BRIGANDAGE IN THE BALKAN.
Ignorance of consuls accounted for - The Gentleman of the Forest
- Generosity - The common Highwayman - Laissez aller - The Outlaw - Justice
defeated - A Dogstealer.
THIS prominent feature of the Bulgarian Provinces is passed over in silence, or but slightly alluded to, by the authors of the 'Reports received from Her Majesty's Ambassador and Consuls relating to the condition of Christians in Turkey' in 1867.
For this partial or entire reticence there are two good valid reasons: 1st, That if a British Consul happens to be animated by the laudable desire to see something of the country districts of consulate, his personal dignity and consular precedents equally require that he should travel with his interpreter, his cavasses, and even with an additional escort of Zaptiehs: being thus accompanied, his quality of Western Foreigner, well guarded and, well armed, is soon known to any brigands who may be exercising their vocation in the forests through which he passes, and as a matter of course he rides unmolested by roads on which no Greek or Armenian merchant dare show himself. Too often however the Foreign Consul does not take the trouble to extend his search after knowledge beyond the walls or limits of the town in which he resides; his motto is, “Take care of the towns. the country will take of itself; and consequently he knows as little of the plague of brigandage as he knows of everything else relating to the status of the genuine Turkish peasant, Mussulman, or Christian. 2nd. The peasants, especially Christians, who may have been robbed, dare not complain to the authorities, preferring rather to put up with their losses, than to bear the consequences of making accusations which may bring down misfortune upon themselves and their families: the wisdom of their choice will be seen from a later portion of this chapter.
The Pashas and Governors of Provinces will of course reply, if questioned as to the amount of brigandage existing in their governments, that it has entirely disappeared, or at least is rapidly decreasing; and this answer often expresses their genuine belief, although the fact may be just the reverse. So long as no complaints are made by the sufferers, the Zaptiehs prefer their coffee and cigarettes at their guard-house or their billet to scouring the country in search of brigands, of whose existence they are perfectly aware, but whom they have no reason or inducement to arrest. Thus, as no brigands are captured and lodged in the town prison, the Governor takes it for granted that “brigandage is extinct” and flatters himself that his Pashalik is a model for the rest of the Sultan's dominions.
Brigandage nevertheless not only exists but flourishes in Bulgaria: its members may be classified under three distinct heads, of which each division differs from the others toto coelo: if the English language offered any one word which would not convey a sense of opprobrium, it would be but fair to distinguish by such a term the first class from the others; - as it is, we must be content to qualify all the genus as brigands, and to separate their species as follows: -
1st, The Balkan Chelibi, or “gentlemen of the forest."
2nd, The Khersis, or common highway robber.
3rd, The Haydut, or outlawed murderer.
The "gentleman of the forest” claims a distinct classification, although he is numerically far inferior to the other two classes. He is generally the descendant of a family of Balkan Beys who, like the Dere Begs (or lords of the valleys) in Anatolia, were as practically independent of the Turkish Padischah as the English Barons of the end of the 12th century were of King John. His ancestors, before they were despoiled of their property, for the benefit of the conquered Christians who were added to the number of their fellow subjects, enjoyed certain rights which their descendant has not forgotten. That the Beys of Akindji paid no taxes in money, but that they offered their blood for their country, and that the Rayah for whom they fought paid them in return a tenth of his produce, is an historical fact which Said of Akindji has not forgotten: but he does not enter upon his career of Balkan Chelibi without a reason - he has a dispute with the Zaptiehs about a certain immemorial right of cutting wood upon ground which the latter, being bribed accordingly, maintain to belong to the Rayahs of Derekuoi. The Zaptiehs threaten to take him to Varna, and Said thereupon takes to the forest, where he is well aware that the Zaptiehs will never find him. His life as “a banished man" is not a disagreeable one, for no Turk will betray one of his class, and the Rayah is too timorous to do so: Said's game, however, is not from the preserves of the Rayah villages; he prefers to wait for some fat Armenian or sharp-eyed Greek who has ventured to travel with a sum of money from Varna to Adrianople, and as Agriochorios, or, Odian Effendi emerges from the gorge upon a path which is the only road for a hundred yards, he is confronted by Said pistol in hand, and hears the ominous words, “Dour ver para," "Stand, and give up your money." Neither Agriochoiros nor Odian requires much pressing for valour is not their strong point, and life is preferable even to gold, and they know that Turkey is large, and that the Goddess of Eastern Commerce soon enriches her devout votaries: so they surrender their money, not without regret indeed, but still without a thought of resistance. If there is an escort in the shape of a Zaptieh, that functionary fires his muskets in the air, and retires leisurely, returning to Varna to report that he has been attacked by ten brigands, of whom he shot three, and with difficulty escaped from the remaining seven: he is a cousin's cousin of Said, or, his own brother is a “Balkan Chelibi" in another part of the province, so why should he embroil himself with Said or Said's friends for the sake of a Greek or an Armenian? Meanwhile the victim pursues his way or returns, lighter in purse but unharmed in person, and makes no complaint to the authorities for he knows that Turkish provincial justice is tardy and expensive, and that Said will have had plenty of time to retire into another Pashalik until pursuit has ceased.
