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THE ART OF INFILTRATION
BEYOND THE DANUBE
THE spring brought prolonged fighting in Eastern Bosnia, as in most of Jugoslavia. With the staff of the Voivodina partisans I was isolated, in the Majevitsa Hills, cut off from the plain in which we ought to work. Not until early April could some of us get back into Srem. We found Racha in ruins.
It was urgent for me to go across the Danube into Hungarian-held territory: in May I succeeded in crossing the river at last.
Across the Danube I was in country where almost nothing was known of resistance. It was the farthest boundary of our influence. The motives of resistance were stripped to their bare bones.
THE ART OF INFILTRATION
Nase brasno prosijao Kros reseto i kroz sito:
Pa hleb novi je nas mesi ...
We have pressed the flour we had Through sieve and measure :
And we have baked new bread.
OUR journey to the Danube, nearly a hundred miles as we should go, would not be an easy one. In normal times, when we were master of the countryside at least by night, the journey would involve a day's ride to the Sava and then, still riding, another night and day. But with the enemy so thick on the ground in Semberija, we should have to walk, and hope that horses might be found in the villages of Bosut: otherwise we should walk the whole way. It would be long and tedious. The first part would be touch-and-go; much would depend on reaching and crossing the Sava before dawn.
We were thirteen. There were Kolya and myself and seven couriers, picked lads from Srem of eighteen or nineteen who were tough and proven and could walk long distances. Upon such couriers depended our whole system of inter-communication between units and commands: they had to be intelligent as well as enduring, good horsemen as well as strong walkers, and know the countryside so that whatever happened they could still find a way to get through to their destination; above all, they had to be so reliable that they would keep going in all circumstances, no matter how long they were beyond the reach of supervision. The seven who went with us were old beyond their years, self-confident in their own surroundings as only peasant boys can be, contemptuous of the enemy, calculating in the risks they took. There was no kind of horse they could not ride. They were seldom or never at a loss. The other four members of our party were bound for the Banat; three we took as reinforcements for ourselves, and the fourth, a woman, because she was a nurse and was willing, so she said, to walk as fast and as far as we must walk. Thus we had ten sub-machine guns (of which seven were Stens) and two rifles: anyone that got in the way would be likely to pay dearly for it. We took no baggage of any kind; only the woman had a little knapsack on her shoulders. The woman walked without shoes, in a thick pair of woollen socks; before dawn, not reckoning on the killing pace that we should set, she was lagging behind and exhausted, her feet blistered and cut, so that we had to leave her on the south bank until she could cross the following night.
We came down from the Mayevitsa in the late afternoon, whilst it was still light. As far as Trnovo we were still with the rest of the staff; and at Trnovo, where Lekitch had one of his main field hospitals, Slobodan arranged for us a farewell sing-song by Zhika's choir. We sat among the pale-faced casualties and listened to our old favourites; and at the end, by Slobodan's command, they sang "God Sev ze Kin," and Kolya said: "D'you think we should stand up?" and I said: "No, not with these casualties...." And we went away with the singing still in our ears.
From Trnovo we struck north-eastwards, heading for the Drina; and just short of the plain we stopped until it was twilight. We had three main problems: to cross the main road that ran from Yanya to Bijeljina, to skirt round Bijeljina without raising an alarm, and to get over the Sava in darkness. We should regard everyone we saw as a potential enemy. The reason for this was that enemy-controlled chetniks would not wear uniform, but would look like ordinary peasants; and at the moment there was said to be a nucleus of them in every village. If they raised an alarm we could expect to be pressed hard; the enemy had plenty of troops available and there was no forest cover to be found until we were over the Sava. Speed and silence were therefore essential.
We achieved both. Short of the Bijeljina main road we stopped in a small village where a national liberation Odbor had been established some time before. One of our couriers knew the chief Odbornik's house, a mud and plaster affair with a thatched roof and whitewashed walls, and we knocked him up; but recent weeks had shown him another side to the coin and he developed that night a sore ankle which unfortunately prevented him from going with us over the road. He was very sorry.... This was bad because we would not force him to go with us in circumstances like these when he might prefer to betray us; but to cross the road on the main village track was to risk running into an ambush, and an exchange of shots at this point would give us away in the middle of hostile country. The man was shivering with fear.
