Saturday, October 28, 2006
THE MACEDONIAN COMMITTEES
Luigi Villari,"Living Age", 3 Sep 1903, Vol 240, pages 311-315[L Villari was also Editor of The Balkan Question EP Dutton & Co., New York, 1905]
The Macedonian committees of whose doings have heard so much recently, are the direct outcome of the intolerable oppression which the Christian peasantry in general, and the Bulgarians in particular, suffer under the Turkish Government. I shall not enter into the details of that oppression - the grinding and arbitrarily levied taxation, the stupidity and dishonesty of the Turkish officials, the forced labor on the farms of Mohammedans, the dragooning on the part of the field guards - all these things are too well known. From this state of affairs the only way of escape is through the Committees, and the wretched and degraded rayah by joining them at once becomes a man conscious of his own dignity and of the fact that a day of reckoning will come.
The Bulgarian revolutionary societies in Macedonia began to arise about the year 1892 or 1893, and are divided into two categories - the Internal and the External Organizations. The former consists of a number of more or less disjointed committees, one of which is to be found in every Macedonian town or large village; where there is a Bulgarian population. The External organization works in Bulgaria itself with the object of keeping up the agitation both in that country and abroad. When the revolution broke out both organizations raised armed bands, but the more active work has been carried on by the Internal committees; it is therefore absolutely untrue to state that the rebellion has been produced by outside agitators and Bulgarian megalo-maniacs. the supporters of the Internal committees are of two kinds. There are the active komittadjis, who take part in any rising, and the adherents who would only be called out in a general revolution. To this latter class practically every able-body Bulgarian belongs. When the movement was first started attempts were made by the leaders to draw the other races of Macedonia into it, as all suffer and are discontented under Turkish bondage. But the Greeks were so jealous of the Bulgarian propaganda that they refused to take part in any revolution, and the Vlachs, who are mostly traders, were afraid to risk ruin, and were not, moreover, very keenly interested in politics. The Servians, to, had their own propaganda to carry on which, for a long time was actively hostile to that of the Bulgarians. A certain number of members of the last two races, however, did actually join the committees and have taken part in the recent fighting. Among others there are two ex-officers of the Romanian army.
For some years the work of the committees consisted in organizing the people for the coming struggle. A number of the komittadjis went to Bulgaria army so as to learn military discipline, and many Macedonian officers in that army threw up their commissions to help to liberate their country. These men, of course, are the best fighters, as the others have had no chance to practice shooting or drill in Macedonia. All the committees, both internal and external, are more or less in communication with each other, but there is no generally-recognized leader of the whole movement whom everybody obeys implicitly. There are fighters like Boris Sarafoff, who has a wonderful power of inducing men to follow him anywhere, organizers like Damian Grueff, Matoff, and Christo Tatarcheff; but none of them is commander-in-chief. Each leader wishes to act too much on his own initiative, and although there is a sort of council of the Internal organization consisting of some dozen chiefs, its authority is by no means absolute. This want of unity has proved the gravest defect of the organization, and has lessened its power considerably. There have been, moreover, at various times differences of opinion between the Internal and the External organization, while certain leaders, like General Zoncheff, act practically as free lances. The methods by which the committees obtain adherents and funds were not always to be commended. They sometimes extorted money by threats of violence, and executed summary justice on obnoxious people or on informers, but in the circumstances in which they were placed what other course was open to them? For some time they kept fairly quiet, but in 1895 a Mohammedan Bey whose conduct had been particularly oppressive towards the Christians was murdered. This induced the authorities to search for arms among the Christian villages, and as they did find some weapons the trouble began. Matoff, Christo Tratarcheff and many others were condemned to long terms of imprisonment (some escaped, others were pardoned), and large number of Bulgarians were exiled. it is said that the Russian Government, which did not view the Bulgaro-Macedonian movement with favor, encouraged the Porte in this policy and communicated any information which it obtained about the insurgents to the Turkish police. From 1895 onwards the country has been always more or less in a summer of agitation, and there had been numbers of sporadic local outbreaks, until in August last a more general insurrection took place. Some three years ago the activity of the committees spread to Adrianople vilayet, where there is a large Bulgarian population, and during September it too was the scene of a considerable agitation followed as usual by a savage repression.
