Correspondence for the New York Evening Post
Joining the Bulgar Comitajis
By Albert Sonnichsen
New York Evening Post (Saturday, April 7, 1906)
Pages 1 to 12
[Special Correspondence of The Evening Post]
Scans as a .pdf file (0.7 Mb)
Revolutionists touched by the visit of an American
Deftness Required to Elude the Turkish Espionage of the Towns and Take to the Hills — "Dead" Leader Found Very Much Alive — Warm Welcome of the Macedonians
On THE LAKE OF THE TWO REPUBLICS.
MACEDONIA, February 25.
That is not the official name of this region, but that is what the inhabitants call it. Turks call it Karafferia Lake, or the Slanotza Swamps, but as Turks never come here, obviously they have no right to impose such a name on a place in which they dare not venture. The swamp mires swallow up all who come in haphazard, and only the "comitajis" know the winding water lanes through the tall cane brakes and swamp grass.
Here, in the centre of the great swamp, bordering on the lake itself, are the two republics, of which more later. Here, at any rate, we find a grateful rest after the merry chase the askers led us last week. They seemed first to think the Greek bands had abducted me, then decided that the blood-drinking Bulgarian brigand, Luca, held me somewhere in a cave. Since two days ago they have been quiet; perhaps they are beginning to suspect the joke. Our only means of information is the local committee in town, and their knowledge is limited. Letters from Sofia have not had time to come. Everything was carried out according to programme; the organization indeed works smoothly.
I left Salonica on the morning of the 15th, by the Turkish Government line, running up to Monastic. We rolled leisurely over a low, flat plain from the sea, the mountains a blue outline on the horizon. Vodena at last. At the station I underwent the last of my many official ordeals; my passport, my moral character, my business, and my baggage were alt carefully inquired into. No bombs in my baggage, no visible blemish on my character, passports all correct, and I passed into the crowd of local inhabitants who stood curiously inspecting the new arrivals.
I scanned the faces for one I knew, the courier between Vodena and Salonica who knew me, I saw him make a sign and a boy with him stepped out and grasped my handbag. I took care that of all the crowd of aspiring candidates, he should be my porter. He was a lad of fifteen, a Viach, but speaking Bulgarian. From the station to the town was a mile of open road and we had chance to talk.
"I am to take you to the Greek hotel," he said. "After dinner, visit the Greek school, the kaimakam, and the Greek bishop. At four o'clock return to the hotel; you will see me lounging about the street; then follow."
Through the crooked, narrow main street we came to the hotel where, my porter, demanding too big a fee, caused a row between him and the hospitable hotel keeper, I remarked that my host, though a Greek, in a land where Bulgars are officially nonexistent, spoke fluent Bulgarian. As I learned later, he knew no more Greek than I. Poor fellow, he was imprisoned later for complicity in my murder, but I solemnly declare he is innocent.
FINDING AN INTERPRETER.
My call on the kaimakam, tire governor of the province, was snort. He was a small, jolly-looking Albanian, but as we found no language we knew in common, we greeted, shook hands and parted again. My inability to communicate with those about me was becoming painful, and at times I was tempted to resort to Bulgarian, which I heard all around me. I had relied on finding a Spanish Jew, in town as interpreter, but the Jewish population was less than one. On the other hand, it was edifying to hear the personal remarks expressed among those with whom I tried to make myself understood by signs. My distress was becoming obvious. A growing group of mixed Christians and Mussulmans were escorting me about from place to place, all loudly voicing my demand for someone speaking English or German. They brought me to a Bulgarian railroad engineer, but he disclaimed any knowledge of German. As I learned afterward, he knew it well, for we met again that evening, but he did not desire my acquaintance in public. He suggested that they find me the station master on the railroad, an Austrian, who at last came to my relief.
He it was who accompanied me on my tour of observation. Together we visited the Greek school. Like all small Christian government officials, I found him a strong partisan of the Greek Church and bitterly opposed to the revolutionary movement.
"You, should be careful how you travel here," he warned me, "up in those mountains lives the brigand Luca, a bloodthirsty beast. He would sweep you in for ransom in a moment if he had a chance." I thanked him or his warning. It was the first of the monumental heap of lies with which those good people tried to stuff me that afternoon, innocent foreigner that they believed me to be.
"Those cursed Secessionists," said a teacher of the school, "traitors to our Holy Orthodox Church. They live by murder and rapine. Never speak to a Bulgarian or a Vlach, they are a people condemned to hell."
