The Balkans from within,
Reginald Wyon

The insurgent provinces


TO anybody living in Turkey during an insurrection the insurgents speedily assume the character of a semispectral host. One very rarely, if ever, sees the real insurgent, the man clad in brown homespun and wearing the "Death or Freedom" cap. Sometimes a prisoner is brought into a town, but I confess that I never set eyes upon the real article till some months later in Sofia. Yet they were ever present. To-day they had fought a battle with the Turks two hours west of Monastir; yesterday, it was two hours eastward: their reports and messages reached their destination with clockwork regularity. It was almost as easy to send a letter to an insurgent leader in the neighbourhood as to London, in spite of thousands of encircling troops.

In short, they were ubiquitous and walked round the Turks at will, yet one never set eyes on them. We did see scores of so-called insurgents. Any evening we could watch a batch of them pushed out of the train from Salonica, miserable starving wretches, heavily chained, where flight was an utter impossibility: but these were local peasants, nothing else: perhaps forced participants through hunger or despair, but not the real thing, not the men who came from Bulgaria, well armed, clothed, and fed.

The reason of this is that no sworn member of a band


ever lets himself be taken prisoner. They fight to a finish when surrounded, and at a pinch they have their poison.

At Monastir I had ample opportunity of studying their magnificent organization, the result of long preparation. It soon becomes apparent that the present rising is not the work of a few months, but of many years, and one that is ultimately bound to succeed, as it succeeded in other lands once under the unenviable sway of the Turk. It is a combination of brain, showing study of every eventuality and possibility, and when necessary, of reckless courage and self-sacrifice. That their methods are not always commendable, even their best friend must admit; but it is no time for kidglove warfare when men stake their lives on the issue, where such a goal is in view, and in a fight against such heavy odds.

Think of it! Five thousand men defying three hundred thousand. These were roughly the odds last summer, and yet who undoubtedly had the best of it?

There were the regrettable dynamite outrages at Salonica, where innocent persons lost their lives, a very few though; likewise at Kuleli-Burgas, where a train containing Europeans was blown up: but I believe these are the chief points against them. Furthermore, I do not think they will be repeated. As it was, they were the work of the reckless few, not of the intelligent majority. Still, all lovers of fearlessness should pause ere they condemn, for instance, the Salonica outrage.

Half a dozen men entered that town deliberately and threw bombs at an appointed hour, knowing death, and a cruel one, was certain. It takes nerve to do that. And then, no one spoke of the Turkish atrocities which ensued as a consequence. Scores of absolutely innocent persons


were ruthlessly massacred, and well I remember how a Bulgar, subsequently in my service, told of those awful days. He himself, though registered as a "Greek," never left his house for weeks. Once he saw a boy going to a well in the square before his house, who, whilst stooping to fill the pail, was pierced through the skull by a bayonet wielded by a passing soldier. " The onlookers wept at this, for he was a good boy and well-beloved," as he said in his simple language. Further, he said that hundreds were arrested "on suspicion," and thrust into the now notorious "White Tower." These men were once examined by the Vali in his house, and subsequently sent back to jail. To get there they had to pass through a narrow doorway where stood four men with bludgeons. These miscreants wantonly struck at each pair that passed "anywhere, on the head, arms, body, or legs - there was no escape. The bruises were awful, and some died - those that were struck on the head."

This was related to me by one of the victims "subsequently released by the clemency of the Sultan." Others told me of the heartrending wails of these men as they ran this terrible gauntlet.

Another case I learnt from an American who saw a man killed in the street in broad daylight, slain outright; but five soldiers who did the deed thrust their bayonets again and again into the prostrate body, mutilating it beyond recognition.

Of these things we heard nothing, but I crave pardon for the digression.

Apart from these so-called outrages, there was not a single case of wanton cruelty - of the slaying of women and children, of the destruction of whole villages - on the part of


the insurgents. I strove in vain to prove such accusations, so often made by the Turks and by "friendly" correspondents. Consuls could obtain no corroboration, neither could the missionaries or men actually in the know and unbiassed.

Houses were burnt, men were murdered, but in every case it was a justifiable revenge for betrayal. I say justifiable, because when every man's hand is against the insurgents, terrorism must be resorted to. Those men who were murdered - chiefly Greeks, who play such a despicable part in the Macedonian fight for freedom - were always given a rude trial; they were found guilty of gratuitously betraying the hiding-place of a band or of giving other information to the Turks, and they knew their fate if tracked and caught. Even Bulgars have been murdered for faithlessness; there is no national prejudice displayed, and traitors to "the Holy Cause" are dealt with summarily!

Even if the aforesaid atrocities had been committed, is there not - let us be honest - every excuse for it?

We have seen our wives and daughters violated with nameless horrors by brutal soldiery, our house burnt to the ground, and ourselves utterly beggared in honour and worldly possession in an hour. We escape miraculously, perhaps grievously wounded, and fly to the mountains, now our only home. A band is there who gives us food, and, what is even better, a rifle and cartridges. One day Turks fall into our hands - what would we do then?

