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BESIDES the morning conferences which we had with Commandant Rukavana and Commissar Bakaric, at which purely official matters were discussed, we had the opportunity daily of seeing these leaders, unless duty prevented, at dinner and supper. The gathering on these occasions consisted usually of officers, officials and clerks of the administration staff, and frequently two or three visiting officers from various units in the command. It was at dinner and supper that we had the opportunity of learning much about the Partisans. Conversation naturally centred about Partisan activity, and many interesting accounts of their history and unique development, often invited by our ceaseless questions, were received first hand. Always eagerly anticipated, these occasions became a very important and delightful experience of the day's routine.
At these gatherings we got to know a great many of the Partisan leaders and executives. We would hear much of their careers and experiences, accounts of battle, ambushes and near capture, stories of long, difficult and dangerous journeys, the destruction of trains and strong points and the capture of enemy personnel, the liberation of an ever-increasing number of free towns and villages, the capture of valuable food and clothing from Italian and German sources, and other incidents too numerous to mention here. These accounts were always interesting, quite often exciting, and frequently very amusing, and from them we were able to understand much of Partisan life and their method of operation.
<>These men had lived a lifetime of experience since the day, early in May two years before, when nine patriotic men slipped out of the city of Karlovac, armed with a rifle, two shot guns and a revolver, took up position in Babina Gora, a copse south-east of that city, and there vowed they would see their country free or die in the effort. That was just about a month after the fall of Jugoslavia, when the occupier was in the act of taking over.
Four of those men are alive to-day, or were so in November, 1943. Two of them carried deep marks resulting from wounds, and all four could relate experiences, ghastly, terrifying, heroic and magnificent. One of those heroes has already been referred to we had lunch with him. He was the Vice-President of the Anti-Fascist Committee of Liberation for Croatia, a tradesman, and perhaps a Social Democrat; people of the Freedom Front movement were not concerned with party politics, and he was loved and respected by all.
But while Babina Gora is a sanctuary to the people of Karlovac and the memory of those nine men will never perish, it was only one incident of hundreds similar to it that spontaneously took place all over Croatia and in every part of Jugoslavia. Small groups, in some cases of only two or three men, frequently armed only with their bare fists, from hundreds of villages and towns, made the same resolve and set out to free their homes and loved ones.
They would stand concealed in a bush with nothing but a stick to point as a gun, and shout "Stoi" to a lone Italian or German, who usually raised his hands in surrender. His weapon, ammunition and uniform were taken and the body buried. Not a trace must be left for human eye to see. Every man of them must score his enemy every day.
These daring men were soon joined by a steady stream of others from their villages fathers, brothers, sons, and mothers, sisters and daughters. It was not long before the enemy's position in that village would become untenable. The entire village would become free. The next village would succeed in the same way; it also became free. Village after village followed, and soon an entire area, surrounded by hills or bordering a wood, was rejoicing in its freedom.
Units of Partisans, ever stronger in numbers, maintained the defence in the hills or woods. Food was supplied by the women, older men and young children, who carried it to them under cover of darkness.
Courier service to maintain contact with neighbouring villages and areas was organised. It became the nerve system of the entire organisation. Courier routes were maintained all over the country. At intersecting points messages were sorted and sent on their respective routes, which were all numbered and thoroughly known by all couriers. It resembled in many respects an elaborate telephone service, with its exchanges and private lines.
Leaders were appointed in each Partisan group by those whom they led. Groups co-operated under common leaders. Supplies were organised, arms, ammunition and uniforms steadily increased.
There were few men in those early days who could not tell the story of how they won their weapons and uniforms in personal conflict. Sometimes when Partisans went into battle, a number of unarmed men and girls, without uniforms and sometimes barefooted, carried extra ammunition and supplies of all sorts, in the hope of returning with a well-earned weapon and clad in a coveted uniform.
As ranks swelled and groups multiplied, commands were formed, training and discipline became essential, administration evolved and gave those bands of determined, courageous, freedom-loving menfolk the semblance of an army. The name ceta, company, battalion, brigade, later division, and still later corps, became familiar in turn as easily and naturally as a change of season.
Thus the People's Liberation Army and Partisan Detachments grew to become the army it is to-day. Over three hundred thousand men and women (approximately six per cent women), thoroughly organised, trained and disciplined, under excellent leadership, with the success of over one-half of their country made free to encourage them, compelled the respect of well over twenty enemy divisions. The spirit of the resolutions made in all the Babina Goras in Jugoslavia became the life-blood of that army.
In more or less the same manner that the fighting men organised themselves into a strong army did the older men and women, boys and girls, organise themselves in civilian capacity, that they might better help their army. As districts, villages and towns became free, committees in such were elected by the people to administrate the economy and welfare of the commumty, aiming always to give maximum help to the army. These committees have already been referred to in an earlier chapter, when Drug Manola wanted a few hundred people to perform a job of work.
