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Tales of an Old Partisan: An Interview with Metodija Markovski

October 11, 2005

By Christopher Deliso

Earlier this summer, the 25th anniversary of the death of Josip Broz Tito was an occasion for mild Yugo-nostalgia across the former Yugoslavia, with Macedonian President Branko Crvenkovski even vowing, perhaps not entirely facetiously, to erect a statue of Tito in Skopje.

Josip Broz is revered by the older generations who nostalgically recall peace and prosperity during the time of the nonaligned Yugoslav state- and especially by those who fought under his command in the Second World War. Starting off as irregulars culled from the villages, the “Partisans” were shaped into a respectable fighting force partially through the help of the Allies.

One of these decorated veterans is Metodija Markovski, who earlier this month celebrated his 79th birthday. After the war, he went on to become chief of the Skopje fire brigade in the 1960’s, and still lives in the capital with his wife. His memories of the war and the old Yugoslavia provide a vivid living history regarding some of the key formative events in the Balkans, and his thoughts on the current situation in Macedonia show that in some respects the country is rotating towards its WWII axis- literally.

Humble Origins

The isolated Struga-area village of Vishni, (meaning ’sour cherry’), is where Mr. Markovski was born, on September 10, 1926. At the time, he says, the village was populated by around 500 people, all Macedonians. But as was (and still is) the case with many villages in the west of Macedonia, “all of them survived from work abroad,” he says.

Being located near the border with Albania, the village was vulnerable to Albanian Ballists allied with the Axis powers of Italy and Nazi Germany. In fact, during the Fascist occupation of Albania, the 14 year-old went to work there. Called by one of his two older brothers, Markovski went to work for the intervening Italian power. “My brother had gone there first as a construction worker for them,” he says. “My job was to help the Italian troops with their daily work.”

However, after not too long he was back in Vishni. The war had expanded, and large parts of western Macedonia were under occupation. One day in autumn 1944, Markovski’s life would change forever when by chance a Partisan unit came through the village and asked for any volunteers from the ages of 17-25. “I was not aware of politics, or interested in Communism,” says Markovski. “I only wanted to defend my country.”

The First Mission: Karaorman

The first objective for the unit was to set up a base on Mt. Karaorman, well to the northeast of Vishni and on the other side of the Crn Drim River that flows northwards out of Lake Ohrid and up towards Debar. The mountain was a strategic point where the Partisans could regroup and hopefully get supplies from Americans and British airdrops. But there was one problem- breaking through enemy lines.

“We went through Vevchani to get to Karaorman, but first there was the river,” recounts Markovski. “We were supposed to cross the bridge, but it was being guarded by Albanian Ballists.” The operation was going on under the cover of darkness, in October, 1944. At this point, he relates, the soldiers had to come up with “a trick”- a deadly one, as it turns out.

“A soldier who spoke Albanian disguised himself as a Ballist. There were two guards, one on either side of this bridge. It was big enough, though, that they couldn’t see each other from the opposite ends,” says the old Partisan. “When our man approached the Ballist, he asked for a cigarette – but then knifed him and threw him in the river! He did the same to the guy on the other side.”

With the bridge thus cleared, the rest of the unit was given the OK to cross to the other side. Now they were only 10 km from Mt. Karaorman, but had to proceed cautiously. Finally they reached the summit and reconnoitered with several other Partisan units. Together they all formed a brigade, called the Karaormanski Odredi, with approximately 3,000 soldiers. The exact spot where they were camped, says Markovski, was near Lokov. Along with him, there were 7 other fighters from his home village of Vishni.

Interestingly enough, they had some foreign fighters. Following the capitulation of Italy on September 3, 1943, a small number of Italians deserted in order to fight for the Partisan side. “There were about 200 in all,” recounts Markovski. “They joined our side to avoid the Germans, who had started arresting Italian soldiers when they capitulated.”

Once the brigade had been formed, the Partisans remained on Karaorman to train and prepare for the liberation of the country. “At that time we had very old equipment,” says Markovski. “But still we were up there for a month, training.”

“You Had to Be Like a Fox”

The Partisans’ luck soon improved, however, when they made contact with an American-British mission in Greece. “They sent us weapons and blankets. We’d light a fire at night, and they parachuted the stuff to us.”

Officially, the detachment was known as the “1st Macedonian Proletarian Brigade.” It had been established in 1943, under the command of Tihomir Sarevski- who soon gave the inexperienced young recruit a dangerous new mission:

“being the youngest member, I was selected by him to serve as the courier. I had no idea about shooting when I joined. The job was very tough. You could never know where the enemy might be. You had to be like a fox, to manage in all situations… either by foot or by horse, to manage liaison between units.”

According to Markovski, the job involved lots of hiking through the Macedonian wilds. He always traveled by night, and hid in forest huts. “There were four of us couriers in all,” he says. “And I carried a Schmeiser [gun] for protection. But I was lucky- I never came across any Ballists.”

