Correspondence for the New York Evening Post

Albert Sonnichsen




How the Turks Wiped out a Cheta

By Albert Sonnichsen


New York Evening Post (Saturday, October 20, 1906)

Saturday supplement

Pages 1 to 12


[Special Correspondence of The Evening Post]




Scans as a .pdf file (1.4 Mb)



A massacre of Macedonian revolutionists watched at sunset


Rifle Fire and Dynamite Bombs Used When Petsov's Chetniks Made a Last Stand in the Bey's Konak at Liselo — How "Petrush The Just" Makes Law on the Border of Islam.



MONASTIR VILAYET, Macedonia, May 21. — It is almost four months since I came into the field here, a period which has afforded me not a few stirring experiences, but the thing which, until now, has most deeply affected me, occurred this week. It has been an event that has terrified even the natives, hardened though they are to scenes of blood and murder.


To me, comparatively a stranger, born and reared in a country supposed to be the freest in the world, it has seemed doubly terrible, the more so, because—indirectly and innocently enough—I have been the cause. I should have joined the cheta earlier. Now those men, who were to have been my comrades, are wiped out of existence as cleanly as one would have wiped their names off a slate.


We, my comrade and I, had been in the city three weeks. Our work was done; it was time to continue our circuit through the provinces. It was to discuss this question that a member of the upper committee came to spend the night with us, a week ago this evening. We lay awake until late laying out my route toward the Albanian frontier.


"To-morrow, Monday," he said, "is market day. In the evening you two can drift out after noon with the throngs. Then, in peasant costume, you can slowly move on from village to village, along our canal, until, in four or five days, you come to the rendezvous. That will give me time to write to our voyyoda, Petsov, and he will come with his cheta to meet you."


That was the first plan. But, unfortunately for Petsov and his men, it was not carried out. The next day passed, but we remained in the city. Unforeseen obstacles delayed preparations, so we had to remain over. The following Thursday would be "small market day," when the peasants from the nearby villages would come in. Meanwhile, the letter to Petsov Voyvoda had gone, in which he was notified by which canal we would approach him.


"This delay doesn't matter much," said the man of the committee; "by Thursday Petsov will be in a village four hours out of town, and you shall meet him the same night."


Thursday came, and again we did not leave town. The villager who was to be our courier had been delayed by inquisitive patriots. But there could be no more waiting; next day, Friday, being a Turkish holiday, vigilance would be lax, and we could go out as if for a walk in the fields.


And so it happened. At noon we walked through the suburbs, in European costume and fez, unnoticed by the police. Ahead walked the courier, apparently one of the numerous laborers in the market gardens. We did not take to the main highway, but through the tall grass. An hour's walk brought us to a small cluster of shepherds' huts, where we stopped to rest and drink some milk, About half a mile away, at the base of a low range of foothills, ran the main highway. Beyond one of the smaller hills several minarets were visible.


As we sat talking with the shepherds, one jumped to his feet, gazing toward the bend in the highway turning into town. The road was partly screened here by small trees. We followed the shepherd's gaze, then saw galloping out from behind the trees four mounted men. The distance was small enough to recognize them at once as Turkish. We had barely noted them when a solid column of cavalry swept out at a quick trot, until a full troop was in view. A few minutes' waiting, and a second troop followed; then a third — full three hundred takers. This was no patrol. And when cavalry, especially Turkish, travels at a quick trot, it has a near and important object in view.


"Espionage somewhere," muttered a shepherd; "they have just received important information. They are after comitajis."


My companion and I exchanged uneasy glances. We knew that the chetas do not usually come down on the plain. Where, if discovered and attacked, there is no ground for defensive position. The low, roiling foothills, bald of anything save grass, are not much better, and timbered mountains are half a day's travel from here.




As soon as the troops had passed, we continued our march with the courier and three of the shepherds. The quick-moving horsemen soon disappeared over the brow of a slight rise, but we, on foot, did not reach the elevation until an hour later. As we ascended, there came a sound which quickened my pulse a beat or two. A noise from far away such as this, is like the short rip of tearing canvas. So is distant volley firing. We ran to the top of the rise.


