On the second day, the unrest which had been brewing among the men of the British Mission finally began to boil as arguments resumed over the distribution of food and tobacco. "The men's nerves were a bit on edge," Dafoe allowed. "Gaul, a natural agitator, stirred things up and loudly ranted against Wilson." Dafoe, deploring the waste of energy, resolved again to move the medical unit as soon as he could.
His chance came the very next day, when Dr Levi asked him to return to the 38th Division. Hoping to drive home his desire to be posted to the division permanently, Dafoe voiced a few of his own complaints.
Wilson told him that day that the airfield at Osmaci might be activated again, in which case Holmes and Gaul could be evacuated. He agreed to keep Dafoe informed so that wounded from the division could be airlifted as well, and together they decided that six DC3s would be sufficient to get everyone to Italy safely. Dafoe wrote a long report to Bari and gave it to Holmes to deliver by hand in the event he went out. Holmes would be glad to go, he said. He had had enough of Wilson and all the infighting.
Dafoe found the 38th Division camped alongside a mountain stream that ran between Korpus and the old hospital site in Mihajlovici. More wounded had arrived and many of the old cases required attention, so that the medical unit went to work without delay, mindful that it was in a race against sundown. Many patients had suffered badly from the harrowing ordeal of transport through the mountains, those with fractured limbs often strapped to horses. The pain they endured was unimaginable. Dafoe circulated the word that some might be evacuated in coming days, knowing this would have a cheering effect.
Towards nightfall, Dr Dragic arrived to take Dafoe to the new divisional HQ and "the finest campsite they had ever had." They decided to race part of the way, Dafoe's grey mare easily outdistancing the small Bosnian pony under Dr Dragic. Then they met Dr Levi, who joined the race, surging ahead on his own superior mount. Together they rose to the plateau where the Flying Fortress had crashed several months back and charged into the woods on the highest elevation until they reached the division's new campsite. "It was, as Dr George had said, a magnificent sight a completely flat square surrounded by limestone walls, almost as if it had been built as a courtyard and ringed by immense oak trees." A few tents were scattered among the woods, all of them camouflaged. A great fire burned brightly in the centre of the square, "casting phantom pictures on the leafy ceiling and at the sides." The effect was surreal and somewhat dizzying.
Zvonko gave Dafoe a tour of the new campsite. "With a short walk you came to the edge of the trees and a limestone cliff which commanded the whole countryside and overlooked the old hospital. I picked out familiar landmarks where we had camped the orchard, the yellow leaves showing evidence of wanton destruction by fire. What a happy place it was, and how much good we were able to do there. I had no desire to visit it now, but preferred to remember it as it was in all its former glory," he said.
They returned to the campsite, where they found dinner waiting. The meal was excellent: thick soup followed by red peppers stuffed with rice, meat, and seasoning "a favourite Moslem dish, Dr George told me" salad, potatoes, cornmeal bread, and honey. Turkish coffee was served afterwards as rakija circulated among the gathering. "What a gorgeous feast!" Dafoe enthused.
Soon everyone was drunk, except Zvonko, "who had foresworn the usual alcohol, women and gambling, and stuck to it," according to Dafoe. He filled Dafoe's tobacco tin and the Canadian sat cross-legged by the fire enjoying his pipe and the warm companionship of "these strange, likeable people in their guerrilla fortress." He was in his element again and expressing his ardently held belief that "men are always closer when next to nature, under the stars or in common danger. But when they enter the towns and cities, petty strife creeps in."
Later, after the youth chorus had entertained, Dafoe recalled, "I was asked to sing the Canadian national anthem, and much to my embarrassment couldn't remember it." He shared this experience with another Canadian surgeon-adventurer, Robert McClure, who was stymied when asked to sing 'O Canada' while serving in China. Zvonko kidded Dafoe that all English songs were like American jazz anyway: "monotonous and drum-like". Yugoslav songs were much better, he argued. While Dafoe secretly agreed, he vigorously defended English music for reasons that he did not fully understand.
The celebration ended much later than usual that night. "It was the happiest evening I had spent in Yugoslavia and I was deeply grateful to my friends," Dafoe wrote. He shared a tent with Dragic and Levi. In the morning, he rose to enjoy being shaved by the Partisan barber. Then he set out for Korpus HQ accompanied by a courier, repeating promises to return that night.
The following day, after a full morning of surgery, Dafoe had finished with all of the new arrivals. But supplies were running short, so he sent a message to Bari on the next wireless schedule. Sometime later he was told the hospital would move out early the next morning because of increased enemy activity in the area.
The pokret was short, as the column travelled up into the hills behind Korpus HQ and stopped in an orchard on the mountainside. Here Dafoe cut another bed of ferns and went to sleep. He was awakened by Miki carrying a letter from Dr Dragic, asking him to travel some distance to attend some wounded. "The message was vague and I wrote him a reply for more definite instructions."
