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Robert Elsie

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Foreign Minister von Berchtold.

Foreign Minister
von Berchtold


Consul von Heimroth:
Report to the Austro-Hungarian Foreign Minister on the Situation in Skopje and Kosova Following the Serb Invasion

In February 1913, the Austro-Hungarian consul, von Heimroth, sent the following report to Foreign Minister, Count Leopold von Berchtold (1863-1942), in Vienna to inform him of the situation in Skopje and Kosova following the Serb invasion. This report comments, in good part, on the account of Archbishop Lazër Mjeda (Lazzaro Miedia) on the massacres and human rights violations committed in the region in the wake of the Serb takeover.



Consul von Heimroth to Count Berchtold

Üsküb [Skopje], 9 February 1913
Top secret

With reference to the ordinance of 23 January 1913, No. 392, I have the honour to submit the following report:

I, too, received word of the atrocities referred to in paragraph three of the letter of Mons. Miedia. The parish priest of Skopje, Don Ramaj, reported that he heard a Serb soldier talk about this to a Serb merchant called Cicaric, who was staying at the priest's home.

News was also received in Skopje, soon after the Battle of Kumanova, that the Serbs had massacred numerous Turkish refugees, mostly women and children who had taken refuge in empty railway carriages in the latter town. My Bulgarian informant, who was in Kumanova at the time, could not confirm this information, although he was himself very anti-Serb. However, he admitted that he was hiding at home and did not dare to go out.

I regard the information referred to in the fourth paragraph of the said letter, that every day, 20-30 bodies were being thrown into the Vardar river as very likely. There is hardly any objective observer in Skopje who would not support this view. Two very reliable sources, both Austrian citizens and teachers at the railway school we support financially, saw many corpses of Muslims floating in the Vardar.

My mother, too, who at the time was out in her carriage with the wife of the secretary of the Austro-Hungarian consulate, Viezzoli, saw the body of a man dressed in Turkish clothes in the Vardar.

Herr Schaffer, an engineer of the Orientbahn (Oriental Railroad), who is an Austrian citizen, saw bodies of Turks tied together on the bank of the Vardar. Komitadjis used sticks to push the corpses back into the river.

The estimation of 20-30 bodies per day would seem increasingly likely since foreign residents hardly left their homes on the first days of the Serb invasion and the Muslim victims were probably thrown into the Vardar at night. This is at any rate the generally held beliefs, at least of most of the Europeans living here. Just how convincing these convictions have become can be seen in the fact that people believe the story told that two human ears were found in the belly of a catfish caught in the Vardar river. I must note in this connection that most people, including myself, have lost their appetite for Vardar fish.

I must leave to the Archbishop or to his source the responsibility for the claim that bodies of 100 Albanians were found in a moat behind the fortress (the source is a local Albanian Catholic called Luigi Nerazzi who did not see the bodies himself, but just heard of them). A personal recollection of mine could have a connection here. A few days after the Serb invasion, when I was paying a visit to the Russian consul general, I heard much shooting of firearms at irregular intervals but lasting for a long time, coming from the fortress across from the Russian consulate general. I remember saying to Herr Kalmikoff at the time with regard to the shooting: "I believe they are firing rifles," and he replied, "It is possible."

It is said commonly that many Albanians were shot near Kisela Voda. Many Albanians also probably died of hunger. The misery of the Muslim population is undescribable even now. The Skopje delegate of the London-based Macedonian Relief Fund, Mr Louis Cahen, told me that the Serbs were only giving the Muslims one loaf of bread every seven days and had interrupted even this meagre ration - not enough to stay alive - when they heard that a Muslim Relief Committee had been set up and that the Muslims were being supported by the English. Mr Cahen then hastened to Belgrade to meet Mr Pašic to protest against the Serb mayor of Skopje, Spiro Ristic and managed to have the distribution of bread to the Muslims restored.

Skopje (Photo: Hugo Grothe, 1913 )

Skopje (Photo: Hugo Grothe, 1913 )

(Photo: Hugo Grothe, 1913)

One observation I was able to make myself is more than sufficient to demonstrate the suffering better than any long description for all those in the know about the situation in Skopje, where the Muslim population is very fanatic. I saw a seemingly young, veiled Turkish woman strolling in midday and talking loudly to a Serb man on the banks of the Vardar. In normal times this unheard-of event would have caused a popular uprising and led perhaps to a lynching. The Turks who witnessed this, however, did not dare to protest and it was only in the sorrowful expression on the face of my Muslim kavass that I realised how taken he was by the scene. "What do you expect, my lord?" he said to me when he noticed my surprise, "they are all like this now because they have nothing to eat."

