Moments of Terror
He wondered if the march would ever end.
Sometimes they came upon rolling emerald-green fields and patchwork farmland dotted with neglected stooks or a few scattered peasant dwellings with thatched rooftops. But mostly they stuck to the mountain trails, where the scenery was achingly beautiful and the air redolent with the evocative aroma of fresh earth. "Take away the madness," Dafoe declared fervently, "and this might be God's Country."
The Partisans, he noted, did not complain as the column shuffled forward, although they wore a somewhat glazed and jaw-set, hardened look as they marched. The patients suffered the worst of it. They were exhausted, the cold rain and spartan diet undoing the good that conditions in Pop Savo's village had done for them. There was little Dafoe could do to ease the situation except provide sedatives now and then.
As dusk descended the column reached a small, poorly lit village situated in a gully surrounded by low-lying hills. Dafoe and several Partisans went to investigate a building where several women and children huddled fearfully. When the Partisans requested accommodation and help with the wounded, the women answered weakly, "in a half-daze, like zombies, wondering what this new state of affairs would lead to," but finally agreed. The patients were moved inside, where they were settled into reasonably warm rooms. Everyone else slept outside in the icy drizzle, "too tired to give a damn," Dafoe recalled.
The arrival of dawn brought at least some relief in the form of coarse black bread for breakfast. It was still raining as supplies from a recent drop to the 11th Division were brought into the village. The most useful items were already gone; Dafoe found only some POP, vaseline, and sulphonamide gauze in autoclaved sealed tins. He went to work that morning, redressing wounds.
He was returning with Miki to a rain-soaked knoll where the divisional and Korpus staffs were located when he met a grizzled old peasant woman who told him ominously "they didn't have a chance." She said the Partisans were surrounded by a large force of Germans and Cetniks. Then she pointed to the hills behind Dafoe and said that even now the Cetniks were approaching. She swung around, levelling an arthritic finger at the flat country where the roads lay, and said German armoured units were waiting. Dafoe sensed the old crone was genuinely trying to convey the gravity of the situation. Perhaps she even felt pity for the Partisans. She was persistent at least. "This is different," she said when Miki expressed doubt. "You are surrounded. You don't have a chance."
Dafoe and Miki continued along the path to the knoll at the edge of a cornfield. Some sporadic gunfire could be heard far away, yet the Partisan officers seemed unmoved by it. Dafoe asked Dr Dragic what was happening. His friend shrugged, assuring Dafoe that the situation was well in hand. Not far away, on the edge of a plateau, they had found a suitable landing field. There, with a strong force of Partisans, preparations were underway to receive aeroplanes that night. Kosta Nadj, Vladimir Popovic, several officers, and a number of wounded would be airlifted to southern Italy. The wounded were being assembled in anticipation of movement as soon as darkness fell.
"There are a few Germans about," Dragic allowed. "But nothing to worry about. The best thing to do is catch some sleep while the going is good."
Dafoe stretched out on the ground but slept fitfully, and suddenly, he realized that the sound of gunfire was louder. In fact, it seemed to be moving towards the grassy knoll where he lay. Now it was in the hills behind him as well. Vladimir Rolovic seemed "a bit perturbed about something," he thought. He wondered what it was, as he had thought the man capable of dealing with almost any situation.
Then, in the next moment, panic and mayhem. A terrific burst of gunfire of all types exploded only a kilometre ahead, in the vicinity of a church and a small village. "You could see plainly the puff of smoke from mortars, hear the shouts and occasionally catch sight of a running man. It was the most brisk fire I had heard yet," noted Dafoe.
The fighting continued for several hours, completely absorbing his attention. He had lost all track of time until he heard shouting behind him and swung around to see Vladimir Rolovic. His face "had a worried look to it tense, his eyes darting from the battlefield to the hills behind, where the firing was going on, now briskly, completely forgotten in the spectacle in front," Dafoe recalled. "Suddenly I realised that bullets were dropping amidst us, kicking up their wicked little clouds of dust."
In the next instant a Partisan standing in front of Dafoe yelped as a bullet smashed his wrist. Dafoe ducked and searched around him, unsure of the direction of the fire. "Where are they coming from?" he asked Miki. "Behind us or from the battlefield?"