Dr Dragic arrived shortly after lunch, "a bit peeved" Dafoe noted, and outlined the situation. The Partisans would soon embark on a long pokret, he said. Most of the stretcher cases were to be hidden in an underground shelter with a detachment of the 27th Division to protect them. Dafoe was required to examine the patients to ensure they would be comfortable in the shelters.
"I had known something was in the air for the last few days, and this was it," he recalled. "I wondered where we would end up." But Dr Dragic seemed downright enthusiastic. He suggested they might actually go to a city or town where they could establish "a really big hospital". It was a tantalizing prospect, all right.
Dafoe left with Dr Dragic and on their way, they almost ran into some mortar fire. Several Partisans practising, as it happened. Somehow, it underscored the coming drama.
After seeing to the wounded, Dafoe gave the harassed nurses careful instructions and left all the drugs he could spare from his dwindling stock before the unit packed up to rejoin the 38th Division. And the next morning started like so many others, with a sharp command that broke the stillness.
Once again, Dafoe lost all sense of direction in the march, until at midday they skirted the forest's edge and passed Korpus HQ. "The first person I saw was Wilson, striding towards me with fire in his eyes."
In the months since Dafoe's arrival, Captain Wilson had irritated, angered, and otherwise made life uncomfortable for most of the men in the British Mission and medical unit. Dafoe himself had not always got along well with Wilson, but at least he had tried to show some loyalty and understanding. Now Wilson had his sights set squarely on the Canadian surgeon who had no idea what had prompted his rage. When he found out, Dafoe was shocked and disgusted.
"He wanted to know where his cup was."
Dafoe and Wilson each had an enamelled mug with a similar design. The girls had packed them when the pokret was ordered, as Dafoe tried to explain. But Wilson's wild accusations continued. Irrationally, he suggested Dafoe had stolen the mug. Dafoe strode away before he lost his temper. Wilson pursued him. The argument went on until they passed Kosta Nadj and Vladimir Popovic, standing nearby. Dafoe, embarrassed that they should witness such a scene, left Wilson ranting behind him.
Just then several Partisans called out to Dafoe, inviting him to the Korpus HQ. "The famous 11th Division was approaching from western Bosnia with a great many wounded," he was told, but he explained that he had more work to do with the 38th Division and would return to Korpus that night. He was grateful for the diversion from Wilson's tirade and relieved to be focusing on medical matters again.
When Dafoe led his assistants back to Korpus next morning, he claimed, surprisingly, "it was good to see them all." Wilson apologized for his actions the previous day. "Poor Wilson," Dafoe allowed, "a good chap. I liked him but he was tired and overstrung."
Indeed, throughout the next few days "an unhealthy air about the Englezi" persisted. Even Diklic and Lincoln, normally the best of friends, were quarrelling. "Only Holmes appeared the same," Dafoe remarked, "although he must have been fed up with the situation."
On the fourth day Dr Dragic arrived with the news that Korpus HQ had decided to send the medical unit to the division permanently. "It was all mixed up in a redistribution of forces, which, of course, we were not told," Dafoe recalled. In fact, the move was the result of successful lobbying carried out by the officers responsible for the divisional hospital. Kosta Nadj later recalled that "towards the end of August, on the eve of our offensive in eastern Bosnia, the well-known Bosnian Commander Milos Zekic...came to me. He told me that they needed Major Dafoe. And so they went together to the division."
Radovan and the Partisan sergeant prepared the medical unit's horses using several saddles they had scrounged, which were cushioned with straw and parachute silk. The unit ate a good meal, filled its water bottles, and then listened to the news in Serbo-Croat on the BBC. The column moved out early that afternoon in "what appeared to be a northerly direction".
The real pokret and Dafoe's own "long march" was underway.
The column had travelled all night and as dawn crept across the landscape, was still climbing. Dafoe rode up to the forward section and spotted two fez-topped Moslems, "a bit different from the usual run of peasants" who were guiding the Partisans through the rugged terrain. One had hair dyed brilliant red a common custom among Moslems, Dafoe was told.
They travelled slowly over rolling farmland and through several small villages. This was Moslem country, Dafoe realized, admiring some mosques they encountered. Even the peasants were dressed differently. The women wore "immense pantaloon arrangements" that ballooned magnificently, except where they tightly embraced the ankle, as well as "leather sandal affairs with a big curl at the front end" and veils "vividly decorated at the edges." Dafoe observed also that many of the women had children riding on their hips, "the peculiar way of carrying children that one notices in the Middle East." The men almost always wore a red fez and vests that struck Dafoe as unusually elaborate, "and they carried a quiet dignity that their religion seemed to instill."
Late in the morning the column entered a Moslem village via a wooden bridge. Few of the inhabitants were out to greet the Partisans. The medical unit stopped at a peasant dwelling owned by "a sturdy old man with a white beard looking like a patriarch," who welcomed Dafoe and his cohorts warmly. Later, he let Dafoe inspect the house. "It was most quaint," he said. Dafoe always had the feeling when entering a Moslem home of violating its sanctity. He was fascinated by the small, grilled windows and miniature rooms. The latter were sparsely furnished. There were no chairs in the house, just small exquisitely carved stools. Beds were narrow wooden benches that were pushed up against walls during the day. "Tapestries and finely made carpets were hung on the walls and never on the floors, which were wooden and almost white from frequent scrubbings as was all the woodwork," Dafoe observed.
