|Table of Contents||Previous Chapter||Next Chapter||Bookshelf|
THE SINEWS OF RESISTANCE
FROM what followed in the next month or so it was clear that the enemy lost all track of Kosta, once he was over the Bosna; and it is even doubtful whether they can have realized exactly who it was they had tried to stop.
It seems that they believed that the main body of partisan forces had gone into Central Bosnia for good and all, unable to sustain the losses inflicted on them in the late fighting in Montenegro and Hertsegovina; they knew that small bodies of men still held to the upper slopes of the Majevitsa Planina—the wide green hills which stretch from the Sprecha to the Sava, the last foothills of Bosnia before the land falls away into the plains of the north—but they regarded these, in their lofty stupid way, as groups of homeless men of no significance.
How wrong they were in this will be seen in the sequel.
In any case, however deeply ignorant or wrongly informed the Germans may have been, they allowed Kosta the initiative: for him, once over the Bosna, the tactical position was far better than he had previously allowed himself to expect. In matters of this kind he tempered with forethought, that was the fruit of long and bitter experience, the natural optimism of a plain man made good. He had started life in the ranks of the old Jugoslav Army and could understand better than most people the dimensions of official stupidity. But the life he would talk about began in Spain, and his examples were Spanish-made: his was a temperament that went all-out or not at all, and there was no bottom to his contempt for people who spared themselves.
The march began again the following morning, heading for the Mayevitsa across the lower neck of Trebova, in woods of pine and birch and saplings of ash and sycamore, a fine open morning with puffed white cloud scudding towards the south, and the men rested and singing again. Kosta, Tosha his second in command, Vlado Popovitch the corps commissar, Dragi and I rode in a bunch together. Beyond the tree-tops the mounting hills ran jaggedly away to the south, range after range proceeding to the horizon, blue-grey and barren of any sign of habitation. This was the direction Kosta would take when he had captured Tulza and could turn toward the garrisons which shielded the capital prize of Sarayevo.
Nearby the hills were green and friendly; there were plenty of trees, and villages even were not scarce. We passed by little groups of white-washed huts that gleamed amongst the trees and yielded to a shout droves of young children with wide-open brown faces, who would come and stare at us going by, not sure whether to be pleased or terrified by what they saw. The Ozren Planina which we were now skirting had always been a centre of chetnik activity. In the early days there had been no hostility between chetniks and partisans here, and Tosha, Kosta's second-in-command, had been chetnik leader-in-chief and had really fought the enemy. The chetniks of Ozren had become famous for their battles with the Ustashe. But then corruption had crept in, partly through laziness, partly through the influence of local pops (Serbian Orthodox priests), partly caught from the prevailing mood of compromise in Serbia; and first they had stopped fighting, and then, after Tosha had left them for Kosta, they had turned on the partisans. And now the few that were left (for Tosha, knowing the men and the country, had liquidated the main body of them) were a sort of home guard in the pay of the enemy. They were afraid of Tosha; and they restricted their activities to spying for the Germans and sniping at our wounded.
When we came near their villages on our march the menfolk ran out into the woods and waited until we had gone and their women came to tell them that the coast was clear again. Only the children would come near and stare at us, stocky little brats with bandy legs and bare feet, wearing usually nothing but a brief shirt embroidered with blue and red stitchery at the neck and buttoned down the front with coloured glass beads. Every now and then there would be one who was a goatherd and stood rump-high to bearded curious goats, a stick in one hand, the other grasping a goat's ear, a brown-faced infant who stared at us with mouth wide in astonishment. And should a goat far taller than himself shy or not behave, this young Napoleon reached him a welt with his stick that set the whole herd of them bucking and bridling and running together; and then the infant, firm upon his bandy legs, would pursue them with raucous bird-like cries and drive them into the wood, lashing them as he went with a long slender stick.
The women were not afraid of us; and watched us with idle interest when they had nothing better to do. They would sit in their coloured kerchiefs and long linen dresses that were white and worn with continual basting at the stream, and spin with untiring fingers, one hand twirling the spinning-piece back and forth, back and forth, the other winding and carding and picking at the unspun waste of wool. If they had babies in arms they would nurse them and croon at them, there in the sun, and suckle them; and they would look up for a moment, to see us passing by and then quickly back again at their baby, as if we really did not signify, and the baby would be unaware of us while it lay there in its mother's arms and sucked at her breast. If they were old and past child-bearing or husband-caring, the women would sit in wrinkled desolation, hunched up and thin, sharp-voiced and full of bile, and watch us through half-sealed eyes with the hard indifference of exhaustion. Their lives were spent; only reckonings at second-hand could matter, and they waited for their menfolk to come home to hear whether we were friend or foe.