But it must not be thought that Said is an ordinary Highwayman, even of the Claude Duval. species: he has many qualities in common with the long extinct knight errant of chivalry and, when he hears a tale of injustice wrought by the strong upon the weak, he is ready to redress it if within his power, and to distribute a wild kind of justice without appeal to any other tribunal than his own arms and his own courage. Achmed of Hassanare has been cheated out of 500 piastres by the Beylikji, or officer appointed to collect the tithes of his village: Said waits for the culprit, takes the 500 piastres from him and gives them back to Achmed, without putting a penny into his own pocket, although he may perhaps gratify his sense of justice by bestowing a couple of dozen blows with the flat of his knife as a receipt in full for the amount taken. All things considered, the Balkan Chelibi has many fine points in his character, and no comparison can be made between him and any species of robber existing in Europe: to find his parallel we must go back to the days of Roderick Dhu, of Rob Roy, of Robin Hood, or of the Golden Farmer; - he takes no advantages of numbers, for the gentleman of the forest is generally alone, or at best with but one companion, while no traveller with money ventures himself without a servant or armed escort amidst the Balkan; he comes forward boldly and risks his life against that of the man whom he stops; he never fires first, but with something of the spirit which animated the English and French lines at Fontenoy, waits until he is fired at. He is not bloodthirsty, and few instances of homicide can be laid to his account: if he stops you, and you are armed, shoot him if you can; if you miss, so much the worse for you.
In a small way, the Balkan Chelibi even applies a remedy to one of the great curses of Turkey, for every pound which he takes by main force from the trader, Greek or Armenian, has been wrung by legal cheatery from Turkish subjects, Osmanli or Christian, and if it did not kill into his hands would certainly not be spent in this country where it has been gained: the foreign merchant in Turkey robs, and shelters himself behind the Capitulations; the Balkan Chelibi robs and having no Capitulations, takes shelter in the forest.
But in time Said wearies of his nomad life, and, when years have cast a veil over his misdeeds, returns to his village and becomes an ordinary hard-working member of society; his former life has left no taint upon his morals or character, and he is as scrupulously honest as are the vast majority of the Mussulman peasants. We know personally many Turks who have been Balkan Chelibiler, as well as some, who are still exercising the profession, and any one of them may be trusted implicitly, and with no other guarantee than his word, with a sum of money which to him would be wealth. If any one likes to try the same experiment with a Greek merchant or a Christian villager he is welcome to do so, but we, who have had some experience of this part of Turkey, should decline.
It may seem curious that we should speak of robbers in tones of apology, perhaps almost of eulogy, but when the Balkan Chelibi is compared with the other classes of brigands, his faults will appear almost as virtues.
The second class, that of the Khersis, or highway robber, is by far the most numerous, and is one of the permanent sores of this country. As a rule it is composed of Rayahs who, abandoning their baptismal names of Vola, Michal, or Triantaphyl, call themselves Mahmoud, Mazim, or Hussein, put on big turbans in place of their sheepskin caps, and pass for Turks. The harvest has been bad, or the taxes heavy, and so they set off on a tour of the forest, furnished with recommendations to the different Christian villages which they purpose to visit. They steal horses, sheep and cattle, stop travellers, carry off the young men of a village, and demand a ransom for their prisoners. But their attacks upon travellers are carried out in a different way from that adopted by the Balkan Chelibi. When notice is given that some one is approaching the Khersis rests his gun in the fork of a tree, carefully covers with his weapon a certain portion of the road, and as the unsuspicious voyager passes this point, fires, without giving him the chance of preserving his life by a voluntary surrender of his property.
