Dafoe wake early the next morning and went outside for his first glimpse of the surrounding countryside in full daylight.
Although he had travelled extensively, Dafoe said he was left speechless by the land around him. Spread out in every direction was a landscape of unrivalled majesty and lush colouring. He stood on a mountaintop overlooking the canyon of the river Jadar, some seven hundred metres below, and beyond that rose another mountain face of impressive scale. A gentle mist clung to the valley floor and in pockets along the mountain's edge. Everything seemed painted in pastel emerald and the morning air struck him forcefully as he inhaled. This was as good or better than anything he had seen in Canada. Mountains in every direction. Hewn out of their sides were small farms and patchwork fields; the rich soil seemed inviting in the awakening sunlight. Peasant dwellings and more of the chalet-style buildings dotted the valley and mountain slopes. He lit his pipe and surveyed the area approvingly.
When Frank, Chris and Lincoln were awakened, Dafoe organized a return journey to the landing ground to check on his precious canisters. He was determined to preserve the medical supplies they contained as a unit. Lindsay Rogers had told him to expect the Partisans to investigate the canisters at their earliest opportunity, and sure enough, Dafoe found Dr Levi hard at work, disgorging the contents and issuing orders for their removal.
Dafoe was furious. He had carefully selected and packed the contents himself and he regarded every item as essential to his work. The canisters contained tents for a field hospital, stretchers, cots, surgical instruments, and a wide assortment of drugs in all enough to equip a two hundred-bed hospita1. But Dr Levi seemed unaccountably eager to distribute the supplies among all the divisional hospitals in the area. He might even have succeeded in doing so, had Dafoe not come along just then. He tried to argue with Levi, but without a common language he had to settle for raising his voice. He stormed away afterwards.
Dafoe returned to Dukici to find Captain Wilson. To his further annoyance, the Englishman was strangely unconcerned, even confident that everything would be set straight in due course. Frustrated by Wilson's indifference, Dafoe went to wash and shave in a nearby stream. But there he saw some of his equipment being carried away on horseback and this so enraged him that he returned to the village and rounded up Wilson's interpreter, George Diklic. They would see the man in command of the Third Korpus, General Kosta Nadj.
Kosta Nadj was roughly Dafoe's age. But at thirty-three, this seemingly mild-mannered and finely built veteran from Vojvodina had seen much more of war. Imprisoned for his Communist convictions prior to the Second World War, Nadj had escaped to Spain where he had joined the International Brigades. He had fought brilliantly there during the Civil War and rose to the rank of captain, commanding the Balkan Battalion. Wounded four times, he had a reputation that preceded his return to Yugoslavia. Shortly after the occupation in 1941, Nadj organized an uprising in Kordun, Croatia, forming the nucleus of what became the Third Korpus as early as November 1942. It was the first main fighting unit in the new People's Liberation Army.
With Nadj was his second-in-command, General Jovan Vukotic formerly an officer in the Royal Yugoslav Army who had joined the Partisans shortly after the occupation in 1941. This thirty-seven-year-old Montenegrin seemed physically more imposing than the young general and wore a studied gaze the face of a poker player, Dafoe thought.
The third man present was the chief political commissar, thirty-year-old Vladimir Popovic "the soul of the unit," Dafoe learned afterwards. As the representative of the people and guardian of their interests, the commissar in each unit took the initiative in raising the political, military, and ideological level of the men and women in the Partisan army. Popovic seemed perfectly suited to this role. Known affectionately as "Spanac" "the Spaniard" from his heroic role as a captain in the Spanish Republican Army in the Civil War, Popovic had joined the Communist Party as early as 1932. Largest of the group, he wore a friendly, confident smile and exuded remarkable self-confidence for a man of his age.
The three had just finished breakfast when Dafoe arrived. After a formal introduction, he gave the Partisan commanders "the Hammer," as he called it. Lindsay Rogers had warned him to "give the Hammer first and sugar afterward, otherwise the Partisans will take advantage of you." Not twenty-four hours after his arrival in eastern Bosnia, Colin Scott Dafoe let go with a blistering tirade concerning the unwarranted looting of his supplies.
To his credit, Kosta Nadj listened attentively. He had commanded Canadians in Spain and was well acquainted with their "rugged individualism and courage" qualities he admired, he said. But more important at that moment was the fact that Dafoe was a surgeon, something the Partisans needed desperately.