In these villages of Ozren only the geese seemed hostile, spurring indignantly out of the way of our march and turning to stretch their necks at us and hiss out their hate.
"What can you expect of these people: when they live like pigs?"
Tosha's opinion might be worth having, for apart from being Bosnian born himself, he had travelled widely and seen the world, could speak tolerable Balkan French, and managed a considerable mining property at Zenitsa before the war; he was later to become a senior official of the National Liberation Government in Belgrade. Kosta thought much of him; and this was saying a great deal, for Kosta's prejudice against anyone who had dallied with the wrong side was bottomless in depth, and Tosha had been both capitalist and chetnik.
"They'll need generations of education before they'll be any good."
We were passing two or three tumble-down huts, the whitewash smeared with filth, the clay binding of the walls half-gone from its timber framework, the thatch rat-eaten, sodden, grey with exposure. Inside the hut there would be a family living with its pig and its four or five geese, with its rats and lice and fleas, its never-ending serial of children, its everlasting hunger and despair.
If you stopped at one of these huts and asked permission to enter they would run out and bring you in and feed you with their last crumb or handful of walnuts, and unearth the stored-up bottle of weak rakiya and press it on you, and stand around and talk about how tall you were and how good-looking, and what fine clothes you had, and what blue eyes; and the children would cling at their mother's skirts and peer round them up at you, and cry from terror when you talked to them; and everyone would laugh.
Their hospitality was peerless. They had in all their squalor more refinement of behaviour than can easily be found. Within their own four walls, creeping with bed-bugs, filthy and hopping with fleas though they were, these peasants knew no inequalities of class, and their hospitality, though pressed on you with the traditional weight of centuries, contained no suggestion of servility.
But Tosha had no time for romance of this sort. He saw only the squalor that they lived in. He was a tall, hard-faced man in middle-age, and he had a very upright reputation.
"To begin with, we'll have to get rid of illiteracy. Only one man in a hundred can read or write in these hills. The women never. The women are slaves. And that's odd. For we've seen in the few schools we've had time to set up that the women have a greater thirst for knowledge than the men. They seem to know that nothing good can ever happen to them until they've learnt to read and write. Even the old women don't fight against it, if the priests are out of the way."
Tosha was as different from Kosta as chalk from cheese, except that both perhaps had the same constancy of sticking to the point, of not forgetting the real reason why they were here, of being if necessary hard, bitter, relentless.
"But they're learning to trust us. They're beginning to understand that it's their war we're fighting as well as ours. They've seen too often now what the Fascists do, not to understand, if only a little."
There was that curious paradox in Tosha of a man lifted by circumstances out of himself until he is larger and better than he was before; Tosha before the war had managed a mine; his politics had been progressive but unexceptional; he had travelled in France and made a fairly good career, but nothing had suggested that his personality would overflow the limits he had set for it. If there had been no war he would have remained a good, but not particularly good, manager of mines in the obscurity of Central Bosnia. Every now and then he would have taken the train for Belgrade and amused himself with a week's holiday in the capital; he would have visited the third secretary of the French Embassy and made exaggerated compliments to the third secretary's wife in an accent which she would think funny when talking of him afterwards. He would have talked politics with the third secretary and two or three French business men who might be there, and have bewailed the dullness and unimportance of Jugoslavia, and listened respectfully to their diatribes against the Popular Front and its scoundrelly Jewish leaders. In the middle of the day he would take his kebabchichay or sucking pig in the straight-backed respectability of Srbia or swallow oysters in the more recherche atmosphere of Dva Ribara, and listen in his attractive off-hand way to some brilliant exponent of the latest form of municipal corruption, and feel that his country was going to the dogs, and not know in the least what he ought to be doing about it. Vreme in the morning would tell him that Dr. Stoyadinovitch had made a most advantageous commercial treaty with the Germans; and Tosha, knowing what "advantageous" in that context meant, would grit his teeth and feel that Grigoritch, the swine who edited Vreme, should be lynched, and discuss the matter with the waiter, who thought the same, and feel a little better but not much.
