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"... IN Slovenia units of the National Liberation Army have blown up three trains on the main line between Lyublyana and Trieste, and are fighting fiercely to contain a German attempt to surround them on the Pohorie Planina. In the Lika our units have surrounded Gospitch, and are fighting in the streets. The enemy has so far lost in this action 124 killed and 70 captured, as well as large quantities of equipment. Diversanti of the Fifth Corps in Slavonia have blown up five trains on the main line Zagreb-Belgrade. In Semberije and Eastern Bosnia fierce fighting continues...."
A little grey light filters through the dirty square of glass that serves for a window. Sasha and Dule and Voiko are sitting at a table beside this window, and Sasha is stabbing away slowly at a typewriter, one and two and three letters in hesitation and then a little run of half a dozen. The rest of the table is littered with papers; there is also a bottle of wine on the table and a plate of apples and a saucer filled with cigarette ends. Sasha is huddled up in his German overcoat; Dule and Voiko have their jacket collars turned up against the draught that sears in through the window frame. The light scarcely reaches the rest of the room, which runs back for five yards into the darkness, the only room left in the house, the only room but five left in the whole village.
The news comes to an end and Voiko switches off. Sasha goes on writing: —
"With reference to the distribution of shirts and underclothing contributed by the Ruma District organization of the Women's Anti-Fascist Front, please note that half is to be sent immediately to this headquarters for use of the Odred, and the remaining half to the Podrucha for despatch to Bosnia with the next convoy..."
"Dule"—he stops for a moment—"How many shirts do we need?"
"Maiku! As many as we can get. Let's see. Wolf says the first battalion's all right for shirts: they've got two each. First time that's happened as far as I know. Then there's the second battalion—say forty shirts, for they've got some spares already, and another thirty for the Odred. I don't suppose we can have all that, though."
"They've got twenty ready down at Radintsi," offers someone from the darkness of the room. Half a dozen men are lying on the straw; their sub-machine guns, one or two rifles, are piled against the far corner, and along the wall above their heads several greatcoats are hanging. The room smells strongly and clammily of wet wool and sweat and of men breathing. Someone in the comer is snoring and whistling in his sleep.
"Yes, I know," Sasha says, "but I've promised them for Bosnia." The only way to keep down body lice is for each man to change his shirt once a week and boil it. So long as men sleep in their clothes and never change them, it is impossible to get rid of lice altogether, no matter how unheard-of they may have been in Srem before the war; the best that can be done is to reduce their numbers. I have had them on and off for months myself.
Sasha bends over his typewriter. There is very little light to see by. The air in the room is chilly, damp, inhospitable. Winter is a wretched season.
They sit in their draughty room in this burnt-down village, and pick up again the threads of government. Frushka Gora has suffered grievously from the last offensive. Prnjavor is burnt down; Grabosh and Rakovitsa, Ledintsi and Svilosh, lovely villages of the Frushka Gora, are burnt down, and there is scarcely a score of houses left habitable between them. Susek and Banostor and Nestin upon the bank of the Danube have suffered, innumerable old men and women and children have been killed or are homeless, and on top of all that the season is winter, and there is rain and wind and sudden gusts of snow. In peacetime week-enders from Belgrade used to bring their girls up to see the monasteries of Frushka Gora; and the Government had even organized a tourist club which blazed comfortable walks through the woods, marking the trees with red rings and arrows. Now the monasteries are empty and in ruins, and the paths are overgrown. The woods of Frushka Gora, billowy green in summer, are naked and leafless and give no shelter. Even the Odred is driven into the cover of ruined Prnjavor, where two or three houses and the ruins of the monastery remain.
This was a microcosm of the whole movement. Although living conditions in Srem were incomparably better than in the rest of the country, for there was plenty of food and little snow, the Odred in the Frushka Gora—the military government of Srem—had to contend with difficulties which in their way were unique. They lived right on top of the enemy's centres of occupation; Belgrade was less than fifty miles away across a level reach of plain; and just beyond the western tip of Frushka Gora, at Vukovar, there was for a long time a German corps headquarters; in no other part of Jugoslavia was there such a density of enemy occupation. The main lines to Zagreb and Budapest ran through their territory, as well as several good roads; the hooting of tug sirens came hourly across the hills from the Danube, ten miles away, as the long barge convoys plied up and down between Germany and the Black Sea. And the Frushka Gora itself was not unlike a ship at sea, floating high above the wide plains of green land that ran away on every side.