When he had rejoined Zvonko and Dr Dragic who were sitting on the lawn on a groundsheet, Dafoe asked about the location of the village. He slit open his suspenders then and produced the silk map of eastern Bosnia that SOE had issued in Italy. Dr Dragic, who had previously expressed an interest in the map, helped his friend locate the village, Tarevci. In a generous mood, Dafoe signed the silk map along one edge, adding the name of the village and the date: September 13, 1944. Then he presented it to Dr Dragic, who was visibly touched by the handsome gift. He promised to cherish it which indeed he has done over the years. It is among the few extant items of memorabilia from Dafoe's mission.
The gift to Dr Dragic created some interest in the camp. Dafoe split open the rubber lining of his tobacco pouch and produced another map, similar to the first one. He gave it to Zvonko. An electrical engineer who had followed the medical unit from its days in Mihajlovici also requested one, so Dafoe opened the lining of his trousers to find the last of his maps. The Partisans were greatly amused by this small magic act.
He spent the day relaxing in the warm sunshine, eating and engaging in idle chit-chat. Fresh bread and honey arrived. Later he slept.
The next morning was just as quiet, but after lunch, without warning, the column started to move out, halting towards evening in another Moslem village. The wireless was assembled long enough to contact Bari on the regular schedule. Then the column resumed its march, moving up a hillside to the next settlement. It was similar to the one in Tarevci, Dafoe thought. The medical unit set up camp on the front lawn of one of the better dwellings whose owner came out to mingle with the Partisans.
That evening couriers continued to come and go, and Dafoe concluded that a conference was underway somewhere. Zvonko knew what was happening but wouldn't comment.
"Nije vazno," he sniffed. "It's not important."
Dafoe let the matter drop and went with Dr Dragic to find a spot in a nearby orchard, where they slept wrapped in a single blanket and a groundsheet. Tents were not pitched, he noticed.
Zvonko woke him shortly before midnight. "Pokret!" he whispered urgently.
The column was soon packed and disappearing silently into the night. Next day it would climb until it reached a shelf on the mountain side. Here Dr Dragic pointed to where his home town, Tuzla, lay hidden beyond a rise in the distant landscape. Dafoe imagined how frustrating it must be for his friend to be so close to, yet so far from his wife and the newborn son he had yet to see. Both men solemnly hoped the Partisans would take the town again soon.
They travelled steadily all afternoon generally on high ground, and it was dusk as the column entered a stretch of rich farmland plunging into a cornfields There it waited until dark, resting the men and women, and feeding the horses. Shortly after nightfall, the march resumed, but fitfully starting and stopping as scouts probed the land ahead. Orders urging silence rippled down the length of the column. Enemy units were ranging the terrain nearby.
Soon it started to rain. In the pitch-dark, raincoats including a great many gas capes were produced. Dafoe wondered idly if the British authorities had any idea how valuable the rugged capes were in the Yugoslav theatre.
The rain fell intermittently as the column moved forward again. Frank and Chris led Dafoe's horse with Vera, who was nursing a sore leg, in the saddle. "Everyone was tired, but in good heart," Dafoe conceded. He had lost all track of time until he glanced at his watch and was startled to find it was past midnight already. Dr Dragic had just told him the column was about to cross a main road not far from Tuzla, when, "suddenly the air was split by a terrific explosion then another. And in the distance, two more." The Partisans announced that the bridge and railway over the river Spreca had just been demolished.
The column descended the mountain, "slipping and slithering in the mud" and teeming rain. Near the bottom it turned right along a river Dafoe compared with the Thames at Westminster Bridge. It ran deep and fast.
The column crossed an old bridge, then turned down a long lane leading to a main road. Here Dafoe could make out several well-constructed houses some with garages behind the curtain of rain and darkness. From the main road they turned into a side street, moving quickly in the downpour. Dafoe estimated it was 0400 when the column finally stopped to rest.
He tried to roll a cigarette but lost most of the precious tobacco in the torrential rain. He bumped into Frank and Chris. "Frank had become so tired that he slipped off the road, fell into a puddle of water and fell asleep. Fortunately Chris noticed him or he would have been left behind."
In the eerie currents around him, Dafoe could see several Partisan women standing about. He remarked again on their ability to endure the pokret without complaint. "They just went on and on and never seemed to show signs of fatigue...never faltering or stumbling."
Dafoe suggested it could rain harder in eastern Bosnia than in any other place he had visited. It came like a monsoon, lashing at the column as it moved out again. Soon it branched off to a small trail and then, as usual in peril, it ascended, pausing once, and only long enough to cut some corn for the horses. Dafoe glimpsed a house nearby, lit from within. Judging from the number of saddled horses outside, a conference must have been in progress.