If the aim is correct, the robber takes all the money and valuables from his victim, whose body he buries in some remote spot of the forest, and goes off with his companion to the Tukhan or public-house of some Rayah village, where a portion of the spoil is spent in wine or spirits. Perhaps the murdered man may be from the very village in which his murderers are carousing and the fact of the crime be known as well as the names and persons of the brigands, but the criminals remain unmolested and depart unharmed. The reason for this is that there is not a Rayah village in Bulgaria of which some of the inhabitants have not been lately robbers, or will not be such again, and they are very naturally afraid of counter-denunciations which will affect their own people. If Gebidjie arrests Janko of Evren, of course Janko will turn Sultan's evidence, and tell all about Vassili of Gebidjie. and that will compromise some of the most respected families of the latter village; therefore Janko is let alone.
At first these bands of Khersis content themselves with stealing cattle, &c., but, in unlucky stab, given to some herdsman, who is imprudent or courageous enough to defend his charge, puts them under the ban of the police, and they extend their operations from cattle-stealing to murder.
In the present state of these provinces, the repression of this class of brigandage is a work of great difficulty, inasmuch as every Rayah village is their accomplice, as well as the receiver of their stolen goods.
“What can we do?" said an officer of Zaptiehs to us, “we cannot catch
the brigands, because the villagers give them information of all our movements.
Why, Vassili took bread and meat to them again yesterday."
“Why don't you arrest Vassili?"
“Of course I could arrest him, and he would be sent to Widdin for ten years; but what's the good of that?”
“At any rate it would prevent others doing the same.”
“Not at all: if Vassili goes to Widdin, Janaki, and Dimitri will still carry food to the brigands."
“Then arrest Janaki and Dimitri."
“I might arrest all the men in the village, the women would take the provisions."
“Then what can you do?”
“Just what I am doing - eat and drink, and make my men eat and drink at the expense of the village."
“I don't see the good of that."
“It's very easy to understand. After a week or two the villagers will get tired of us, and will beg their friends the brigands to leave this part of the country, which will thus be quiet till they come back here again."
Another conversation between the Authors and Nicolaki the Chorbaji (or head man) of this village, will still better explain the immunity enjoyed by the Khersis. Nicolaki is a long-headed but honest man, uneducated like the rest of the villagers; but, unlike them, he sees that things are not going on as well as they might do, and would be sincerely glad if a change could be effected.
We had been talking of this evil, and suggested to Nicolaki that, as having some influence in Derekuoi, he might be able, if only in a small degree, to put a stop to it.
"Now, Nicolaki, it is very well known that there is a man in this village
who is a receiver of stolen goods from the brigands: I suppose you know
whom we mean?”
“And you know the names of those who carried food to that band of brigands who were about here last year?”
"Yes; I know them."
“Then why don't you have these people arrested and taken to Varna; that would give a good lesson to the other villagers."
“I couldn't do that; I am afraid."
“What are you afraid of?"
“Well, you see, I am a man without grown-up sons to protect me, and I have no one here to fall back upon; the people I arrested, and their families, would owe me a grudge, and I have no protection against them."
“But if you did as we suggest, you would have the protection and approval of Mithat Pasha, who is a just and honest man.”
"What is the use of his protection? He is at Rustchuk, and I am at Derekuoi, and some fine day I should get a bullet from behind a tree or a rock, and then where's Nicolaki? No, if there were any organization in this village which could protect me, I would do these things; as it is, I am afraid, I am afraid!
Of the class of Khersis there are many who are merely apprentices, and confine their depredations to stealing horses, oxen, and sheep, without risking any attack upon the person of travellers. It would be very difficult to mention any family of Rayahs of whom at least one member has not stolen cattle, and the explanation of this fact is simple. There is even a sort of logic in the reasoning of the Bulgarian upon this subject. He says to himself, “Some one has stolen my oxen, I can't get any redress, so I will go and steal from some one else;" but, like a wise man, he provides against eventualities, and if he has lost two cows, he goes to the pasturage of a neighbouring village and steals four. Thus in a Bulgarian Rayah village at least half of the oxen, horses and buffaloes have changed hands three times or more, and it would be almost as difficult to find their original owners as to discover the author of the 'Letters of Junius.'