The Odred in the Frushka Gora was as direct an expression of the people's will to revolt as anything could well be in time of war; it consisted almost to the last man of peasants born and bred in Srem and who had never been outside Srem (except for Voiko, who was an intellectual from Belgrade University, his father a wealthy business man from Novi Sad); and it lived in daily and hourly contact with the peasants who supported it, kept it informed, supplied it, took refuge behind it, boasted of it, had their houses burnt over their heads on account of it, died for it. Nowhere was there better proof of the essentially popular character of the partisan movement. Of its leaders, Sasha was a kulak from Eastern Srem, Dule the son of a poor peasant of Irig, Tsiga another kulak from eastern Srem, Yole a wheelwright of Gregurievats; Bosko, commanding the first battalion of the Odred, a peasant with vineyards near Beshenovo; Wolf, commanding the second battalion, a peasant of Ruma. There were few who were not peasants.
The only possible comparison with England, in the way these people of Srem looked upon their Odred in the Frushka Gora, was the possessive pride that English people have for local football teams and their like. Young hopefuls pinned all their ambitions on joining it; the old people talked of it with affection and forgiveness, no matter how much it asked of them, and tried to learn its special language; its fortunes were of perennial interest. Out here in Srem, far beyond the mountains and the big battalions, the people had heard of what the partisan army was doing and had come to believe in its existence, but they thought of it as something that was scarcely theirs, an organization that concerned them only at far remove, and was perhaps even foreign to them, having in its ranks Bosnians and Montenegrins and even, it was said, Croats.
But the Odred was their own. They understood it, cherished it, took full responsibility for it. They would back it against all comers. And gradually, through the Odred, they came to understand the nature and importance of the war in Bosnia, for their sons went to the Odred, and the Odred sent them beyond the mountains they could faintly see in the southern distance, and explained why this must be so, and sometimes gave news of them. Every now and then one or two came back from Bosnia, and talked of what they had seen and done, and the battles they had fought; and the army came a little nearer to their hearts. Once or twice the army had sent a brigade over into Srem, raiding to smash some target too big for the Odred to tackle on its own; then they had seen their sons curiously and wonderfully changed, older, more self-reliant, with forthright opinions, dressed in strange uniforms and well armed, and they realized then a little of what was happening and saw a possible justification of their sacrifices.
In Bosnia the movement had grown out of its original partisan character by the winter of '43. Large formations had come into existence which could fight often on level terms with the enemy, and according to concepts that were no longer those of guerrilla warfare. Srem had contributed what were soon to be two divisions, the sixteenth and thirty-sixth, to these formations. The second of these was to be commanded by Yole's brother, the wheelwright of Gregurievats, and on that occasion the whole of Srem would echo with the news, rather as if the local star of Chipping Campden had been picked for Arsenal in the cup final. Kamenar achieved the status almost of a legend.
But the Odred in the Frushka Gora was a partisan formation in the strictest sense of the word. It was tied to the terrain, and must live on it or perish. It must look after its own supply, information, liaison, recruitment, political and military representation; and be capable of existing, as for a long time it did exist, independently of the main body of the liberation movement. The revolt in the Voivodina had been a spontaneous and immediate reaction to invasion, and in some ways retained its isolated character until the end of the war.
Nothing seemed more marked to me that winter than this feeling of isolation. Back in Bosnia the big formations were victorious; links were being forged with the outside world; everywhere the enemy was giving ground or being forced to bring in fresh troops to fill the gaps that were continually torn in his system of communications and defence. But out here in the Voivodina, on the banks of the Danube, the enemy still covered the land like a black cloud which threatened disaster wherever it fell. We lived cheek-by-jowl with him, our outposts scarcely out of rifle shot of his fortified strong-points, our couriers rubbing shoulders with him every day, our movements governed by hourly changes in the situation. We played at hide-and-seek with him, a pleasure in the summer when the endless plains of wheat and maize offered shelter for whole armies but a bitter pastime in this barren winter when even the ground we walked on, covered in snow, betrayed our presence.
Here more than anywhere else it was the individual conviction that would count, the idea conceived in solitary despair, the man against the multitude. We could exist only by the narrowest, most expert calculation of what the enemy would do; and such was the need of individual intelligence that each man carried in his head a rough-and-ready guidebook to the enemy's intentions and routine. The geography and circumstances of each village, each patch of wood, each hillside in the Frushka Gora, must be studied and known by anyone who wished to remain alive. And in the woods it was wise to know the use and depth of every small piece of forest, of every bluff, of every turn in the hillside. Each square mile had its own special set of tactical considerations, degree of danger, and demanded of us appropriate behaviour. Only by most intimate knowledge of the terrain was it possible to move from one place to another without colliding with the enemy.