Civilian organisations evolved step by step as conditions and necessity arose. The local committees, usually formed at once as villages became free, had long been contemplated, and were very often even actually functioning, though necessarily underground, waiting patiently for the day when they would be free. They consisted always of a president, secretary and some five to ten committee men, depending on the size of the village, area or town. All committee-men must be local citizens, and were elected by free choice and secret ballot of the people. These committees were always fully controlled by the people, who could dismiss them on short notice and elect others at any time should conditions require such action.
The function of these committees was of a much wider nature than that of the usual Municipal Council in a country free from the presence of war. Private possessions had become so reduced by enemy ravishings and the interference of war that it had become imperative for people to pool their remaining assets, to regulate consumption, to plan production and to assist one another in every possible way.
The people, through their committees, did just those very things. They voluntarily submitted to rationing themselves. Livestock, crops, milk, butter, eggs, wool, clothing and whatever the community had were recorded by the committee, and, under management of the people, were regulated in such a way that all got a fair portion. And what could possibly be spared even self-denial to real hardship we often observed was sent to the National Freedom Army. Breeding animals and young stock, in so far as the demand for meat would allow, were protected, and seed necessary for planting was systematically preserved and distributed. Work in every community was likewise organised. Horses, oxen, wagons, farm implements, were pooled and used for mutual benefit. People would work in groups and go from one farm to the next. They would work for their army in the same way. <>We never saw such unity, co-operation and achievement.
Education, medical and social services were all organised through the local committee in so far as facilities would permit. School teachers were not always obtainable, but wherever possible schools were maintained, and children attended from miles around. Individuals or groups of individuals were trained and organised in first-aid. Doctors were few and were mostly in the army, though in the larger towns a doctor was generally available to civilians. Civilian hospitals were maintained in the larger towns. Churches, those which were still standing and undamaged, whether Orthodox, Catholic or Mohammedan, were open, and services were regularly held. In Catholic communities the bells rang as usual.
It was the unity of the community, symbolised in the local committee that was the strength of the Freedom Front Movement in Jugoslavia. It was democracy at its best. People in any free community were absolutely free to do as they wished in respect to organising a local committee. They need not have a committee at all it was entirely up to themselves. Individuals in the community need not participate in the local committee should they not wish to do so, nor were they obliged to conform to its methods or suggestions. There was no compulsion brought to bear upon anyone. Seldom, indeed, was it that villages and towns did not so organise themselves. We know not of a single case where they had not done so. We have met the odd individual who did not participate in the local community organisation. For some private reason or other he wished not to do so. He was treated as all other citizens of his community, without prejudice to his needs. He was given food and help when required, and seed for his spring planting. What is more, he was paid his price in lira, the only currency in circulation, by the committee when he wished to dispose of a pig. Such was the unity, freedom and spirit of community life in Free Jugoslavia.
The local committees of towns, villages and districts which had become free and had successfully remained free for any length of time, for the same obvious reasons that brought the separate Partisan groups together under common command, found it both convenient and desirable to associate themselves under common authority. Delegates were appointed to form district and regional committees. Frequently delegates from occupied areas attended these meetings as well. It was from these district and regional committees that later the executive committees of various States in Jugoslavia were formed.
A strong lead in the organisation of the civilian or political field was given soon after the collapse of Jugoslavia, when leaders and prominent members of the eighteen political parties, which had formed the fabric of political life in that country in pre-war days, men who had already taken arms and gone into the woods to fight, agreed to sink all political differences and to work and fight together in close unity for a free united Jugoslavia, until the people should be free to choose their own form of government.
Many of these gentlemen were to be found in the various committees, local, district and regional, having been duly elected by the army and people of free areas where elections were possible.
All committees were regarded as purely provisional and entrusted to carry on until, from time to time, as free areas became larger, they were either confirmed in their record and directed to carry on, or were enlarged and changed as the will of the people determined.
Executive Committees, also of a provisional nature, were elected by each State of Jugoslavia to conduct the affairs of that State. Two of such executives were the Anti-Fascist Committee of Liberation for Croatia, and the Izvrsni Odbar of Slovenia.
The chief function of these executive committees was to coordinate the effort of all local committees and so direct the military, economic and social affairs of the people in free areas as to best serve the task of liberating their country.
The Army Command in each State was responsible to the executive committee, which it always recognised as the will of the people. And to enhance unity and to give cohesion in such a democratic movement, the office of political commissar was early instituted.
Though his rank was not a military one, the commissar was found with every unit command of the army. He relieved the Commandant of administrative duties, matters of interior economy and education and welfare of the troops. But his primary task was to coordinate the views of the military commanders and the members of the executive committee.
It was the practice, as the need became apparent, to adjust organisation and to shape it to new and varying conditions. Each rapid extension of free areas, ever the delight and encouragement of all, never failed to bring along its full quota of new and difficult problems. New defence difficulties would arise. The people of newly-liberated areas would require immediate supply of food and clothing. Production would have to be extended and speeded up. Small industries became necessary to supply the usual necessities of daily life. Tools, machinery, equipment of all kinds had to be found and put to use. Administration had to be set up to cope with these problems.
