By David Binder*
The Convair 340 was packed with Macedonians anxious about their families and homes. In the cockpit the JAT pilot dipped the nose down over the city and rolled the plane slightly to the starboard to give me an opportunity to snap pictures from the cockpit with my clumsy but reliable Rolleiflex: A first glimpse of devastated Skopje following the earthquake of July 26, 1963.
It was noontime, some seven hours after the great tremor struck.
“From the air Skopje looked as if it had been struck by a heavy bombing raid,” I wrote in my first dispatch. “Gaping holes where roofs had been. A haze of brick and mortar dust hung over the city.”
The pilot was one of dozens of Yugoslavs who helped me that day and later to report the event €šÃ„Ã¬ from the JAT personnel at Surcin who got me aboard the first civilian Skopje flight to Bora Causev, the Macedonian secretary of home affairs who started the city’s rescue and evacuation operations a mere 20 minutes after the initial shock.
He had had emergency experience with a huge flood of the River Vardar in Skopje eight months earlier.
Causev told me I was the first foreign journalist to arrive at the quake scene. But I was also a greenhorn with less than two months in the Balkans and one hundred words of Serbo-Croatian.
Yugoslavs seemed almost by instinct to realize that Skopje needed a lot of help and including help from abroad. Most striking was the extraordinary silence and seeming purposefulness of people walking amid the shattered buildings and crazily slanted lamp poles, some of them pushing wooden barrows loaded with bedding and other household belongings. Bora Causev said there was an initial moment of panic with crowds running headlong through the streets, but soon calm prevailed.
Thanks in considerable part to his efforts, thousands of People’s Army soldiers, firemen, policemen and health workers were summoned to Skopje to assist.
The temperature under the cloudless skies was in the high 30s (C). Initially there were strong fears of an outbreak of typhus. Numerous water trucks provided relief. They were mobbed by thirsty citizens as soon as they stopped.
Excavating machines and brigades of men with shovels and picks deployed at the hotels Makedonija and Skopje, where scores of guests lay pinned alive under rubble and others were already dead.
It was easy to gather material for a report on the quake. The difficulty lay in finding a way to transmit a dispatch. Telephone and telegraph lines were down and the Skopje radio station was a shambles. The nearest functioning phone line appeared to be in Kumanovo, 26 miles to the east.
I hitched a ride and walked to the post office, where I tapped a report on my light blue 8.6 lb. Hermes typewriter and queued up at the counter for telephone calls. It was after dark when I got through to Mirjana Komarecki, the Belgrade office manager, and dictated the dispatch to her for transmission by telex to New York. I also told her to be on the watch for a roll of film from the Rolleiflex, which a Belgrade colleague would bring to her. The first day story got through for the first edition.
To my astonishment amid the chaos everything functioned smoothly and, in The New York Times of July 29, five of the Skopje photos from the film roll were printed.
It dawned on me that the Skopje earthquake, though relatively small in terms of death toll (1,070) had become a major international event. A sign perhaps of Yugoslavia’s peculiar nature, perched precariously between East and West, but siding with neither.
That morning, on George F., Kennan’s last day of ambassadorship to Yugoslavia, he donated a pint of blood to aid victims. Lawrence (Larry) Eagleburger, then a junior officer, having drawn the weekend duty at the U.S. Embassy in Belgrade, succeeded by telephone(s) to get the U.S. Army to fly its Eighth Evacuation Field Hospital with 200 physicians and nurses from Ramstein, Germany, to a site near Kumanovo. They started work three days after the quake. (Himself later an ambassador to Yugoslavia, Eagleburger was dubbed “Lawrence of Macedonia” by colleagues – parallel to the soubriquet of T.E. “Lawrence of Arabia”).
Major international contributions came as well from Britain, Sweden, France, the Soviet Union and many other countries.
How to explain this powerful resonance? Without delving into psychology, sociology or even history I guess one reason is that earthquakes strike relatively seldom in the center of cities – although the population of Skopje then was a modest 170,000.
There was also a certain romantic notion attached to “Macedonia,” whether related to a fruit salad recipe or to revolutionary terrorism.
Before the quake Yugoslavia’s claim on Macedonia was strongly and loudly disputed in neighboring Greece and Bulgaria. Afterward those voices were more muted. In any case the quake put Macedonia on the map of international consciousness in a sympathetic fashion that no political act could have accomplished.
Next day President Tito arrived in mid-morning with a huge entourage – in fact most of the members of the central committee of the Yugoslav League of Communists.
Driving with Emile (“Guiko”) Guikovaty of Agence France Presse, who had motored down from Belgrade, we were wedged into the Tito convoy at the airport. Immediately we were forced by motorcycle escorts to stay among the official cars through the city, the convoy stalling even rescue vehicles for over an hour as crowds gazed silently at the spectacle.
Finally, we drove up the Kale fortress hill. On the grassy plateau a huge tent had been erected above linen-covered tables sumptuously laden with food and beverages. Tito, in a skyblue air force uniform, sat at the head table.
When everyone was seated Guiko, facing Tito, about 40 feet away, piped up in English: “What are you doing to save my countrymen trapped in the Hotel Macedonia?”
“And what about those in the Hotel Skopje?” I added.
Red-faced, Tito turned and barked, “What are these foreigners doing here? This is a Central Committee meeting!”
A uniformed military officer came up and politely suggested we join him on the sidelines away from the huge tent. He introduced himself in good English as Gojko Nikolis, commander of the army medical corps and offered to answer our questions.
How many dead so far?
“So far, 500 bodies,” he softly replied.
How many might there still be?
“About 500 more are known to be in the rubble.” (The Nikolis estimates were astonishingly close to the final quake death toll! Only much later did I learn that Nikolis, then 52, was not only a distinguished author, but also a Partizan hero and an International Brigade veteran of the Spanish Civil War.)
Less than a month later I and many other foreign correspondents returned to the stricken city, following Nikita Khrushchev’s epic tour of Yugoslavia, from Macedonia to Slovenia. He and his wife Nina, accompanied by Tito and Jovanka Broz, solemnly walked several blocks among ruined buildings.
Having moved ahead, I found members of a Soviet Army engineers brigade lounging on their vehicles, smoking and drinking from bottles. At a signal they grabbed shovels and began digging.
Jovanka Broz came up to the commander and, as television cameras whirred, asked him if the work was difficult. “It is hard,” the colonel replied. “But the life of the people is harder!” Scripted in Skopje, not Hollywood, but the dialogue could not have been better.
*David Binder (born 1931) was a correspondent for The New York Times from 1961 until 2004. He specialized in coverage of central and eastern Europe, based in Berlin, Belgrade and Bonn. The current piece was published in Belgrade’s Politika on July 26, 2008.