My First Step Abroad

By Micho Stefanovski

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It was early March in 1948. The ground was still wet after a record snowfall early in February, the sub-zero temperature did not deter the villagers to venture out from their semi-hibernation to begin the cycle over the land as their fathers and grandfathers did for centuries before them.

This coming spring, however, must have been very difficult for the villagers to begin their never ending chores as most of their equipment and grain supplies were lost six months earlier when the army burnt down most of the village.

They were willing to recoup their losses however if only the two warring factious had left them alone. Drenichevo (Kranohori in Greek) a small village situated close to the highway between Kostur (Kastoria) and the small provincial town of Nestram (Nestourion) was the meat in the sandwich between the Greek army and the partisans. The army had kept a garrison in Nestram and that garrison had to be supplied with food and military equipment every second week.

Every time the army had tried to bring in some supplies to Nestram, the partisans would attack the convoy, consisting of trucks, mules, horses and donkeys, to disrupt the supply lines. The partisans would enter my village, taking positions in the church, school and strategically placed houses to fire on the convoy. The army in return would fire back with machine gun fire, mortar and artillery shells into the village.

These never-ending battles had a devastating effect on the villagers, disrupting their daily lives with fields unharvested, fodder and hay uncollected, firewood uncut and so on. Early in March, rumours reached Drenichevo that the army was about to launch an offensive against partisan lines near the village of Gradche (Ftelia) about four kilometres west of Drenichevo. It was crystal clear that the partisans would never allow at any cost the army to reach their front line positions so the battle would be fought between Drenichevo and Gradche. There was another rumour however, even more disturbing for my village than the first one. The army will occupy Drenichevo and send all the population into exile.

My father was very disturbed about these rumours. He actually worried more about our livestock than the safety of my family. After all the land and our animals provided us with food to live on, without them there would be no life. We decided that the only way to beat the army offensive was to get all our animals out of Drenichevo and into partisan controlled territories. By the 10th March, my father and I and with many other villagers set out with our animals to reach safety behind partisan lines which were situated a couple of kilometres west of Gradche. I never said good-bye to my mother, brothers, sister or to my aunty Melyovitsa. We assumed that the trip would last only a week or two as it did during WW2 fleeing the Germans for the same reasons.

The exodus from Drenichevo was slow and painful. People would get out from their charred houses to see where we were going. Some of them wanted to join us, but others just cursed us for creating an unnecessary panic and mayhem. It took us nearly two hours to reach the outskirts of Gradche where two plain clothed partisans with guns were manning a checkpoint. They wanted to know about us and where we were heading. A written pass or some kind of permission was issued to us on a scrap of paper to enter the partisan controlled zone. We went through Gradche very quickly and headed for the hills of Sveti Ilija and Popov Vr. Actually, Gradche means 'a little town' in Macedonian. I wonder what history and ancient past glories lies buried under the ruins of this little village.

About one kilometre west of Gradche, we came to another checkpoint manned by several uniformed partisans. They took away our passes and let us continue our journey. The narrow path was taking us higher and higher into the hills. We could see bunkers nearby and partisans sitting or lying around. They were dirty, badly clothed and possessing a variety of weapons, such as English made 303 rifles and Bren guns, Italian made sub machine guns and machine guns, German made ERMA MP40 or Stager and Smazer submachine guns and of course the famous German made fast firing M634 machine guns. They were just as deadly as any modern weapon in the Greek army armour. Half way up the hill, we could see more bunkers and more partisans sitting or lying around. One young partisan no more than 18 or 19 years old came to my father asking for food. He said it was a hard and difficult winter and he said that they were practically starving. My father reached for the bag he was carrying, gave him one large loaf of bread and kept one for ourselves.

The young partisan got down on his knees, grabbed my father's hand and kissed him. "Thank you chichko" (uncle), he said several times and went back to share the meal with his comrades. It was obvious that these boys were starving. How they fought the enemy on a empty stomach was anybody's guess. When we reached the top of the hills, a place called the Cradle of Garleni (Hionatou), we could see many women and older men constructing or repairing a series of bunkers. They would drag timber logs from great distances to reinforce these bunkers damaged during recent fighting. Heaps of spent machine-gun and rifle cartridges were lying around. Hundreds of artillery made craters were scattered near the bunkers. The land was practically covered with small and large pieces of rusting shrapnel. It looked like a moonscape.

From there on it was all the way down to the Turkish built little village of Garleni (Hionatou). The present inhabitants were refugees from Turkey brought in by the Greek government in 1923 after the Greco-Turkish war in 1922. Most of these people were monarchists siding with the army. During the early days of the Greek Civil War, they fled their homes for the safety in army controlled territories.

