Exclusive to the Society: Excerpts from Shattered Eagles – Balkan Fragments


This book has been written at odd moments in the last four years. Some chapters have been developed from lectures I gave during these years. Some recount Balkan adventures squeezed in between writing these lectures and carrying out the normal duties of an English university lecturer. We hear much of the onerous nature of these duties; perhaps those who complain about such burdens might care to exchange with their counterparts in the Universities of Sofia, where in 1992 they had one photocopier, or Gjirokaster, where in 1994 they had no typewriters, or Sarajevo, where they had nothing. Nevertheless my inability to give all my attention to Balkan affairs has resulted in the slightly fragmentary nature of this book.

There are other causes of fragmentation. In the summer of 1990 I travelled freely and comfortably through Yugoslavia, though there were vague rumblings of discontent. Gorbachev was firmly entrenched in the Soviet Union, but it was in the same summer in Poland that serious cracks began to appear in the iron curtain. Albania was still a closed book, viewed with regret from the safe haven of Yugoslavia. Albania is now accessible, Yugoslavia unsafe and so fragmented that (as with the former Soviet Union) I have not risked drawing any new boundaries in my first map.

Just as I was completing this book there appeared two other books which covered some of the same ground as Balkan Fragments. Bosnia: A Short History by Noel Malcolm (London, 1994) was deservedly hailed as a masterpiece. Its concentration on Bosnia and its deadly seriousness makes Balkan Fragments seem not only fragmentary but frivolous. Malcolm shows how difficult it is to disentangle the present from the past in the Balkans, and yet how important it is to have a knowledge of the past in order to avoid accepting myth as fact. He has quite a lot to say about Vlachs, Kosovo and Macedonia, visible proof of how difficult it is to write about one part of the Balkans without discussing others. Indeed it is perhaps a danger of the book that by showing, quite correctly, that Bosnia had an identity of its own and was not a mere geographical expression, Malcolm creates two new myths, onto which strident nationalists are likely to latch.

The first myth is that there really are distinct racial groups — Bosnians, Croats, Serbs, Vlachs, Pomaks, Greeks, Albanians, Turks — clearly separated from each other by language, religion, and culture forever and a day. But writing this preface in the mountain villages of Southern Albania, where Vlachs, Greeks, and Albanians are inextricably confused, it is obvious that there is no such thing as racial purity. Endogamy of course is the rule rather than the exception in this remote areas, but we all have many ancestors, as Malcolm recognizes when he says that there is a large Vlach element in the Serb population.

The second mystery that history can bring into play is the idea that one race is superior to another in a particular area if it got there first. There are several obvious examples of this myth in the Balkans. Did the Hungarians or the Romanians occupy Transylvania first? Southern Albania with its Greek flags in the village churches and its houses burnt down in the Second World War, is again a place to demonstrate the tragic folly of this myth. There are Greek speakers in these villages now, there were more in the past, their places being occupied by recently arrived Vlachs, but it is hard to know who occupied the land in the eighteenth century or the fourteenth century, although the sadly neglected churches might tell us something. Who knows and who cares? The Greek terrorists who attacked an Albanian border post presumably cared even if they did not know.

Simultaneously with Malcolm’s book The Times of London published The Tribes of Europe (London, 1994). This book had a distinguished editorial board headed by Felipe Fernandez Armesto. It was brightly and clearly set out, with a host of maps, and had the merit of bringing fragmented minorities to the world’s attention. But there was an odd pecking order for the tribes. In Western Europe we had the Cornish and the Manx, the Burgenlanders in Austria, the Prussians in Germany, and perhaps most oddly the Normans, listed with the Scandinavians as if they were really Norsemen. In Eastern Europe the Vlachs and the Pomaks are not listed. They do appear in the index, but then so do the Tats and Teptiyars, Tennyson, Thatcher and Thucydides, the first two obscure minorities, the last three less obscure, but hardly minorities. I feel that such a book trivialises the whole issue of ethnic fragments; the Cornish are not going to murder policemen in Devon.