"There was a lane close by, side-lined by bushes and earth, enough to protect you by lying close to the ground," Dafoe realized. He found most of the Partisans already huddled in the lane as he scurried under cover. He sent Miki to bring the emergency haversack from the medical unit's campsite while he attended several wounded. "Things were too dangerous to be interesting," he admitted.
In the background he noticed several Partisans struggling to get the horses to safety. "No mortars or grenades flying about, only rifle and automatic fire," he commented gratefully. Still, the gunfire was intense. "The row of dust spurts close at hand from a Schmeisser will make you cling to the earth closer than anything I know," he added. He smacked his body headlong into the ground again.
One of the couriers raced by on foot, shouting that his horse had been shot and killed under him. He mounted another and sped away. "These kids have got plenty of guts," Dafoe acknowledged. "They always get killed eventually." Miki gave them a life expectancy in the field of only six months the Partisan army's answer to tail-gunners.
Dafoe caught sight of Vladimir Rolovic again, his expression still creased with alarm. "I wish I hadn't seen his face," he said, "for suddenly I remembered the words of the old lady: 'You haven't got a chance.'" He prayed she was wrong, and cursed guerrilla warfare, his words lost in the exploding din around him: "The worst...about this damn fighting...you can't...see the enemy!" Then he cursed, of all people, Kosta Nadj: "Why did he have to pick this place to leave the country? The weather's bad and the aeroplanes probably won't even come! Dammit all anyway!"
It occurred to him that this was just the sort of emergency when the brilliant young general "should stick around and do his stuff."
Miki returned, unscathed, with the medical bag. He reported that Frank and Chris were safe. He told Dafoe the firing was coming from Cetniks in the hills behind them and not from the battlefield.
"More disturbing units, Miki? There sure are a hell of a lot of them out there!"
Dafoe went to work immediately with his first-aid kit, treating several Partisans with minor wounds. "There was nothing to do but cling to the earth and think of something else." He assumed that the Partisans would eventually attempt to break through the encircling enemy forces. "If they could hold them off until dark, it would be much easier." He estimated they could muster a force of as many as seventy-five men and women. He hoped it would be enough.
Several Partisans were still struggling with the horses in the barrage of gunfire. Dafoe's horse was wounded in the shoulder "not deep, fortunately, but it bled a lot before I could fix it up." He wished he still had the Marlin that he had given away, instead of the Mauser. "One could do a lot of damage with that," he said, recalling Mihajlovici.
Dusk settled. Dafoe wondered if he had grown accustomed to the shooting or if it was actually diminishing. Dr Dragic told him the Partisans were "beating hell out of the enemy", but "I didn't believe him," Dafoe said. "Not with my belly hugging the ground, shells dropping all about from all sides. These Partisans are too optimistic. I felt that if I could just run as fast as possible in the opposite direction, I would be much more satisfied than beating the enemy!"
The dusk had thickened around Dafoe when he heard someone shouting.
He lifted himself from the ground and scrambled to his wounded horse again as Partisans everywhere screamed "Brzo! Brzo!" "Quickly!" His horse followed gamely as he set out towards the hills, seemingly directly into the Cetnik positions. "We twisted and turned considerably, sometimes with brisk firing close at hand, with shouts and screams from some poor beggar getting it. But as we progressed, the firing gradually died out."
The ragged column moved forward. Dafoe wondered if the Partisans had found a gap to slip through or if reinforcements had arrived to cover the escape. They moved through the night, slipping and stumbling up and down the track in the rain, occupied only by relief in finding safety. Dafoe reflected momentarily on "the other poor chaps back there, fighting it out to cover our movements, or lying on the battlefield with some mortal wound."
"You put that at the back of your mind," he said, "consoling yourself that you couldn't do anything anyway. But I was mighty thankful. I thought we were for it, that time."
Soon the column left the sound of gunfire far behind as it plodded onward into the night, now strangely relieved of any sense of fatigue as each person's adrenalin pumped feverishly.
The rain continued. "It seemed a pointless life," Dafoe said. "We certainly were doing a lot of travelling the hard way, but didn't seem to be getting anywhere." Once, he swivelled in his saddle to meet the gaze of Dr Dragic, riding beside him, and made a prediction.
"If we get out of this alive, Djordje, I'm going to write a book. And I'll be damned if I don't call it Pokret!"
His Partisan friend laughed heartily.
