Correspondence for the New York Evening Post

Albert Sonnichsen




The "Underworld" of a Revolution

By Albert Sonnichsen


New York Evening Post (Saturday, January 12, 1907)

Saturday supplement

Pages 1 to 12


[Special Correspondence of The Evening Post]




Scans as a .pdf file (0.7 Mb)



A well-articulated skeleton of law and order in Macedonia


What a Correspondent Found After Getting into Touch with One Hundred and Fifty Rayons — Discipline None the Less Maintained Because Kept from the Eye of the Turk



Sofia, Bulgaria, November 28, 1906. — It is s good to be back in civilization, to be dodging trolley cars again, and to hear the old familiar whoops of the small newsboys. All these things have a new meaning to me; they impress me with a fresh vividness in the sudden brilliance of the light, for five days ago I crawled out of the heart of darkness. A strong, sharp contrast, but a contrast that helps me to adjust my experiences of the past year in their proper relations to the commonplace. The ego fades into the background, and with it the strong emotions begot of comradeship in danger, emotions which spur one on to activity, but disturb the balance of critical judgment. I feel myself more able now to review my experience with less partiality or prejudice, though no one who studied a question from near at hand can be absolutely free of them.


My means of travelling through Macedonia, though never before undertaken by a foreigner, have in themselves not been unusual. Such circuits are often made by members of the organization, though all those not on the Central Committee are supposed to remain in their zones, or rayons. Such trips as mine are known as "putuvani mesjdo narod," literally, going among the people, a phrase especially significant among Russian revolutionists. The men making these journeyings are "rodnaks," or "apostols." In Russia their mission is to awaken the people to a sense of their condition; in Macedonia that phase is passed. There the apostol's work is to follow the footsteps of disasters to inspire the peasants with new courage, to rally them from great moral depressions.


On my last night in Sofia I sat discussing some remaining details with the two men on the Central Committee who were responsible for my going.


"If you choose to write during your wanderings," said one, "do not consider yourself even morally bound to present a brief for the organization. The greatest service you can do us is to represent faithfully what you see. You are free to criticise the organization methods when they seem to you wrong. Every door will be opened to you, not by courtesy, but by right, for you go as our deputy. You wiil be able to poke into our dirty little corners; none of our secrets can be kept from you."


These words were in every particular fulfilled. My movements could never be restricted. Every canal was thrown open to me; I could open it myself.


My journey as an "illegal" began in Vodensko district, whither I went on passport from Bulgaria, via Salonica. Thence my route was north to Monastic Vilayet, every rayon of which I visited, twice going into the city disguised as a peasant, to visit the secret central committee of the vilayet. From Monastir I returned to Vodensko, thence across southern Macedonia, crossing the river Vardar, north through the Strymon district, zig-zagging about, until I finally crossed the frontier near the Bulgarian town Kustindil. There I resumed civilian dress.




During the nine months of my wanderings I have entered 112 villages, passed through seventeen administrative rayons, and have met nineteen voyyodas, of rayon chiefs, with each of whom I was together at least a week. Everywhere I was received without question, as a fellow worker, never as a guest. By every one I was considered as much a member of the organization as himself. That I wrote was a side issue, of which many did not even know. My manner of travelling was as I pleased; sometimes alone with a companion or two, chosen by myself from among the chetas; sometimes escorted by the rayon chetas, and sometimes, where Turks or Grecomani mixed in the population, in peasant costume.


Such has been my opportunity for studying the situation, open to any foreign writer who sincerely wishes to see things as they are in Macedonia.


Before going into Macedonia I had comparatively vague ideas about the working methods of the so-called revolutionists; I thought that the armed bands wandered rather aimlessly about the country, hunting trouble that would be likely to turn out to their advantage; blowing up bridges, hurling bombs into the dining rooms of Turkish pashas or Greek bishops, and sometimes singing revolutionary songs on the tops of inaccessible mountains. I had counted on innumerable bloody encounters with Turkish askers and the hired soldiers of the Greek Church.


When I had served a week's comitluk, I learned, first of all, that the Macedonian committee is not a revolutionary organization. It took me less than a month to realize that this oppressed people, living under a government that is no government, but anarchy, have constructed substitute for a government, and that to all practical purposes they already govern themselves, though paying tribute to the Turks, who have more rifles, cannons, and money than themselves. Should Macedonia be freed to-morrow, the framework of this organization would be uncovered, and, though crude, would be found to differ very little, from the structure of a free republic. My picturesque friends, the voyvodas would then evolve into country governors with pens behind their ears instead of guns in their hands, and the chetas, that file so romantically through dark forests in the nights, would appear as commonplace policemen, knocking about police stations or village streets.