The task of finding accommodation for us and the animals was left to the partisan officials. There were many empty houses but the influx of people from other villages fleeing the army had made the matter a lot more difficult. We were given a half burnt house near the centre of the village. The large earth floored room with a large fireplace must have been a kitchen and a storeroom combined. Another room on the other side of the house was occupied by the partisans using it as a telephone or telegraph room relaying messages to other units in the area. My father and I together with at least ten other people had to share the room for the duration of our stay in that village.

We slept on the cold and hard floor with one blanket as a mattress and another to cover ourselves. To keep us warm, we kept the fireplace going 24 hours a day. Next to our room there were some barns for our animals. From the first day of our arrival, my job was to take our sheep and lambs for grazing in the countryside. Father would look after the bulls and other animals at home. Soon after the second day we completely ran out of food. We drank some milk from our sheep but milk after all is only water and not very filling. This problem was widespread throughout the village. People complained of hunger and partisan authorities were powerless to rectify the problem. After all they needed more food themselves to fight the enemy than us. Some shipment of cornbread was organized to be shipped from Albania with mules during the night. It was equally distributed throughout the village. Our ration was one slice of cornbread a day. I would take my slice with me out to work, cut it in half with my penknife. I would eat half of the slice for lunch and bring the other half home to be eaten for dinner before going to sleep. At night before going to sleep the older people would tell stories about their terrible experiences since the days of the 1903 uprising. Their fight for freedom against the Turks. Stories about the war in 1912-13 when our neighbours divided our land. Stories about the Greek army arriving in Macedonia from the south and how badly they treated our people. Many more stories about how some of them emigrated to America, their stay there and why they returned back home again. I would listen to all these stories with great interest and I would compare them with our problems we were facing now. During the early hours in the morning, we would be awaken by noise made by horses or mules on a cobblestone road just next to our wall. The partisans were ferrying supplies to the front. These supplies were apparently coming from Albania across the border with great secrecy. Every morning, I would take my sheep and lambs to the pastures around the village exploring the countryside for unusual and interesting spots.

Sometimes, another child would accompany me to the pastures making my life more bearable. I would take my sheep miles away without any fear from anyone. Partisans in groups would walk to their destinations. Some of them would search my pockets and take away my slice of bread. I would go back home at night very hungry and ask my father if he had some of his slice for a rainy day like that. Sometimes I would follow a group of partisans for miles with my sheep to find out what they were up to. They would set up some rough made targets and use them as practice shooting. I would go behind them and beg them so I could have a go. Many times I was chased away but sometimes they would give me a rifle, teach me how to aim and squeeze the trigger. I would miss the target by a mile. They would wet themselves laughing, telling me that I would make a bad partisan. By the second week, I began to feel a bit homesick. I was missing my mother, younger brothers and sister.

I would take my sheep to the highest spot in the district where the panoramic views were spectacular. I could see all the plains below as far away as Kostur. I could see my village below, the hills where I used to play and take my animals to graze. It looked so peaceful from afar. Then I could see some smoke mushrooming into balls. I knew exactly by experience what they were. Mortar bombs were falling around the village. The rumours we heard earlier about the army offensive were not rumours after all. I used to take my sheep to a plateau, a few kilometres east of the village. It was not very far from the bunkers the women and men were earlier constructing and repairing. The ground was littered with war junk. I was desperately searching to find something to eat. I was so hungry. One slice of cornbread a day was not enough for a growing 12 year old boy like me.

There were several graves of soldiers hastily buried by their comrades. Some of their boots were clearly visible above the wet soil. While removing a pair of boots from one of the semi decomposed soldier, I unearthed an army pack (sack) buried close to the corpse half full of sultanas. I was so happy. I took the boots and the army pack back to my father. He washed the sultanas and shared it with the other people in the room. It smelled like earth, but god it tasted so good. The next day I would go back to the same spot searching for more food, maybe a can or two left behind by the army. I became a scavenger actually competing with the vultures flying round in circles searching for food too. An army plane would fly around in circles perhaps on a reconnaissance mission photographing partisan targets. At times it would sweep so close to the ground for a second look that the pilots face was clearly visible. It would spook my sheep in all directions. I would curse him for his action for hours, praying to God that the bastard was dead. I never tried to hide, I felt that my life was so cheap and was not worth living. By now some of the first casualties from the battle below had started to arrive. Young women with stretchers bringing in a lot of badly wounded partisans. Some of them were without an arm or a leg or their stomachs were ripped apart by a bomb that their intestines were clearly visible. They would cry with pain and ask for water. There was very little the women could do for them. With no doctors or medical supplies, the badly wounded ones would die. The legendary Macedonian partisan officer P. Shiperko was killed by a mortar bomb in the same battle. His body was brought in on a white horse for burial. He was mourned by thousand of partisans and civilians alike who knew him. About 1,500 metres east of Garleni close to a small creek, I found hundreds of partisan graves marked by a simple wooden cross and without any name.