As the pre-dawn light cast a milky greyness to the downpour, the column was traversing agricultural terrain along some kind of country road.
"Suddenly, brisk firing broke out from two opposing nearby hills very close," he recalled. "You could see the flashes of the guns, but no whining bullets. Nobody took cover. Then some shouting and the realization that it was two Partisan units fighting each other."
Dafoe had glanced around as the fusillade erupted. He regarded the men and women he saw with sympathy. "The Partisans around me were red-eyed, unshaven and covered with mud. I felt as if I could not lift one foot past the other, and was afraid to sit down. My poor horse, which I was leading, was almost finished; and if I mounted her I was sure she would fall. We often passed horses which were abandoned now, standing dismally great saddle sores being bathed by the rain."
The march continued, seemingly without end, as Dafoe somehow found the strength to move along with the column. They were still travelling through "Moslem country," he realized, for he saw a village with a towering onion-shaped mosque far away in the direction they were headed. "The Moslems must have been the Partisans' best friends, for now we always went into a Moslem encampment for a rest," he observed.
The column was indeed returning to its traditional sanctuary. The sight of it quaint, strangely idyllic, and almost certainly well-stocked with food and drink gave Dafoe the stamina he needed to follow the man in front through the gloom and rain.
Closer inspection of the village revealed it was even more luxurious than others Dafoe had seen to date, with well maintained houses and neat lawns set in an orderly fashion along the main thoroughfare. Dafoe and Dr Dragic stopped long enough to feed their horses, then proceeded to a house they had previously selected. They went upstairs, ignoring both the guilt they felt in tracking mud over the polished white floorboards and the housewife's disapproving gaze. They were soon dead to the world.
They woke in the middle of the afternoon to find someone shaking them vigorously. The women hadn't slept, but had prepared a glorious feast, now spread out and waiting downstairs. "We ate until our bodies were taut," Dafoe recalled. "The difficulties of the past few days rolled away like thunderclouds and weariness was forgotten."
Throughout the afternoon the sound of distant gunfire, punctuated occasionally by the loud reports of mortars and enemy field guns, intrigued Dafoe. Miki explained calmly that "an important town" nearby was the object of fierce fighting between the garrisoned enemy and the Partisan 11th Division.
Next morning they learned that the Partisans had captured the garrison, inflicting heavy losses on the enemy, and had seized a good supply of materiel. Dafoe assumed the medical supplies, if any, would be sent to divisional hospitals in the area. When he inquired about wounded, he was told that a small number of casualties had been sent to the 11th Division's medical unit.
That morning, Dafoe received a new horse a grey stallion he had seen and admired. His fondness for horses had grown tremendously since the outset of his mission. "A good horse may mean your life in this country," he said once. Several other officers had received new horses also. Major Krupic was now riding a sturdy mount. Zvonko proudly claimed a heavyset animal captured from the SS. Dr Dragic had acquired a big black, and Vladimir Rolovic, who had complained that his paint was too conspicuous, now had a black stallion.
Shortly after lunch the column set out again. It was still raining. Chris was in some pain with a gash on his finger that Dafoe had sutured and splinted. Many new faces had joined the column overnight, he noticed.
The ragtag assembly of men, women, and animals was still marching as darkness fell. They were in an area controlled by Cetniks and Zeleni Kadar. Movement slowed to allow more time for spying out the route ahead. "Here, even the peasants were unfriendly and would shoot on sight," Dafoe noted. The column did not stop until late that night. No attempt was made to prepare meals. Everyone slept.
In the morning, Dr Dragic told Dafoe he could set up a surgical theatre in a secluded spot down the hillside. The medical unit descended until it found a field hollowed out and surrounded by dense woods. "The patients were arranged on a natural shelf in the woods a long line of them, almost like a long hospital ward. And it was easy to review them. We had a number of fresh wounded to clear up first, some badly wounded and three gunshot wounds to the abdomen," Dafoe said. He remarked too that he wished his Professor of Surgery from Queen's University could see the conditions in which he operated. The sterile technique wasn't bad, he felt, despite flies that buzzed around him incessantly and sometimes landed on his incisions. Partisan girls stood by almost as a rule now, fanning Dafoe and the patient. To his amazement, the patients recovered completely even when enduring the continual transport and uncertain diet. Moreover, he claimed he never lost a patient who had undergone abdominal surgery. "It was against all surgical principles and contrary to my previous experience," he said. "But we were among amazing people in an amazing country."
The medical unit worked through the morning, adding fresh plasters to the long line of wounded on the hillside. At midday Dafoe was discussing several cases with the Partisan doctors when Wilson's unit trundled by in the distance. Wilson waved but did not stop. Dafoe sent his assistants out to intercept them and they returned some time later with a handful of the dreaded "V"-brand cigarettes. He was incensed.