It was almost midday when the column reached its destination a village that belonged to the enemy. It struck Dafoe as quaint and well constructed. "No men about," he noted, "only a few women peasants." Their role was to stay behind and protect the property while their husbands fought the Partisans. "Not a very chivalrous male who fled into the hills," Dafoe concluded.
A few shots were fired as someone was chased out of a hiding spot or lingered to irritate the Partisans, but otherwise, they moved in without incident. Dr Dragic selected a comfortable peasant dwelling with two rooms, a kitchen and a salon with a kaljeva pec, the familiar porcelain stove with inlaid blocks of glass. The house belonged to a middle-aged woman who chatted away aimlessly, "perhaps to keep up her courage" She watched her kitchen utensils and personal possessions closely. Several neighbourhood girls arrived to sweep the front room shortly after Dafoe moved in.
Once settled, Dafoe re-dressed the wound to his horse and fed it a good meal of corn. Frank and Chris, installed nearby, told him the wounded were assembled just down the hillside. He would see them after lunch.
The meal was served on tables set up on the front lawn of a well-kept timber house. Dafoe wondered if it once belonged to the mayor, "if there is such a thing in a Cetnik village." The aeroplanes had obviously not arrived for Kosta Nadj, as he and his staff, along with Ismet Mujezinovic and Dusko Blagojevic, greeted Dafoe. Dr Levi was seated at the table also, along with several officers from the 27th Division and the mysterious Olga. He thought it strange that no one could tell him much about the recent fighting, except that it was "an overwhelming victory for the Partisans."
They stayed in the village one more day, then early the following morning another pokret was ordered. Dafoe had no idea of the column's destination, although he hoped it might be Belgrade. He had never seen the capital.
The rain stopped, and a warm September sun shone all day. The trees were turning. "No mass of riotous colour as in Canada," Dafoe recalled, "but the yellows looked bright in the sunlight and crisp air."
The column had grown with the addition of new units, which meant that many unfamiliar faces appeared. Olga seemed more outgoing than usual with Dafoe. They shared a long conversation as she rode alongside on her small Bosnian pony, "the saddle festooned with various necessities for added comfort in this type of life." Olga was "almost submerged in her saddle between her various knickknacks, which included a seemingly incongruous hurricane lamp." Dafoe noted that a Partisan soldier was detailed to attend to her needs. She in turn kept a weather-eye on Dafoe while helping him with his Serbo-Croat, and proved to be a pleasant, uncomplicated travelling companion.
Dusko Blagojevic rode nearby. He recounted his life in Sarajevo and spoke now of the book he planned to write when the war ended. He seemed particularly interested in the British government's plans for the post-war era. "He expected to return to his newspaper in Sarajevo after the war," Dafoe recalled. "What stirring tales he could write." Dusko often related stories from the early days of the Partisan movement. "I still don't see how they survived it," Dafoe remarked, adding that his own adventures amounted to little more than "a picnic" in comparison. Neretva, Sutjeska, Prozor, Durmitor each spoke of epic campaigns that he had missed.
The column frequently encountered small bands of the enemy determined to hold up the march. "Bullets would fly around very close for a short time, and then they would be driven off. It was enjoyable, a bit of excitement, and if you hugged the ground or sheltered behind a rock, you were quite safe except the chaps right at the front, who ran into the enemy at the beginning."
The column was most vulnerable when it wound under the whitish limestone bluffs at the edge of a field. There, the enemy could snipe at them from behind rocks "and then run off into the forests almost like in a Wild West film, with the Partisans on their horses in wild pursuit." Sometimes the enemy bandits were caught and returned to stand trial, after which they would be either shot or included in the Partisan ranks. "If they were shot, it was done in a humane way," Dafoe claimed. "Following short confinement, the prisoner was led off to some supposed destination. One of the Partisans would drop behind the party, and when the prisoner wasn't expecting it he received a bullet to the head." Dafoe noted that if the executed man had a valuable article of clothing, it usually appeared on a Partisan the next day. The dead man was buried in a shallow grave without a marker.
Once, the Partisans ran into a contingent of snipers spread out across a wide, rolling plateau. Fighting raged for as long as an hour. Dafoe could not see anyone or even the flash of smoke from mortars or gunfire. He retreated to a sunken laneway, where he found Olga.
"Cetniks!" she bristled.