One evening a high ranking partisan officer visited Garleni to address the people about something of great importance. He said that the army offensive below us was gaining momentum. It is very important he said that every child between the age of two and 14 be evacuated to a safer place. The only safe place around was the territory of Albania some 10 kilometres away.

The preparation for the removal of the children from Garleni to Albania had to be carried out within two days. About 4 o'clock in the morning on the 25th of March 1948, we set out from Garleni for the Turkish built border village of Shak. We had to move in the dark because of fear of being bombed by Greek military planes. A lot of mothers and fathers came with us to see us off across the border. My father came with me carrying my blanket and the army sack I found filled with sultanas. This time, however, the sack was full of cooked meat. He slaughtered a lamb especially for the occasion to make sure that I had something to eat for at least several days.

When we arrived in Shak, the sun was already up. We sat with my father under a huge willow tree close to a small river running through the village. We ate some of the meat we had in the army pack. Later on, we visited a church and went inside to pray. My father was a very religious person, he believed that god would never abandon us. He would be with us no matter where we went. Outside the church about two metres from the bell tower were two graves side by side close together. The locals claimed that during the early days of the civil war a vicious battle took place in the village. Several people were killed. Among them were young brothers. One was a partisan and the other one a soldier. They buried them close together near the church. Later on we went to the centre of the village to hear what the partisan authorities had to say about our departure. The partisans were celebrating the Greek National Day. We stood there for a while. It was time for the mothers and fathers to say good bye to their children. I could hear cries that the children did not want to be separated from their loved ones. I stood there with my father. We did not say much. He had his arm around my shoulder and he was looking at me. Through his tired and sad eyes I could sense what he was thinking. That this probably will be the last time he sees me. I tried to be cheerful convincing him and myself that his is not the end of the world. That one day, god willing, we will see each other again. He said good bye, he turned around and left.

I stood there in silence watching him slowly disappearing on the horizon. He did not turn around for the second time to say good bye. I believed that he was devastated and heartbroken as I was and he did not want me to see his face with tears running down his cheeks. I knew he loved me a lot and I loved him too. That was the last time I saw my father alive.

I stood there for a few minutes though it looked like eternity. For the first time in my life I had found myself alone, abandoned by the last member of my family.

Cries were still coming from the crowd. Children as young as three had to be separated from their mothers and left alone. It was a heartbreaking moment. One by one all the mothers and fathers had left. Only two elderly mothers, one from our village and the other one from Gradche or Chuka remained with us. They became our foster mothers and supervisors for the journey into Albania and beyond.

That afternoon the partisan authorities collected all our blankets promising us that later on they will be loaded on a truck and sent to our destination. We never saw our blankets again. Late that afternoon an order was given for us to cross the border. They told us to follow one of the goat made tracks to reach Albania but no partisan or partisan official came to lead us for the final journey.

We took the narrow path up the hill, one mother in front of us and the other behind. Over one hundred children one by one slowly but surely moved closer and closer to the border. A large white stone about one and a half metres high and 60 centimetres wide was marking the Greco-Albanian border. We continued with our slow pace until we reached a barrier consisting of a thick horizontally stretched copper wire with other smaller vertical wires every few metres connecting the main wire to the ground.

The leading mother had gently lifted the wire about one metre high to let the children through. When half of the children managed to cross that part of the section to the other side of the wire two Albanian soldiers with their guns ready were seen running down the hill towards us. They were screaming at us and telling to stop immediately. We did not understand a word of what they were saying but we knew whatever it was it must be very serious. When they realized that we could not speak Albanian they asked us to sit down and wait. One of them went back to wherever they came from and minutes later returned with another soldier. The other soldier was a Greek-Albanian speaking Greek perfectly. Gently he explained to us that the wire we were lifting was indeed a booby-trap connected to mines on the ground. It was a miracle he said that the mines did not go off. He also said that the border guards have no knowledge from their higher authorities for children like us to cross the border. The soldiers asked us to go back to the village that was only one kilometre away. By the time we returned back to Shak it was already dark. The locals come to our assistance taking us in small groups to their homes.

Next morning the red faced officials were lost for words about what went wrong. Apparently while they were busy telling us what to do, they forgot to notify the Albanian authorities about our trip. A typical Greek bureaucratic bungle. Somehow the word that the children had returned to Shak reached Garleni like grass fire. Scores of mothers and fathers came to greet their children back. The trauma of separation was repeated again for the second day. My father unfortunately was not one of them. I understood perfectly that he had no time for a second farewell. He had plenty of work to do. He had to look after the animals himself now.

The partisans sent a representative to meet the Albanian border guards to discuss the matter. Permission was given for us to cross the border on the same day.

When we reached the border two Albanian soldiers escorted us to their barracks some two kilometres away from the border. They gave us some cornbread and water and put us on four military trucks for the long trip to the city of Korcha. About two and a half months later and thousands of kilometres behind us we reached Brno (Czechoslovakia), our final destination.