The Haydut, or outlaw, differs from the two preceding classes by having no friends except amongst his own band; but he has two chances of safety - the inefficiency of the Turkish system of Zaptiehs, and the fear which he inspires. He seldom merely robs, he murders from slicer lust of blood; a year or two's successful career of crime secures him a sort of prestige of invulnerability, and the peasants, who would willingly deliver him up, are deterred by the remembrance of the vengeance he has taken for such attempts as were unsuccessfully made. A noted character of this class was Kara Kostia, a native of the Greek village of Akdere in Roumelia, near Cape Emineh. For years this man was the terror of the province, his band consisting of three men and a woman, but most often he worked alone. By an organized system of relays of good horses, he accomplished long distances in a space of time which to the slow-travelling peasant seemed little short of miraculous. On Monday a traveller would be found murdered near Varna, and on Tuesday morning, a horribly mutilated corpse within a mile of Burgas showed the presence of Kara Kostia. Not content with merely taking life, he committed such atrocities as are hardly to be paralleled even by the brigands of Southern Italy. The Government set a heavy price upon his head, but in vain; he was hunted by the police, who might as well have pursued a will-o'-the-wisp as Kara Kostia, whose very flight was marked by fresh crimes.
One man, a Turk, Hassan of Ayvajik, resolved to rid the country of Kara Kostia. Hassan had been a Balkan Chelibi in his youth, and perhaps for this very reason felt more contempt and hatred for the outlaw than others. He took his long knife and his single-barrelled rifle, went out into the forest, and for days stalked Kara Kostia with the same perseverance which he would have shown in following a deer or a wild boar; but for some days no favourable opportunity presented itself. At last, however, the time came, and Hassan saw Kara Kostia riding down a road in company with his three male companions. What followed is best described in Hassan's own words to us: -
"I waited till Kara Kostia and another were well in line, brought down the two with one bullet, drew my knife, and after a fight I killed the two others."
This event happened about four years ago, when Hassan was over sixty years old. From others, not from him, we learned that he had refused the reward offered by Government to the slayer of Kara Kostia, saving that he "had only done his duty." [See Appendix H.]
Another story of a famous Haydut was related to us a few days ago by an inhabitant of Yasabasch, who said that he had been an eye-witness of the tragedy. The fact of our informant being a Rayah would make us distrust his testimony, were not the details too picturesque and romantic to have been imagined by all uneducated Bulgarian. At any rate we tell the story as we heard it.
A certain Stirion, a Bulgarian-Greek, and like Kara Kostia a native of Akdere (which village was till lately a mere nest of brigands), was the head of a band of thirty or forty brigands, and had distinguished himself by his success in escaping capture, and by his cold-blooded ferocity. He is said to have committed with his own hands seventeen murders.
At last, however, a quarrel with one of his accomplices destroyed him. The negro Abdoullah had been one of his oldest friends, but, from some real or fancied insult, avenged himself by delivering up Stirion and his band to the troops of the Pasha. The robbers were encircled by a cordon of soldiers at the village of Kouroukuoi, near Akdere, then a den of outlaws, and now a peaceful and industrious colony of Tartar immigrants. They fought with the courage of desperation, but were at last shot or cut down to a man. Stirion was the last survivor, and though wounded stood at bay near the fountain of Kouroukuoi. His betrayer, Abdoullah, marched up to him, and presented a pistol at his head.
“Fire!" said Stirion.
“I cannot," replied the negro, as his arm dropped to his side, “we have been friends."
“No matter; I will kill myself, but wait a moment, and before I die let me sing a song."
And with the soldiers, a silent chorus, standing round motionless from curiosity or fear, Stirion began to sing; the song he chose was one which he and his betrayer had often sung together in happier if not more innocent days, and as he sang, the negro covered his face with his hands and wept like a child. When the song was ended the primo tenor cut his throat with his knife, and Abdoullah, the basso profondo, blew out his own brains with the pistol which he aimed at his former friend.
The whole story is sufficiently poetical to form a theme for a new 'Masnadieri' or a 'Fra Diavolo dei Balkan'; if true, it is at least curious as offering one of the few historical instances where a moribund hero or ruffian of real life sings a song before he dies, and as redeeming the Italian opera from the charge of being untrue to nature.
An idea of the difference between the Balkan Chelibi and the Haydut may be gathered from a conversation with Khalil, a Mussulman and a member of the former class: he had been dining with us, and we asked him after dinner if he knew anything of Stirion.
“Yes, I remember about him."
“How long since was it that he killed himself?"
“Eight years ago."
"Did you ever see him?”
"Not I, he kept out of the way of us Turks, for he knew that any one of us would have shot him like a dog."
"You don't consider him as a Balkan Chelibi, then ?
"A Balkan Chelibi! Why, he robbed people even of their clothes and murdered women and children!”