Kolya was angry, but said nothing. Two dogs barked in the distance. We stood there in the darkness of a hedge and whispered to each other. The night was clear and full of stars. Nothing gave one a sharper sense of loneliness and self-reliance than these long night marches through enemy-held country: it seemed as if one had walked far beyond the reach of friends, to me as if England were a far-off forgotten country where people now were sleeping in another dimension, another world; as if this war of ours were another than the war they knew.
The Odbornik stood shivering in his nightshirt. The white hem flapped around his ankles; the hair stood in shocked unruliness upon his head; he was half-asleep and yet fearfully awake, confused, frightened, uncertain what to do. It would be safer to go without him. And yet without him we would not know the way. Not to know the way might mean disaster.
"Well, come on, what shall we do? Are you coming or not?"
"Look, it's only just down there. You turn to the left beyond the hedge, and then through the trees, and over a little stream ..."
He was trying to explain, miserable and shivering. Then we saw another white figure come out of the darkness of his doorway and bob across the mud to where Kolya and the Odbornik were arguing in fierce whispers. This second figure did not stop to speak, but simply pushed the Odbornik towards his cottage and ran on at once down the path.
"It's his wife! " someone whispered. We ran after her.
Down the path, and round the bend and through the trees, and across several streams knee-deep in slime, and through more trees; and then a brief pause to catch our breath, with two couriers creeping ahead of us, and then on again and this time over the road that was paved with starlight and stretched away straight on either side, over the road and then another and longer pause. We crowded round the woman who had shown us the way. She was young, perhaps twenty-three, and quite pretty, in nothing but her nightgown, and barefooted.
"My God," Kolya said admiringly. "My God, what can you do with a man who's a coward?"
She smiled at us, pleased and proud, confident of herself. "Ah, don't think of it, he's an old man."
"You're young enough, anyway," George or Marko or Zhika or one of them said. There was a laugh; it was a relief to be across the road.
George opened a gate into a cottage yard and knocked at the door. After a time he came back with a flask of rakija. We passed it round, raw spirit that bit into our weariness. As we went on, George kept refilling his flask whenever opportunity offered; altogether I think we drank over a gallon of rakija that night.
Once over the road we took to ploughland and went across country for six hours. We skirted east of Bijeljina, hitting the left bank of the Drina and walking due north until we were beyond the town. The ploughland held us back, the earth sticking in gobbets to our boots and weighing us down. By three o'clock we were still plodding northwards, still eight or nine miles from the Sava. And dawn was at five. We began to run.
By five o'clock we had come up with the Sava down-stream from Racha and lay waiting in a clump of saplings a mile or so from the river while two couriers went ahead and found where the boat was hidden. The dawn was breaking and Kolya cursed. Enemy patrols along the south bank were regular from dawn onwards. The woman was played out and crying with exhaustion; she would have to stay behind. We lay in the ash saplings and the sky broke pale blue above our heads. In half an hour it would be full daylight.
In the end it was an anti-climax. We crossed at six o'clock with the sun already shining upstream from the eastern horizon; quarter of an hour later the first patrol passed by the saplings in which we had hidden, as we learnt the following day from the woman we had left behind. But by that time we were safely on the north bank, and the north bank was free.
This in itself might seem extraordinary. But the enemy, vainglorious and stupid, had thought the sacking of Racha and the villages of Bosut sufficient to end our movement in those woods. Thirteen S.S. reported all partisans annihilated and passed over to the south bank. For them it was then a simple problem of preventing partisans from Bosnia from coming back again to the north bank. They filled the plain of Semberiya but they left the north bank free. Free and terribly mutilated.