This nearness gave rise to contempt for the enemy; he was slow, and inferior, and frightened of the dark, and he could move in large numbers and in broad daylight but almost never by himself. He was like a huge and overfed caterpillar, obese and horrible, many-legged, abominable. In comparison with this stupid monstrosity the partisan felt himself to be a superman, alone perhaps, but self-reliant in his cunning and strong health, his existence rooted as deeply in the land as the long smooth tubers of the oaks of Frushka Gora, his survival guaranteed somehow by the very nature of things. The country belonged to him, not to the enemy.
One night that winter we had come across the Frushka Gora from the south, a long night march of blinding rain and savage mud which clutched and clamped more and more savagely upon our ankles as the rain fell. We were a small party, a company bound for the northward slope of the Frushka Gora where they were due to blow up the secondary railway that links the cement works at Beochin with the main railhead at Petrovaradin on the Danube, and myself with them in order to report on the new balloon barrage the Hungarians were flying above the railway bridge and sidings at Novi Sad, junction for the north. We had marched all through the late afternoon and then all through the evening and then all through the night until the early morning, a night of fourteen December hours, a night of rain and mud and utter darkness. Sometime before midnight we had rested at Rakovats amongst the pale skeletons of houses burnt in the ravaging of last October, and the charnel smell was still in the air, the rain glistening a little on scorched timbers in the light of someone's torch. This had been a rich village, noted for its wine even in the days of the Austrian Empire when the beau monde had sipped it in the cabarets of Vienna and Budapest, but now there was no-one living here, not a single soul. Seven or eight houses might have been habitable, or partly habitable, but no-one cared to go on living here after such horrors.
We sat amid the smudged white walls and were silent. I remember there was a cat that came mewing out of a hole in the wall, a wretched cat with bedraggled fur and a hungry look. It came out of the ruins and rubbed itself against my leg, and I gave it some bread to eat that it seized on and devoured at once as if I had given it red meat. There was not a living thing left in that village except this cat.
Later on we moved out over the hill that leads up into Ledintsi, where we intended to bivouac for the rest of the night. Kara had found the necessary shelter because it was Kara's village, or, rather, it had been Kara's village before the Fascists set fire to it last October and burnt all but a handful of houses.
Ledintsi, too, had had a noble past, housing more cheerful drinkards, they said, than any other place in the whole wide Voivodina—and that was saying a great deal. It lay on the northward side of Frushka Gora; from the hill above the village there was a splendid view of the winding Danube and the plain of Bachka that runs up into Hungary and loses itself beyond the flat horizon. I went there once or twice in springtime; and then it was lovely. Crossing the Frushka Gora from the south you came down on it through sparse violet hills, skirting Vrdnik with its machine-gun posts, the single smoking chimney of the cement works at Beochin on your left hand and on your right the rich climbing hills that went leaping over each other eastwards until the Frushka Gora fell into the southward-curving Danube stream. On fine days you could see the broad river shining in the sunlight and, beyond it, the endless plain that led northward into Hungary.
The tugboatmen who used to ply up and down the Danube in those days with goods for Germany's profit would look apprehensively above them as they sailed the stretch between Petrovaradin and Vukovar, for this is where the south bank rose into the Frushka Gora; and they were shot at every now and then. They looked up in summertime from their tugboats and laden barges and saw the beechwoods and the chestnut woods in full and lovely leaf there above Petrovaradin, one swelling fold of forest above another, cool and green and noble in their contours, a gently moving sea of greenwood covering the hills that looked down upon the river. Somewhere beneath the greenwood sea, hidden within beech leaf and chestnut leaf and oak leaf and elm leaf there was Ledintsi, home of cheerful drunkards, a modest village which had four hundred houses in its prime. This was Kara's village.
That night the paths had been deep in mud. Leafless branches slashed in our faces as we marched. Only in the early hours of the morning did we reach Ledintsi, so dark it was. We did not understand that Kara had made arrangements according to the orders he had received. We simply came to a stop at the bottom of a murderous hillside of mud, whilst the man who had been charged to carry the jam gave it out shamelessly that he had thrown the jam away because it was too heavy to carry, and in any case was covered only in paper. We simply came to a stop and stood and thought about the jam that had been thrown away and the dry bread which was all that was left; the jam cast out into that utter darkness, lost, irrecoverable.