As to the other information contained in the fourth paragraph of the letter of Mons. Miedia, Sisters Bartolomea and Nepomucena of the local order of the Zagreb Sisters of Mercy stated that of the 130 wounded Albanians they had come across while nursing at a hospital of the "Red Crescent," only 80 were still there on the following day, and only 30 on the next. When they asked about their whereabouts, they were told that they had been taken away in the night. It is not known where.

Concerning the event that took place on the main street of Skopje in front of a hotel where the cadaver of a horse was placed to cover up the slaying of an Albanian, the priest states that he saw the pool of blood lying on the road and the komitadjis in a nearby restaurant. He learned the other details from two Albanian Catholics of Skopje who did not see the murder itself, but simply the horse cadaver being brought there early in the morning by a military vehicle. The priest also stated that a Bulgarian he did not know told him that three Albanians had been stabbed to death by bayonets near the Vardar Bridge.

That same night, five Bulgarians who were caught pillaging, were apparently stabbed to death by soldiers with bayonets.

It is commonly held that many bodies have been thrown into wells. Herr Arnold Morten, an Austrian citizen, has give us a sworn statement to this effect.

The events described in the next, fifth, paragraph of Mons. Miedia's letter concerning the rape of Muslim women and girls, also stem from the local priest, who however was not able to give names or relevant details. I heard of one case where a Muslim father was forced to watch his daughter being raped and "a tenere il lume" (hold the lamp), as the Archbishop notes. I do not know the name of the misfortunate father. Some Bosnian woman are said to have suffered the same fate, and there are rumours of rapes in Mitrovica, in Kosovo Polje and in Prizren, etc. It is evident that such incidents are kept quiet by the victims not only out of fear of the Serbs, but also out of shame, and I do not believe that any Muslim woman would admit to their occurrence.

As witnesses to the two next allegations made in the same paragraph, the local priest names the brother of the aforementioned Serb merchant Cicaric and himself.

Anyone who wandered through the streets of Skopje at the time can confirm that, after their invasion of Skopje, the Serb soldiers were not only elated by their victory, but frequently by a liberal consumption of schnaps. No need to prove that such elated behaviour on the part of armed soldiers can lead to excesses.

In the sixth paragraph of Mons. Miedia's letter, he refers to the torching of several Albanian villages in Karadagh. All of Skopje witnessed the villages burning. I do not know who set them on fire, whether they were soldiers, komitadjis or the inhabitants of neighbouring Serb villages. One could also see the dairy farm of a Muslim notable from the Bulgarian village of Gorna Vodna burning in the Karšjak mountains. I remember the Russian consul general, viewing the fire from the window of my office, shaking his head in disapproval and stating the Serbs were wrong to have allowed this to take place.

I beg in this connection to refer to my humble report of 18 November last, No. 126, in which I described my impressions of the situation after the Serb takeover.

In the ninth paragraph of his letter, Archbishop Miedia provides some statistics. I have no means of knowing how many Albanians were slain in the various villages and why this happened. Each individual case should be investigated in detail, if this is still possible, in order to reach a conclusion. There is no doubt, however, that thousands and thousands of Muslim throats are calling out for help against the attackers, for a saviour in time of need.

In addition to the information provided by Mons. Miedia, are the statistics on the Albanians slain in Kamenoglava, Toplican and Bojan, taken from my humble report of 29 January 1913, No.14 (Belgrade 6).

Our clergymen have little to report because they and the population are still in a state of shock. Many people fled into the mountains or further away, and only gradually would they provide a more or less clear picture of the situation, if they had the strength to check everything.

In some places the Serbs encountered resistance. The white flag [of surrender] is said to have been misused. In such cases, the Serbs committed real bloodbaths. The former Serb consul in Skopje, Mr Gavrilovic, told me himself that 1200 Albanians were killed in fighting that broke out in a such a case in Verisovic [Ferizaj]. The Archbishop is, however, of the view that the white flag was not misused by the Albanians, who do not know what it signifies, but by Turkish officers. A reaction of "catch them and string them up" is only to be expected.