However, that is looking into a golden future. These men of arms, the voyvodas and their chetas are only a small part of the organization, of which there are something like a million sworn members; hardly a "committee."


I first realized the true nature of the organization when Luca Ivanoff, chief of the Vadinsko rayon, invited me to attend a village election. We two went into the village alone, for the cheta was out in the forest. We were just about to enter the house in which the voters were gathering, when Luca said to me:


"Give this man your rifle and your revolver." We disarmed, gave our arms to a young peasant, and entered. I looked my wonder.


"Armed men not allowed," he explained, "and only one representative of the cheta. You, not being a member of my cheta, are excepted. Such are the laws passed by this year's congress." And he opened the printed book of the secret Constitution and pointed me out article No. something.


I witnessed this election, as I witnessed dozens afterwards — an ordinary enough event in a free country. There was the usual amount of discussion and quarrelling.


Each village has its "natchalstvo," or town council, its mayor, its secretary, its treasurer, its "village voyvoda," who commands the secret village militia. Each ten families elect a "desetnik," who represents them in local affairs. Almost every Sunday all these officials meet, usually in the church, where, if some stranger comes, they instantly become the pious congregation. Here they discuss matters of local interest; the building of a new mill, some protest to be made to the foreign consuls, some new tax to be resisted, some fellow citizen in prison to be helped financially, some spy suspected, some criminal offender to be tried and punished, or some quarrel to be adjusted all followed by reading ot reports by the secretary or accounts by the treasurer. The joke of it is, the village has two mayors, the old elected, and another appointed by the Turks, though the latter sometimes plays a double part by being elected to office in the secret town council.




A rayon election is more rare; I have witnessed only one. The villages hold special elections to choose their delegates, who meet in some forest, or in valley rayons, in some village where a marriage celebration is going on, ostensibly as guests. They elect a new rayon committee, or a new rayon finance control commission (which looks over the accounts of the village treasurers). They renew the rayon voyvoda's commission, if he suits them, or, if not, elect a new one in his place. They decide on the local policies, what beys to be boycotted, what enemies of the people to be condemned, what merchants in the town to be economically isolated, and a hundred other questions of local interest. No one not a delegate may be present unless invited by a. unanimous vote.


Such is the law of the people, in spite of the law of the Sultan. It is not everywhere so carried out, however, for the organization is in a state of evolution, so rapid that you see various phases represented in different localities. In the olden times, five years ago, the voyvoda was what the word means, a war chief. Now he is a yearly elected administrator of the organization's laws, armed to defend himself only when cornered.


A specimen of the old-time voyyoda I saw in the Enegi Vardar rayon, where the famous Apostol is chief. Fifteen years ago he took up the gun when there was no organization, and he became one of those Robin Hood brigands whose deeds are recorded generations after in the folk songs. He was a true son of the people, illiterate, fond of colored dress and silver ornaments and flashy rings, speaking only the dialect of his locality. When the organization appealed he honestly welcomed it, but its late progress has got ahead of him. The Turkish Government thinks him the most dangerous of the voyvodas. Innumerable times they have tried to buy him out. He usuaily has his headquarters on an island in a huge swamp quite near Salonica, where he is czar of all he surveys among his fifty sout-limbed, well-armed boys.


While I was Apostol's guest a month ago, I met in this swamp a cousin of the Sultan's son, Sheik Kemal, who had been sent by the Government personally to interview Apostol, hoping to effect some compromise with him. That is an honor not paid to other voyvodas. It only shows that the Turks do not understand the recent quick evolution in the organization; my long talk with the Sheik — for Apostol deputized me to do his talking — convinced me of that. "You cannot hope," said Kemal, "to gain by force of arms. Armed revolution is obsolete." "Most of the leaders," I replied "agree with you." The Turkish sheik did not understand me, but then he had not met the other voyvodas, who refer to Apostol as "that old brigand."


Apostol is not a brigand; if he were, Turks of the imperial family would not come out in swamps to meet him. But in Apostol's rayon there are no elections, no rayon committees, no finance control commissions, and the village mayors are of his trapsing. He is rayon treasurer, though he prides himself on his exact accounts. Nor does Apostol bother his head about the establishment of schools, the distribution of literature on agriculture, cattle raising, poultry breeding, or medical home treatment. He does hot train the people in village meetings. Apostol's ideas are all concentrated in one; to fight, to kill the enemies of the people, to damage the Turks. It is beautifully romantic, heroic, picturesque, but — not practical pew. Apostol is obsolete. The Committee would like to pension him off, but — his people obviously want him.


