It was dusk when Dafoe returned to the hospital. The urgent message he had received concerned a patient with an abdominal injury. The man's condition had stabilized somewhat, although Dafoe anticipated complications. He considered operating, but in the fading light it seemed too great a risk. He decided to wait until morning.
Djuras, having realized where Dafoe had gone and guessed why, had taken immediate action in the hope of forestalling yet another reprimand. At last, the covers for the latrines were finished. Sometime late in the evening, a good supply of cigarettes arrived with a courier, and Dafoe concluded that his "inglorious efforts" at Korpus HQ had accomplished something.
Next morning, Dafoe found the patient with the abdominal complaint had fully recovered and for the first time, he worried about actually running out of work at the hospital. The evacuation of so many patients and an apparent lull in the fighting meant that there was only a handful of wounded to treat. One of the female patients waiting to be evacuated had acute appendicitis, so Dafoe went ahead and operated that morning.
An outing was planned for the afternoon two days later. Miki wanted to show Dafoe and his assistants the old church in Lovnica, a quaint village not far from Sekovici. The medical unit worked doubly hard in the morning, then set out over the hills under warm, clear skies. On the plateau overlooking Mihajlovici, Dafoe took several photographs of everyone with his Leica.
They continued along "the moors" and entered a thick pine forest, descending now. Dafoe was already giving some thought to the climb back, but Susy, for one, seemed hugely indifferent to the exhausting trek, dancing about, collecting wild strawberries she gave to Dafoe in handfuls "until it was embarrassing."
Coming down the steep slope of a hill, they saw the church from behind, tucked snugly into a rugged gash in the rock below. It occupied a quaint setting next to a small stream with a waterfall. Nearby was a small footbridge. A crowd had gathered, and Dafoe stopped again to take photographs.
Pop Savo Savic "the old Priesta," as Miki called him stood outside, smoking as usual, to greet Dafoe and his friends. Dafoe gave him more cigarettes and listened as Miki translated an account of a recent sacking of the church. Lovnica, and its neighbouring village, Sekovici, had seen a great deal of suffering and bloodshed since the outbreak of war in eastern Bosnia. Indeed, Sekovici had stood at the centre of fighting from the outset, when an attack on the gendarmerie in August 1941 signalled the start of the nationalist uprising. From May 1942, a Partisan hospital had operated out of the guest house in the Lovnica monastery with Dr Roza Papo who later made Dafoe's acquaintance in charge of the facility. It was destroyed during an attack by Ustasi in 1943. One of the first British missions composed of Yugoslav-Canadians, including George Diklic, had parachuted into Sekovici in April 1943. In four years of warfare the enemy stayed in the village only thirty-eight days, yet out of its pre-war population of 5,000 fully one-fifth died during the war. Some 2,000 wounded passed through the hospital in Lovnica.
Pop Savo asked Dafoe and his assistants if they would like to see what remained of the monastery. When they assured him they would, he undertook to guide them personally.
To this day the monastery is considered a complex of cultural and historical significance in Yugoslavia. Situated about two kilometres north of Sekovici, at the source of the river Lovnica, a tributary of the Drinjaca, it sits cradled in a lush sylvan glade carved naturally out of rock. All that remains is the church of St George, an eighteenth-century monastic residence burned (as Dafoe saw) during the war, but rebuilt in 1952, and the ruined monks' cells. First mentioned in religious documents in 1578, it is a single-nave, vaulted basilica surmounted by a dome with a narthex and apse. Some of the finest frescoes in Yugoslavia are preserved on its walls.
Pop Savo led the visitors upstairs to a room behind the small wooden altar, stepping past papers and ruined books scattered about as he went. The room was a library containing a great many old books, some of which would need mending. "The Old Priesta fondled them carefully," Dafoe recalled. He drew Dafoe's attention to several rare editions, including a Bible sent to the monastery from St Petersburg.
Pop Savo produced the gowns and robes worn by the priests and offered the edges of gold lace and embroidery to his guests to feel. Dafoe thought how "touching and sad" it was to see the church violated and reduced to such a state. He felt equally distressed by Pop Savo's misfortunes, as he had already lost several sons in the war and had come close to losing his monastery as well.