Ahead was a great amphitheatre, bordered by low sloping hills. Beyond rose the Balkans, blue in the distance. In a small hollow, just above the edge of the plain, we saw the red-tiled roofs of a village against a green background of rising orchards and wheat fields. A winding path ram across the fields for a mile or two, where it joined the highway. The three troops of cavalry were just forking into the small byroad.


"That village is Liselo," said our courier.


The three shepherds made the sigh of the cross; Although there was no smoke visible, the firing was plainly from Liselo.


Tall poplars, straggling across the fields, made it difficult to distinguish the country beyond. A low ridge shooting out of the nearby hills, of which the rising ground on which we stood was a continuation, led to a small settlement a mile above. We made for this ridge, ascending it on the run. The plain was presently out of sight, but the firing did not cease. In twenty minutes we reached the houses, which were just below the ridge, in a hollow. Fully a hundred men, women, and children stood above us. Soon we reached them, panting heavily. The assembled villagers were almost as impressive as that which we presently saw beyond. Some of the men leaned on Grat rides, some on hoes. Many of the women carried babies. There was little noise, only short, low examination, no conversations. But every face was turned in the same direction — toward Liselo, not more than two miles across.


We could now distinguish the occasional zip! of a Mannlicher ride above the rasping volleys of the Turkish Mausers. The slopes above Liselo were streaked here and there by lines of black figures, prone on the earth. Sometimes one rose and ran, and then squatted again. Below, in the plain, stood the riderless horses of the three troops that had passed. A long, irregular line of men was describing a semicircle from below to the groups above.


In the besieged village not a moving object was visible. Above the low, red roofs rose the more pretentious residence of the local bey, a two-storied edifice — the konak. We could not see where the revolutionists were intrenched, but, judging by the positions of the soldiers, they were not far from the konak, and, in fact, it heeded no expert to suppose that they had taken this large stone-walled building and were now making their stand in it. As a position it had its disadvantages. The askers were in a position to pour a continuous fire through the roof from the heights above, for just behind the village the ground was very steep.




There seemed to come a lull in the firing. A movement was going on in the semicircle of black figures. Then, with a sudden spurt, they shot out in small groups, toward the houses, and were lost again behind walls and trees. The firing opened up once more. Suddenly a ball of white smoke shot up from the greenery about the konak, spreading as it ascended; then came the splitting report of a thundering explosion. Another puff, another boom, and a third! We knew now that the cheta was in the konak; they were hurling their bombs.


There was great commotion among the black figures. The firing ceased—a short silence—then again a white ball of smoke and a boom. I do not believe I deew a breath for five minutes. The sun was almost setting now, and in the red glow objects became more indistinct. The formation of the black figures was breaking up; they were pouring down hill into this village. Presently a vague blue haze gathered above the konak and a few of the neighboring houses; then we saw the glare of fire. Before dark, the konak was in full blaze. Several deep, muffled reports came from the burning building, bombs evidently, but under falling timbers and waits. All those hours we had stood in a silent group of villagers. Now we heard the sobbing of several women. As the blanket of a moonless night fell, we descended to the huts.


Next morning my companion and I were back in the city, where w-o had full news. Petsov, with fourteen men, had been betrayed by a spy. The village had been surrounded by a garrison from a nearby village, and bashi-bazouks from a neighboring Turkish settlement. The cheta successfully kept them off until the arrival of reinforcements. One chetnik then attempted to escape in peasant's costume. He was caught and his throat cut. The other thirteen, with Petsov, had been killed in the konak, and their bodies burned with it.


Of the Turks, how many fell we have not learned. But I have since spoken with peasants who saw in the night a patrol of askers, followed by three hay carts. What those carts contained we imagined. One such wagon holds about ten men, fifteen if piled high.


[Mr. Sonnichsen's next letter is dated more than a month afterward. The first correspondence was delayed for some reason, and reached New York in the same mail with the later.]