Eventually the enemy units were driven back. The column resumed its march until dusk, when it arrived in a village perched on a hillside. Here Dafoe settled in a small common already occupied by several prominent stooks food for the horses and comfortable bedding, he predicted.
The next morning, Dragic announced that he had something he wanted Dafoe to see. Dafoe followed his friend some distance to a grassy knoll, where "a surprisingly wonderful view unfolded" under the clear autumn sky. "As far as the eye could see, stretching like a green ocean before us, was an immense plain. The mountains dropped away directly below us to the edge of this plain, which stretched as flat as a billiard table until it converged with the horizon. It was like a mirage."
The plain seemed unusually fertile. Large farms were cut in regular patterns. Villages and towns dotted the distant landscape. Several well-constructed churches stood out. Straight, inviting roads linked the settlements. Far to his left, Dr Dragic indicated the river Bosna, "a silvery snake winding its way amidst the fertile green pasture." Dafoe consulted the silk map he had given to Dragic in an attempt to follow the movements of the column in recent weeks. "The long pokret had twisted and turned in a generally western direction in a mountain range [which in all likelihood was the Majevica, followed by the Trebovac] that extended between the Sava River bordering on Serbia to the Bosna" which bisected Bosnia-Hercegovina. "It didn't look so far on the map, but after wearing out a couple of pairs of boots over the distance I knew the map could be very deceiving."
It is difficult to ascertain Dafoe's precise whereabouts at this time. He claimed that the wide plain eventually spread into Hungary, but the name of the village which gave him such a vista remains unknown.
Dafoe wanted to spend more time studying the terrain, but reports that the Germans were bringing in reinforcements, tanks, and heavy guns meant that the Partisans would retreat into the hills again.
But the immediate destination proved to be a prosperous Moslem village in the mountains, still within sight of the great, sweeping plain. The settlement comprised neat roads and farms, as well as "the inevitable coffee shops, stalls and mosques". The column stopped in a great courtyard in a wooden stockade. Zvonko led Dafoe to a Moslem house he had found down a side street where they were greeted by the owner, "an elderly Turk with his fez, who seemed quite glad" to see his visitors. He led a tour of his house. "A night of real comfort coming up," Dafoe predicted. The old man led his guests outside to show them his farm. On the way out he took a swig from an earthen jug hidden behind a tapestry, giving Dafoe a conspiratorial wink as he drank. Dafoe glimpsed the man's wife and daughter hurriedly covering their faces with veils and retiring out of sight as he passed.
In the courtyard, Dafoe was touched by the man's delight in presenting his farm for scrutiny: farm implements, apples, a great many stored vegetables, even a small grist mill run by electricity. The man reached into a pile of apples and produced a second jug of rakija. He drank from it as he narrated the tour. Eventually Dafoe was led into a grape arbour, where yet another earthen jug was hidden. The man's wife called him shortly after. Dafoe never saw him again. "I strongly suspect that he was soundly scolded and put to bed," he said.
That afternoon, Dafoe was listening to songs performed by the women of the 38th Division HQ, who were accompanied by the accordion player, when it "was all suddenly interrupted by intense gunfire which rang out from all sides," he recalled. "Not in the distance, but in the surrounding houses, mingled with shouts. This truly was it, it seemed. How the enemy ever got so close inside the village was hard to understand."
Zvonko had his boots on first and dashed out of the room, gun in hand. Dafoe and Dr Dragic followed, "running into some hysterical woman at the foot of the stairs" as they charged into the street. There he expected to find "lurking battalions of the enemy." Instead, he came upon "a multitude of Partisans shouting for joy, clasping each other, shooting off their guns with one hand into the air, miraculously not killing anyone."
In his journals, Dafoe wrote that Zvonko shouted in his ear that Belgrade had been liberated by the Partisans and Soviet Red Army. It seems unlikely. The capital was liberated on October 20, 1944 at least a month away, according to all available evidence. Perhaps it was a rumour that was taken as genuine information. In any event, Dafoe reported that the Partisans were overwhelmed by the news; he saw tears streaming down the gruff, weather-beaten faces of his comrades. "Cries of 'Zivio Stalin!' rang out." Dafoe supposed Wilson was around somewhere, cursing the foolish waste of ammunition, "for it was popping off in great style."
Dafoe followed Zvonko, Olga, Dusko, and Ismet to the village centre, where they stopped at a crowded, dimly lit cafe. The proprietor brushed clean a table while his son prepared turska kafa for everyone.