If he were on business and wanted something for the mine that would make it more productive or less out-of-date he would spend the hours between ten and one, before lunch, trying to see the personal private secretary of the man who controlled Such-and-Such in the Ministry of So-and-So; and by lunch time, if he were lucky and had the right connections, he would have found out who it was should have the money and how much (the two aspects of commercial administration in pre-war Jugoslavia that it was absolutely indispensable to know if anything were to be done in the foreseeable future), and could spend the afternoon finding the wherewithal.
And this procedure, repeated more times than he could remember, had sharpened Tosha into an angry man; the only trouble was that he didn't know what to do with his anger. He had felt at odds with the whole dirty business, in a constant state of seething revolt, ready at any moment to do something desperate but the moment never coming; he had felt in a hopeless minority, one man against the mass, and quite incapable of formulating his anger in terms of political action. For years this problem of what to do had revolved in his mind. He liked his week-end in Belgrade, but at the same time it disgusted him to see what happened there, and he was happy when he had caught the train home again and the ancient green railway coaches had jerked behind their ex-Austrian engine beyond the plain at Brod, and were steaming and gasping their way up into the hills.
And when he got back to Zenitsa, cool houses in the shade of slanting pinewoods, Tosha would dilate to his intimates on what the people in the Ministry had said this time, and what was happening in Belgrade, and the latest scandals of Father Koroshets, and the new houses that were being built by the profiteers, and the leg-show at the Russki Tsar, and the way Stoyadinovitch let the Germans have their way. When he had said all that, Tosha would feel better; Belgrade and its corruption would seem separated from him and far away, cut off by the jagged mountain skyline of Zenitsa; and he would forget his good resolutions to "do something about it" until next time.
But next time it would be just the same. His anger would get worse, his patience shorter. Only long experience and a certain foxiness that he took from his Bosnian background—he had the sharp questing nose and hazel eyes of cunning—kept him from openly insulting the permanent officials, covered his outspokenness with veneer enough to leave him free of the attentions of the police. And as his anger got worse and his language less polite, so the hours he had to wait in the lobby rooms of Ministries grew longer and the bribes larger; and this process became spiral, and the one fed the other until he was driven to tell his French friends what was going on; and when they retired within their shell of diplomatic respectability and clearly regarded him as a dangerous revolutionary he had a second brainwave and went and told the English, and it was no better with them, for the English mistook him for a commercial traveller who was after their money or their protection, and more or less showed him the door. He would go and sit in the cosiness of Dva Jelena, and listen abstractedly to the Hungarian band, and wonder where it was all going to lead to and what would be the end of it all.
"Well, Tosha," they would say when he was back again at Zenitsa, and sitting of an evening in the antiseptic cleanness of the pinewoods, with the valley deep in front of him and the jagged mountains like an ill-cut frieze upon the skyline, "well, and what's up in Belgrade this time?"
"Maiku!" he would say, cursing, "one of these days something frightful will happen."
He would feel angry, and desperate, and alone; and promise himself that when, if ever, that "something frightful" happened, he would have a part in clearing up the mess. Meanwhile he worked the mine and stayed away from Belgrade.
Those were years of inner rebellion. He lived in a perpetual state of frustration, unbalanced with society, ill-at-ease. He did not know what he ought to do, but he was sure that he ought to do something. Uncertain of himself, inwardly seething, he waited for "something frightful" to happen. And in April, 1941, it did happen. At last the spell was lifted, the dead husk of the dictatorship smashed, and the fundamental issues clear. Within a month or two of the defeat Tosha had formed an Odred in the woods that covered the great hump of Ozren; he knew perfectly well that the moment had come to fight, not only for the physical liberation of Jugoslavia, but also for its moral liberation from the corruption he had seen.
In the two years that followed, the process of self-development had been confirmed. The Tosha that rode with us across the Ozren Planina in September, 1943, was by that time a man who talked of social change and progress without the least trace of embarrassment. These were ideas he had grown used to thinking of, and it was natural he should talk about them. Thousands of his fellow-countrymen were going through the same process. They grew from little-minded men who were merely angry into beings larger than themselves, men capable of commanding others, of taking responsibility, of knowing their own minds. They had ceased to think of society as an extraneous and hostile organism of which they themselves did not form part; and now they came to see themselves as parts in a whole, and their responsibility to society as integral and natural. The movement of revolt became for men like Tosha a movement of rehabilitation, often of personal rehabilitation; they saw in it a means of making their country into a decent, go-ahead democracy which could heave overboard the cargo of passionate superstition it had carried with it from the past.