At the time, he recounts, there were 10,000 Partisans in Macedonia. As their abilities steadily improved, first they liberated the villages, and then seize the towns. The first was Debar, followed by Kicevo, Ohrid and Struga, says Markovski.

“The Wild Ones”- the Ballists

What about the nature of the Ballists? Were there any differences between the Albanian recruits from different areas?

“The Albanians in our region were relatively calm,” says Markovski. “But in Kicevo, there they had the wild ones, as well as in Gostivar. The Ballists in the Kicevo mountain villages of Podvis, Malkoec and Popoec committed atrocities and war crimes.

At one point in 1944 they lit bonfires in these villages, and forced the local Macedonian women to dance around them naked for their entertainment. And then they threw the screaming women into the fires where they burned to death.”

Markovski blames the outbreak of inter-ethnic war on the Italians and Germans ultimately: “until the Fascist powers attacked us, there had been no major hostilities between our two ethnic groups.”

At first, the balance of power was in the Albanians’ favor. “The Germans had given them heavy weapons when they originally came to Macedonia, but then they went to North Africa – leaving the area in the hands of the Ballists.”

According to the veteran, “they [the Ballists] entered quickly because they had better equipment. Grupcin was the border between Italian and German control.

Macedonians and Bulgaria

What about the controversial question of Bulgarian and Macedonian identity? While some Bulgarian historians have claimed that Macedonian identity was a Communist construct, Markovski remembers differently:

“all my ancestors felt themselves to be Macedonians, but they didn’t have the right to say so. There were no Macedonian volunteers in the [occupying] Bulgarian Army- only people who were forced against their will. Many were shot when they tried to desert.”

In August 1943, a Kavadarci partisan commandant nicknamed Ovcar (Shepherd) was sent to make contact with the Bulgarians- “and was promoted to general just for this reason, to seem more important to them.”

According to Markovski, two Partisans were sent with him as guards. They were at the Greek border. He reckons that approximately 5,000 Bulgarians were present, compared to only 2,000 Partisans.

“However,” he adds, “our forces were dispersed in such a way that every 20 meters in the forest was one Partisan fighter. The Bulgarians demanded we lay down our weapons- Ovcar returned without success. He made the decision to attack the Bulgarians, but on a wide front, and they actually did attack and the Bulgarians surrendered. Around 15 days later [on September 9,1944] all of Bulgaria capitulated.”

The Battle Shifts North: the Srem Campaign

After the liberation of Macedonia in 1944, the Partisan army was 150,000 strong. At the time, 40 percent of the rest of Yugoslavia was still under German control. “We were incorporated into the Yugoslav forces,” says Markovski, “and sent north to Srem, where one of the key fronts was still undecided.”

This decision to send the troops north instead of south, where they could “liberate” Thessaloniki and the southern half of Macedonia, remains controversial. A significant portion of the Macedonian leadership and rank-and-file wanted to press on to the south, for a campaign which Winston Churchill warned Tito not to undertake but which he conceded privately “would be difficult to stop.” In any case, those who wanted to liberate the rest of the nation were taken aside and shot. “I didn’t question my orders,” says Markovski, who decided that the prospect of dangerous battle in far-away north-western Serbia was preferable to a certain death for nationalism.

The brigade set out on foot, marching from Skopje to Vranje in south Serbia, roughly 100 km. According to the veteran, this was necessitated because “the retreating Germans had mined all the roads.”

At the town of Stara Pazova, just north of Belgrade, the Macedonian fighters got aid from a new source: Russia. They received new Russian weapons in January-February 1945. From that town it was only 20 km to Srem, in the Banat border area near Bosnia and Croatia.

The action intensified for the Macedonian division near the city of Ilok. According to Markovski, the front was 250 km long. “The first days were decisive, with the biggest core of remaining Germans,” he says, and recounts a harrowing story from the trenches:

“five meters from me was the gunner, and I was feeding the bullets. When I saw that he was wounded, I pulled him over and in the trench in front of me. I tried to bandage his head. At first I thought he was dead, but then he looked up at me, very much alive. ‘Say hello to my folks back home,’ he said.

Then other soldiers came and evacuated him, and I took over gunning. To this day I don’t know if he lived.”

Chasing the Ustashe in Croatia, and the Entry into Slovenia

At the time 1,000 soldiers were in the Macedonian unit that continued to liberate the towns of Vinkovci, Daruvar and Dugo Selo on the road to Zagreb. “It took us 3 months to liberate these towns,” says Markovski. “The Croatian Ustashe had committed many atrocities. All the villages around Vinkovci were Serbian, and had been controlled by the Ustashe. They destroyed two entire villages. 80 percent of the inhabitants were murdered.”

