling massacres of the season had but recently occurred. Our idea was to alight casually at Florina and allow the train to go on without us, thus assuring ourselves of an uninterrupted sojourn of twenty-four hours. As for getting on to Armensko, we must trust to luck and chance. The idea was a good one and deserving of success, for it is only by surprising the Turks that the stranger within their gates can ever hope to see anything of their real doings.

The trip to Monastir is very beautiful. From Agustos nestling amongst vineyards, the railway commences to climb between vast walls of mountains, darting through tunnels or trembling across spidery viaducts. When once Vodena is passed, with its foaming waterfall rushing out of a steep cliff, and its ancient memories - Vodena is the classic


Edessa and oldest residence of the Macedonian kings, several centuries before Christ - the scenery grows wilder and more severe. At Ostrovo we have reached the confines of the vilayet of Monastir and enter upon the happy hunting-grounds of the insurgents. The insurrection was in full swing at that time, and here and there the smoke of burning villages hung, a blue mist upon the green hills. The line skirts the banks of the limpid lake of Ostrovo, and we look longingly from our dusty carriage into those cool depths unruffled except by the leaps of great fish. On we go, still climbing past Sorovic', where miles of tents and thousands of soldiers cover the greensward and throng round our train. They are Anatolians, Turkey's best troops, but what faces - cruel, lustful, and hideous. God have pity on the poor villagers who fall into their hands!

Past smiling little Ekshisu with its pretty church, sacked and desecrated a few weeks later, and then we reach the highest point on the line, Banitza, and descend into the fruitful plain of Pelagonia, where lies Monastir.

It was about four o'clock in the afternoon when the train pulled up in Florina, merely a station on the wide plain. The town itself lies an hour's drive away, under the shadow of a chain of mountains. It is odd that with very few exceptions the railway builders of the Orient never considered it necessary to construct the stations close to the towns whose names they bear. A walk of an hour, and often two, must be done ere the townsman can reach the station.

We did not hurry to unload our traps, but ultimately we stood upon the crowded platform and ordered our things to be conveyed to a rickety carriage outside. So far we had apparently escaped notice in the bustle and confusion, and as we started on our drive the train was moving out of the


station. So far so good; not even the police at the barriers had stopped us, and we even doubted whether they had seen us. With the promise of liberal backsheesh to stimulate him, our driver lashed up his horses, and we had covered some distance when we heard the galloping of hoofs and turned to see another carriage tearing after us, swaying alarmingly over the bad road. The driver was shouting and gesticulating, and as we slacked our speed we heard him ordering us to return to the station at the command of the police. We had neither given our names nor shown our passports - a most unheard-of proceeding - and we had better go back lest there should be trouble. We smiled politely and declined, in spite of our own driver's evident unwillingness to proceed.

A few weeks afterwards, in Monastir, I learnt that the police officer on duty that day at the station had been fined a month's pay for his carelessness; which may or may not have been true.

We jolted painfully and violently through the narrow streets of Florina, an object of the greatest curiosity, and pulled up at the house of the Greek Metropolitan, one of the most notorious men in the whole vilayet.

We were most affectionately received, for we bore a card of introduction from a Greek consul, and I must confess that the Bishop was a fine-looking old man. Aged, benevolent of aspect, with long snow-white beard, the true type of a patriarch. Yet that man has done more harm to the Christian cause in Macedonia than perhaps any other. No wonder he told us that the Bulgars had threatened to murder him, and in his house was quartered a strong guard of Turkish soldiers. For an hour or more he discoursed on the atrocities of the insurgents, and horrible they were. Luckily, the Greek Consul himself, who had given us the introduction,


had warned us, saying that the hatred the venerable Bishop bore to the Exarchate Church caused him even to go hand in hand with the Turks. After that interview, during which he had repeatedly called God to witness the truth of his statements, Greeks came to us to beseech us not to believe all that he said.

"For," said they, "so great is his hatred for the Bulgars, whom we ourselves do not love, that he has given orders to his flock in mountain villages never to flee before the approach of Turkish soldiers, that they are their friends, and they should throw open their doors to them. And they have done so, and have been slaughtered and robbed. Armensko was also a Greek village."

And they took us to many Greek houses and showed us women dying from violation, wounded men, doors smashed in and furniture broken.

"These things the Bishop knows, yet never a word does he say to the Turkish authorities, seeking rather to accuse the Bulgars of these crimes."

In later days we proved many crimes against the venerable Bishop - how, accompanied by large escorts of Turkish troops, he had "converted" whole villages of Bulgars to the Greek Church, threatening massacre and pillage on refusal, protection and immunity on acceptance.

And the Bishop told us furthermore that his greatest friend had been Sir Alfred Billiotti, British Consul General for Macedonia, and Levantine Greek by birth. [1] No wonder British politicians have talked of the "balance of criminality." Before we left him we remarked innocently how certain British correspondents had advocated the cause of the brutal Bulgar insurgents.

1. Compare the former Consul-General's reports with those of the present.



"Those men," said the Bishop impressively, "have been bribed."

"Indeed," we responded with much innocence. "We did not know that funds were so ample. What does a British journalist cost?"

That evening we spent quietly in the humble hostelry, luckily spotlessly clean, though my impulsive colleague urged that we should drive to Armensko that night.

"It is our only chance. This evening the Turks are not on the lookout to stop us. To-morrow it will be impossible."