Not many men succeeded as well as Tosha, who had the gift and habit of management, but he was in many ways typical of what happened to the essentially non-political part of the movement. It was enough that they should be sincere; if they had talent, so much the better. The communist minority who had started the movement had more sense than to make it doctrinaire, and they were disposed to welcome anyone who could prove he meant business. Politically, Tosha was somewhere in the centre; his background was conservative, and his outlook practical.
Perhaps the difference was simply this: that Tosha no longer felt isolated but part of a numerous movement, he no longer saw the illiteracy and filthiness of the peasants of Bosnia as a responsibility of "theirs" in Belgrade, and waited for "them" to do something about it, but saw it now as his own responsibility, as the responsibility of the movement of which he was part; and in this change me government in Belgrade, "they" and all "they" stood for, had become hostile and hateful, and must be strangled until the last breath of corruption had been squeezed from its disgraceful corpse.
Anyway, he talked at length about the needs of the case.
"They're good material, these people. You see how hospitable they are," he said as we rode together: "but they're open to the first scoundrel who comes along and corrupts them. They're primitive;
and primitive in the medical sense. They've never been inoculated against the most elementary social contagions. And on the top of that, they're sunk in superstition. They still believe in demons and witches, and God knows what. There's no arguing with them once they're convinced you've an evil eye. And of course the priests exaggerate all this; it's their living."
He talked about the chetniks, too.
"Everyone fought in the beginning. The priests were against us fighting, for they were afraid we'd destroy their power in the process. Then the Germans got to work with money. On top of that there was the propaganda against the partisans—they used to say the partisans wanted to sovietize our country. You know what happened. And so I came and joined Kosta. And now," he said, sweeping his whip across the heads of our horses, making them start, "and now we control all that, all those woods and mountains as far as you can see. That's all our territory."
He had a dream that Bosnia would be fabulously rich.
"You've no idea how rich Bosnia could be. D'you realize that these forests have simply grown haphazard, without any care? The peasants cut them down a little for charcoal, and every now and then some Minister from Belgrade sells a few square miles of timber on the side, and leaves a mountain bare of trees without ever thinking of planting more; but on the whole they just grow and grow, and are left alone. We could manage these forests on a proper basis of afforestation, cut and plant in a proper order and according to a plan"—his cunning hazel eyes winked at me—"and then, think of the minerals we have under the soil! There's no limit to the amount of work we've got to do."
It was impossible not to be an idealist in those days no matter what might happen later. We were in the dawn of life; and the dawn, was positive.
Tosha talked about his schemes for the development of Bosnia; and we rode onwards through the trees, when possible along the crests of hills as the first principle of avoiding enemy ambush; and the morning gave way to afternoon, and the afternoon closed in to twilight. In the first hours of darkness Kosta called a halt. We halted in the darkness beside the camp-fires of a brigade of 16 Division, the division that was made up of men who had come over the Sava from Srem and with whom I was shortly to be intimate; and they were singing songs from Srem:
Hej drugovi ravnog Srema
Kucnuo je chas:
Lanci robstva vec pucaju....
The chains of slavery are breaking, they sang: the hour has struck for the lads from the plain of Srem.
In the darkness of those scented pinewoods they sat round their camp-fires and sang their rasping melodies. When they saw us they jumped up if they were nearby and came to hold our horses' heads as we walked about to get the stiffness out of our legs. They were full of goodwill and gossip.
"Second Brigade's taken Grachanitsa, " they called to Tosha, who hadn't heard the news: "Killed seventy-five Fascists and captured any amount of stuff. Lots of boots, too, they say." This was important, for Grachanitsa was a town in the lower valley of the Sprecha, and its capture meant that Tuzla was cut off from the west. The ring was closing in.
"What sort of Fascists?" I asked.
He looked hard at me, unable to decide whether or not to reply. "It's all right," Tosha said. "That's an Englishman."
"Yes," said Kosta, breaking in: "The British have sent officers to see how we are getting on. The British are our Allies. That's an Englishman, an Allied officer."
The light flickered on their faces as they looked at me. The man smiled broadly, and slapped his hand down the sling of his rifle in salute: "Good, good. And what about Drazha?"
Kosta had another go at him. "The British are beginning to understand that Drazha is a traitor, and now they're going to send us arms, and ammunition, and boots, and clothing." By this time there was a little group of wide-eyed faces. They were pleased, but didn't know what to say.