Back in the nave, Dafoe saw a few peasants with hats in hand, kissing the tapestries and a framed icon in front of the altar as they murmured prayers. They had much to pray for, he thought. On the way out, Pop Savo produced a visitor's book and pointed to a signature inside. Ironically, it belonged to King Peter, in whose name the Cetniks now fought.
Pop Savo told Dafoe that he and his son, Brana Savic, had collected information and figures to prove conclusively that in the small valley where Lovnica lay, at least 550 inhabitants had been killed by the enemy. Each name was recorded. Later, father and son intended to erect a memorial of some sort in recognition of the sacrifices made by the local villagers. Indeed, the memorial was established in 1961 on a small patch of rocky hillside atop a cemetery adjacent to the monastery. The cemetery contains more than 160 graves sadly, including that of the People's Hero Brana Savic, who died in 1983 after a long battle with cancer. The residence accommodates the National Liberation War Museum, established in 1955, in which there is a gallery of photographs identifying the villagers referred to by Pop Savo. In another section of the museum, a room dedicated to the Partisan Medical Service contains photographs of Dr Ivo Herlinger (Jordy's father) and Dr Ivo Baboselac (the Old Colonel), among others.
Emerging from the church into the warm sunlight, they saw that a crowd had assembled in the small churchyard quadrangle and was about to start a kolo. Dafoe was intrigued by the number of people milling about and wondered where they had come from when the surrounding countryside normally appeared deserted. "How word gets around!" he mused.
Actually, two kola started. One was led by a gypsy band while the other danced to the sound of a harmonica. "Soon the long, snakey line was winding in and out with the jiggling peasantry and Partisans jogging up and down, all with flushed and happy faces," Dafoe enthused. Frank and Chris joined one kolo, which they seemed to learn quickly. Susy, still wearing the oversized army boots, which were "so big that she had to watch them and concentrate with her head bent to keep them moving," danced joyfully with the older men and women. "She glanced up once and caught my eye, became confused and lost the step, and in her embarrassment gave up temporarily. Poor Susy, she did so much want to appear grown up, probably because she had had so little childhood."
Soon the gathering dispersed and Dafoe reluctantly joined the small column of peasants and Partisans climbing the steep hill behind the monastery. He met one "gallant-looking Partisan on a magnificent horse" as he climbed, and took his photograph. The man had a wooden leg which he had constructed himself. Dafoe inspected it, fascinated by the well-fashioned arrangement which used an ingenious method to allow articulation in the knee. The never-ending resourcefulness of these Partisans! he marvelled.
The workload at the hospital remained slack over the next few days, and so Dafoe decided at last to visit the "typhus village" on the hillside overlooking Mihajlovici. "It had always reminded me of a leper colony although it looked very picturesque on top of the hill while leading an isolated and detached life." With an armed escort, Dafoe set out.
He met the village doctor, a stout woman known to the medical unit as "The Have-You Merchant," owing to her frequent visits to Dafoe's hospital in search of supplies. She was attending an infant in its mother's arms. The child appeared badly shocked. A nurse called Matia, who had moved to the village from Mihajlovici, ran up carrying a syringe filled with boiling water, camphor oil, and caffeine. The doctor administered this odd concoction "with good results," Dafoe observed.
Genuinely delighted to see Dafoe in the village, the beleaguered doctor guided him through the hospital and discussed her patients with him in her faltering English and French. Most were convalescent cases recovering from typhus or typhoid. But one patient stood out: "an insane Partisan soldier who was a pathetic case." Given the appalling nature of the war, it was surprising that symptoms of what was classically known as "shell-shock" were seldom encountered.
The doctor insisted that Dafoe wash his hands with Lysol, which was set outside each building they entered. Meanwhile she chatted away in her several languages. "She was very worried about the dangers of her job and told me that she felt fleas and lice over herself all the time, although she was sure they weren't there," Dafoe said. The Have-You Merchant seemed lonely and abandoned in the village of outcasts. She invited Dafoe to return sometime for tea and he promised to do so.