My Austrian companion took me to visit a cotton factory, built on the brink of the bluff overlooking the plain. The manager, he told me, spoke English. I remembered then, that I had heard of this man, as a secret agent of the Greek organization, or, to be more direct, of the Church. I thought it would be even better to visit him than the bishop. It was this which evidently led the Turks to believe afterwards that the Greeks had hustled me off into the mountains or murdered me; that and the fact that I left this gentleman's card in my baggage when I went. The mill manager abused Bulgarians and Vlachs through all our inspection of the works.
"Why," I suggested, "don’t the Greeks join with the other Christians in the revolution?"
"We Greeks don't believe in revolution while a Bulgar lives," he told me. "Europe and America should know that, and sympathize with us."
"Then what are the Greek bands doing in the mountains?" I asked.
"Fighting and keeping back the Bulgarians. We hate them. Our bands have so far always beaten back the Bulgarian bands, and soon we'll have them out of Macedonia. Last year we killed their best tighter, Apostol Voyvoda." (I have since repeated this interview to Apostol.)
Fifty years ago the Balkan Peninsula was indeed Greek up to the Russian frontier. In all the schools, even up in Rumania, only Greek was allowed to be taught, and the church services were held in Greek. Wherever the Turkish flag was planted, there all Christians were officially Greek. With the growth of intelligence among the people began the first protest, not against Turkish rule, but against the tyranny of the Greek Church, whose dignitaries lived in Oriental splendor on the taxes extorted from the simple peasants. That was the beginning of a movement identical with Protestantism in Europe in the Middle Ages. The Turkish Government, which feared that the patriarch was getting too powerful, secretly helped these first Bulgarian and Rumanian Protestants. They were allowed to establish schools in their own languages.
CRUMBLING OF THE CHURCH POWER.
With the liberation, first of Rumania, then of Bulgaria and Rumelia, the power of the Church crumbled in those lands. With its last stronghold in Macedonia threatened, the Church began a fiercely defensive fight. Influenced by their free brethren in Bulgaria and Rumania, one by one the villages seceded, until those who were Greek by race only remained faithful, a thin strip of population along the sea coast, and in the district near the Greek frontier:
Then began a reign of terror. Bands of armed men, in the pay of the Church, invaded the seceding villages, murdered the secessionist priests, closed their churches, and killed all prominent citizens who had declared themselves against the Church.
There was organized the Macedonian Revolutionary Committee—twelve years ago. It supplied arms secretly to the villagers, who, together with the chetas, quickly drove the Greek bands out of Bulgarian communities. Early last year the committee withdrew its chetas from Macedonia to give the reforms a chance and show their good faith. In a week armed bands crossed over from Greece, overran all southern Macedonia and began "reconverting" the villagers to the true faith again. The committee responded by sending back its chetas, a fierce war of two months followed, and the Greeks were dispersed. In most cases they made poor resistance, for they fought for a hire; each man two liras (ten dollars) a month.
I take this pains at a detailed explanation, for without understanding the cause of these fierce hatreds, events which I shall relate in future letters will be misunderstood. The situation is interesting as a repetition of history; here we may see repeated the Huguenot movement in France; that of the Covenanters in Scotland. That the opposing factions are different of nationality is only accident; the struggle is primarily for freedom of religious thought. It is the old story of war between the Church and State on one side, the people on the other.
It was late when I left the factory and returned to the hotel. I found the boy lounging about in the street, but as he saw me, he set out slowly for the Vlach quarter of the town and I followed leisurely. In a private house, which I entered unobserved, I met the local committee and the final plans were arranged. Then I returned to the hotel.
It was about five, almost dark. I had been sitting, talking with a Jewish traveller, drinking Russian tea. The hotel dining-room was crowded with Greeks and Turkish officers. J asked when supper would be ready, then announced my intention of taking a short stroll to the railway station before being closed in, for at seven, soldiers take possession of the hotels, and no one may go out again.
"Look out," warned the hotel-keeper, "after dark, the country swarms with Bulgarian brigands." He calls himself a Greek, this obsequious inn-keeper, but his mother and father and brother are Bulgarians. He has been a Bulgar himself on several occasions; should the revolutionary cause ever win freedom for the country he, with many like him, will take bright crimson fez and become Bulgars again.