"What Fascists were at Grachanitsa?" Kosta asked.
"Maiku! Those bloody Moslems. And some Domobrani, who didn't fight much. Yes, and fifty Gestapovtsi. And three tanks." They stared at us, pleased.
"Come and sit down," Kosta said: "I can't walk nowadays. They shot me in the stomach in Spain. Walking's no good for me. You're young: it's different."
They made room for us on a log beside the nearest fire. "Now you see," Kosta said, lighting a cigarette with fingers that were oddly small and delicate, "the situation's good. Our 17 Division has done very well in the area north of the Specha. Cleared much more than we expected. And these people—the Voivodina brigades—have cut the Sprecha. The Moslems have begun to come over to us. The situation in Srem's extraordinarily good, magnificent, in fact. I'm getting more volunteers from Srem than I can deal with. They come over the Sava in hundreds a week."
He gestured with his cigarette, for words never came easily to him: "What we've got now is complete surprise. The enemy doesn't know where we are, how strong we are, or what we're going to do. To-morrow morning we shall reach a convenient place for a long halt; we'll be there several days: and then we'll move down towards the Sprecha.
"You can see a bit of the countryside. That's a good horse Tosha's given, you. The men would like to see you, too. They're enthusiastic about what they've heard: that the Allies have sent officers at last. They'll show you how they fight all right."
We sat in the firelight, Kosta muffled in his riding cloak, the leather of his riding boots glowing a little with the reflection of the embers. There was an irresistible comparison between him, these camp-fires and recumbent men, their raggedness and wild appearance, and what one knew of the campaigns of Napoleon and Wellington and the circumstances of a hundred years ago. The army moved by foot and by wagon; it was allied intimately with the terrain over which it fought, counting every river, road and habitation as a factor in its calculations. The men who commanded knew nothing of telephones (or not much), transport in the modem sense, great staff organizations: they were concerned with fodder for their horses, stabling accommodation, straw for the men to sleep on. Their routine included staff headquarters in a clump of trees, or the least dirty hut in a group of huts; the details they cared about were the time it would take men to go on foot, or couriers to ride, the depth of snow, the thickness of foliage; the whole setting of their war had receded a hundred years.
After an hour's rest we moved on through the forest. Every two or three miles now we came across the camp-fires of units that were resting or preparing to come into position on the upper Sprecha. They sang for us as we went by, riding slowly in the darkness. Whenever they recognized Kosta they sang doubly loud, and he would nod a little at them in embarrassed pleasure. His modesty was rather remarkable.
We moved on through the darkness, tired now and longing for sleep. In the hours before dawn we came to a village, and Kosta asked the name of it, and looked it up on the map, and said it would do. So we dismounted and rolled up in our greatcoats and went to sleep. Somewhere down the road they were singing:
U boj, u boj, u boj:
Da brani narod svoj
U boj ...
Next day we marched clear of the evergreens and came down into rolling orchards and plum country where the green land falls away into the plain of Semberija.
On the way, at Tolisa, we found Steve Serdar and George Diklitch, two Serbs, born in the Lika and emigrated to Canada early in their lives, who had dropped in "blind" in a gallant effort to find touch with the partisans the April before. They had saved their wireless set in spite of hideous difficulties and had been lucky enough to find their way out of the forest tangle they were dropped into, after some anxious days of uncertainty, to the headquarters of one of the Voivodina brigades in Shaykovits on the Drinyatcha; and since then they had been moving round in Eastern Bosnia.
Now they were a little thinner, tougher, more decided; their battle-dress hung in rags about them, only their eyes shone. They were bubbling with things to say:
"Gee, what a time we've had. Why, you should have seen us ..." they said, laughing. Their great delight was to pull each other's legs. They were quite different from each other in everything except physical strength; both, having been miners, were hard and bent and muscle-bound and immensely strong. They thought slowly; and such was their good humour that whenever they could manage to produce a thought it came up like a bubble that sailed into the air and burst in their laughter. Both were radical; both had fought in Spain and were enormously proud of it; both were well aware of what they had come to do. For them there were no degrees between black and white, and accordingly they were accustomed to voice strong and immediate views on what was good and what was bad. But while George was an individualist who, in spite of all his years of trying, could never see anything but from the angle of what George Diklitch ought to do about it—and he was supremely confident of being able to cope with any situation—Steve was more cautious, and liked to be strictly level with the party line, and for this reason he was better in co-operation with others. They made a good combination.