"There is something fascinating about a Mohammedan coffee house," Dafoe insisted. "Somewhat dimly lit, the same as in the Middle East, where the men congregate for hours, talking their hours away, time no object, settling affairs of the state, home, religion or at least trying to do so. A somewhat closed circle, where Christians are not encouraged to enter. But tonight we were the honoured guests."
Next morning the column set out into the hills again, with Kosta Nadj and Jovan Vukotic leading. Now and then Dafoe caught sight of the Korpus "elite the intrepid young scouts scrambling along boulders or on the crest of a mountain wall to either side, acting as the column's armour and forward-most eyes. The countryside was "more beautiful than ever", he decided as he marched. The lush colouring of the landscape was exhilarating. Moreover, he shared with the Partisans some residual giddiness after the previous day's celebration. "Perhaps we too would have a battle for some important town," he said. "Tuzla, Sarajevo, and even Mostar were mentioned in the conversation."
The column travelled hard and fast all that day and the next, when they learned that a radiologist from the old hospital in Mihajlovici the man Miki always referred to as "the engineer", since the hospital did not have x-ray equipment had arrived with information that the 27th Divisional Hospital had been ambushed and sacked. He was badly shaken and Dafoe had some difficulty eliciting a coherent account from him.
"Apparently the Germans caught them cold, lined two hills which the hospital passed between, cut the column behind when they had a sufficient number in the bag, opened up with all they had including heavy mortars," he recalled. The radiologist escaped by feigning death, then hiding in some undergrowth until the enemy moved on. Dafoe asked for word of Ana and Susy, but the man could say only that a great many had been killed. "What shocking news this was," Dafoe said. "I couldn't imagine anything happening to capable Ana, and surely no harm would come to tender-hearted Susy." Miki suggested the story was exaggerated, but Frank and Chris were visibly upset. The fate of Jordy, Mira, and Natasan resurfaced in the discussions that followed. Now only Matia and Vera remained from the old hospital for certain. "It was heart- breaking to see these fine young people dropping off like this," Dafoe said. "In Partisan-style we tried to forget it and bury the past events and faces. We weren't so successful as the Partisans. They refused to discuss it further."
The radiologist stayed with the column for several days, until he had recovered from his shock, then quietly disappeared.
The column continued its march at the same steady pace. Dafoe still could not determine the direction they were headed, but suspected they were re-covering old ground. They crossed a main road once, without incident, and quickly scurried up the opposite hillside. Dafoe was resting on high ground when two Partisan officers passed with "a fine-looking, well-nourished young blond German officer, with his hands tied behind his back. He was in his shirt, britches and jackboots. He looked worried and talked with a quick, jerky fashion." One of the Partisans who spoke German was interrogating the officer, asking him the name of his unit and the strength of various garrisons in the area. Dafoe thought the man was answering readily enough, but guessed that he was telling nothing useful. He was a lieutenant in a unit Dafoe equated with the Royal Signals who had just been captured along with his musilman guide in their staff car. The driver had been killed in the Partisan ambush. Dafoe thought it interesting to see a German officer at such close range the enemy, face to face. The Partisans treated him well, he noted.
The column moved out again and down another road. "How nice to canter your horse down a smooth road," he remarked. "Not a soul in sight almost uncanny. We watered our horses at a trough on the side of the road, fed by a mountain stream." Dafoe saw the musilman captured with the German trudging along with the column, "a tremendous fellow with a grey fez decorated with the skull and crossbones, which the Partisans made jokes about". The man wore a huge smile as he greeted friends and shook hands. As Dragic explained, the man had been with the Partisans for some time before he joined the quisling troops. "Perhaps he was a spy," Dafoe suggested. Or a double-agent. Dafoe noted the fellow did not seem overly concerned by his predicament.
As daylight faded the column halted on the brow of a stretch of land which seemed a perfect campsite. Here Dafoe treated the radio operator from the 18th Division, who had fractured his scaphoid scapula. Several other patients required attention, too. He made a mental note to ask Kosta Nadj if he would permit the medical unit to stay behind and work the next morning.
On his way to dinner, Dafoe passed a group of Partisans interrogating the German prisoner again. "He was sitting in the midst of the group, as completely at ease as one could be with one's hands tied behind one's back smiling, answering their questions as soon as they got them out in their German." He examined the man's documents and found that he was a member of the Nazi Party and an officer of the hated Handzar Division. Either was enough to guarantee an early execution in normal circumstances.