The next morning, Dafoe wandered around the Mihajlovici hospital site with his Leica. He took snapshots of everything he and his assistants had seen constructed since their arrival, including the hard-won latrines. "The patients in the wards were pleased to pose for their photos," he recalled. "The cook had me take him with his white hat on and the cook house from various angles." In front of the surgical theatre and the magazine, Dafoe took photographs of the nurses, Susy and Jordy's sister, Mira. Finally, he took several shots of Frank, Chris, and Miki. The Partisans reminded Dafoe of the natives he had met in South Africa, who would pose anytime for a snapshot.
It is difficult to shake the feeling that Dafoe had somehow sensed that events in Mihajlovici were reaching a pivotal point or that time might be running out as he went about taking photographs at this time.
So it was that on a warm summer's day in July 1944, the legend started.
Throughout the morning the sound of distant gunfire had echoed in the mountains around Mihajlovici. The Partisan guards scattered in the hills and along the forest's edge regarded the distant skirmishing with typical Slav indifference. Even as the enemy mountain guns thundered only a few kilometres away in that troubled village, Sekovici, they were content to watch and wait as ordered, undisturbed by any sense of imminent danger.
Dafoe had heard the shooting earlier in the day, too, as he strode around the village with his Leica. "Hardly worth getting upset about," he had commented drily. This sort of thing happened often. The Partisans, he told himself, will take care of it.
Hours later, he stood with a blood-stained surgical gown over his khaki uniform, hands spread apart and raised slightly, palms inward as though in unconscious prayer, watching grimly as the stretcher-bearers carried a young woman into the theatre.
She was one of four seriously wounded Partisans who had arrived earlier after an improbable three-day journey by ox-cart and stretchers over the mountain trails through enemy territory. The others, all men, had gunshot wounds and compound fractures aggravated by travel. But the woman had arrived in shock it was a miracle she survived at all and had required several units of plasma and some rest before she could be carried in to see tata.
Now, standing over the inert form, he only vaguely heard the sound of distant gunfire. Dafoe removed the foul-smelling bandages on the woman's leg and discovered a tremendous wound to the lower femur and knee joint. It was badly infected and gangrenous and he realized in a moment that amputation would be necessary the worst decision of all. He issued instructions to the surgical team, raised his tired eyes to the ceiling, inhaled and whispered, "Dieu m'en garde."
Dafoe amputated the woman's leg at mid-thigh. Later he worried that she might not have the strength of will to survive past nightfall.
When he found enough time to step outside the theatre, he stretched in the warm summer sunshine. The gunfire and artillery had grown louder and more menacing throughout the day and now he could see smoke rising from a crescent-shaped mountaintop on the left. Someone arrived with a message informing Dafoe that a band of Cetniks was approaching the hospital.
"At last we'll see some of the enemy," he said calmly.
Soon Dafoe could actually pick out a line of trees behind which the enemy was firing. The commissar's courier ran out, shouting to Dafoe to pack the canisters and medical equipment for immediate evacuation. Miki, standing with Dafoe, told him that only a handful of Partisans armed with Bren guns were holding the enemy back, adding that a brigade from Korpus HQ was on its way and would soon have the situation under control.
"Just disturbing units," Miki said of the Cetniks, "out for a spot of looting."
Dafoe felt he could trust Miki's judgment, but since the order to evacuate the hospital had been given, he rounded up his assistants and the rest of the medical unit and set to work repacking the canisters.
The sound of gunfire, at its loudest yet and definitely moving towards the hospital, lent some urgency to the work.
When Dafoe decided to run down to the campsite to see what was happening, he quickly realized the Cetniks were more than just "disturbing units." Miki was standing on the plateau shouting, "Opkoli! Opkoli!" "surround them!" to someone. Dafoe slipped into his tent to collect his Marlin and Lama, then rushed over to the tent that Frank and Chris shared to grab several items. He was startled even indignant a moment later when he saw bullets smacking the ground just outside his tent. He recalled the Old Colonel and Marko warning him about the vulnerability of the campsite.