"George, he says he's afraid to lie down night-time for fear the lice'll walk away with him," said Steve, laughing so loud that nothing more he said could be understood.
"Well," George asked, "I'm going to get a bath and then I'm going to get some new cloths. Steve here, he's got a way with the girls, you know, they wash his clothes ..." and George, too, trailed off in billows of laughter.
Steve and George had known Kosta in Spain. They came along with us now. George told a long story that had no beginning and no end about a bridge he had blown up on the Krivaja River during the spring; and Steve helped out with details of their travels since then.
The country continued to fall away as we advanced into wide pastures that sloped gently down towards the Sava; the plums were heavy with fruit, we saw, and the orchards, too, would yield well. This was luxury after the wretchedness of the mountains.
Towards evening we fetched up at last at the small village which Kosta had chosen for our next stop. Here we were protected towards the Sava and the Bosna by outlying units of 17 Division; and behind us were the hills that led across to the valley of the Sprecha. We stayed here for ten peaceful days.
One day Tosha and I went to a funeral. The peasants were in gala dress around the church, for it was one of their traditional holidays. They nodded to Tosha and Tosha touched his hat to them. The priest was a friend of Tosha's and winked at us as we went into the church. Inside the church, a bare whitewashed interior lit with gilt enamelled images of St. Peter and St. Paul and the Holy Virgin, we stood in rows on either side of the aisle, our caps in our hands; and between us was the rough-made deal coffin supported on a low bier with two handles at either end.
Drug Bota had been killed only yesterday, in a skirmish near the Sava, and the blood was still running out of him and leaking through the planks of the coffin and dripping with little red splashes on to the stone flags of the church floor. Someone had thoughtfully placed a small piece of brown paper under the coffin, but then the blood, as if determined to touch the floor itself, had started to drip through from another place. We stood with heads averted and watched the blood come drip-drip out of the coffin on to the floor.
When everyone had crowded in, and there was plenty of room inside that cool and lofty church, the priest came forward and read the service, assisted by four little boys with censers and silver bells. He read and read and read from his book, a fine tall figure in black gown and black stove-pipe hat, with a beard that shook upon his chest as he intoned the prayers and incantations, a pair of gold-rimmed spectacles perched insecurely on the end of his nose; and when th'e little boys were dilatory or forgot themselves (as they sometimes did, for they might never have another chance of looking at us), he interrupted his reading and cuffed them gently with his spare hand, and they would remember suddenly the shame of it and swing their censers and sound their tinkling bells. The blood came out of the bottom of the coffin, drip-drip, and fell upon the floor.
When the service was over the crowd backed out of the church door, and the bearers, who had been friends of Comrade Bota, carried out the bier and laid it alongside the grave they had dug that morning. A little trail of blood followed them.
The crowd stood by and watched, quietly, resentfully, for it seemed to me then that they were not simply curious; they really did understand that this man who had been killed was one of themselves, a peasant, who had fought in a war that was by no means purely his own interest, but might even be also their interest, and that possibly their thoughts and their silence were due to him. They watched how the coffin was laid alongside the grave and two of the bearers, uncertain of their role, jumped clumsily into the hole in order to lift the coffin down, and how the officer present had to tell them to get out again, for it wasn't yet time for Drug Bota to be buried; and how they were embarrassed by this, and complained that they didn't know the way these things were done; and how they stood awkwardly by the coffin waiting for an order.
The officer present then delivered a short funeral oration. He read it from a grubby piece of paper which he held in his left hand; and with his right hand he drove home in rapid stabs the points he wanted to make. He was short and to the point.
"Drug Bota," he said, "Drug Bota was killed yesterday in battle with the Fascists. He was the son of good peasant parents, and he knew his duty. Hia comrades know that he was a brave and patient soldier...." The crowd watched him as he talked, and every now and then one of them would nod his head. Several women had handkerchiefs to their faces. He went on for a few minutes and then said: "We are sorry to lose Drug Bota. He died as an example to the rest of us. Death to Fascism! Freedom to the People!"
Thereupon the guard of honour, six men beside him, took one step forward and raised their rifles: Tosha and I on the opposite side hastily ducked our heads; and six shots whistled over us.
"Really," said Tosha, reprovingly. "They might be a bit more careful."