Nadj apologized at once and sent word to Dr Levi to return the supplies. The other officers in the room regarded Dafoe silently withholding their disdain, he concluded. Feeling somewhat embarrassed afterwards, he decided that there had really been little choice if he was to safeguard his equipment.
After this meeting, Dafoe went to look for his assistants and found them in an orchard. With them was a twenty-year-old student named Miki, "a seemingly nice lad of moderate height, pale, a sprinkling of a beard, rather slovenly in his Partisan uniform, with a sad expression," Dafoe recalled.
Dafoe liked Miki from the outset. The young man's eyes lit up whenever he spoke and he wore an enigmatic, somehow mischievous expression. He had a soft voice and surprisingly good command of English, although his vocabulary contained such quaint expressions as "it shall be done suddenly."
Dafoe and Miki had a few words before the young Partisan made ready to leave.
"I am guard," Miki explained. "I must go to work."
"Will you come with us instead?" Dafoe asked.
Miki seemed genuinely startled.
"Do you mean that really?"
"Of course I mean it," Dafoe said. "You're the only person I've met here besides Wilson and his interpreter who speaks English. We need you."
"You must ask my authorities," Miki said politely, though obviously keen to accompany the Canadian surgeon.
"Fine," Dafoe replied. "I'll do that. But I've other business to take care of first, and I need your help for that right now."
Miki followed obediently as Dafoe waved Frank and Chris along to the landing ground again. There he found Dr Levi. Although the matter of returning the medical supplies had been settled already by Nadj's order, Dafoe wanted to speak with the Partisan doctor. He asked Miki to translate.
"You must understand, Doctor, that I have equipment for a hospital of two hundred beds," he began. "Even the smallest thing is indispensable to me. If anything is lost, I won't be able to work. I have a precise list of everything on me," he added firmly. Miki translated and then turned to Dafoe and waited.
"Tell this to your soldiers," the Canadian added, searching Dr Levi's face for a reaction.
Levi occupied an important position with the Partisans and if he was unaccustomed to being spoken to in such terms, at least he listened patiently while Dafoe outlined his plans for a hospital.
"We shall set it up, oh, say fifty kilometres to the rear," he said. "If connections are good, perhaps the distance can be greater eighty, even a hundred kilometres. Whatever the distance, the hospital must be camouflaged from potential air attack."
Dafoe obviously had much to learn about guerrilla warfare. Even Miki must have hesitated as he translated for Dr Levi.
"You know, Sir Major, we are waging a struggle here for our liberation. We hit the enemy where he least expects it. One moment we are here, in another somewhere else, or behind his back even. We hide our materiel in the woods and in caves. It is well hidden, you needn't worry. We are hiding everything so that the enemy will not find it. I would only recommend that you do not think about a hospital of two hundred beds just now, or one that is so far away."
Dr Levi suggested that a small hospital of twenty to fifty beds might be preferable. He was thinking of a hospital that could dismantled and moved at a moment's notice if necessary.
According to Levi, Dafoe stared in amazement as Miki translated. "It appeared to him that my aim was solely to take the medical supplies," he later confided. While Dafoe's conclusions were correct, it was also true that he did not fully appreciate just how desperately the supplies were needed by the divisional hospitals in the area.
With no surgery to do yet and no evidence of wounded in the area Dr Levi asked Dafoe if he would at least divide the canisters into two units. The major share of Dafoe's equipment would stay with the mission, while the remaining items were to be prepared for transport on horseback and returned to hiding. Dafoe was finally persuaded, discovering at the same time that part of the supply drop had still not arrived. "Not a good start at all," he noted when told that one load of equipment had dropped into Cetnik hands. Moreover, he wired SOE in Bari and received word that they "regretted Dr Levi couldn't quite decide which items of equipment to go with." The message went on to suggest that Dafoe should visit all divisions to obtain an overall picture of activity in eastern Bosnia. Gathering intelligence, though a minor part of his mission, was known by the Partisans to be among his duties.
It required more than a hundred horses to remove the medical supplies, and even greater logistical efforts to reassemble everything. But as soon as the supplies were retrieved, Dafoe and his assistants went to work and carefully repacked the canisters, leaving them under guard.