The day following the enemy's evacuation of Racha and the villages of Bosut the Odred came back to them from its concealment in the woods. At the beginning of March Lala and the others from Bosnia arrived in Racha, passing the Sava by a narrow margin of disaster. They found a scene of unrelieved frightfulness. The corpses of 220 human beings, of which 83 were women and fifty were old men and the remainder children too young to have crossed the Sava in our retreat, were lying about the village, in little heaps in backyards, in the shallowest of graves, hidden under sheaves of maize stalk, or simply abandoned in the road. In the village of Bosut, three miles away, they found the corpses of 75 women, 45 children, and 38 old men; and the story was much the same in Morovitch and two other villages. A later calculation showed that a total of 460 old men, women, and young children had been murdered in these vilages, apart from several who could not be accounted for. In most cases we found that they had had their throats cut. Seventy or eighty houses had been burnt.
We dragged ourselves that morning into the village weary beyond words from thirty miles of plough and marsh and farm track, much of it at more than walking speed. If we had felt any pleasure at success Racha would have cut it short and killed it dead. At one of the first house we found a half-company of the Odred eating their breakfast; they told us what we needed to know. The truth was worse, it seemed, than the wildest rumours we had heard. They were pleased to see us, and thought it fine that we had come across Semberiya; but their welcome seemed beside the point.
Lala came, a bundle of nervous energy, angry, undershot a little like a bulldog, very like a bulldog himself, obstinate, forthright, no respecter of persons. He was like an electric field in any situation that was neutral, negative, inactive. He attracted or repelled, and both with violence. He galvanized people, bullied them, bustled about, made order in chaos, chaos sometimes in order. It was unheard-of that Lala should be satisfied. No matter how a thing were done he could always show a better way; and the worst thing about him was that he was usually right. Nothing was beyond him, nothing was too much for him, nothing was not his responsibility. He was impatient, impulsive, blowing hot and cold but never lukewarm. And the men, though a little afraid of him, liked him very well; and that was the acid test.
He rushed in as we sat in our exhaustion and overwhelmed us with his welcome. He was immensely pleased to see Kolya. Until now he had been alone in responsibility, dealing with a situation that was unprecedented in its frightfulness even in Lala's long experience. He was boiling with rage, and he swore loudly as he talked. He gave us a rapid description of what had happened, firing off sentences like the crackle of a sub-machine gun. He had looked to the food situation. He had completed the burying of the corpses. He had re-established the Odbor. He had set up field kitchens. He had inspected the wells. He was worried about the wells. Too many corpses had been lying for too long in the subsoil for the wells not to be contaminated. He feared an epidemic of typhoid or something similar. We had better not drink any water. He forbade us to drink any water. His anger and enthusiasm were good to see; for nothing could demoralize Lala.
"I would never have believed it," Lala said. "Up there at Trnovo they told us some rubbish about murders and burnings in Racha. And I thought, I thought. Ha-ha! some nonsense they're talking: why do they have to come to us of all people and tell this kind of thing? Don't we know what Fascists are? Maiku, the murderers that they are! You'll see." His voice was hoarse with anger, rasping. "There are more than two hundred people in this village dead. Their throats cut ..."
Later on we walked round the silent village, Kolya and Lala and I, and saw for ourselves. Lala gave me a leaflet the Germans had dropped from an aircraft some days after the village had been sacked. The leaflet was headed: "Mass Killings in Racha"; and it was signed "Fighters for True Freedom." Dr. Goebbels himself might have been proud of it.
"... When the Bosnian Moslem Volunteers," it read, "came into the village, they found a gruesome picture of slaughtered people. Only a few Jews who had been in the village had left with the partisans. The horror of this slaughtering is indescribable. At last the true features of the communist war for freedom have revealed. themselves!"
"Down with communism. Freedom for the people !"
"Never forget that the sufferings and misery, sickness and death of innocent victims will continue until the foul communist snake is expelled from our land...."
The burden of it was that the Bolshevist bandits had killed everyone in the village who had "refused" to go with them into Bosnia. It seemed that cynicism could not reach greater depths. We walked round the village and saw for ourselves. In a large cottage the Germans had apparently used as company headquarters, for their unit signs were painted black upon the walls, we found an old man who had somehow survived and remained now one of the two or three living witnesses of what had been done. He was a little off his head, smiling and gesturing. He pointed to the place in the garden where he had found his wife with a hatchet gash in the back of her skull, lying on her face in the earth, the blood clotted round her. Further on there was a room where a mother and baby had been killed in bed; the mattress was stiff with blood where they had cut her throat and left her to bleed. One little girl, whose name was Slavitsa Tsrnitch, had run away through the woods to Grk with a story that written words simply do not grasp.