We could see nothing of what lay about us; only we knew that we were halted in thick mud, and it was raining still, and we were wet through and tired, and the jam was lost. In these circumstances there was nothing to do but wait until the commissar had sorted out the situation and decided upon how we were going to sleep, and indeed if we were going to sleep, and what sentries would be posted, and where; and there was little use in trampling about in the mud and talking authoritatively and offering advice to the commissar (who was in any case a Dalmatian with strong ideas of his own) because the commissar did not want your advice, he wanted you to stand still until he had sorted out the situation, and then you could talk as much as you liked.
And many people would like to talk a great deal on such occasions. One might think they would be too tired and too wet; but not a bit of it, they would like to talk. On this particular occasion several heated views were put forward on the subject of the jam that was lost. The man who had thrown away the jam was understood to have acted very badly, and against the interest of the community, almost, in fact, as a Fascist. I don't remember where he came from: I think probably from the Bachka—only a Bachka man would throw away jam like that. In the end, naturally, the commissar did get us sorted out and we settled down slowly into the main room of a small house that was only half burned down. Kara had a lantern—there seemed to be nothing that he could not produce in an emergency—which groped feebly into the darkness and let us see the dimensions of the room, in one corner the ceiling-high bulkiness of a stove such as peasants always have, a large furnace-like heater made of bricks and clay whitewashed over, and on the floor a light covering of straw.
"Fascists," someone said, kicking at the straw. Two or three began to turn over the straw that lay about, and spread it out along one side of the room. It seemed stupidly incongruous that these Fascists should come in their tanks and armoured cars and Hitler uniforms, and sleep on straw.
The stove had three broad cracks running across it: smoke came pouring out of these cracks when the fire was lit and made habitation impossible. Someone else called for mud: boots heavy with mud were proffered wearily. Slowly the cracks were sealed up and smoke driven out of the chimney as it was meant to do. Tough fingers kneaded plastic mud deep into the smoking cracks, trails of mud leading across the pallor of the whitewash, tough fingers making trails of mud. The lantern that Kara had brought from nowhere cast from its nail-hung place upon the wall a yellow glim which ambered the wet wood-smoke until we sat with our heads in a whirling fog. We sat in awkward attitudes upon the straw in cold fog, thick yellow fog that smarted in our eyes and choked in our throats, and we thought of the cold and the rain and the jam which was lost.
The company went off in the morning to lay their charges (which included some anti-tank mines of British type they wanted to try out for the first time); and Kara and I walked over to the last hill before Kamenitsa, which was enemy-held. The dawn had been wind-driven, wet, with visibility very poor; but later on it cleared up enough for me to count through binoculars twenty-four balloons and note their approximate positions. We walked back into the cover of the trees towards mid-day. There was nothing to eat except dry bread; and Kara took me up into a vineyard above the village. He lived there himself for purposes of collecting information, though his house was in ruins and the village deserted; and he knew where fruit was still to be had. In the vineyard, high on the crest of the hill, there was still a thin covering of snow on the ground. Wizened clusters of grapes which should have been picked two months before hung still upon the vines, small sweet grapes cold with snow. We stood about in the vineyard with the mud clinging to our boots and our fingers frozen, picking the grapes and squeezing their sweetness between our teeth. There was no one there but Kara and Kara's mate, a short dark man from Banostor, and me. I remember thinking that in three days' time it would be Christmas, and life at home would be warm, gregarious, sentimental.
Far away beyond the silver ribbon of the Danube the enemy balloons squatted pompously above the town. Sasha finishes his letter and squints near-sightedly across the darkened room. "Voiko, call a courier, would you?"—folds the letter and seals it with a small paper label, envelopes being rare. One of the duty couriers, a boy of sixteen or little more, comes in, carrying a rifle that is about as tall as he is. "Hi, you," says Sasha, "come here."
Dule is singing an old song. Outside the day is clearing up, and there is even a hint of sunshine:
Zora radi, dan se beli:
Kutsnuo zadni chas. Haid' u borbu, mile druzhe!
I za spas....
(The dawn breaks and the day is beginning: the last hour has struck. Into battle, friend, to free and save ourselves....)
Later on Chika Pera and I leave for the village where I am sleeping, which is called Jazak. Stanley and Steve are in Bosnia and may be in the Mayevitsa; this is no place for them. "Good-bye,'' Sasha says. "We'll send a courier if there's anything new."
Dule comes to the door with me. For a moment we stand looking out across the low valley and the ruins of Prnjavor. The village is desolate; the white-walled cottages are reduced to roofless walls with gaping windows that look in on small and pitiful piles of rubble and charred timber. Over everything there is a charnel smell of fire, faint and clinging.
Radnitzi, seliatsi 1 Zhiveli, zhiveli,
"You're going at once? Won't you stay for supper?"