And yet these men, whose civilization, from centuries of oppression, is at a far lower ebb than ours, restrain themselves from such merciless acts of retaliation.

I have spoken with many of the insurrectionary agents, notably in Monastir, and often listened to such noble senti-



ments of patriotism - no mere display of words in a position of this kind - that I have been staggered.

When first received into the confidence of the insurgents, after weeks of endeavour on my part, for I wished to hear both sides, I met a young Bulgarian. For his sake I dare not say how or where, for when these lines are printed they might easily lead to his arrest.

I had been weighed and not found wanting - all unknown to myself - and I was straightway admitted into their confidence.

"How, my friend," I asked him once, "do you know that I can be trusted? I go daily to the house of Hilmi Pacha and of Nazir. A word from me and you would be lost, and perhaps the secret local organization discovered."

He smiled and answered -

"We have watched you day and night, and we know our friends. Besides," he added, "you can betray me if you wish. The risk is ever before me. Even now I may be watched, and then my fate is sealed. Exile and death on the way, but that is of no importance. There are others here, and when they are gone, still more. Many must still lose their lives before our cause is won. But by my capture there will be no secrets revealed."

This man had already tasted the horrors of a Turkish prison, and another with whom I often spoke had undergone torture. He was still a physical wreck, but as fearless as ever. From him it was that I learnt of the prison treatment of proven, or even suspected rebels.

He was incarcerated in a kind of small cellar, in fact, "the Little Ease" of our bygone days, where a man can neither sit nor stand nor stretch himself. It was underground and very damp. At night soldiers pour water on the wretched


inmate from above, often in a continuous stream, so that even sleep is prohibited. This treatment lasts sometimes three days, though, owing to some reason or other, my informant suffered less. Besides enduring the water torment, the inmate is prodded with bayonets or rifle butts, and the only opening is closed periodically till he is all but stifled.

"Many die here," said he, "and no wonder. See what I am now, and that was months ago."

The other prisoners fare little better. They are bound and beaten till they give the required answers, and at night continually awakened to prevent their obtaining complete rest.

I have told of other prison tortures elsewhere; but before I leave this subject, let me quote a letter which I saw and read in Adrianople, at the other end of Turkey.

It was written on a dirty scrap of paper, folded to a minute size, and had been smuggled out of the prison in a plate of food remnants. As the prisoners are fed from outside, this is sometimes possible, with the help of a confederate.

The writer was an insurgent caught red-handed, and the letter was dated sixteenth of September, old style - twenty-ninth of September, new style. It ran -

"The military tribunal has been abolished and a new one has taken its place. - It passes sentences in secret, and there are no witnesses. So far, it has sentenced thirty-six men, sixteen to fifteen years' exile, the remaining twenty to death or ten years' hard labour. No good can be expected of a thoroughly fanatical tribunal whose motto is: 'It is a good work to oppress the unbeliever.'

"After sentence the prisoners are shut up in dark, windowless cells, into which they are packed like sardines.


From these holes they are taken once in twenty-four hours for ten minutes in the fresh air. Many are already prostrated from torture previously undergone, and from the filth and misery; yet they are left without medical assistance. The writer of these lines was ill and taken before the doctor, Socrot Effendi.

" 'What is thy nationality?'

" 'Bulgarian.'

" 'Poison, poison for thee, the Sultan's enemy! Get out!' Such was the medical help I obtained.

"It is a pitiful sight! If you could see the poor skeletons of peasants, starving, naked, sitting the whole day with eyes fixed and heads bowed on their breasts. How quietly are their lives passing away! The long weary day is endured only to be succeeded by the doubly awful night. It is worse than the Turkish torture! Oh, God! Why dost Thou not look down upon the rayah, to see to what conditions he has been reduced? [1] But let them torture us! Brutal Turkey may kill us, but the oppressed slave will not be annihilated by the slaughter of a few hundreds.

"We are soon to be deported to a distant land, such as St. Jean d'Acre, Podroum, and Diabekir, all living tombs. But we do not fear; from the day we consecrated our lives to the holy cause, from the day on which we kissed the holy revolver and the twice holy dagger, we have ever been ready to die for it."

Then followed the names of the thirty-six condemned men with details.

(N.B. - This is a literal translation of the original made on the spot, and worthy of comparison with similar accounts gleaned by the author in Macedonia.)

1. Rayah is in Turkish synonymous for Christian peasant and sheep.


These instances should show that patriotism is not mere talk when such a fate are ever before combatants and noncombatants alike.

When I first came into touch with the insurgents in Monastir, I was placed on their list and received reports of the campaign regularly, as did the consuls. Those documents, which were often delivered daily, contained a dry account of any fights, or of the destruction of a village, with the names, ages, and particulars of those massacred there. There was no language wasted, no appeals to justice or flowery speech, but simply the bare account. Naturally, at first I was inclined to doubt the veracity of these reports, thinking them biassed, as the Turkish invariably were, but little by little I found that they usually under-stated the case, and this I pointed out to a consul, who at once admitted the fact. We often discovered on investigation that more houses had been burnt, or more Turkish soldiers killed, as the case might be, than was stated in the insurgents' report; and when I commended the secret agent on this wise moderation, he replied that they fully realized the harm they would do their own cause were they to exaggerate.