And Khalil shrugged his shoulders with a gesture of disdain and contempt mistranslatable by words.
A couple of instances will show how justice is evaded, and how robbers escape punishment in Turkey.
One morning, two years ago, a crowd assembled in front of our hut, shouting, talking, screaming, and disputing, with the usual volatility of the Slavonic race.
"What do you want? what's the matter?" said St. Clair.
"Don't all speak at once, but tell me what you have come for."
A deputation of Chorbadjis (head men of the village) entered the house. "You see, Sir, Said, of Akindji has just captured a horse stealer in the very act, he has brought him here, and we don't know what to do with him; Dimitri wants to let him go if he promises to bring back twice the number of horses he has stolen from our village."
"Of course I do." said Dimitri, "for you want one of us to take him
off into the forest, and what will happen then? He'll just give a good
thrashing to the man who's with him, as soon as he is out of sight of the
village!" Very well, four of us will go with him."
"And he'll thrash the whole four! he's a brigand!”
All the villagers, Chorbadjis and Medjliss (village council) included, suggested a hundred different ways of getting rid of the culprit, but no one thought of delivering him up to the constituted authorities.
Unfortunately, St. Clair thought he knew better; having a personal acquaintance with Abdurrachman Pasha, then Governor of Varna, and considering him as an honest and well-meaning man, he imagined that to give up the prisoner, with conclusive evidence of his crime, was to ensure his punishment: so he had the thief, his captor, and the heads of the village, brought into the house.
The examination of the horse-stealer was interesting enough, for he denounced not only the members of the band to which he was affiliated, but also the receivers of the property stolen by them; amongst the latter was a rich and highly-respected Greek merchant of Bazardjik, a small town in the Pashalik of Varna.
The prisoner's confession was taken down in writing, and retranslated into Turkish for the benefit of the Medjliss, who testified to the accuracy of the document. The culprit was then sent to Varna under the escort of Said, who being a Turk was not afraid of being thrashed by a Rayah, together with a letter addressed to the Governor and containing the details of the affair and the confession of the thief. But St. Clair was not able to write in Turkish, and, as Abdurrachman Pasha does not understand French, the letter naturally passed through the hands of the Pasha's dragoman, or interpreter, M. Commiano, a Greek by birth.
No official answer was vouchsafed to St. Clair's letter, but a few days after this occurrence, when out shooting in the forest, he met the stealer of horses, who saluted him with a courteous and perhaps slightly sarcastic “Oughour ola," “bon voyage”.
The explanation of this failure of justice is simple: on enquiry, St. Clair learned that the Greek merchant of Bazardjik, who was compromised by the disclosures of the robber, is a near relation of M. Commiano, and that the letter never reached the Pasha's hands.
In Turkey the Pasha's residence is always paved with good intentions, but this pavement is trodden by so many Greeks and other Oriental Christians, that the only result is dirt and mud.
Another instance of a slightly different kind: Some months since a Greek, Hassan of Varna, sold us a hound, which a few weeks afterwards he stole from us whilst we were out shooting, and re-sold in a village thirty miles distant.
We found out Mussulman witnesses of the theft who were ready to give their evidence when required, and we complained personally to the Pasha of Varna, who told us “that he was very sorry, but the Capitulations required that in a case of an affair between Englishmen and a Turkish subject, in which the latter if guilty would be liable to punishment, the British Consul should take official cognizance of the matter."
So we went to H.B.M.'s (present) Vice-Consul at Varna, and that gentleman at first informed us that we could get the matter settled without his interference by merely applying to the Pasha; when we stated that this could not be done without infringing the Capitulations, we were told, with a good deal of hesitation, that "it was scarcely consistent with the dignity of a British Consul to interfere officially in a case of dog-stealing."
During the reign of the Bourbons, there was an organization in Sicily which had a certain effect in checking brigandage in that island. Companies of the farmers and their labourers were formed under the name of Compagni d'armi, they enjoyed a rate of pay higher than that of the ordinary gensdarme, but from it they were required to put aside a certain portion into the chest of the Company; their duties were to patrol the roads and to apprehend brigands, and if any unpunished act of brigandage was committed within their district, the sufferer was indemnified from their reserve fund. This system, however incomplete, worked well, because there was somebody who was responsible. In Bulgaria no one but the Pasha or Kaimakam (Lieutenant-Governor) is responsible, and he is virtually unapproachable, for to reach him the peasant has to wade through a mire of corrupt subordinates, whose demands equally exhaust his patience and his purse.
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