OCHRIDSKO, Macedonia, June 28—Two years ago the Macedonian Revolutionary Organization published a map of this empire of constant trouble, speckled with little red spots and crosses. Each of the dots located the scene of a burned village, a massacre, or a fight between peasants and raiding bands of Albanian brigands. The farther south you trace your way into Macedonia, the redder grows the map, until you get into this Ochridsko district, and there the map is a vivid crimson. Here is one of the real boundaries between Christendom and Islam.


My fellow brigands and I are camping on the top of a high mountain, so high that we can look down across a broad valley of wheat fields into the craggy land of Arnautluk, known to Europeans as Albania, whose men are the fiercest warriors of all Islam. Until a year or two ago, their constant raids across the valleys among the Bulgar peasants, unofficially invited and permitted by the Turkish Government, made the region the hell it was. They still come, but no longer as pillaging bands. I have met many of them here among the Bulgarian villages since I joined the revolutionary cheta of this district, and they gripped our hands and called us "agahs"' and "effendis."


It is over month since I wandered into this domain of the revolutionary chieftain Kuonnas Petrush, the Just, to learn that he, and not Abdul Hamid, is ruler here. The foreign gendarmerie have learned this, and they secretly meet him to discuss the affairs of the people. He has a satchetful of petitions from Turkish beys and landowners, begging him to count them in as friends of his people.


I had heard enough to rouse a mild desire to meet the chief, so I ran my march route through his region. We were seated about the fire in a peasant hut; outside was blowing a gale, and rain poured in torrents. We did not expect him to keep the appointment. Then out in the night the dogs barked, an outpost challenged, and a dozen men crowded into our hut. A row of schoolboys in natty gray uniforms, and smart student caps! And Petrush was the youngest looking of all; with the girlish face of a Raphael study. I found a chance ten minutes later to whisper to a friend:


"This isn't a cheta; it is a corporal's file from a cadet school."


"Petrush is older than he looks," he replied, "he's almost twenty-three. Some of his men are older, even twenty-five."


The first night after crossing over into Ochridsko, askers occupied the village we should have entered; Petrush established headquarters in a hut, not five hundred paces up the mountain, screened from the village by heavy timber. Here the villagers, on pretence of going out into the fields to work, could come to us freely next day. Early in the morning after a breakfast of milk and bread, the court of complaints was opened. Petrush and I were seated on a rug against the wall, on either side the members of the cheta. The villages crowded the open space before us, seated on the ground crosslegged, or standing when speaking.


The first case was a complaint that askers had come to collect six liras for the building of police posts along the roads for "the greater security of villagers going to town market."


''Last time, they came," said the speaker, "as you know, they flogged us for refusing; it was twelve liras then. It is six now; shall we pay!"


"I," replied Petrush, "will flog you if you pay. So, if you get flogged in either case, it is better to save six liras by not paying. It they flog one of you again, send a delegation to the consuls in Monastic and roar out your complaints till they hear.


"This idea of planting police posts along the roads," said Petrush to me, "is an old one. Long ago we gave, by force. There are yet no posts. Anyhow, we want none. The money only goes into the pocket of the pasha of the vilayet. They will send again, and demand only a lira, but we shall give nothing."


The next charge was against a bey who owned the local flour mill.


"He has raised the price of grinding one-third," said the complaint.

"Don't go to his mill," said the chief.

"There is no other," they replied.

"Build one," said Petrush, "you have a good stream of water."




"No one of us has the money."


"Then take the money from the village treasury, and let the mill be public. The miller and his boy shall be paid, and what is left over goes back into the village treasury, the price for grinding to be one-half of what the bey asks."


"That is Socialism," I whispered aside.


"All revolutionists are socialists," replied Petrush.


After the general cases, individuals were allowed to come forward to utter private complaints. One had given a field as security for a loan, and wished now to repay the loan and take back the land. But he who had given the loan said:


"It is over twenty years ago that I have the loan and took the land. In that time I have improved the property, and the land has increased in value. Shall I lose the cost of my improvements?"