"You would never believe one of our reports again," he said.

We used to receive these reports in the oddest manner, for Turkey abounds with spies; a boy would suddenly appear, thrust a paper in my hand and disappear. I have had them delivered in my bedroom, on the street, or at the house of a friend. They were equally clever in delivering threats or messages to the Turks. Even the Sultan has received one of their messages, much to his perturbation, and I remember Hilmi Pacha receiving a letter from Boris Sarafoff in the following manner.



A man from the hills came in one day and went to Hilmi's house, which is always thoroughly guarded. He told the sentries that he had a letter for the Pacha and would wait for an answer. The letter was taken up, and lo! when an officer came down to arrest the bearer - for the letter contained a threat - he had vanished as he had come.

When I expressed a wish to visit the insurgents in the mountains I was told that the various leaders must be first consulted, to ascertain if it would be absolutely safe for me to do so.

"We can get you through the lines easily enough," said the local agent, "and with safety too, but we shall not do so unless the leaders can guarantee your life in the mountains. We will take no risks here."

When I remonstrated, saying that I was prepared to take the risk on my own responsibility and that I fully recognized that a trip of this kind could not be undertaken without it, the agent answered -

"Yes; but how about our cause? If you are killed, Europe will say that we have murdered you."

This was just at the time that Hilmi Pacha officially informed the British Consul that the insurgents had threatened to murder either a British consul, correspondent, or an American missionary - one of the most thinly-veiled Turkish threats ever made, as I pointed out at the time.

The insurgents themselves were most indignant at the threat, for, as they put it, why should they kill the only people helping them, and do their cause immeasurable harm in Europe?

In due course I was informed that at the present juncture no guarantee for my safety could be given. I have quoted this incident to show the ease with which the insurgents


could communicate with each other. It was a fact that every move of the Turkish troops was promptly reported to the bands in the mountains, who were thus never caught napping, except when betrayed.

There are hosts of amusing anecdotes illustrating the stupidity and incapability of the Turks on one side, and the cleverness of the bands on the other. The story of Smilevo I have told in my chapter on the Turkish army. I met a young insurgent who was second in command of the most advanced outpost, who had fearlessly come into Monastir some time after the final, and only battle, and had actually overheard the Turkish commanders arguing as to who should commence firing. He was still immensely amused at the incident.

Another case occurred soon afterwards in the mountains of Platche, when Bakhtiar Pacha, the "hero" of Krushevo, organized a great drive across the mountains to Steniahan.

He knew that there was a large band hidden in the hills, which he swept with a large force. Hardly had he arrived at Stenia, having drawn a blank, when he was attacked from the rear and lost severely.

Of such incidents there were many, and they are easily explainable. The Turkish troops are no mountaineers, in fact, they hate climbing, and when they have to cross a mountain they stick to the paths religiously, invariably with the above results.

Time and again bands have been cornered, and fighting goes on sometimes for two or three consecutive days, until one morning the band has disappeared into the thin air of the mountains.

"He who fights and runs away, lives to fight another day," is an axiom fully appreciated by the insurgents, in fact, it is.



one of their laws. I once had a copy of these instructions unluckily I did not make a note of the contents, though it is now in the hands of the Foreign Office: but some of the items I will quote as well as I can from memory. They were addressed from headquarters to the leaders of the different bands operating in the vilayet of Monastir.

"In marching, which must be in single file, only the leading and rear men must carry loaded rifles.

"A numerically superior force must never be attacked, nor an inferior force if reinforcements are in the vicinity, unless victory is certain.

"Stragglers or small bodies should be always cut off and disarmed if they refuse fight.

"Rifle practice must be carried out whenever possible.

"Special care must be taken in the placing of outposts at night or when a halt is made." Neglect of this, it was pointed out, had led to more than one reverse of late.

"There must never be any reckless expenditure of ammunition."

These are a few of the items: the rest deal with all manner of contingencies, and are a signal proof of the marvellous organization of the committee.

To obtain the confidence of these men is not always easy.

There came once to Monastir an English journalist, who was red-hot in favour of the insurrectionary movement, and who had visited all the leaders previously in Sofia. He had been told that letters of introduction to local leaders were dangerous - which is obvious - and quite unnecessary, but that one day some one would speak to him in Monastir, it might be on the street or in his hotel. He waited patiently, but no one ever spoke, and he confided in me just before his departure. I mentioned it to my friend at once, and asked why


the journalist had been ignored so markedly, pointing out that this was a mistake.

"We have watched him, and are not convinced of his sincerity," was the answer.

"But," I argued, "he knows Tatartcheff and is an admirer of the movement. Besides, I can guarantee his good faith."

"He is an intimate friend of the Greek vice-consul, and lives in a Greek hotel, and we are nervous. But if you guarantee..."

" He leaves to-morrow," I said.

"We know," was the somewhat equivocal answer.

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