At first they had not been able to understand her childish gabbling; little by little they understood. This is what they understood. Slavitsa had been hit on the head with the back of a hatchet, but it seems that the blow was poorly aimed (perhaps the man was drunk) and caught her on the side of the neck; Slavitsa fell on the ground but recovered consciousness a few seconds later. She recovered consciousness in time to know that her mother's body was pressed hard over hers, alive and struggling, and that blood was pouring all over her and over the ground from wounds on her mother that a man was opening with an axe. Slavitsa remembered this perfectly well, so she must have been conscious; but by some incredible sense of self-preservation she made no sound or movement; and she stayed like that all day until the evening, with the blood from her mother's corpse running down over her and seeping into the ground; in the evening she struggled out from under her mother's corpse and ran away into the woods. They said she was gradually coming back to sanity. They added that they feared she might be a little queer in her head for the rest of her life.
In a wrecked front garden we found a heap of ashes: the witnesses said that nine women and three children had been immolated there. Lala stirred the ashes with a careful hand; he had trained for medicine and knew something of anatomy. I remember that he fished out a baby's leather shoe, then the flat disc-part of a very young skull, a few bones that were recognizable. Kolya took pictures and said nothing. It appeared that someone in the village had turned traitor some time before, and had given away to the enemy the houses in which members of the staff and of my mission had been living. The old lady in Slobodan's house was dead; all the houses we had used were burned down; the tale of murders seemed endless. In another backyard we found the place where a dozen or so had been lined up against a fence and shot with a machine-gun; the splinters and blood splashes were still new. Lala had found a pile of ten female corpses cut in pieces in a corner of the wood beyond the village.
I walked down the village to see what had happened to my old couple. The smell of burning was still heavy in the air. Mud was as thick in the road as ever. It might have been only yesterday. Little groups of people who had survived hung about their doorways. They smiled wanly and said nothing. When they saw where I was going they shook their heads and waved to me:
"It's no good—there's no granpa and granma any longer...." The house was a ruin. The old man had been hacked to death, the old woman shot through the head. Their corpses were found under a pile of maize stalk in the back garden.
There was nothing to say. There was nothing that any of them wanted us to say. Back in Stanley's house I found the old woman's daughter: now she was not singing Hej! Sloveni any longer. Her mother was dead, the house in ruins. Only one room remained a little habitable; and here she had installed herself. She smiled when she saw me, cheering up, and asked me when Stanley and Steve were coming back. I said they were coming back soon, and left her alone. She was sweeping her room as I went.
Later in the day Lala brought the chief Odbornik to a conference with Kolya and myself. He described how he and two fellow-Odborniks had worked for three days in carrying the dead from where they lay to decent graves in the cemetery beyond the village. In this he had been assisted by twelve volunteers from the village labour company at Grk. As far as possible they had listed all the corpses and written names on the grave crosses; but some of the corpses had been so mutilated that neither he nor the other two Racha men had been able to recognize who they were. He said that the village was stunned by what had happened, and still nervous and frightened that the Fascists might come back and kill off the survivors; he said that they understood as they must the political reasons for what had happened, that the Fascists were trying to discredit the people's army, that the army could not be blamed for this; but the army should now do something to make it plain that nothing like it would happen again.... The Odbornik was a tall strong man, a leading peasant of Racha, self-confident and responsible; now he moved unhappily from one foot to the other, anxious that we should understand that he, and they, were still on our side, that nothing the Fascists did could alienate their sympathy for the army, that this was not a criticism.... Lala broke in, furious as usual: "Yes, yes. Of course that's right...."
It seemed that the passage of our bombers overhead had done much to restore their morale. They saw nothing pathetic in taking heart from such a far-off manifestation of our strength.