After the burial ceremony was completed Tosha had to make a speech. He stood high up on a platform, a tall and rather round-shouldered man in his jackboots and faded uniform, and explained to them what the partisans wanted to do, and why it was that the chetniks had betrayed their country; he appealed to them not to listen to Fascist propaganda which tried to turn them against the movement of national liberation; and he had a shot, in rather moving terms, at describing what he thought "national liberation" ought to mean. As soon as he had finished, having had enough of serious affairs for one day, they called for someone with a concertina and began to dance the kola under the churchyard trees. We sat on a bench against the wall, in the shade of a sycamore, and looked on: and the old priest came out and sat beside us.
In the evening we went back to Gradachats.
Gradachats was half a mile away from my headquarters, and on days when we had nothing else to do a few of us would stroll down to drink Turkish coffee and see the sights.
It was a Moslem town which had come over voluntarily to Kosta, its contingent of the Moslem Legion applying for service with the partisans (though some of them preferred, and were allowed, to stay at home). This was followed a few days later by the formation of a partisan Moslem Brigade under Kosta's command; and a few days later again by the arrival at Kosta's headquarters of Colonel Suleiman Filipovitch, a leading Moslem of dubious political antecedents, who had deserted from his artillery regiment in order to declare for Tito. He was a tall, grey-haired man who had been a major in the pre-war regular army; he treated Kosta with considerable deference and seemed aware of being hopelessly out of place. He used to walk past us as if he thought we might bite him. Everyone on our side leant over backwards to avoid awkward situations. Heavy tact was the order of the day.
As soon as Kosta thought the moment was ripe, we all packed up and moved nearer to Tuzla. Gradachats and its vines and orchards and pleasant meadows, its mosques and coffee-houses, its little castle on the hill with the "V" sign painted on one wall in fifty-foot letters by the Ustashe were left behind, and we went back once more into the hills.
Later events showed that the enemy was still not alive to his impending action. The enemy held the key-garrisons of Tuzla. Brtchko and Zvomik in strength, and was content to have increased his garrison in Tuzla to some four thousand men and to think that with the artillery this garrison had at its disposal the town was safe from all attack.
The Bosnian winter, harsh with storms of wind and snow, in a country where there was next to no shelter and little food, meant conditions which regular armies were accustomed to regard as difficult, and even impossible, for campaigning. It seemed that the German Command thought the partisans would temporarily weaken, if not collapse, under the strain. And, with the winter past, the Germans meant to bring in their newly trained units for a final mopping-up operation which would leave Bosnia sufficiently free of partisans to enable the occupying forces to ignore them. It would take another year to make the Germans realize that it was not they who threatened the partisans with elimination, but the reverse, and that every German unit which could safely evacuate from Jugoslavia might count itself lucky. As it was, they sat snugly in their garrisons in those shortening September days, and reported that the situation was well.
The partisan command wanted Tuzla for a variety of reasons. Being the capital of that part of Bosnia, its capture would mean great prestige and wide publicity, as well as some artillery, much armament and ammunition, and considerable quantities of food. The enemy was known to have got his winter provisions: large stocks of sugar, among other things, and flour for white bread, drugs and bandages and all sorts of medical supplies, commodities of a kind that could not be bought from the peasants or taken from minor garrisons.
All these matters were especially the province of Vlado Popovitch; and during these days of preparation he had carried on much consultation with the Corps Intendant, an elderly Croat known as Uncle Ristitch, whose white hair and quiet manners combined to produce an impression of dignified deliberation—an attitude rare in those days of hand-to-mouth campaigning; and with Doctor Jura, who was the head of Kosta's medical service. Doctor Jura was ably seconded by a German woman doctor who, like him, had served in Spain, gone through the beastliness of French internment, and by devious channels finally arrived in Jugoslavia.
She was very handy with a needle, too, and most of the staff were borrowing her help just then to have their newly-made badges of rank sewn on their sleeves and collars. These badges were the subject of much respectful comment and some jokes among the men: they were splendid, as badges in the Balkans have to be, broad gold-braid stripes and gilt stars with collar dogs for brigadiers and upwards.
I talked to Vlado Popovitch about all this finery.
"You don't suppose that because we're a democratic army that we don't have badges of rank?" he protested. "This isn't a temporary war-time army that we're building; it isn't a makeshift. No, it's a state that we are founding, a state which has never existed before, no matter what the maps say. The Jugoslavia that we are thinking of, and fighting for, is a new country on the map of Europe, a new country in the mind of the world, too. We want to take what is best from the past and build all that into our idea of what freedom and democracy mean."