When the preparations were made, bands were formed consisting of twenty to two hundred men each, which were to carry out the actual rebellion. Each band is under a Voivoda or war leader, to whom every member must swear an oath of fealty and obedience. He also swears to be honest and not to steal, not to surrender himself alive to the enemy; but if he is captured he must either commit suicide (every komittadje carries poison), or provoke the Turks to kill him. For arms he has a rifle, a revolver and two dynamite bombs - a large one and a small one. These bombs or hand-grenades have proved extremely effective, for the Turkish soldier, although no coward has a great horror of dynamite; the insurgents, he says, carry their cannon in their pockets. The Turks frequently used artillery, but more for the destruction of villages that against the bands. The latter had no guns save one or two small quick-firing guns of Austrian make. their rifles are either Gras, Martins, Mannlichers or old Krimkis (muzzle-loaders used during the Crimean war), but the Gras rifles are the most numerous and have been obtained from Greece when the Greek army discarded them. It is from Greece, in fact, that most of the arms and ammunition have been smuggled in, although some consignments have come through Servia and Bulgaria, and others have been landed on the Aegean or Adriatic coast with the connivance of the Turkish officials. A certain number have been sold to the komittadjis by the Turkish peasants who had received them from the Government. There are hidden stores of ammunition and provisions in various parts of the country. With regard to their tactics, the bands try to draw Turkish detachments into difficult places, and then fall upon them, kill all they can, and escape to the mountains. In some cases they attack villages of bashi-bazouks or isolated military posts, and in others they cut the enemys communications. There have been no engagements on a large scale, but a constant series of small fights. No trustworthy statistics have been published on either side as to the numbers of killed and wounded. According to Bulgarian sources the bands have lost some one thousand two hundred men: the Turks tell you that their own losses have been trifling and that in no single engagement have they had more that twenty or twenty-five killed and wounded. As a matter of fact, however, when I was at Monastir, the only European who had been allowed to go all over the military hospital assured me that it contained five hundred wounded soldiers; while in one encounter in the Razlog district, according to a Consular report, the Turks had thirty killed and eighty wounded. The strategy of the insurgents has certainly been very curious, and seems contrary to the most elementary rules of warfare. During the past summer there have been three separate outbreaks - one in the Monastir vilayet, one in that of Adrianople, and one in the Razlog district (between Serres and the Bulgarian frontier). The one chance which the insurgents had of succeeding was in rising simultaneously in different parts of the country; instead of which they allowed some weeks to elapse between the three outbreaks, so that the Turks were able to deal with each separately. This plan was not the result of an accident; it was deliberate, the leaders believing possibly that by keeping the Turks occupied now in one part of the country and then in another they would tire them out. But in the event the three movements were crushed in detail. The significance of the rebellion, however, is not in any way minimized by the fact that as a military operation it has failed. Its importance lies in the fact that a handful of desperate men - at most they were ten thousand to fifteen thousand - could keep an army of two hundred thousand men at bay for many months. And even now, although defeated, and their country laid waste, they are by no means subdued. During the winter it is improbable that they will be very active, but in the spring they will certainly rise again, and co-operate with a Bulgarian army in the event of war, unless in the meanwhile a really satisfactory scheme of reforms has been carried out. One cannot help admiring their extraordinary grit and power of resistance, as well as their undoubted bravery in facing death. They are inspired by a fanaticism for their cause, which even their opponents are forced to recognize.
A question which naturally arouses much interest is how far the alleged atrocities committed by the bands are true. There have, undoubtedly, been cases of murders by the komittajis, but they have almost invariably been perpetrated on spies and informers. We must reflect on the desperate nature of the struggle, in which the bands only chance of success lay in secrecy and in rapidity of movement, before we unreservedly condemn the slaughter of men, usually Greeks, who had betrayed their fellow Christians to the Turks. When before the outbreak the leaders found that the Greeks would not join in the insurrection, they told them that if they remained neutral they helped the Turks they must take the consequences. With regard to the burning of Mohammedan villages by the komittadjis, these cases usually arose when the inhabitants of those villages had been particularly cruel towards their Christian neighbors.
In trying to establish the balance of criminality, we must keep in mind the fact that every Mohammedan villager can carry arms, and is a potential if not an active Bashi-bazouk, whereas for a Christian to possess arms is a crime. In any case, if we consider the Monastir vilayet, when the insurrection was most serious, we find that out of 110 to 120 villages burnt, six were burned by Bulgarians bands and all the rest by the Turkish soldiers. In some cases in the Razlog district the bands set fire to the Turkish quarters of mixed villages, to enable the Bulgarian villager, who were in constant terror of their lives, to escape across the frontier. Moreover, there has not been a single case of wholesale butchery of men, women and children by the bands, whereas in countless Christian villages the Turks shot down all they could find, indiscriminately. Nor has there been any instance of outrages on women committed by insurgents whereas the Turkish campaign of repression has been well described as a carnival of lust. The komittadjis have also been accuses of provoking the Turks to commit massacres so as to arouse Europe; but although in a few cases this may have occurred, that it was not their deliberate policy. I think, proved by the fact that they might have caused a general massacre in Monastir and elsewhere by throwing a bomb into a mosque, and yet they abstained from doing so.