At this time, Russian tanks and planes were supporting the advancing Partisan units. However, their new allies soon made an unfortunate error. Before Zagreb, Russian planes fired on Markovski’s unit, “because we were all wearing seized German uniforms. Three soldiers were wounded before we could frantically tell them to stop by radio.”

Although the infantry was Yugoslav, the veteran remains that there were Russian advisers inserted in the units.

Finally they reached the eastern extremity of the front, in Celje, Slovenia. “We captured 200,000 Germans,” recalls Markovski. “And we found on them thousands of wristwatches that they’d stolen from people they’d killed.”

The German prisoners were lined up in groups of 8, and their numbers extended for 5 km. Every 100 meters was one Partisan guard. But they were hardly dismayed. “You know what?” Markovski continues, “the Germans were so happy and singing- they had survived the war!”

All of these prisoners were put in a camp near Zagreb. The Germans were kept there for two months before being sent home. Markovski takes pride in pointing out the civility with which they were treated, and adds that, “of all the other armies that had German prisoners, ours was the first to release them to go to their homes.”

As for the hardware recovered, about 80 percent of the seized German equipment stayed in Zagreb, and about 20 percent went back with the Macedonian units to Skopje.

When the operation finished in Celje, everything was fine, except that Ustashe deserters were still causing problems in Bosnia. “In Srem, we had been fighting on the open field,” recounts Markovski. “But the Ustashe went up into the mountains instead. They had no courage to surrender, and that is why they were considered as criminals later.”

Although the war was for all intents and purposes finished, his unit was sent to Mt. Majevica near Sarajevo to chase down fugitive Ustashe members. They spent only a month there, capturing some Ustashe in the process. “However, others escaped to the mountains, our through Albania to Greece.”

The Contradictions of Victory

With the war finally over, Markovski’s unit returned home. At Belinbegovo, near Skopje, they stopped to prepare for the celebratory parade. The new leaders, Cento and Kolisevski, who had argued so vociferously about whether to liberate Ssaloniki or sent troops to Strem, were on hand. It was May of 1945.

But Markovski and his comrades were soon to find how much things had changed in only 8 tumultuous months. The new world order had been uneasily established by the reigning great powers, and the understanding of who was friend and who was foe became blurred:

“when we finished the parade in Skopje, we went to Mt. Kozuf on the border with Greece,” recounts the old Partisan. “And our friends, the American soldiers, were on the other side, guarding the Greeks!

They inquired as to our intentions, and warned us not to go further south- or else. It was exactly the opposite from when I started out, less than a year before, with the Americans dropping us supplies on the mountain!”

Yugo-nostalgia, and the Grim State of Current Affairs

Like so many Macedonians, Markovski waxes nostalgic for the old Yugoslavia, when the standard of living was high and when the cleverness of Tito left the country with friends from both east and west, meaning Yugoslavs were free to travel wherever the liked. Now, Macedonians are overwhelmingly poor and need a visa to travel most everywhere- while countries they had previously looked down on have now surpassed them.

“During the first Yugoslavia [the pre-WWII kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes], there was only one factory in Macedonia,” attests Markovski. “But in Tito’s time, we built many, and became even like America! We lived better, of course, than Greece and Bulgaria, and even were better off than Italy and France for a long time. Only Germany and England were better off than us. When Tito died, all of Yugoslavia cried for him.”

The most recent violent events in Macedonia, starting with the Albanian secessionist war of 2001, have caused great sadness for those of Markovski’s generation who risked their lives to liberate Macedonia from their fascist forebears. Indeed, Albanians today have resumed the narrative of recreating the ‘Ethnic Albania’ which they believe was robbed from them with the defeats of their best allies, Mussolini and Hitler.

The residual affection for the Ballist cause has been witnessed in not only Macedonia but in Albania and Kosovo as well. Everyone from radical nationalist parties to football hooligan groups name themselves after the Ballists, and monuments and memorials are going up in memory of the “Skenderbeg Division” and other infamous units belonging to the Albanian fascist militants. Such eagerness to glorify the former Nazi collaborators have left many Macedonians deeply uneasy regarding the intents of the Albanians and especially the DUI party of former rebel fighter Ali Ahmeti.

“They are all the same,” avers Markovski. “It is sad to say, but for us the Ballists are now once again in power.”

When asked for his views on the memorials, Markovski states, “the Ballist monuments are not right. They considered themselves to be fighters, but they committed atrocities and forced us to leave our homes and towns. They are wild people- they felt no guilt for their crimes. They were not like the Turks, who remain very good neighbors.”

However, he admits that older Macedonians who feel so outraged by the current direction the country is headed are unable to influence anything: “the Veterans Association complained, but we have no power.

Out of 150,000 of us, only 3,000 are still living. And of course, with every passing year there are less and less. I can only hope that people somewhere are interested to hear the stories from those of us still alive, while there is still time.”

 

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