The Vlach Diaspora

I met in Australia an interesting family whom I will call Babo, although their name has at various times been officially changed to Babovic (Serb), Babov (Bulgarian) and Babovski (Macedonian). In Nizopolje in 1991 I met an old woman from this family born in 1900 who was educated at a Greek school and still speaks Greek. This devotion to the Greek cause is understandable in view of the way her Greek prayers have been so often answered. In the First World War her future husband, then called Babovic, served in the Serbian army, but was wounded and taken prisoner, spending most of the war in Soprun, Hungary. On his return he found Nizepoljë deserted with his own family in Katerini and his fiancee’s family, who lived in Magarevo, somewhere in Bulgaria, but he found them both. In the Second World War one of their sons was called up by the Bulgarian army, and he fought for them until they surrendered, whereupon dodging the partisans he fled to Greece, from which after some difficulties he emerged to be one of the pioneer Nizopolje settlers in Melbourne. His family, which remained in the old country, became unpopular and had to endure another exile, this time to Delcevo on the Yugoslav-Bulgarian border. They returned from this, but another son was not happy and fled across the mountains to Greece, where the first person to greet him was a Vlach shepherd. He then joined his brother in Australia. With a relaxation of the political atmosphere in Yugoslavia good communications have been established. The old lady has visited Australia for an operation, the Australian exiles have visited Nizopolje, and younger members of the family have emigrated to Melbourne. Two brothers still live in Yugoslavia. One was visiting Melbourne while I was there. Jim Babo, born in Australia, son of the Bulgarian soldier, is treasurer of the Vlach association and obviously an extremely successful chartered accountant. End of an everyday story of Vlach country folk.

In America, arriving on April 7th, 1990, and leaving on April 18th, I visited Vlach communities in New York and Bridgeport, Connecticut under the auspices of the Society Farsarotul and on my own initiative went to see two Vlachs with whom I had been in correspondence in Los Angeles and Washington. In Los Angeles I met the famous John (“Nacu”) Zdru, recently expelled from Greece, presumably for publishing a Vlach newspaper in America. He was with two younger men whose families had organised in Albania and Petric, Bulgaria, but had then moved to Romania. In Washington I met Dr. Socrates Asteriou who had taught history at university level and worked on the Balkans at the State Department. He had been born in the United States shortly after his parents had moved from Trnvo, Yugoslavia, at the end of the First World War. His mother had been a member of the pro-Greek upper bourgeoisie in that town and his father had worked for the Turkish administration. He had only recently become aware of his Vlach origins, a phenomenon very common among Greek-speaking Vlachs who have emigrated. In Bridgeport and New York this phenomenon was less apparent, for the very good reason that most members of the Society Farsarotul came from an area where little or no Greek was spoken. This was the area around Korçë in Albania. Many had lived in the villages of Pljasë, now deserted, and Dishnicë. The village of Shipckë and the town of Bilisht were also mentioned. There was talk of Voskopojë, generally agreed to have suffered badly in both wars. There are still Vlach-speakers in this area, and in the month when I was visiting many telephone calls had been received from relatives in Albania.

A Word to the Members of the Society Farsarotul

(Note: The following is not an excerpt from Dr. Winnifrith’s book; it was written specially for this Newsletter.)

It is not for me, an Englishman who is not even an Aromanian, to dictate to the Society Farsarotul where their interests lie, but I would like to suggest that the position of the Aromanians in Albania should in the next five years be a matter of particular concern. It was from Albania that emigrants came to the United States and founded the Society. Albania is the country where communism has left the most savage scars, symbolized in the concrete bunkers that litter the beautiful countryside. These were built at vast expense against an invader that never came. Oddly, it is in Albania that the Aromanian language is at its most healthy.

When I published The Vlachs in 1987, I had visited Albania three times, but only as a member of the closely guarded groups which were then allowed. I had broken away from my group to greet an old Aromanian woman as she was guarding her geese, but that hardly counted. In 1992, 1993, and 1994, I made three independent visits specifically to Aromanian communities. My wife wrote an account of the first visit in this Newsletter. I am about to publish an account of the second visit in a book called Balkan Fragments, which also describes the Aromanians of America and Australia. Here, hot from the press is an account of my third visit.

Before going to Albania, I spent a day with old friends in Anilio near Metsovo where the tunnel through the Katara pass is proceeding slowly. There are Albanian Vlachs working in Anilio, coming oddly enough from Selenice, where the church was rebuilt with financial help from the Greek town, and where in 1993 I and my wife were both blessed in both Albanian and Greek, although I am not sure what we have done to deserve the blessing. I would like to have met the Selenice workers, but had to leave in time to catch the early bus from Ioannina to Kakavia.

Customs formalities were remarkably lax. I paid five dollars for a scruffy visa which described me as a Hollander; fought myself free of various taxi drivers tooting for customers; and found the driver whom my efficient Albanian speaking research assistant had hired. We drove to Gjirokaster past the Greek villages on the left of the left hand side of the Drin valley. These have recently been in the news, tragically so when some allegedly Greek terrorists shot some Albanian border guards. We visited a few of these villages: Dervicani, Goranxia and Sofratike the next day. Our enquiries were kindly if cautiously treated. Dervicani was the biggest. Everyone was speaking Greek in the cafes and Greek flags were conspicuous in the church. In Goranxia the church had recently been gutted by an arson attack, and in Sofratike an old church was in a state of considerable disrepair. There were no Vlachs in any of these villages, but I believe there are Vlachs in Frashtan further to the south. All the villages look impressive from the road with old, strong stone houses, but a closer inspection shows that many of these houses are neglected and deserted. As so often near the border with Greece, Greek- speaking adults have crossed the border for work, and the villages have suffered.