"Damn the base wallahs!" he fumed. "There they are, living in comfort and safety, and the best they can do is to send this rubbish. Some strange quirk in the British mentality," he said, still enraged. "The farther forward and the more danger their troops are in, the less consideration or thanks they get in complete contrast to the Dominion authorities," he noted acidly. "There you're treated with some consideration and imagination. But in the British Army? There, it's the bloody base wallahs that are catered to. Damn them all! Damn every bloody one of them!"
Sometime in the afternoon, some "haggard, hungry, ragged, dirty, unshaven men arrived carrying four or five stretchers," Dafoe recalled. The men were soldiers of the famous 11th Division. "It was unbelievable. We had heard so much of them that we imagined them as supermen, rather than these ragged scarecrows. How could they ever fight in that condition?" he asked Miki incredulously.
Miki explained that the 11th Division had marched and fought its way through western Bosnia for a month, then immediately gone on the offensive again in the neighbouring hills. "What pitiful wrecks they were," Dafoe said. "But their eyes were full of fire....Poor, misguided Germany. If only it knew what it was up against in trying to subdue these people."
The medical unit finished work late in the day. Dafoe had hoped the wounded would have more time to rest, but the order to move out had been issued already. Now he supervised the strapping of patients to horses and stretcher-beds, arguing with the Partisan doctors, who wanted to reduce the number of patients to be manhandled over the mountain trails. Dafoe insisted that everyone with head, chest, or abdominal wounds or fractures be carried on the stretcher-beds, notwithstanding the difficulties. If many patients shuddered at the prospect, consideration of the alternative one of the underground shelters, where survival was always doubtful was persuasion enough.
Next morning, when the column emerged from the woods and forded a swift-running stream, it soon came upon a solid road. Nearby was a store and, astonishingly, a post office. Dafoe was left speechless by the sight of several Partisans strolling about with newly purchased goods in their arms. Later, when he passed a barn full of buggies, his curiosity increased. It seemed they belonged to the former owner of a large manor in the village. Dafoe claimed it was the largest house he had seen in Yugoslavia, and in it the divisional HQ was established.
The village was called Skugrici, Zvonko told him, adding they were not far from the town of Modrica. Its Orthodox church was formerly the HQ of "a famous Cetnik leader" who was also a priest, named Pop Savo Bozic a formidable enemy, they said and the manor had been his home. He had enlisted the peasantry from a wide area to participate in a campaign of looting and destruction that reached as far as Dafoe's old hospital in Mihajlovici, at least a hundred kilometres distant. Pop Savo had also overseen construction of the store and post office in Skugrici, so that his interests were apparently not just those of a terrorist. The church even contained a room that was used for plays or films. Zvonko volunteered to show Dafoe the manor house and Miki joined them.
They passed a well-tended vegetable garden outside a gate leading to the grounds of the manor. "The first thing that struck our eyes was a big grape arbour surrounding two long tables with benches. Here, many a Cetnik conference...must have been carried on. What a pleasant place...."
They entered the house through a back door. "It was the closest thing I had seen to a large English farm house, except most of the construction was of wood," Dafoe recalled. It reminded him also of an English country pub. In the kitchen was an immense iron stove, and many "strange-shaped cooking utensils" hung on the walls. Two pantries contained preserves, sacks of cornmeal bread and flour, and loaves of stale bread. Dafoe came upon a store of walnuts, too sampled some, and filled his pockets.
Into the study where he was confronted by an impressive library containing many worn and well-thumbed books in both Cyrillic and Roman script. "I picked up one and put it in my pocket," he confessed. "It was Shakespeare's Macbeth translated in Serbo-Croat." The desk drawers in the library were open, the floor littered with papers. Dafoe concluded that Pop Savo had vacated the premises in a hurry.
Soon the house was filled with curious Partisans. Dafoe noted that minimal looting or pilferage occurred except of food and the gold braid on clerical robes. Much prized by the Partisans, the braid was used to fashion insignia of rank on their uniforms.
"We toured the rest of the house a large dining room, a sitting room and a number of bedrooms. How strange a brass bedstead looked again. The furniture was all good, sturdy and well-worn. Even the odour smelt friendly. Pop Savo's deserted mansion was redolent with the savoury smells of tobacco and good cooking."
Outside, Zvonko, Miki, and Dafoe passed a red hen feeding her chicks on the lawn merging with an orchard. On the far side they discovered an apiary, the combs full of fresh honey. Then they entered the mansion's cellar via a separate door. Here were barrels of rakija and wine "which some of the less strict Partisans had sampled already". Dafoe was delighted by the find. "I followed the more lowly Partisans' example, not feeling bound by Tito's decree." He sampled some of Pop Savo's rakija and remarked favourably on its quality.
Outside again he chatted briefly with Zvonko and Dr Dragic in the grape arbour while sipping rakija and plucking grapes. The sybaritic atmosphere suited him. He was told the Partisans intended to remain in Skugrici for several days to indulge in the rich rewards of Pop Savo's industry. There were even oats now for the horses.