Dafoe was surprised when the lieutenant spoke to him in English. He said he could not believe Dafoe was an Allied officer, he looked so shabby. Then he expressed his pleasure in meeting the Canadian, thinking perhaps with such a man he might be better treated. He asked about Canada. Dafoe lit a cigarette and gave it to him. The Partisans were not pleased by this act of chivalry, while the German acknowledged his gesture with a look that somehow acknowledged its irony, and cut straight into Dafoe. "The Partisans had a secret respect for his front," he recalled. "I could detect it in their eyes."
Dafoe left the "somewhat depressing atmosphere" surrounding the scene for Divisional HQ, where he met Zvonko and Dr Dragic. A fire was burning brightly in anticipation of a festival that night, for news had arrived over the wireless that Milos Zekic had just been awarded a high Soviet decoration. Zvonko coached Dafoe with the words to congratulate Zekic and they set off to see him. Dafoe stumbled in mid-sentence, "much to the amusement of the Partisans," he recalled, but the major was pleased anyway.
That night Milos Zekic was feted with songs. Dafoe wondered what the German lieutenant thought as the music drifted towards him in the cold mountain air. He imagined what he would do in the same position "run for it at any cost," he decided.
Early the next day the medical unit moved out with its small column of five horses to a sheltered spot in the hills nearby. They passed several Partisans with the captured German, whose hands were untied now. The German smiled as he waved a cheery "good morning" to Dafoe. He never saw the man again. "But I did see his beautiful jackboots on a Partisan officer later," he recalled.
The medical unit spent a busy morning treating the wounded. "They were in amazingly good shape for what they had been through," Dafoe remarked. "God, what a way to spend your hospital treatment or convalescence walking over mountains or tied to a horse, plodding day and night in rain and mud, and yet improve and get well." Dafoe still could not explain it. "And it certainly isn't in the text books," he added.
The unit connected with the main column at dusk, much to Dafoe's relief. The area was still not safe for long, lightly guarded wandering.
Dafoe discovered the captured musilman now tending a pack horse, "the lowest job of Partisan life." The man had developed blisters and had also lost his impudent grin and cocky, easygoing swagger. "He was on trial," Dafoe noted. The Partisans were watching him carefully.
For the next few days the column travelled through countryside that was new to Dafoe. "Long days of lolling in the saddle and watching the mountains pass by slowly, the beautiful trees. Nowhere else in the world have I seen such trees. The size of the oaks and the cathedral pillar-like beeches. No wonder Miki...was willing to dedicate his life to their preservation."
Occasionally Zvonko pointed out a castle perched on the edge of a cliff in the distance. And one morning Dafoe saw an entire mountain valley "completely blocked out by a white blanket of mist or cloud."
Once, he was told the column was passing in the vicinity of Skugrici, "that village of gastro-memoirs", where Pop Savo's estate was located. Dafoe was incredulous. He could not recognize the terrain and was once again amazed by the great circle in which the column moved.
They were ascending when a familiar sound replayed itself. Gunfire exploded around them.
"Bullets whizzing in great concentration, the air was full of them. Nobody seemed to know what had happened. Mountain guns were booming at the column below in the valley. Poor Dr A and his hospital (at the end of the column) were catching hell a sitting target. Everybody was diving for the earth."
The mountain face was exposed except where Dafoe and the medical unit happened to be when the attack started. He was in a sylvan glade screened to the enemy. But he felt naked enough as he heard bullets zinging around him in the trees.
"I remembered afterwards sitting foolishly up on my horse, not taking cover, wondering what had struck the place a bit too dazed to experience much fear," he said. Kosta Nadj and his staff charged down the column just then. Dafoe saw the young general glare at him as he rode past. "I came to things must be serious so I hit the earth. A few shouts. The bullets ploughing up bits of dirt or ricocheting into the valley below. I dared not look at the hospital."
Some movement had started down the mountainside around a hump ahead. Dafoe made slow progress until he ran into Frank and Chris. Both seemed "a bit frightened." Chris had his tam-o'-shanter shot clean off his head. He was fingering the bullet hole, his face blanched. "Another half-inch and it would have penetrated his skull," Dafoe recalled. Together they moved down the hillside, seeking cover as they went. They passed a few wounded Partisans and stopped long enough to give hurried first aid. The firing seemed as heavy as before, but at least now the mountain guns had stopped.