The allegations made in the tenth and eleventh paragraphs (Kalkandelen [Tetova] and Gostivar) are based on the tales of an Albanian Catholic from Gostivar called Ghega Shoshi. He was the one who informed the Skopje priest, Don Ramaj.

As to Mitrovica, I have only the statement of the station head there, Herr Furrer, who saw the corpses of many Turks and Albanians lying along the rail line and in Liplian [Lypjan] during his trip from Mitrovica to Skopje on 17 November 1913.

In this connection, Vice-Consul von Tahy, who arrived here from Mitrovica at the time in question, will no doubt be able to provide more detailed information.

The information provided in the fifteenth paragraph (Gilan) is based on tales the local priest heard from a certain Mitad Aga of Gilan [Gjilan] and from an unnamed farmer.

I do not have any direct knowledge of the situation in Prizren or of the massacres committed there, and believe that Consul Prochaska could provide information.

I have no way of confirming the allegation made on page 6 of Mons. Miedia's letter, in the paragraph on "Djakova," that 25,000 Albanian have been slain in the Vilayet of Kosovo. Probably not even the Serbs know how many Albanians were killed, since soldiers, komitadjis and the Serb population seem to have gone wild, united in hatred after five centuries of subjugation. I have no way of making an estimation and cannot even guess whether the figure of 25,000 is too high or too low. I doubt if we will ever get any precise data.

As you will have noted, my information is only rarely based on personal observations, and almost exclusively on the tales of others. With the Serbs, it would have been impossible to see for oneself, and the smallest attempt would inevitably have led to clashes. It is difficult enough to set up commissions to investigate war damage, and all the more difficult for a foreign official to reach places he has no right to be in.

In the first weeks following the Serb takeover, the consulates in Skopje were flooded with people lodging protests and appeals. I sent the material I received on to Consul General Rappaport. I was unable to check on the complaints for the above-mentioned reasons and because of the sheer numbers of them, and only at the beginning and in the most extreme cases was I able, in a friendly manner and with the help of the Russian consul general, to draw the attention of the Serb military authorities to the plight of the population.

In addition, I have received information and notes of protest both from the local population and from members of the Austro-Hungarian, German and Swiss communities here, that I recorded as official documents.

If one includes the complaints of our clergymen that you will remember from my earlier reports (I refer here in particular to my confidential report of 29 January last, No. 15, Belgrade 7, on the events in Letnica), I believe I have informed Your Excellency completely of everything I learned of this material. Nonetheless, I venture to add to my humble report a few remarks of a general nature.

The cruelty of the Serb committees is a general rule, its prevalence in the Balkan War a generally recognized fact. They seem in Skopje, where all the rabble donned the Serb national cap after the invasion and paraded around armed, to have overdone it to such an extent that it was even too extreme for the Serbs and they then abolished the komitadjis here, even though post festum. Some many have been disarmed, other sent to the provinces where they could still be used.

Some of the komitadjis preceded the army, others, as I learned from credible sources, followed it.

The use of such irregular troops is permitted under international law in some restricted circumstances. It would, however, be impossible to ascertain whether conditions for their use had always been fulfilled in the chaos of the Balkan War and in a semi-savage population. Unwanted observers, military attachés and journalists etc. were carefully kept out of the picture and only let in when there was nothing more to be seen.

There are such widespread accusations that the Serb population very often took advantage of the komitadjis to carry out acts of private vengeance by killing, robbing, plundering and burning, that only a bench of opportunistically one-sided judges could unanimously find them innocent.

Many Muslim shops in the bazaar were pillaged right after the Serb takeover in Skopje. Who was to blame: the soldiers, the komitadjis or the Serb population? Public opinion condemns all three of them.

For the distant observer, these three categories seem to merge into one, and whenever one interviews the victims, one gets the reply: "It was the komitadjis together with the soldiers and Serb farmers." The liberated Serb population seems to have joined their liberators to attack the Muslims they so hated, mostly Muslim Albanians. No one would deny that the Turks are also to blame to a good extent.

In investigating the claims of Archbishop Miedia, even a neutral judge would have great difficulty restricting himself to the concrete cases at hand. He would also wonder whether the Serbs had been capable of such atrocities.

The history of Serbia offers ample proof such that there is no need for further comment in this connection.

Please accept, etc., etc.



[From: Haus-, Hof- und Staatsarchiv, Vienna, P.A. XII, K. 416, Türkei, Klasse XLV/5. Translated from the German by Robert Elsie.]


Foreign Minister von Berchtold.