"What a strange existence," Dafoe mused. "Days of plenty interspersed with days of almost nothing." He marvelled at the adaptability of the human digestive system, "and how enjoyable it was when your senses are sharpened by hunger and hardship."
Later Dafoe inspected the accommodations set aside for the wounded: a small clinic attached to a newly built school. Everything was in disarray after the hurried evacuation of the Cetniks, although arrangements for heat and running water, a good stove, and a folding surgical table remained intact.
From the moment food and other amenities were collected for the patients, the situation seemed well in control. It was a pleasant change to be in a village with all the trappings of civilization, Dafoe mused on his way back to Pop Savo's mansion. There he participated in a "non-stop banquet" with Zvonko and Dr Levi, as well as Kosta Nadj, Vladimir Popovic, and several other members of the Korpus staff, including Ismet Mujezinovic, the artist, and the correspondent, Dusko Blagojevic. There was a woman seated at the table whom Dafoe did not recognize but he was intrigued by the respect and admiration accorded her. She wore men's battledress without insignia. Probably in her late thirties, her rather homely, wrinkled face was brightened by sparkling eyes. Dafoe sensed that she had witnessed a great deal of suffering. Throughout the meal he eyed her occasionally, wondering who she was. He might have pursued the matter, but after the banquet he was led outside to the churchyard, where a political discussion was underway. Dafoe sipped rakija as he listened to the Partisans debating a number of contentious issues.
Salom Suica told him how angry the Partisans had been when they heard the BBC crediting Mihailovic and the Cetniks with Partisan victories won at the cost of great sacrifices and bloodshed. "They were bitter against that, the wireless operator told me. Many a time he got so angry he felt like smashing the wireless despite the fact that it was the only contact they had with the outside world."
The discussion soon focused on the subject of British foreign policy in the Balkans generally. Dafoe attempted to defend the British, citing what he perceived as the legitimate financial interests of foreign industrialists in Yugoslavia. He wondered privately to what extent the Allied liaison officers, including himself, were serving those interests, and found his resolve wavering. The Partisans were quick to respond.
"Why was Britain so interested in the Royal Yugoslav Government, which was doing little or nothing to help its country, spending the Yugoslav gold in luxury and splendour in London, Cairo and New York, and spreading adverse propaganda about the Partisans and their efforts to free the country which was undoubtedly one of the most gallant and successful in the whole war?" Dafoe recalled witnessing the "Royal Yugoslav Entourage" while in Cairo. He had to admit "they were certainly living in splendour in a beautiful building, the grounds filled with large cars, many of the officers frequently seen at the Gezira Club the playground spot of Cairo." He was disturbed now by the Partisan probing.
Dafoe was a genuine, decent man more an adventurer than a philosopher who had scarcely developed any political awareness or ardent convictions except to oppose bureaucratic stonewalling, fence-sitting, and ineptitude, which he lashed out at with alacrity. He generally preferred practical, commonsense solutions to problems and he admired individuals like Kosta Nadj who had a gift for trouble-shooting from the hip with unerring accuracy. If his political view of the world had been prescribed and limited, that was now changing.
Dafoe considered the Partisans to be well informed. "They had a remarkable knowledge of politics not only their own, but world politics. A peasant in Yugoslavia knew more about British politics than I or my two sergeants did," he claimed. The scope of Yugoslav interests embraced Britain and the United States out of necessity. "We outsiders were always at an immediate disadvantage, for they would quote facts which undoubtedly were in the majority true. British politics in the Balkans had been nothing to be proud of," he confessed. "There was no denying that it had been anti-Communist."
This, at least, was not entirely accurate. Winston Churchill had countered the misgivings of Fitzroy Maclean during a conversation in Teheran in 1943 with assurances that "the less you and I worry about the form of Government they set up, the better. That is for them to decide. What interests us is, which of them [the Cetniks or Partisans] is doing most harm to the Germans."
Still, Partisan complaints about the attitude of certain British officials continued. For good reason: as late as the summer of 1944 a number of ranking British authorities were still supporting Mihailovic as a legitimate resistance leader. Then there was London's dilemma regarding the royal government-in-exile. The British faced an enormous obstacle in reconciling Tito's avowed aim of replacing the monarchy of King Peter. "Could the British be trusted?" the Partisans were asking. Dafoe could not answer the question. But he grew to understand that Yugoslavia had been "the football of international politics and strong neighbouring countries for over a thousand years," which meant that many Yugoslavs were naturally suspicious of British and American aid with its hidden strings attached.
"The Yugoslavs wanted Yugoslavia for themselves, and were willing to fight for it with any sacrifice, not wanting any outside power to come in and help them for fear they would gain a foothold," Dafoe explained. He hoped the Allies would give the Yugoslavs the materiel they needed arms, artillery, aeroplanes, ammunition, and medical supplies as well as advisors, but then let them rebuild the country as they saw fit. "These half-starved, ill-equipped men, women and children had actually, with tremendous self-sacrifice, succeeded in defying...a part of one of the most powerful armies of the world more German crack divisions, not counting the Italians and the Quisling troops, than the British 8th Army ever had against it in the desert, more German divisions than were opposing Allied armies and Alexander in Italy at the present time. Were they not right in being proud of the fact? Why didn't the world know of it?" he asked bitterly.