By experience I learned, to judge a voyvoda before I met him. After passing through several of his villages alone, and preferably unexpected, I could tell pretty much what he was worth to the organization. Some of my pleasantest impressions are from Kostursko in Monastir Vilayet.


I entered Kostursko accompanied only by two chetniks. We came without opening canal; that is, unannounced. Having crossed a high range of mountains, we approached the village just before dawn. We entered; before we had time to knock at some door the open spaces between the houses about us were swarming with armed men, their gun-barrels glinting in the starlight. Thinking they were askers, we threw ourselves behind a stone wall to shield ourselves from the expected volley. "Who are you?" called a voice. It was in Bulgarian. "Comitajis," we answered. "One come forward," shouted the voice. One of the chetniks, who was known in the village, went forward, and a moment later we were shaking hands with the village voyvoda and his militia cheta. That village could not have been burned by the Church hirelings. Every full-grown man armed and—vigilant.


During the day they took me around to see the village. We entered the church. About a hundred and fifty children were gathered there, all seated on the door, same reading, others writing, one figuring out a mathematical problem on a blackboard. Two young girls were presiding— in peasant dress, but they spoke the Bulgarian of the gymnasium.


"Why don't you have a schoolhouse?" I asked, "and why don't you have benches for the children "


"This," said my guide, "is a 'karahoul' school." I understood. Kostursko is par of that large district in which, through the influence of the Greek priests, no schools are allowed. One of the young teachers took me to a window and pointed to a bare hill-top outside the village. I saw two small, black dots moving there; children at play.


"They," said the girl, "are the "karrahoule." They were best in lessons yesterday, and to-day they are our outposts. The others at the other end of the village you can't see from here. Askers cannot approach the village unseen. When they come, the karahoule warn us, school disperses, school books and papers are hidden like so much revolutionary matter, and we become common peasant women."


I left that village that night and went to another half an hour distant. When dawn broke we saw that the village we had left was full of askers and all the surrounding heights occupied. The soldiers dug even under the houses, hoping to uncover a hiding place. We had been betrayed by a Greek shepherd in the mountains, who had seen us on the trail going toward the village. We had met and talked with him, and had I been more experienced I would have heeded the advice of my companions—to spend the day in the forest.


Seeing now that the soldiers were on our trail, and fearing they would find our tracks, we decided to retreat into the mountains. But when villages are searched the surrounding country is often full of scouting patrols. About forty women at once spread out ahead and into the hills on either side of our path, ostensibly to gather wood or grass. We waited, though watching the next village.




In the afternoon, we saw the askers suddenly begin moving up our trail, and we hurried on. Everywhere as we passed we heard the calls of the peasant women:


"Have you seen my cows, ho-o-p?" signifying that the way was clear.


An hour on we met two old women, bent and fully sixty.


"All's clear along the trail." declared one. The two had left the village early that morning, walked ten miles of rocky trail to our destination and now returned.


"Who sent you, baba?" I asked.


"I volunteered," she replied rather proudly, "at such times all must help."


"Aren't you very tired?"


"Not any more than you, coming all the way from America to serve comitluk with us."


Next day we were again surrounded in a village, but managed to escape into some tall rushes along the margin of a small lake. The soldiers had seen us from a distance with field glasses, but had not been able to detect whither we had disappeared. They swarmed into the village, whole battalion, five hundred strong, searched the houses, deployed across the fields, and swept through the tall wheat in firing lines, shoved their bayonets into haystacks, and even ventured out on the lake in boats.


Then they gathered in the villagers and demanded that they betray our hiding places.


"Where are the three comitaji's?" cried the major, fiercely, of one young peasant who had been herding cows. "Will you tell, or have you village burned?"


The peasant swept his arm about in a semi-circle, and placed his hand on his breast.


"All comltajis," he said, significantly, "and they, too," he added, pointing to several babies in their mothers' arms.


The Turkish officer fell upon the young peasant and beat him with a whip till the blood soaked the thin, rent rags. "Where are the comitajis?" the Turk yelled, after every few strokes. The peasant never answered. Then others were beaten, but our hiding place remained secure, though we were near enough to hear everything.


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