Hurriedly packing one haversack with the guns and ammunition, Dafoe scrambled from the tent to a hillock nearby and crouched in safety until the firing swung away from his direction. He made another dash to one of the tents for the remaining guns and ammo which he quickly crammed into another haversack. Then he made a fast exit back to the hillock. His movements immediately drew more fire, but he made it to safety, darting and weaving to escape the fusillade around him.
Dafoe returned to the hospital site under cover and was shocked to see how quickly it was being dismantled. For a moment, he stood frozen, attempting to take it all in. One theatre stood partly stripped of its parachute walls and ceiling. Most of the medical equipment inside had disappeared. He hoped it was being carried away or stored in one of the underground shelters. The ground was littered with debris and miscellaneous items. He watched, incredulous.
Jordy's mother appeared suddenly, still wearing men's battledress, and shrieked at her daughters to come away into the hills. The sound of gunfire and bullets zinging off metal and wood underscored the peril all around them. Dafoe could hear the Cetniks shouting and whistling, taunting the Partisans, and in that instant the anger in him began to boil.
"Where the hell are the replacements?" he shouted in outrage.
Natasan made an appearance with Mrs Herlinger, who by now was sensibly dressed in an overcoat and carried a heavy Italian haversack slung over her back as though "she was used to this racket," Dafoe said. She offered to carry one of the surgical kits that Dafoe reserved for emergencies. Susy returned then, wearing an oversized overcoat in keeping with her ungainly boots, and insisted, to everyone's amazement, on carrying both the kit and the haversack. She seized them and trundled off, vanishing into the woods.
Jordy shouldered a surgical trunk while Ana fell in behind with the girls' belongings as Dafoe made a last-minute survey of the dismantled wards. In the background he could see Partisans carrying away patients on the stretcher-beds, while another doctor shouted hysterically to move along quickly. It occurred to Dafoe as he saw some able-bodied men going past that "the women were behaving much better."
Still, the gunfire had rattled everyone. Dafoe was at a loss for words to describe the scene around him. How could this happen? he asked himself. How could the enemy have slipped in without the Partisans detecting them? He felt dizzied by the speed at which events were threatening to carry away everything he had achieved, incensed at the violation he was witnessing.
Suddenly Miki found the Canadian at his side, arm outstretched, gripping the Marlin and firing at the Cetniks not more than two hundred metres away. First he was astonished. Then he realized how exposed Dafoe was.
"Lie down, Sir Major! It is very dangerous here! Lie down!" he shouted.
"There are a hell of a lot of those devils out there, Miki," answered Dafoe, muscles tensed, a glazed look of concentration in his eyes, firing at targets in the trees.
"Lie down! Sir Major!" Miki pleaded.
"Bastards!" Dafoe countered. He fired several more rounds as bullets tore up the ground around his feet.
"Sir Major Dafoe!"
Dafoe continued to fire. The Cetniks were almost at the limit of the Marlin's range, yet he could see and hear them clearly jeering as they returned volleys of gunfire. Behind him, the hospital lay in ruins. Patients hobbled away on their own. Weeks of hard work, frustration, fighting to get everything done just right the images swirled in Dafoe's mind. They had accomplished something unprecedented in these mountains. He would not let it go without a good fight.
Miki eventually succeeded in leading Dafoe away from the plateau, but not before he had used all his ammunition. Just then Ana and several other nurses hurried by with the woman whose leg Dafoe had amputated that morning. He ran to the girls carrying the stretcher-bed and relieved Ana as Miki took a handle on the opposite side. Dafoe found the bed surprisingly heavy and awkward to manoeuvre as they jolted towards a stream. There he stopped to examine the woman. She was moribund. "Whether the shock of the firing or the movement had worsened her condition or whether it was a natural event, I couldn't tell," he recalled sadly. Halfway across the stream he examined her again and found to his dismay that she was almost dead. He and Miki left her under some low-hanging branches and covered her face with ferns until she was well hidden. "What a strange sensation to see her there in her leafy bower with the stream running musically beneath her, oblivious to the troubles that had descended upon this small world."