The case was discussed an hour and witnesses called. Finally Petrush decided:


"This case has waited twenty-some-odd years. You evidently waited for me to be born and grown up to decide it for you. It has stood so long, let it stand so a few years longer until we are liberated. Then you shall have a better court than this to decide it for you. We are revolutionists and can't sit here two weeks to collect all the necessary evidence and give the case the consideration it needs, and so create precedence for more such cases."


Then came a criminal case. One had gone to a distant village and stolen a horse. The offender was sentenced to twenty blows of a cane. Petrush told him:


"Next week you will take a passport and go to Bulgaria, leaving your wife and children here. After a year you may return— if you come before I shall kill you. If you commit crimes in Bulgaria I shall send your family to their relatives and burn your house."


In one village we were just in the middle of a case when the alarm "Asker!" came, and we hurried into the neighboring forest. That evening, after dark, though the askers were still in the village, we entered again and finished the work.


My most interesting experience with Petrush has been our visit to the village of Godivje, high in the mountains, close up to the Albanian frontier. This village was long known and avoided as a brigand's nest, by Turks and Christians alike.


"Until two years ago," Petrush told me, "we had avoided this village as hopeless Then the Committee ordered me either to bring it into line or destroy it.


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I didn't like that work, for they were known there as hard fighters. Even the Albanian brigands avoided them in their raids. "


I have heard the story repeatedly from the chetniks who accompanied Petrush in this expedition. They entered the village twenty strong, and commanded the inhabitants to assemble. The chiefs came, then the door of the house was shut, and five chetniks stood before it. Now the chief brigand of the village was the priest, a big fellow, with a beard down to his waist.


"Sit down," commanded Petrush.


"Go to the devil," the priest replied. A chetnik drove his bayonet two inches into the priest's thigh, and the latter dropped his revolver with a yell.


"At them, comrades," he cried.


This time he was knocked down by a blow from the butt of a gun. The rest of the cheta covered the other brigands with their rides and quickly disarmed them. The hands of the priest were tied behind him. Then Petrush made a speech advising them to enter, as Bulgarians and Christians, into the organization against their common enemies, the Turks. They promised, but insisted on the privilege of robbing Albanians. Petrush did not push that point then, and the cheta went away.


Six days later he returned. Again the priest showed himself hostile. They disarmed him, tied him to a tree, and, before the entire village, beat him until he fainted.


Again the cheta returned, after a week, but this time the priest fled info the forest. Then Petrush captured and disarmed five ring-leaders, who were sent to Bulgaria, their families being hostages for their good behavior there.


"In these two years," said Petrush, "I have exiled two of them to different towns in Bulgaria, and Servia, and there is not a man in the village I have not beaten at least once."


We climbed up into this bandit camp, Alt about the village were wheat fields and budding orchards. The villagers met us outside, as quiet a group of peasants as I have ever seen here, and a most hospitable community they proved themselves that evening. I studied their faces, not really criminal types, I decided. Broad, good-natured, most of them; circumstances were perhaps responsible for their misdeeds. At any rate, they have proved themselves faithful workers in the organization. Petrush made them a speech, parity for my benefit, perhaps, in which he reviewed their past.


"Such damnable thieves as you were, gentlemen," he said, "even the Albanians are not. But you have reformed and now you lead honest lives, as Christians should."


"We have made mistakes," replied the president of the local committee. "God forgive us."


"And if the schoolhouse isn't finished when I come here again," added Petrush, beware, you local committee. I'll give you a blow from the long arm of the Committee. And remember, be honest, with Turk and Christian alike. Steal not even an egg, for who steals eggs will steal chickens, and who steals chickens will steal sheep, and who steals sheep, I shall hang to a tree."


For several months nothing has been heard from Mr. Sonnichsen, who has been leading the life of a Macedonian revolutionist. Apparently the ''Evening Post's" correspondent's courier has had trouble in taking letters through the lines of the Turkish patrols.



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