Clearly, Dafoe's political ambivalence had diminished since his arrival in the country. He was convinced the British and Americans, who had wireless stations on which they could rely as conduits of accurate information concerning the war (not to mention countless liaison officers), had failed by supporting Mihailovic long after evidence that he was collaborating overtly with the enemy had become overwhelming. He found it incomprehensible that the British should condemn the Partisans as "Communist gangsters" (Dafoe's source for this was not indicated in his journals). He argued that only the officers, or approximately 10 per cent of the Partisan National Liberation Army, were actually hard-core Communists a figure that was later confirmed. "And is it a crime to be a Communist?" he asked. "To fight Fascism? To fight and sacrifice one's life and belongings for one's country?
"They were going to see that in the future structure of their country they would have a fair deal. Was that a crime? Their future sons and daughters were going to have a chance for a fair education, the right to learn a trade, attention in sickness and a right to govern themselves. Perhaps the big outside powers would condemn them for this attitude. But God help any power that tried to stop them."
Yet what did the world know of this country, created by the League of Nations in 1918 as the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats, and Slovenes and later renamed Yugoslavia or land of the South Slavs other than its "illiterate peasantry" and apparent propensity towards violent emotions? This was a strangely exotic land, in its languages and dialects, its multicultured traditions, its vast and spectacular landscapes. Yugoslavia was rich in its arts, especially music and painting wealth achieved with few of the "early advantages we have in America and England," Dafoe argued. These were proud, resourceful, and courageous men and women now fighting for national salvation at a terrible cost.
According to statistics submitted to the 1948 Inter-Allied Conference in Paris, as many as 1,706,000 Yugoslavs were killed during the war. Some 1,600,000 were deported, imprisoned, forcefully evacuated, conscripted, or made to work in labour camps. As many as 425,000 Yugoslavs were disabled, while 525,000 orphaned children roamed the streets and villages. The material losses were equally appalling: a quarter of a million village farms destroyed; every fifth dwelling house burnt down, demolished, or badly damaged. Almost 500,000 hectares of woodland were reduced to rocky ground, worsening the already hardscrabble existence of a mainly agrarian population. Of the number of Yugoslavs killed during the war, one might note that Canada sent as many soldiers, sailors, and airmen to three wars in this century. Imagine that every one of those Canadians who fought in the First World War, the Second World War, and Korea was now buried somewhere in France or Flanders, Holland or Italy, or Pusan, Korea. For a small nation with a population seldom far from Canada's, the impact of the war was immense.
Dafoe's own sense of nationalism was jolted somewhat during the discussion when he discovered the Partisans dismissed Canada as an "under-state of England," without any long history or tradition of its own. Dafoe was compelled to remind his hosts that "even Winston Churchill had called Canada a young nation," implying (as Dafoe understood it) that it was as yet unfulfilled. Still, he wondered privately if Canada had the stuff of nationhood. He ended up "rather doubtful on the matter."
The debate continued without animosity, providing Dafoe with new insights and initiating "a tremendous train of thought, slightly befuddled as it was by rakija," that would not terminate until long after the war had ended and Dafoe was back home.
That evening, in the well-lit mansion, "amidst sounds of revelry and laughter," Dafoe and his assistants joined the Partisans in another grand feast. Across from him sat the woman in men's battledress, and this time they chatted. Her name was Olga, she said. Later she showed Dafoe some books she had prepared for the education of Partisan children and orphans, explaining each in great detail. Dafoe was intrigued to hear Yugoslav nursery rhymes and to "puzzle their meaning."
Olga intrigued him, too. She had managed to preserve a sense of humour while exuding a quiet dignity. Dafoe found her charming, although she maintained a mysterious, well-guarded front that defied too much inquiry.
In another and more luxuriously appointed room sat Kosta Nadj, Jovan Vukotic, Vladimir Popovic, and several other officers from Korpus HQ. Rumours had begun to circulate suggesting that Nadj and Popovic were flying to Italy or the island of Vis to see Tito. Time would tell.
The medical unit went to work early the next day. Several girls had cleaned and swept out the surgical theatre as requested, and Dafoe spent much of the morning changing plasters, dressing wounds, and treating Partisans brought in after recent fighting with Cetniks in the area. The medical unit stopped briefly for lunch. Dafoe's meal was interrupted by news that part of Pop Savo's hidden cache, including some documents, had been discovered. Several officers stood outside clutching a number of new grey-blue uniforms, revolvers, and assorted goods.
When Miki, who had also been searching for the cache, returned and heard this news, Dafoe tried to divert his attention by asking about Olga. It seemed that she was one of the earliest organizers of the Communist movement in Yugoslavia, and "a personal friend of Tito's." She had been imprisoned and tortured for more than six years, Miki said, and had done some excellent work during the Fifth Offensive in Montenegro, in May-June 1943, but her health was failing. Olga now devoted much of her time to organizing youth brigades and attending to the welfare of the children and orphans. "An outstanding woman," Miki declared. "Held in very high, very great respect by all Partisans."