Wilson's interpreter next informed Dafoe that Dr Levi had located a peasant's house near the village for the medical unit. Dafoe found fresh straw spread out on the floor and covered with parachute silk in the main room of the new lodgings. In what had originally served as a kitchen were the mission's kitbags. In the main room was a kaljeva pec, a combined stove-furnace common throughout Yugoslavia. Made of concrete inlaid with small colourful porcelain or glass blocks, it had a small aperture at the bottom through which coal or wood was added as fuel.
A young girl whose name Dafoe translated as"Molly" soon appeared with breakfast: dark, coarse bread and thick Turkish coffee which had arrived with one of the Allied supply drops. Frank and Chris made tea, which they all preferred anyway. Dafoe was amused by the interest young Molly took in activities of the medical unit. "Molly used to sit and stare at me," he recalled.
The neighbours most of all the owner of a house next door and his daughters reacted with similar interest. The girls took an immediate liking to Frank and Chris and offered to embroider socks for them. Here it was that Dafoe learned that parachute silk was used as currency in the mountains. All sorts of food and drink could be purchased with it.
For the next few days, Dafoe spent most of his time relaxing. He did seek out General Vukotic at Korpus HQ to ask that Miki be assigned to the medical unit as an interpreter.
When Miki was summoned, he found Vukotic sitting on the grass outside a peasant hut, drawing maps in a large sketchbook that rested in his lap.
"You will go with the British Mission and the Canadian surgeon to act as his guard and interpreter," the general said evenly. "Don't come to tell us that something has happened to him. Have you anything to ask?"
"Nothing, Comrade General Vukotic," Miki answered.
Shortly after this meeting, Miki received new boots, a Schmeisser machine gun, and a pistol a perk usually reserved for officers along with new British short-cut battledress. He was now ready to report for his new duties.
The last of six children in a large family from Foca, a small town in Bosnia, Miki had lost his mother six months after his birth. He was shunted from home to home in his early years, but at the age of five or six was "adopted" by a Jewish woman who lived in a lumber camp where his father owned and operated a small tavern. For two years, until the Depression sent everyone at the camp in different directions, the woman raised Miki and taught him English and some Hebrew. He continued to study English in addition to French and German when he attended school. Miki recalled laughing out loud at the poor translations of films shown in the cinemas in Sarajevo.
He was a student in middle school, preparing to study forestry at the University of Sarajevo, when the war started. Miki drifted into the life of a hit-and-run insurgent, running sabotage missions on his own or with a loose cadre of friends. His greatest concern at the war's outset was, as he explained later, "to stay in my hills, in the gentle wilderness, with my people." Eventually he joined the Partisans. Two weeks later he was guarding generals Kosta Nadj and Jovan Vukotic, without rank but with considerable authority.
Now he was to assist the medical unit. The situation seemed advantageous from both sides: Dafoe needed an interpreter and someone to keep him informed of events unfolding around him; Miki, who eventually would regard the Canadian surgeon as a father-figure or an older brother, was able to revive the use of his English and fill an important position at the same time.
"Let's have a drop of tea, Miki," Dafoe proposed, setting his young guard into a flurry of activity to satisfy the request. To his credit, Dafoe never abused Miki's earnest desire to be helpful. They quickly became good friends.
The same could be said of Dafoe's relationship with Wilson's interpreter, George Dicklic. A Yugoslav-Canadian, Diklic had landed in eastern Bosnia with one of the earliest SOE missions to the Partisans. He, along with Stevan Serdar and Milan Druzic, had parachuted "blind" into the village of Sekovic, only a few kilometres away, on the night of April 21, 1943. Typical of Dafoe's choice in companions, the Yugoslav-Canadian was "a very interesting and likeable chap" with a boisterous, sometimes pungent sense of humour. Indeed, Dafoe described Diklic as one of most colourful characters he met in Yugoslavia a man with a never-ending fund of stories which he would relate in his strange, "Yugoslav-American" accent.
On the other hand, Dafoe predicted from the outset that he would not get along well with Wilson, who seemed irascible, volatile, and at times imperious. He struck Dafoe as "a regular army type" who had "joined for the easy life." Life among the Partisans was anything but soft, as Dafoe would find out, and Wilson had certainly seen his share of the nightmare in Yugoslavia since his arrival in the fall of 1943. Perhaps his greatest and more enduring fault was, as Dafoe argued, that he had joined the military expecting one sort of career and had got far too much of another. According to Dafoe's recollections, Wilson had seen plenty of action, was wounded at least once, and had spent time as a POW. And if he volunteered for duty with SOE, he must have anticipated an arduous mission of some sort.
