Correspondence for the New York Evening Post

Albert Sonnichsen




Camp Life with Luca's Comitajis

By Albert Sonnichsen


New York Evening Post (Saturday, June 2, 1906)

Saturday supplement

Pages 1 to 10


[Special Correspondence of The Evening Post]




Scans as a .pdf file (0.7 Mb)



Traps ready for the Turks if they invade the rebel stronghold


The Lighter Side of Macedonian Revolution Uppermost Around the Fires After Supper — Various Types of Bulgars Who Make Up the Chetas








We have had three weeks of quiet life in camp. Nothing of importance has happened since the burning of Nici, save the exchange of a few cheta between a patrol of twenty-five askers and eight of our men, who were out on forage among the flocks of a Turkish bey. Neither party being expressly on the war-path, each beat a tactical retreat and left the field in possession of the bey's sheep.


The snow is melting on the mountains. In a few days we shall be up among the peaks and crags, sleeping out. Our daily experiences up there will be of greater variety. And still, I rather regret the breaking up of camp. Here, our life has been most favorable for a deeper intimacy with my comrades. In the villages, we were quartered in different houses, never more than six in one, so we came all together only on the night marches, when silence was the standing order. Here, on the islands in the marsh, Macedonia is already free.


Just now, there is a tremendous game going on, something like leap-frog, wilder and rougher than football. The boys pile up in a pyramid, then topple and roll over in a yelling, laughing heap, bruising each other gloriously. Every ten minutes the chief comes out of the main hut and roars at them, demanding less noise. There are askers in the villages on the edge of the marsh, he shouts.


As I sit in the shade of one of the huts, the delusion comes over me that I am watching team, practice on a college campus. They average from eighteen to twenty-two, these warriors, some few with sprouting whiskers, most of them clean jawed as young buck Indians, and almost as brown from sun tan. The uniformity of dress, red sashes, gray breeches, white leggins and moccasins helps the picture. But now come two gray-beards to hustle their younger comrades around and I realize this is Macedonia. These are the comitajis, with the fear of whom Turkish mothers silence the cries of their babies.


If I have grown to like my comrades en masse, still more have I come to like individuals among them. I have been with the cheta for only two months, but already I have felt that primitive emotion which develops among men, even of various temperaments, while they hold together against enemies and dangers common to all.


About the liveliest in the scrambling heap before me is Teodor, who seems to have forgot his dignity as second in command. In a regular, disciplined army, an officer should not be seen tumbling over on his head and waggling his logs in the air, though he be only twenty-two. But Teodor has done service which gives him privileges. Of evenings, as we walk up and down the open space before the huts together, he tells me of his past experiences.




It begins with his school days. He was seventeen then, in his last year of the pedagogical gymnasium. Six months later he should have taken his diploma, and have gone off to a small town to teach children their letters. He dwells fondly on those school days; before he gets down to real history he reviews all the old pranks. He has given me a dozen versions of how they badgered the harmless old Mussulman who taught them Turkish an hour each day. Their special joke was to slip stones into the pockets of his big, loose jacket when he wasn't looking.


"We had organized among us older boys," he said "a branch revolutionary committee to help the work along where we could. I was secretary of our school committee and was in continual correspondence with the chief of the district.


"Of course our college facility was the local revolutionary committee, as it is in every district where there is a school or a college. This year the branch of the Bulgarian Church had appointed as one of our professors a long, lean sycophant, who took no interest in revolutionary matters beyond spying on the other masters and reporting to his superiors. The heads of the Bulgarian Church are not much more our friends than the Greek churchmen.


"The revolutionary committee wanted to get rid of this fellow. So they told us to go out on strike and demand his removal. We did; we sent in a protest against him, with charges based on our imaginations. There was a big row, the school was closed for the year and several of us were expelled. I couldn't got my diploma — so I joined the cheta up in our hilts."


Teodor was too intelligent a boy to remain long a common chetnik. They sent him on special missions, often into the towns, for he was young and harmless looking. One day he went into Salonica — on business, of course. He and three comrades went into a café; they had met by chance and decided to drink together.


One of them turned back the lapel of his coat to pull out his purse. A Greek at the next table caught a glimpse of a revolver butt. The four were speaking Bulgarian; evidently they were Bulgars. That was enough for the Greek. He reported the matter to a nearby police officer. Five minutes later all four of the revolutionists were seized, to each was applied the torture. They beat Teodor on the point of his chin with a mallet. They whipped the soles of his bare feet with a keen switch. You do not feel the blows, he says, but in your breast, near the heart, is a pain as of needle piercing and tearing flesh. Then they put hot eggs into his arm pits. But they got nothing out of the boy.