Dafoe and Miki waded ashore and rejoined the column moving up into the hills. He noticed a great many well-armed men and wondered why they "didn't go back to make a stand for it." He was relieved to see Jordy following along with the surgical trunk, "taking it all with a smile as if it was a picnic." Frank, Chris, and Susy were not in sight.
Halfway up the hillside the column stopped. It was dusk when word trickled up from below that all able-bodied men were to return to the hospital. Dafoe rose automatically and was caught short by Miki with a hand on his arm. He had orders to keep the Canadian out of any more fighting, but Dafoe argued that he wanted to see what, if anything, remained of the hospital. Miki relented when Dafoe became adamant. The sound of gunfire had fallen off considerably as they moved down the hillside.
Dafoe stopped at the stream where he had hidden the woman, pulled aside the ferns that covered her, and found her dead, "her face so white as if she had been lulled to sleep by the song of the stream."
It was almost pitch dark when he and Miki reached the hospital. The long-promised brigade from Korpus HQ had finally arrived and was rapidly scattering the undisciplined and outnumbered Cetniks. Soon the Partisans began to return from the hills.
The full light of dawn revealed the extent of the damage done in the previous day's attack. Vladimir Popovic, like a priest at the scene of a disaster, came by to rally everyone's spirits and promised that everything would be restored as soon as possible. He cautioned Dafoe again about the amount of materiel he carried. As the attack had amply demonstrated, the supplies had to be maintained in such a manner that they could be transported at a moment's notice.
With the equipment still packed away, it was difficult to treat the newly wounded. Dafoe did his best using the emergency haversack. Later, he accompanied Frank and Chris to the campsite and, with permission from the Partisans, set it up again.
The medical unit slept through what remained of the morning, then spent the afternoon picking cherries. They saw Jordy "passing to and fro over a field, dressed in a skirt she had made, looking very feminine," and waved to her. She refused to join them, which seemed odd.
That night Dafoe returned to the hospital where to his utter amazement everything had been put back. He was embarrassed to realize that while he and his assistants were sleeping and picking cherries, the girls had gone to work and carefully restored the surgical theatre and wards. They had even decorated them.
"How could you not feel honoured to work with people like that?" he asked. "It was real happiness. If only it could last."
Meanwhile, Dafoe's stand on the plateau had made its mark with the Partisans. Miki was still a bit speechless: "He stood, as a statue, calm, just waiting, and fired rounds with his Marlin at the enemy," he recalled. "In our eyes, Sir Major Dafoe became a hero after that. He did not want the enemy to take his hospital."
Jordy was equally moved by the incident. "It was something which amazed everyone," she said. "Major Dafoe was in the first line with the other soldiers to defend the patients. This I remember."
Those who witnessed Dafoe's courage under fire recall that he acted instinctively, and that it seemed natural in him. It was an extraordinary moment, when "Sir Major Dafoe" first seized the Sword of Aesculapius and fought back. It was a day the Partisans, at least, would never forget. For a few, no amount of medals could equal its dramatic impact at the time. Something infinitely more profound and lasting had happened.
It was perhaps in that moment that Colin Scott Dafoe realized why he had come to Yugoslavia, why it meant so much to him, and what he was prepared to give to see that it did not end just yet. It was a moment of revelation. He had acted for a cause. The war, and in many ways his own life, would never be the same again.
Before very many days had passed, a stronger enemy offensive meant that the Partisans did abandon the village and hospital at Mihajlovici. For the next few months, a long road of danger, exhaustion, inadequate food and shelter, and great uncertainty lay ahead for Dafoe and the medical unit.
This time, "Toffee" was really on the run into the deep woods and rugged mountains of occupied eastern Bosnia.
Suddenly gunfire erupted on the road in the valley below.
Of course, Dafoe had no idea where they were headed. Perhaps he gave one last thought to Jordy and her family with the patients in the underground shelter, wishing them luck. He really could not speculate as to how long it would be before the medical unit returned to Mihajlovici if it returned at all.
Copyright © Brian Jeffrey Street 1987,1998. All rights reserved.