By the end of the day Dafoe had treated all of the wounded and his prognosis was optimistic, except for one individual, a male Partisan with a paralytic ileus, or obstructed bowel. Dafoe knew he had little chance of survival, but to his amazement the man leapt out of bed during the day and wandered around the ward, searching for his gun. It was no doubt delirium, as the unfortunate fellow died later that day in bed.
Towards nightfall, Holmes suddenly appeared in the churchyard. Dafoe was delighted by this unexpected visit. "He looked quite normal but informed me that he was half-cut, and indeed he had a German water bottle full of rakija across his shoulder," Dafoe recalled. Holmes lavishly praised the strong drink. Dafoe thought it the moment to produce two mouldy and decidedly cheap German cigars he had found several weeks earlier, and Holmes took one. "Holmes could take the rough side of life better than most of us and do a good job at it," Dafoe claimed, "but he also enjoyed his luxuries." Dafoe joked that "with a beautiful woman, good cigars, good brandy, good books and music", Holmes would be content for life. He still wore the sloppy Australian bush hat he favoured, and the khaki shorts he had sported ever since his trousers went missing.
On the way to meet Dafoe's companions at the 38th Division, Holmes declared that he was fed up with Wilson, and still hoped to get away to a new assignment. He confirmed that Kosta Nadj and Vladimir Popovic were to meet Tito on Vis. However, Wilson wouldn't sanction it as he was not yet satisfied that an airfield was available to allow a DC3 to land and take off again in safety. This explained an argument Dafoe had witnessed between Wilson and Diklic, the latter naturally supporting the Partisans. Holmes commented laconically on the disagreements, providing the gist of one that nearly ended in a stand-up brawl at Wilson's Mission. Soon such trivial matters fell aside as Holmes mingled among Dafoe's friends with the rakija.
The next day described a similar pattern, but Dafoe had begun to suspect that the break they were enjoying could not last. That night the news that the column would move again was met with a chorus of moans. Dafoe slept peacefully until he was awakened by a voice calling his name. It was time to go.
In almost total darkness, worsened by an icy drizzle that had started overnight, the column climbed the hillside behind the Orthodox church in Skugrici. Everyone moved slowly after the long days of rest. "The rain continued all day and we slithered up and down dales on high ground," Dafoe recalled. The scenery consisted mainly of rolling green farmland relieved occasionally by a distant village or a "white fortress-like church" standing out vividly against the terrain. The march did not end until late that night. Then Dafoe noted that Milos Zekic had vanished, giving temporary command to Vladimir Rolovic. "Something was afoot," he predicted.
The column started out again early the next day, when it travelled through similar terrain. At one point Miki, thinking to divert attention from the march, borrowed Dafoe's copy of Macbeth and read from it.
When shall we three meet again
In thunder, lightning, or in rain?
When the hurlyburly's done
When the battle's lost and won.
There were times when nothing could dampen Miki's humour, his ardour or his youthful exuberance. "Everything was enjoyable and interesting to Miki," Dafoe recalled. "He seemed to enjoy walking great distances, soaked to the skin, and disdainfully refused all offers of my horse. A mighty fine lad, Miki."
Dafoe asked his young guard what he intended to do after the war and found that Miki firmly believed his calling was to protect Yugoslavia's vast forests. He would study forestry at the University of Sarajevo, he said. Dafoe shared the young man's enthusiasm for the great outdoors and tried to think of ways to help him. Miki should visit Canada to further his education, he suggested, offering to assist him. Miki was visibly touched, but wondered aloud if he would be able to leave his country during the difficult period of reconstruction that would surely follow the fighting.
They had passed into Cetnik territory again, but Dafoe knew that Miki, like a great many Partisans, held little ill-feeling towards them unless they had suffered personally from their actions. The Cetniks were, after all, fellow countrymen. Miki still worried about Jordy, though. "He meant, if possible, to make them pay for their looting and burning. But generally he pitied them, realising that they were Yugoslavs who had been improperly informed and fed on German and Italian propaganda. Their day of reckoning would come, he said, but they must be treated fairly and sternly, for Yugoslavia must have no future internal strife and needed all her population."
Miki's attitude towards the Ustasi was much less tolerant as a result of the many atrocities he had witnessed. He told Dafoe of a time when the Partisans captured a number of the murderous Ustasi and found one of them carrying a satchel filled with human eyes. The Ustasi, he claimed, were paid a fee for every one they delivered.
"Midsummer's Night, no dream," he muttered, glancing again at the edition of Shakespeare.
"Too right," came Dafoe's standard reply, now solemn.
The rain continued to fall in a steady, unrelenting drizzle as the column plodded along into unfamiliar terrain.
Copyright © Brian Jeffrey Street 1987,1998. All rights reserved.