On the other side of the Drin on the slopes of Mount Lunxherise, I visited six Vlach villages, Valare, Nokove, Mingul, Dhoxksat, Saraqhinishte, and Suhe. Nokove was the largest with seventy families, all speaking Vlach and possessing three old, impressive churches. There was an even more impressive church at Labova, but no Vlachs there. Most of the other villages contained non-Vlachs, speaking only Albanian. Some of the men spoke Greek, and many of them were away in Greece. In every case the Vlachs in the villages claimed they had only been settled there in the past forty years, having been previously living near the coast of Sarandë, or in Greece at Kefalovrison, described so well in an earlier issue of this Newsletter by George Moran, or living as genuine nomads. The children spoke Vlach in all villages, as I found out when I tried my rusty Vlach on them.

There is a good description of the Drin valley before the war by Professor Hammond in Epirus (Oxford, 1967). He shows how southern Albania was divided into little pockets, each with its separate language and customs. Unfortunately, he does not devote a great deal of space to Mount Lunxherise. He mentions one Greek pocket on the East side of the Drin to the south of Gjirokaster and another in the Khardiqui valley to the north west. There is also said to be a Greek pocket east of Gjirokaster near Poliçan, and my own researches show Vlachs well to the north of Libohovë in the area I have just described.

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All this area suffered badly in the war. There is a moving, if slightly tendentious account of what happened in P.J. Ruchas, Albania’s Captives (Chicago, 1965) in which all the villages I have named apart from Valare are described as (a) Greek; (b) burned in 1944 by a combination of the Germans and the Balli Kombetar, the Albanian national movement. I saw and heard evidence of some burning, but judged it unwise to pursue enquiries too closely. There was Albanian-Greek tension, and our taxi driver supported the Balli Kombetar.

Valare, like Andon Poçi (described by my wife in a previous Newsletter), was a new foundation for Vlachs without any settled home and caught up in the fortunes of war. Before 1912 Vlachs could and did wander freely throughout the crumbling Turkish Empire. Between 1912 and 1945 frontiers were erected all over this area and frequently changed, with the Vlachs frequently caught on the wrong side of the frontier. Such clearly was the case with the Vlachs near Gjirokaster, many of whom have relatives in Greece. On the other hand, though it is unfashionable to say anything good about Enver Hoxha, it is, in the narrow sense, to his credit that he did try to settle them in a sensitive area, as a kind of balance between Greeks and Albanians, since in a way the Vlachs were both and neither.

One cannot but rejoice at the fall of Communism in Albania, as elsewhere. Sitting in one of Tirana’s many cafes, chatting merrily with the barman, my beer a little colder and a lot cheaper than in England, one feels surprised that Albania has come so far so fast. Of course, all is not well. Private wealth is accumulating while public services are deteriorating. In Tirana and in the countryside there is poverty and squalor. And, though the threat of violence, much publicised at the time of the elections, has now receded, there are in Albania, as in the rest of the former Communist world, renewed ethnic and nationalistic tensions.

Here the Vlachs, both all races and none, can I believe play their part. Sadly the Vlachs or Aromanians of Albania are divided between those who take a Romanian standpoint and those who look to Greece. The two parties use the two different names, not for convenience but as a political gesture. Fortunately, or unfortunately, I did not have time to get embroiled into this particular dispute, but I believe it is wrong to think of Vlachs or Aromanians as being attached to any particular state except insofar as they are citizens of countries like America or Albania. This is not a weakness in these difficult times; on the contrary, it is a strength.

I am hoping to do more work on the Aromanians near Sarandë this summer when in a very English fashion I have rented a house in Corfu, and am planning a series of visits to Albania in the summer of 1995. Any suggestions for how I should approach this task would be welcome. I am preparing for my book a map of Albanian Vlach settlements, and I will naturally make this available as soon as it is ready. I enclose a rough preliminary map of this area with the villages I have described underlined.

P. Prifti in Albanian Life (1969) gives a history of what happened in Andon Poçi after 1963, describing it as a model case of how the poor Vlachs were well treated by being given settled homes. Clearly this is not a totally objective account, and yet it does show the Vlachs as peacemakers profiting from peace. It is wrong of course in patronisingly suggesting that all Vlachs are indigent nomads. Many Vlachs have been and are prosperous and creative citizens of the countries in which they have settled. One rather hopes that they will be so in the new Albania.


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