In fact, little is known of Wilson, his past or the circumstances in which he found himself commanding a British Mission in Yugoslavia. Even his age and Christian name are unrecorded in official sources. As a result, the portrait we have of Wilson is almost exclusively Dafoe's although it is supported to some extent by documentary and anecdotal evidence and is generally considered accurate.
It was from George Diklic that Dafoe first gathered a sense of what guerrilla warfare sometimes did to men. Diklic described the hardships they had endured through the winter of 1943-44, when the Partisans had to travel without adequate food or clothing. "All they had to eat was horsemeat and leaves," Dafoe recalled. Diklic also related the enormous difficulties they had in transporting and caring for the wounded, particularly during the enemy's Fifth Offensive in May-August 1943.
Diklic proved equally useful for every sort of advice. He suggested which items Dafoe should discard from his kit as unnecessary and those he should cling to at all costs. Dafoe came to rely on Diklic and Miki during his various outings as well. Within days of his arrival he persuaded Diklic to take him fishing, "Partisan-style."
Dafoe had heard that in the valley of the river Drinjaca you could relax, bask in the sun, and fish as you pleased. It was difficult to imagine doing this in the middle of a war, at least until the Partisans assured him they were accustomed to indulging in such pursuits regardless of the danger.
With a guard and a haversack of tinned food, some dynamite, and several hand grenades, Dafoe and Diklic set out that weekend with his two assistants and Wilson. It was still early in the morning when they departed, and already the sound of enemy artillery echoed in the mountains. Dafoe was struck again by just how high up he was, marvelling at the view of the valley below.
The descent lasted almost an hour. They passed a small flour mill on the way down. Dafoe stopped to examine the crude arrangement. Near the bottom of the valley they crossed a rough road, which Diklic said wound and curved its way towards the village of Vlasenica, some distance away. Next to the road were the ruins of a hospital and several small houses that Diklic said Cetniks had destroyed. And ahead was the river Drinjaca, "a small river but very pretty with its tree-clad banks," Dafoe recalled. Here everyone paused long enough to admire the rapids and deep, still pools of water and the trees, still young in the spring, overhanging the river's muddied banks.
They set up a makeshift camp in a field by the river as Diklic went to work with the dynamite and prepared a small bomb. Then Dafoe and Wilson stripped and moved downstream. Diklic hurled the first bomb into the air and watched as it landed in one of the dark pools. A loud underwater thud followed, and several fish floated to the surface. Soon the valley was alive with excitement as Diklic plunged into the cold water and shouted to Dafoe and Wilson, who were busily collecting fish, including one or two trout. It was surprising to Dafoe, an old hand himself with dynamite, just how many fish one homemade bomb could deliver. He estimated there was as much as eight kilos by the time they withdrew from the river, soaked and shivering, to the campsite where the guard had a fire started already. There they boiled the day's catch to go with some cornmeal bread and cups of the thick, sweet Turkish coffee.
Later, several members of the party wandered down the winding river bank to engage in some target practice, shooting at birds. Dafoe and Diklic stayed behind at the camp and stretched out naked under the brilliant midday sun. It all seemed so ridiculously incongruous, a fishing expedition in the mountains, bombs and gunfire sounding in the valley. Dafoe was hard pressed to remember that in the hills and villages around him the war continued. He remarked on the absence of human life, despite the freshly tilled fields and trails of smoke rising from distant chimneys. Diklic explained casually that the people were hiding from Cetniks, who frequently patrolled the area. They had killed hundreds of the local population since the outset of the war, he said. Dafoe imagined the burnt-out villages where peasants mostly children stood bewildered among the smoking ruins. Diklic said they lived in chicken coops, mostly.
Later in the day, Diklic proposed that he and Dafoe take a different route back to Dukici. It was somewhat longer, but Dafoe was glad of the opportunity to view the countryside from a different perspective.