The medical unit struck a small, well-protected gully where much of the column was assembled. Apparently the Third Korpus had stirred up a German force in prepared positions waiting in ambush. "If they hadn't been scared up and part of the column was allowed to pass, they would have had us cold in the narrow pass defile." Most of the Partisans made light of the attack, saying it was only a small German force a hundred men, they estimated. The Partisans were outflanking it already.
The column was soon on its feet again and into a dark forest, climbing rapidly until it reached what Dafoe thought must be the highest peak in all of Bosnia. His horse was hard pressed to find footing.
Eventually the column came upon a mountain switchback, where it descended. Dafoe could not see the logic in this tactic, until Miki explained that they were coming around behind the enemy. He added that the German units were all but wiped out now. Some fifty or sixty were dead, with others captured.
The column entered an impoverished village in hardscrabble terrain at 1400 that day and the medical unit worked as hard as ever treating the wounded. The main fighting force slept or rested outside. Later Dafoe saw several prisoners in camouflage uniforms led into the village under a Partisan guard. Miki explained they were German mountain troops, expert in guerrilla-warfare tactics.
The column soon moved out again in search of high ground. Dr Dragic consoled Dafoe and his assistants with assurances that everyone would rest later. Four or five hours of hard, uphill travelling delivered them to a settlement with gardens outside quaint peasant dwellings. "It was the cleanest and most like an English country village that I had ever seen," Dafoe recalled. He was billeted in a mountain bungalow of sorts, along with "Dr G," Olga, Dusko, and Ismet Mujezinovic. The rooms were spotlessly tidy and overlooked the shrubs and garden outside. Even the rocks around the garden plot were painted white.
Shortly after settling into the lodgings, several members of the divisional staff came by to compliment Dafoe on his courage during the ambush in the mountains. It seemed the village was buzzing with the news. "I didn't enlighten them that my so-called bravery was just stupidity and general inexperience," he wrote afterwards. "Such are the reputations of war."
Olga brewed fresh coffee that night. Bread, cold meats, and a pot of homemade jam were scrounged, signalling the start of a celebration after the harrowing events of the day and tata's heroism under fire. Dafoe was certain that something significant was about to happen and that his cohorts knew what it was. But they were conspicuously silent on the subject.
After marching all next day, the column camped in the open on the side of a mountain that night. A roaring fire kept Dafoe warm. The next day they travelled through countryside that seemed vaguely familiar and, this time, Dafoe chased down Zvonko and badgered him with questions. His friend at last confessed that the Partisans were preparing to attack Tuzla. Kosta Nadj and his staff had departed early that morning to direct the assault.
"Indeed, life was getting interesting," Dafoe recalled of his mood upon hearing the news. "All kinds of visions came before our eyes food, women, hot water, beds." Dr Dragic was cheerful, too, as he thought again of his mother, wife, and the son he had not seen. The column travelled hard all day and part of the night without receiving any bulletins concerning the attack on Tuzla. Nor did anyone hear gunfire. Major Zekic rode up and down the length of the column a few times, revealing nothing at least to mere doctors".
The next afternoon, however, word came that two of the four enemy garrisons defending the town's perimeter had fallen. Tremendous cheers erupted at once throughout the column, sparking yet another flurry of rumours. "The news lent wings to our feet, the wounded hobbled more quickly, and even the stretchers grew lighter," Dafoe recalled. He noticed that most of the high-ranking officers had vanished. Presumably they were already in Tuzla.
Tuzla. Even the name sounded exotic to Dafoe. It was a Turkish word, meaning "salt," he was told. Tuzla lay on shifting strata of salt and was, in fact, sinking marginally with every year.
The column marched until late into the night, then halted in a deserted village. The camp was alive with the hum of rumours and excited voices, all anticipating a milestone in this war that had gone on so long. There was music and dance, but sleep would be a struggle against nervous energy.
Then, at roughly 1000 next morning, already on the march again, the column heard that Tuzla had fallen to the Partisans. Orders rippled in the calm, midmorning air, charging the atmosphere around them: Proceed to Tuzla at once!
The long pokret was over.
Copyright © Brian Jeffrey Street 1987,1998. All rights reserved.