One of the four confessed all he knew, then went mad. That evening the principal leaders of the Macedonian Committee were arrested, Deman Grueff, Dr. Tatartcheff, Père Tosheff, and a dozen others. The organization was all but crushed. The trial was a farce. All would have been condemned to death, but European influence commuted the sentence to one hundred and one years in prison. They were sent to the walled towns of Asia Minor.


Teodor spent one year in the fortress of Accia, in Arabia. What was left of the organization sent the prisoners money, for in Turkish prisons no rations are given. With this money Teodor and his companions bought food and privileges.


One day the commandant of the prison came to them—they were four together— and said:


"Give me twelve liras and I shall help you escape."


But they were suspicious and held back.


"Six, then," said the colonel, ''and you shall be free."


They still refused. Next day they learned of the general amnesty. The news had been withheld five days.




Teodor got back to his native town and rejoined his cheta in the mountains a week later. In another few months he was in command of that cheta. I have spoken with people from that district who say he was a genuine terror. I should judge so, for I know his reputation here in Vodin. He got seven soldiers of the Greek Church cornered in a stone house once. While his men kept them busy he crawled through a window into the basement of the house, set several sticks of dynamite in the right place, and watched the house and its seven defenders fly up in a ball of flame.


In the district next to his was a cheta sent by a certain Bulgarian general in Sofia who wishes to free Macedonia from behind his desk. . In those days, three years ago, there were various brands of Macedonian revolution. But the stout general behind the desk did not always know what kind of men he sent across the frontier. This particular cheta went into the tax collecting business. The pockets of the chetniks jingied with golden liras and their persons were adorned with silver lockets and chains and they wore costly rings and watches. Teodor, without going into the politics of the thing, decided this kind of revolution wasn't good for the country. So he hunted up that cheta and tried to wipe it out. Through a tactical mistake he only partly succeeded. Public sentiment was at once hurt, newspapers went into hysterics and the stout general wept and lamented before great audiences. Teodor came to Bulgaria, and proved his case. He stayed only a month, but when he returned he went to another region, nor was he first in command any longer. That was politics.


With a record like that Teodor may safety venture, to skylark occasionally without losing prestige among the boys. He holds them by another string, too; he is a "gramaten." He has had schooling beyond mere reading and writing, rare enough among the village boys in this country, where State and Church are both against education for the masses. I have observed the best element in the chetas is the Bulgarian. There are five boys from free Bulgaria with us, each of whom has had at least ten years of schooling. I have become intimate with one, Alexander, because we are both fond of poking around unexplored corners of the swamp in boats. He has been comitaji two years, although he hasn't the sign of a mustache yet.




Three years ago he was in the neat black and red uniform of the military academy in Soda. The revolution broke out in Macedonia. He and his younger brother, also a cadet, left the academy, taking with them two Government rifles, and joined the revolutionary army. His brother was killed in the first fight. Six months later he returned to Bulgaria, where they poked him into prison for a while. They then put him into the ranks as a private. Some weeks later the Committee was richer by one good chetnik and a Mannlicher rifle. These educated revolutionary soldiers, however, are not half so interesting looking as the more illiterate. The most picturesque looking of our band is St. lohn the Baptist. He is calied that because he wears his hair in front like the saint in an ikon. He has gentle, blue eyes, and his short, sprouting beard is golden red.


Of evening St. John seats himself on a mat in a corner of the big hut and rolls off his yarns in rather broken Bulgarian, for he is from a Vlach village; his mother tongue is Rumanian. He has been out four years. I asked him once how old he was. He judged he wasn't much past twenty, because when he joined the chetas he was only a head taller than his gun. He was a shepherd boy then. The bey of his village had a servant, a big, bearded Albanian, who made himself disagreeable to the villagers. He would send an order to some family that a supper of chicken and eggs was to be prepared. Then he would come and eat it.


One night the Albanian steward came to St. John's house, and after the dinner fell asleep. The boy disarmed him, and broke his leg with an axe. All night the Albanian howled and roared, while the boy sat near with a gun and gloated. Toward morning he shot him through the head, before evening he was with the cheta. There are seven in our band of thirty-five who have joined in that way.


Evening is the pleasantest time in camp. During the day, there is plenty of work, especially now, for Luca is preparing against possible invasion this summer, when the water will be low and soldiers might wade into ride range. They tried it last summer, but failed. It was St. John, in command of ten men, who bayoneted almost fifty askers floundering in the mud.