I am not a particularly nervous man, but I declined the risk of a nocturnal drive through an unknown country in the throes of revolution, infested by a murderous soldiery, with the final prospect of a night in a village burnt a few days ago with attendant horrors. As after events proved, we should never have reached Armensko except by a miracle.

Next morning the police were there, our passports devanded, and a man placed on guard at the door. Still, we ordered a carriage, and the driver blandly covenanted with us for the trip to Armensko. We departed in due course by devious alleys to permit the policeman to reach the Governor first. His official residence was situated at the end of the town, and here we were promptly held up by armed gendarmes.

"The Kaimakam wishes to have the honour of your presence," said one of them casually standing at the horses' heads.

We tried bluff, and ordered the driver to proceed; but that worthy politely stated his inability to do so, and so we went in with much ill grace. Inside the yard was also the prison. Dozens of wretched faces crowded the barred windows. A wretched old man, his face cut and slashed, and evidently


bearing similar wounds on his emaciated body, was crawling across the yard to the pump. He was caught up and put out of sight in a moment. I met a man, one of the wealthiest Bulgars of the neighbourhood, in after days at Monastir. He had spent fourteen days in that prison, crowded with forty other men in a room big enough for half that number. They were never allowed to leave it except for an hour or so daily, and the horror and the stench he declared were terrible. He was an educated, well-dressed man, and to all intents a European by taste and experience.

The Kaimakam was a young man for a Turkish official. He was very polite, of course, and over coffee and cigarettes he remarked that he himself saw no objection whatever to our going to Armensko (Turkish officials never have any objection personally), but, alas! the matter did not rest with him. We must have permission from Hilmi Pacha, without which he must regretfully refuse. He suggested telegraphing for instance to our consul; but as this had to be done in Turkish, it seemed rather a doubtful proceeding. Nevertheless, we dictated a telegram, and it was duly transcribed in Turkish. Pending the arrival of the answer, we said we would stroll along the road outside the town. The Kaimakam looked doubtful at this proposition, whereupon we boldly said we were going unless he stopped us by force, which he dared not do.

"Now we will bally well walk there," said my American friend, when we were once more on the sun-scorched road. "It can't be more than two hours on foot."

And I agreeing, we started off at a five-miles-an-hour gait. We got clear of the town, and were going strong when we heard faint shouts behind us, and turning, saw an ancient police-officer panting in the distance.


"He's sent to fetch us back," I remarked.

"Keep it up," retorted my companion. "We'll give him a show for his money."

But it was no good. Slowly but surely he overhauled us, by short runs, and we also noticed that a gendarme accompanied him. When he did catch us he was breathing heavily, and both men had doffed their fezes and were mopping their heads. It was an exceedingly hot day.

The road had been straight up to this point, but now a curve hid the immediate view from our eyes.

"You must stop here," panted the officer; and now that he had caught us we took pity on him and walked more leisurely. "It was only permitted to go for a short walk."

"Well, I guess it will be longer. We are going to Armensko," said the American coolly. "You daren't shoot us."

"No; but others will. Listen, round that bend is an Albanian regiment in camp. You must go right through them, and even my presence may not be enough to protect your lives. My own may be in danger."

"Oh, come, that won't do. Had we permission in writing we should have to go through them just the same."

The officer replied that were such the case we should have a score of zaptiehs with us, but should never be allowed to go unguarded.

We walked on to the bend, and there right enough was the camp of an Albanian regiment. We could see their little white felt skull caps quite plainly, and involuntarily we paused, to the intense relief of the officer. Both of us knew enough of the Albanians; and when a hundred or two of them, noticing us, collected on the road, we hastily reconsidered our plans.


Had we possessed a good map, or known the country, we might have made a detour by the mountains, but afterwards we were glad that we had not tried. On our walk back we heard firing on the mountain ridge, and at the entrance of the town we met two men on stretchers, one dead and the other grievously wounded. They were Greeks, and both had been shot down whilst working in their fields. We asked the still living man who had done this, and he just breathed "Nizams." Later on in the day the Turks made him sign a paper, declaring that the perpetrators of the outrage were Bulgars.

Before we reached Florina a second gendarme met us. Our continued absence had caused alarm, and he bore an order to the officer to arrest us formally, which he did in a very sheepish manner, for we were both highly amused, and much annoyed him by continually taking photographs. Needless to say, we were immediately released on our return, but were asked in our own interests not to walk about the town. On the way to the inn we saw a soldier make a determined attempt to murder a wretched youth. Seizing an enormous block of wood he struck violently at the boy's head, missing it by a hair's-breadth. The expression on the soldier's face was terrible, and he became more infuriated at the failure. Taking the block in two hands he raised it over his head, whilst the boy shrieked and appeared paralyzed with fright. Then somewhat tardily some other soldiers stayed their comrade's arms, and our old officer hurried to the scene. The interruption was enough, and we were relieved to see the boy recover the power to move and run swiftly round the corner.

Thus ended our attempt to reach Armensko, which, I believe, no European except the Greek Consul ever visited


after the massacre, one of the most horrible of the year.

We saw many of the wounded survivors in the Greek hospital in Monastir, and learnt the story again and again from their lips, also from the French Sisters of Mercy, who brought them in from Florina, whither they had been carried. For seven days these wounded had lain uncared for in a room in Florina, their hurts unwashed and festering; and the first bread that passed their lips was given by the pious Sisters. Many indeed died ere they could be brought to Monastir.

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