My First Step Abroad
By Micho Stefanovski
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
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
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