"No, thanks. I think So-and-So will be waiting for me; he has news from the Danube, he says. I'll need a courier to-morrow for Bosut."
Dule looks doubtful. "There's a courier going, of course. But I don't think he'll find anyone. You want Slobodan, don't you?"
Sasha comes out on the porch and puts an arm round my shoulder. "Look here," he says in his earnest way, "we're moving to-morrow." He lowers his voice; there is nobody to overhear, but old habits die hard. "Yes, over to the house above Gregurievats. Prenta'll bring you over—anyway, you know the way. And then I think it would be more correct," he adds diffidently, "if you'd come and live with us. We'll have room, I daresay."
Dule shouts over his shoulder, "Come on, Chika Pera!" Dule is another Kamenar, another local legend. Until recently he was commander of Third Brigade. He would be still, but his conception of command was to do everything himself, and the last thing he thought of—though later he learnt better—was to order an attack without being at the head of it himself. This led to confusion in battle, and he was replaced. He is an admirable fighting soldier, idolized by the men, self-confident far beyond his twenty-three years, and hard with himself as well as with others.
He had begun his partisan career in the autumn of 1941 by killing a gendarme who was taking a fellow peasant to prison in Ruma. "Maiku! I'd never fired a pistol before," he said, "and even then it was an old 'F.N.' which might shoot or might not, and I hadn't enough rounds to make sure first. And Maiku! how I ran afterwards. I ran and I ran until I thought I was going to die. And in those days, of course, there weren't any partisans, nobody'd ever heard of them. Even if they had they wouldn't have known whether to help them or no. It took us a long time to educate them. And that winter we lived, the five of us, in a clocktower without even the old priest knowing we were there, and we nearly passed out with the cold and hunger. If we hadn't been young and healthy, we couldn't have done it. Nowadays it's a different thing altogether."
Chika Pera is ready at last, a gnarled old peasant in faded brown clothes and an ancient felt hat with a pistol to his belt. He is a fabulous walker whose duty it is to collect information from the village organizations in the plain beyond Radintsi. We set out, waving good-bye.
Just now the Frushka Gora is like the Quantock Hills in December: tall ragged oak woods, carpets of dead brown leaves, white clouds flying across a pale blue sky. The plains lie behind us and in front: we are above them. The valley into which we are going, past the ghostlike skeletons of Pmjavor with their smoke-scarred walls and piles of rubble, is hidden in mist, and the country beyond, the flat wide-reaching plain of Srem, still a secret. The smell of burning, six weeks old, still hangs over the village. Chika Pera leads over a shoulder eastwards, and we climb out on to the gentle slopes which run up into the woods. The mud is frightful. Great leaden clods weigh down our boots. The sky upon the horizon is grey and menacing: more rain is on the way.
As the evening falls the lights in the plain are switched on, a far-away twinkling of yellow lights which mark where the enemy lies. A little before we could see the hills of Serbia in the distance, wrapped in blue mist: now they are invisible in the failing light. Down below us in the plain the lamps of Ruma and Mitrovitsa twinkle and glow. German garrisons are going to bed: not we.
At Jazak, two hours away in another of the many combes which trench downwards from the Frushka Gora into the plain, it is already dark and a slow drizzle falling. We come silently over the crest of the hill through a small over-grown graveyard. The village is there below us, revealed in the far-off pallor of white-walled houses, the tip of the church spire on a level with our eyes, its base hidden in floating shadows. It is comforting to be within sight of home on this winter's day, and we go slowly down into the valley thinking of the wine and warm food that Mother Darinka will have waiting for us. The village floats below us in the darkness, white smudges in the grey light. The barking of a few dogs breaks the silence.
Jazak has to be approached with care and konspiratsia because the village lies on the main road between two substantial enemy garrisons, one at Vrdnik in the Frushka Gora, three miles up the road, and the other, the largest in this part of Srem, at Ruma, in the plain, some ten miles away. Supply trucks motor through the villages on most days of the week. We watch them from behind a curtained window as they go, a dozen men on an open truck, the German version of a three-tonner, with a machine-gun mounted on the cabin roof and another on the tailboard. Every now and then these trucks get ambushed in the defile beyond the village; then for a week or two, there is particular trouble at Jazak, and everyone who matters goes to ground, that is, disappears into a hole in the ground prepared for this purpose. Everyone who counts for anything in the village has a baza, a hole in the ground. You can find almost anything in these holes from seed corn to machine guns. They are damp and smelly places, and there is seldom enough air, so that after a few hours you begin to sweat and breathe heavily, and the hole is like a tomb. But, even so, the alternative would be worse.
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