I left the ... ... down the street toward the open road, leading out to the station. There was a bridge just beyond the last houses. Two men stood there smoking. As I approached they started slowly along the road, away from the town. The two men turned suddenly and dived into an adjoining orchard, while I followed at a quick pace. Deep in among the trees we came together, and continued at a fast walk in single file. We passed through half a mile of orchards and vineyards, before coming to open country. There we halted. One of my companions uttered an owl hoot. Out in the darkness among some bushes rose two figures. We came together and shook hands.
"These are the couriers," said one of my companions from the town, "we must be back before closing up, "or we might be missed. Take this, God guard you in your work." He gave me a six-shooter and a belt of ammunition, then he and his companion left us.
The two couriers and I continued on toward the mountains, one far ahead of me, the other behind. Coming to the railroad line, we closed in, for at every few hundred metres along the line is stationed a sentinel.
"If they challenge, fall flat," said the courier.
We crept carefully through the brush, crossing the track, over a tunnel. Below I heard the voices of the guards, who, at night, group themselves together, for company. Turkish askers are not very dangerous at night time. We were getting well up into the foothills of the mountains now, a splotch of snow here and there behind a bush or a rock, as well as the colder atmosphere, denoting the rising altitude. After an hour's climb, we halted, one of the couriers called; an answering call echoed back; from among the rocks above.
We climbed up and found a peasant waiting with a horse which the couriers made me mount. My heavy overcoat and store shoes were telling on my pace, and I was glad of the mount. The barking of dogs told me we approached a village. It must have been about ten o'clock when we entered a small settlement of a few dozen houses. A number of villagers greeted me quietly with a handshake.
THE FIVE COMITAJIS.
Presently five mounted men, muffled in great, white shepherd cloaks, rode out of an enclosure beside the largest house. Against the pale sky of the horizon, I marked rifle-barrels sticking up from their shoulders, and I knew them as comitajis. They greeted me with a handshake.
"Luca has sent us down to meet you, and wish you his welcome," said one. Bidding the villagers and my two guides good-by, we rode on further up into the mountains. The snow became plentiful now. An hour later came to my ears again the barking of dogs, and on a ridge above I saw the black outlines of straw-thatched roofs. By the bright starlight, I saw a dozen then or more coming down the narrow trail before us, the light glinting on the metal of their weapons. Then I heard my name called, a greeting, and I was shaking hands with Luca Ivanoff, chief of the Vodenska revolutionary district, and head voyvoda of the committee's chetas in that territory. We had no need to introduce ourselves, for we had previously met in Sofia.
I dismounted from my horse in the doorway of a large house, and then was almost carried by the enthusiastic villagers and chetniks upstairs into a well-lighted room, and deposited before a roaring fire in an open fireplace. They had known of my coming for several days.
The fields outside Vodena had been wet and deep with mud, so that I was soaked to my waist, and almost frozen stiff. In a minute they had my clothes off, put me into clean, woollen underwear, and newly made gray woollen trousers, white leggins, heavy stockings, and a dark gray coat — the revolutionary uniform. A motherly old lady brought me in a hot mixture to drink, composed mostly of cognac.
Luca, his secretary and sub-chief, half a dozen of his chetniks, and the elders of the village seated themselves on the blanket-covered floor in a semi-circle about the fire, and then began their questions and inquiries regarding my experiences since leaving Sofia. The villagers were deeply moved; that a foreigner, not even a European, from a far-away country not interested in their struggle, should come to take up arms for their cause, stirred their emotions. The old village priest went into a long speech on the subject that would have been maudlin, were his sincerity not so plainly visible. They let him go it for twenty minutes.
Supper was served by the women. We sat crosslegged about a low table. Such a supper, too, I had seldom eaten, even in Sofia. The committee in the town had sent up bottled beer from Salonica ordered for the occasion. There was the best the village could offer; chicken and whole roasted lamb, trout from the streams, fresh milk and cheese and eggs, walnuts, oranges, apples, roasted chestnuts, and most wonderful, grapes that were apparently, fresh from the vineyard, preserved, I don't know how.
We feasted on far into the night, talking hour after hour. Some of the statements made by the partisans of the Church to me during my travels immensely amused my new comrades; that Apostol Voyvoda was dead a year, that Luca drank the blood of small children, that the Church bands had cleared Macedonia of comitajis.
At last the table was cleared away, the fire died down, we rolled ourselves up in our shepherd cloaks, and presently I slept, sweetly unconscious of the disturbance my disappearance was causing in town. We heard of that later.
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