This, in brief, was the way that the people of Jugoslavia, by their own will and common efiort, developed, step by step, their national unity and strength. Their Freedom Front movement, born in blood and suffering, tempered by battle and indescribable hardship, had become the symbol for further endeavour and the seal of final victory.
All talent in free areas became organised in its various grades. Judges and lawyers, engineers of all kinds, doctors, ex-army officers, economists, scientists, artists, teachers, writers and tradesmen of all classes, met in their respective congresses and organised themselves to aid the common effort.
Courts were established. Economic, industrial, educational and medical groups were appointed as advisory bodies to the executive committee of the State. The entire structure of administration, though wholly provisional, was pieced together bit by bit until it became adequate to serve the needs of the people and army in so far as available resources would allow.
Commissar Dr. Bakaric very aptly remarked to us one day: "We (Partisans) are beating the enemy with organisation." We had not been very long in Jugoslavia before the truth of that statement became convincingly clear. In every department of Partisan life the importance of organisation was uppermost in everyone's mind. They had learned to work together systematically and constructively. Limited means and constant danger were never the playmates of waste.
In occupied areas, as well as in free areas, the effort of the people to free their country was organised and united. Groups of people met secretly, committees were appointed and ways and means planned to help the fighting forces. The spirit of the Freedom Front was widespread in Jugoslavia. Money was raised, goods purchased, articles of clothing made, all to aid their fellow-countrymen (and very often their own relatives) who were living in the hills and woods.
Intercourse between people living in free and in occupied areas was quite usual, and something the enemy could scarcely prevent. Instances of such intercourse were always interesting, and not a little amusing.
It was the common practice of many men to live at home with their families in an occupied town or city and continue at their pre-war employment. After work they would go outside, join a Partisan unit, engage in a small battle or raid, return to their home and work, only to repeat the same day after day.
To enable them to do that they were furnished with the necessary passports by the Partisans. We have met several men who frequently did this, and the passports which they carried would and did successfully defy detection, even by the most skilful police or official.
We know a young Partisan lad who spent ten days' leave in an Italian-occupied city just previous to their capitulation. It had been his second leave to that city in six months. In full Italian uniform he moved about and saw his friends at night, took his girl friend to the theatre, avoided the military and the police by day, and after a week or so of what he called "rest," returned to his unit for duty. He brought with him many letters for other friends, including a few gifts from their relatives or loved ones, and official reports and information which he had obtained from underground organisations. This we were convinced from all accounts was quite an ordinary practice.
We know farmers who regularly visited occupied towns and cities each week with their wagons, apparently going to market. They usually carried a requisition for supplies required by the Partisans, which they would present to a known committee-man or directly to a merchant himself. The cart would be loaded without question on the payment of money, and the Partisans would receive their supplies. The local organisation would see that the merchant always had the blankets, clothing, tools, medical supplies, typewriters, paper and the thousand-and-one other things required by their comrades in the woods.
Men and women were frequently arriving from occupied areas, some had come to pay a short visit others had come to stay. They would bring letters and messages to relieve the anxious minds of fathers, husbands and sons. Such news was not always pleasant. The enemy, in his efforts to subdue the so-called "bandits" (Partisans) of Jugoslavia, would stoop to reprisals by shooting the relatives of well-known Partisans, whom he held as hostages.
There was the case of a tank which had been captured from the Germans about the same time as we arrived in the country. The tank was in running order, but the turret had been so damaged in battle it was impossible to use the gun. That tank was driven boldly into a large city, at that time occupied by the Germans, taken to the tank repair shops, and when all damaged parts were made good and the tank had been fully reconditioned, it was driven from the city back to the Partisan lines.
There were certain towns and areas so situated that they were never either occupied by the enemy or free for any considerable length of time. We visited a small town on one occasion, famous for its hot spring, where it was possible to obtain a bath a bit of a luxury in Partisan life sometimes. This town was always out of bounds to the Partisans in the day-time the Italians were there. But it was always out of bounds to the Italians at night, because the Partisans were there. These conditions prevailed for several months.
A person was not very long with the Partisans before he saw and experienced many such incidents of intercourse between the people of free and occupied areas in Jugoslavia. Such intercourse was made possible by the loyalty of the people to the Partisan cause. The Partisan visitors to an occupied city were concealed, protected and assisted by the loyal people of that city. The enemy's whereabouts and movements were always reported to them. We know of no cases of betrayal. These experiences left one convinced of the unity of the people of that country. In fact, in wandering about the country one was rarely if ever concerned about the disloyalty of the local people. So rare was it to find an unsympathetic civilian, and we sometimes travelled through occupied areas as well as in free, that we scarcely gave the matter a thought. There were people we know who saw fit to collaborate with the occupier, and openly joined their efforts with the Germans and Italians. But they were so few in number and so selfish and unpatriotic in spirit that they did not in in the slightest sense impair the unity of the people of Jugoslavia in their national effort for freedom.
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