We slept in Lala's house, making a good meal of fish caught yesterday in the Bosut, followed by sweetened maize meal in a famous dish called sremska proia; and Lala had some rakija which he gave us instead of water. But we had no heart for eating. The next day we got out of Racha and went to Grk, hoping there to pick up horses for the night's ride north to the Frushka Gora. Grk had been a fine solid village of several hundred wealthy kulak families; for some reason that was hard to explain it had not suffered with its neighbours, and many of the old people and children were still living in the village.
Grk lay on the banks of the Bosut. A wooden bridge that would take farm-carts connected it in those days with the other bank of the river. The track from Racha lay through the woods, and Grk was visible first by reason of a fine church tower which rose above the trees, a tower that was capped with a green copper dome which dominated the surrounding plain and was brilliant in the sun on summer days. Grk was the port of entry into the Woods of Bosut for travellers from the Frushka Gora (just as Divosh was, on the northern edge of the plain. They came through the night across the wide plain of Srem, walking hard from Divosh and crossing the railway between Kuzmin and Kukujevtsi, or through Martintsi with the cocks crowing at midnight, striking then south-west until they sighted the low dark outline of the trees. Once within the shadow of the trees they could afford to loiter, and with the first light they would be within easy reach of Grk, and would see the copper gleam of the green-sheathed dome above the tree tops. That is how the supply convoys came, week after week, from Srem to Bosnia, men and pack ponies driven quickly through the night, first in East Srem northwards across the main line into the Frushka Gora, then back again across the main line into the Woods of Bosut, then across the Sava with the ferry wires snaking through the sheaves and the ponies a little frightened, their ears laid back, and then the final limitless march into the blue distance.
Srem was fashioned like an hour-glass laid upon its side. In the left-hand bulge, formed by the Sava and Danube curving south and north respectively, lay the Woods of Bosut and the enemy-infested plain which ran up into Slavonia and could be crossed only with great risk; in the right-hand bulge, formed by the Sava bending due south after Mitrovitsa, lay the eastern woods of Frushka Gora and the great loop of flat land that was known as Lower Srem. The eastern end of the hour-glass formed an apex where the Sava ran into the Danube; in the angle of this confluence was Belgrade. The waist of the hour-glass, where Srem was at its narrowest, lay between Mitrovitsa and the Danube. Running right through the central axis of the hour-glass was the Belgrade-Zagreb main line. In the whole of Srem the enemy had some thirty to forty static garrisons, as well as patrols on foot or by armoured car, several armoured trains, and a host of spies. Our communications were made possible by the woods of the Frushka Gora, set along the south bank of the Danube in gentle slopes, and running through the waist of the hour-glass; and our convoys from Lower Srem to the woods of Bosut would therefore travel by way of the Frushka Gora, crossing first north over the railway and then back again over it south to Bosut.
In Grk we managed to find horses, but we stopped the night for Kolya to conclude his business there. Staff of the Odred had established itself in a railwayman's cottage (the railway was a single-track offshoot running down from the main line at Sheed to Racha, but was long since disused); they were unexpectedly cheerful, half a dozen of them smart in new-found battle dress dropped at Serkvishte before the push began. Kolya went at them in his usual direct and graceless way, raged at them for several matters they had forgotten or had botched, demanded a full statement of accounts, issued new directives, changed the disposition of their two battalions, and felt a little better, I think, than he had felt at Racha. They were pleased, for their part, to have his authority upon them once more; for too long now they had been cut off from superior direction, and they knew their frailties.
In a signalman's hut half a mile downline we found Agitprop, rather dismal now without Dragutin who had left some weeks before to take his lecturer's job in Lower Srem; and them too Kolya galvanized into a better frame of mind. It was still a matter of congratulating every well-known friend on being alive; and we exchanged news of each other gladly, and of those who were not there a little anxiously. "How did you get through?" we asked each other. "Where's So-and-So?" And in reply they smiled and shook their heads, or else looked at their feet and laughed with amused triumph, or told a fantastic story, or shouted and swept the thing aside with a broad gesture, according to their temperaments. But the murders of Morovitch and Racha and Bosut still lay like a shadow on us: in the Woods of Bosut that April we felt like men who came back to a land which long-standing flood waters had left stark and derelict.
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