Toward dusk, work is finished, outposts are stationed, and the boys gather about an early supper in the open space before the huts. About that time we hear an outpost challenge down among the bulrushes. Then a punt or two slip in to our landing, and Apostol and some of his men jump ashore to spend the evening. His cheta is camped on another island a quarter of a mile away.




After dark, we gather in the big hut, in the centre of which two fires are constantly burning. Then there is story-telling. One of the best talkers is "Dedo," which means "Old dad." He is the oldest Chetnik, or rather desitnik, for he commands ten men.


Dedo is almost sixty, but husky and robust yet. His long locks are white, and his bushy long whiskers are iron gray; he looks a typical old Boer soldier. His is an interesting history; he has been "haramee;" That is the Turkish word for "brigand."


In the early days, when Dedo was young, there was no revolutionary organization. The mountains were infested by brigands, Mussulmans, and Christians alike. Some of these bands ready worked to improve the condition of the people of their locality, but most of them were out for loot. Like all brigands, they gained the sympathy and support of the peasantry by robbing only the rich; the old Robin Hood game. Their favorite business was to capture a bey or a rich merchant and hold him for ransom.


In those days when a young man of the people lost his temper and did a killing, he had no choice but to join the brigands. When Dedo was a lad of twenty, he lost his temper one day and killed a Turk who could drink wine only from the hands of a Christian maid.


For many years Dedo followed the brigand business; then he retired, with a good sum of money, to Vodin, where he was not known, on a false certificate, and bought a small farm. Then came the Committee; Dedo became an earnest worker in the organization. He gave his money freely, and was active in agitating the revolutionary idea among the villagers. A year ago, the Turks got wind of this and sent a squad of soldiers to arrest him. A friendly Turk warned him, so he took his gun, and cut across the fields for the mountains. They began to persecute Dedo's son; now father and son are both in the cheta together, the boy under his father's command.


But we have two Dedos in camp, the other is Dedo Martini. Teodor is always mixing his name up with the makers of rifles, and calls him Dedo Mannlicher. Dedo Martini is seventy-five years old, and, of course, does not carry a gun; he is bent and crippled with rheumatism. All he can do is to weave rush mats under the delusion that he is helping the cause along. He is, in fact, the cheta's mascot, and can only sit and mumble of the days when he was young, several sultans ago.


Dedo Mannlicher came into the cheta two years ago. The chetniks had entered a village one night, when they heard cries and sounds of blows in a hut. They entered and found a woman beating an old man. It wits Dedo’s daughter putting him to bed. It turned out that she was his only relative, so they took him from her and established him in the marsh.


But telling strong stories isn't the only recreation. We have amateur theatricals. There is a young fellow called Satyr, dwarfed in stature and old and wrinkled in face, who is constantly acting the fool. One of his cleverest feats is to put on the red fez of some visiting peasant and give us an imitation of a Turkish soldier on sentry duty at night The sentry hears a noise and is on the qui vite. Satyr faithfully represents the soldier's growing emotions as the noise approaches. Finally he is in a fearful state of agitation, with fixed bayonet. At last he calls "Kim cu sis?" three times, "Who are you?" Then he fires his piece and runs, yelling "Comita! comita!" Meanwhile a confederate has shoved a paper imitation of a mouse in through the doorway. The boys can endure any number of repetitions of this comedy, and always respond with loud laughter.


Satyr's masterpiece, however, is his representation of a Turkish hodja delivering a sermon in the mosque. This is usually reserved for Sunday evenings, when the hut is filled with visitors from nearby villages. With a red sash he makes himself a tremendous turban, and out of the cheesecloth used for cleaning guns he fashions a gown, fastened, with another red sash. Of a piece of wire he makes a pair of huge spectacles. Then, with a book, representing the Koran, he chants his texts. Occasionally the hodja slips behind an imaginary door to have a swig from a small bottle. The sermon usually ends with it wild fit of supplication to Allah that these sinning giaours of comitajis may be made to see the sinfulness of their ways


Yes, on the whole, i shall be sorry when we break camp.


Mr. Sonnichsen has been a member of Luca’s rebel cheta, with headquarters in the Swamp of Karafferia for two months, having successfully eluded the search of the Turks, who were angered by the fact that an American ... had joined the little Macedonian ... A number of letters from Mr. Sonnichsen have been published in the "Evening Post,'' the last (one?) having been received after the cabled (and false) rumor that he had been killed, and containing a vivid story of the burning of the village of Nici.



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