He was a large man, tall and bulky, a Montenegrin with a wide pale face and bulging forehead, soft curly black hair, brown eyes, a hooked dominant nose: altogether a handsome man. He had studied medicine in Belgrade and Paris, spoke understandable French and some German, could read a little English; he had views, if he could be bothered to talk about them, on the way books should be written and pictures painted. Party training had taught him reticence, and it was difficult to get him going. When he did talk he used a tone of quiet self-confidence. The men respected him as a good commander and an equal sharer in their hardships; but his intellectual background had placed a gap between him and them which did not exist in Kosta's case. Like Kosta and so many of the other leading figures in this movement, he had gone through the war in Spain (and the internment in France, two gratuitous years of misery which the Third Republic in the dignity of its democratic sentiment thought it appropriate to impose upon them); and, like them, had managed to worm his way from camp to camp back to Jugoslavia where the revolt of 1941 had turned him once more into a serving soldier.
Vlado seemed to take everything in his stride. Nothing ruffled him. His greatest preoccupation over Tuzla was the extent of the printing facilities he would find there. There was so much that needed printing; and so little to print it with.
"Can't you get me a printing press?" he would ask. "Or perhaps two printing presses. Huge printing presses. They can't be too big." He would slide in his chair, vastly too large for it, and smile to think of the utter improbability of any such thing. And I would say: "What about a nice little one about the size of tuppence, that you could pack on the back of a pony, and carry about with you, and work by hand every now and then?"
"What? A tiny little one?"
"Yes, but very beautiful."
"Oh well," he would say, the chair creaking dangerously, "I think that's a splendid idea. When can you get it by?"
This quality of being unruffled, of taking things in their stride, was one the good commanders all had. Everything could go wrong; and they did not really mind. Everything often did go wrong, maddeningly, stupidly, unnecessarily wrong; details would be forgotten, plans would go awry, men would fail, times came when only enormous personal effort would succeed in getting the sketchiest order into what seemed to be universal and incurable chaos. But they did not really mind. If one line would not answer, they must try another. They overcame disasters by the simple method of ignoring them. They took it for granted that, in their circumstances, this must be a natural order of things. And the secret of their attitude was simple; they knew that it would all come right in the end. Provided they made no mistakes of principle and few of practice, the pressure of events would see them through.
It was hard to exaggerate their confidence in this. It was not simply a "line," an attitude struck in defiance of internal despair, a means of cajoling the men into ever-renewed efforts. Their self-confidence was the point of their background, and arose from their moral and political convictions. They had learnt their marxism in the pre-war days of illegality, seeing with their own eyes that despotism meant disruption and decay, but that Fascism was an absolute state of mind which called for in those who meant to fight it an equal absolutism of conviction. They had gone to fight in Spain because for them it was the same war they were fighting there as the war they wanted to fight in Jugoslavia, as they considered they would one day be forced to fight in Jugoslavia. They saw the answer to the narrow despotism of Belgrade in wider than national terms. In their eyes the history of our time was moving inexorably, given the forces which were shaping it, towards a certain situation: and that situation meant a final fight with Fascism; and, once again in view of the forces which would shape that fight, they were clear that the anti-Fascist cause must prevail. The ups and downs of partisan war in Jugoslavia might be immediately important to them; in the end they were irrelevant and scarcely worth recording. The wheel of history was turning; and, for a little way ahead, they were convinced they knew the changes it would bring.
Their interpretation of any given situation was governed by this conviction. When the Germans invaded Jugoslavia and destroyed the apparatus of the despotic state, they saw their chance to fight what they called Fascism both at home and abroad; that is, to take part in the general war against the Axis and, at the same time, to ensure that victory would leave them paramount in their own country. Their aims were clear to them from the first day. They gathered into their ranks, willingly and patiently, all men of good will whose long-smouldering indignation demanded expression. They took all these men and schooled and shaped them until they, too, properly understood the issues at stake.
Vlado Popovitch was very active in the days before the assault on Tuzla. This was because he hoped they would gain greatly if they could take the town. But whether they took it or lost it, they would win the war, they must win the war; and Tuzla, taken or lost, could only be a milestone, important a little more or less than any other town, upon the road to final success.
|Table of Contents||Previous Chapter||Next Chapter||Bookshelf|