Crossing the road they entered a deep gorge with a well-worn path running alongside a fast-moving stream. As they negotiated the trail, Dafoe told his friend he expected to find Partisan guerrillas at every turn or hanging from the rockface. They had covered several kilometres when they came to a widening of the gorge and discovered two large wooden barracks. Diklic said they were German buildings captured near Vlasenica and moved to this site.
Standing among the barracks was a sizeable crowd of colourfully dressed men and women, all armed. Diklic approached and Dafoe heard rakija (plum brandy) mentioned several times in the rapid-fire conversation that followed it was the only word he recognized. Several of the peasants subjected Dafoe to curious palming and fingering of his uniform while intently staring at him, their faces inquisitive. They were better dressed than most, with fur caps set at a rakish angle, each sporting a white kaput similar to a Russian jacket, a wide leather belt, and a black vest liberally embroidered with colorful designs. Their trousers were cut just below the knee and they wore black stockings with shoes reminiscent of moccasins, but thicker and curled at the toe. The women were similarly clad, wearing skirts instead of ballooning trousers, and colourful shawls draped over their heads like large kerchiefs. Their long bloomers were visible when the women hitched their skirts some few inches at the waist as they worked.
Dafoe was puzzled by the interest the peasants showed in his attire. He always wore the familiar olive-drab battledress of a British officer, black lace-up boots now scuffed and muddied and a black beret. All very ordinary compared to the traditional costume of the peasants, he felt. But Dafoe was an unusually handsome man, and for that alone he attracted attention. The peasants continued to poke and stare at him while laughing and chatting away among themselves and nodding approvingly. Dafoe grew uncomfortable under such scrutiny, for he did not know that word of the "English doctor" had already spread.
"Nije Englez, on je Kanadjanin," a peasant said, as though Dafoe were some sort of exhibit: "He's not English, he's Canadian."
"Ma nemoj. Kako?" another asked, clucking with amazement.
Dafoe, unable to understand the peasants, was relieved when Diklic reappeared and suggested then resume their journey. As they began to climb up the side of the gorge, Dafoe spotted an old church perched on a distant hilltop, which Diklic explained was both famous and interesting despite the damage it had suffered. Dafoe made a mental note to visit it.
The climbing grew more difficult in the mid-afternoon heat, and they stopped when they came upon the remains of a peasant hut. Two young boys emerged from the charred ruins and greeted them. Their father appeared a moment later. He exchanged several words with Diklic and then produced a flask of rakija from the rubble. Diklic took the flask and looked Dafoe in the eyes.
"Ziveli," he said firmly, then tipped the flask and drank. He handed it to Dafoe while wiping his mouth and adjusting the rifle on his back. "Always look in the eyes before you drink. That is our custom," he explained. Dafoe obliged and lifted the flask.
"Ziveli," he said, his accent making it sound more like "shifeli" instead. Diklic smiled at Dafoe tasted the strong drink, then passed the flask to the peasant. The Canadian glanced around the ruins.
"What happened here?" he asked.
Diklic questioned the peasant and then translated for Dafoe.
"He says two days ago the Fascist Ustasi and some Zeleni Kadar came. His wife and three younger children fled to a gorge not far from here and hid. This man and his two sons here took the sheep and cows to higher ground. They escaped, but his wife and the other children were caught and brought back, then put into the house with some neighbours and relatives. The building was set on fire. That is our war. The Fascists, they are like that. It is terrible," Diklic said. "And he has lost his animals."
Dafoe was further shocked to learn that the raid had occurred not eight hundred metres from where he had first landed. He was puzzled, too, by the peasant's apparent lack of grief, and asked Diklic if the lost animals weren't more on his mind. His friend shrugged.
"What's the use of crying over spilt milk?" he asked. It sounded strange coming from Diklic. Dafoe shook his head.
"Tell him I'm sorry, George."
"Kaze, zao mi je," Diklic translated. The peasant nodded.
Dafoe concluded that the Partisans and civilian populations were inured to such hardships. It seemed that life had become cheap in the mountains. The excitement of the morning vanished and at that moment he realized he would have to keep reminding himself why he had come to these people.
Diklic drank from the flask again and offered it to Dafoe with a hopeful look.
"Ziveli," he said. He nodded sharply when Dafoe hesitated.
Dafoe took the flask and remembered to catch his friend's eye.
"Ziveli," he replied. "To life."
Copyright © Brian Jeffrey Street 1987,1998. All rights reserved.