Mihal Grameno:

The Albanian Uprising

Freedom fighters or terrorist organisations? The Balkan Peninsula was full of them in the final decades of Ottoman rule – groups of Albanians, Greeks, Macedonians and Bulgarians, etc., who took to the hills to fight for the end of Turkish rule and for freedom. Many of these guerrilla bands turned to highway robbery and ended up fighting one another. Among the best known Albanian rebels were the two brothers, Bajo Topulli (1868-1930) and Çerçiz Topulli (1880-1915) of Gjirokastra. The Albanian writer Mihal Grameno (1871- 1931) joined their band in 1907 and, sailing over from Brindisi, helped in a campaign of agitation to prepare for an armed uprising in 1908. On 25 February 1908, the band killed the ‘binbashi’ (commander) of the Turkish gendarmerie on a street in Gjirokastra. Five of the rebels, including Çerçiz Topulli, then fled to Mashkullora, where on 5 March they were surrounded by 150 Ottoman troops. Although they were vastly outnumbered, Topulli and his fighters managed to keep the Turks at bay from dawn until dusk and then fled into the mountains, an event which is still much celebrated in folk ballads (Link: Albanian Literature — Oral Verse: At the Plane Tree of Mashkullore). Here are extracts from the memoirs of Mihal Grameno, ‘Kryengritja Shqiptare’ (The Albanian Uprising), a work without any literary pretension, but one that gives a good indication of the atmosphere at the time in southern Albania. Setting up the Committee In April of 1907, a sailboat caught the attention of the people of Brindisi, a town on the Adriatic Sea in Italy. This boat had been sailing back and forth in the waters off Brindisi for several days and its movements made it suspicious, as if it were hiding something. And indeed, anyone who had a closer look at the captain who came out on deck at night would have understood his intentions. The captain was a man of average height. Thin and with a long sallow moustache, he wore a Gheg costume so that it was obvious he was from Albania. To the question, “Where are you from, Ahmet?” – such was his name – the captain of the ship would sigh and reply with a tear in his eyes, “From Ulqin [Ulcinj].” The question depressed poor Ahmet because he had seen his native town, fair Ulqin, fall to Montenegro in 1878. One night, when Brindisi was sound asleep, a whistle was heard from the seaside and soon thereafter was the sound of oars taking a rowboat out to the ship. When they reached their destination, the nine men in the rowboat shouted their password and Ahmet came out on deck to greet them. “It would be a very good thing if we could set out tonight,” he said. “Please,” replied one of the men, “if we could only wait until tomorrow evening! We are not ready yet because we are waiting for one man who is still in Bari to get weapons. We will be able to depart tomorrow evening for sure.” “If our goal were not sacred, to save our beloved Albania,” said Ahmet, “I would not wait any longer because the authorities here are starting to get suspicious and I am afraid that something will happen.” “Wait one more day on the open sea,” replied one of the men. “With God’s help nothing will happen. God is with us.” “Alright,” answered Ahmet, “but be ready by tomorrow evening at this time.” He then went back into the ship and set sail. When Ahmet set off, the other men returned to land and scattered, each to his own hotel. These men had arrived in Brindisi a few days earlier and had not gone unnoticed by the people of the town because they looked foreign and were not speaking Italian. They had tried to keep a low profile and only met in secret. These men who gathered in Brindisi to take part in the Albanian uprising to liberate the country were: Bajo and Çerçiz Topulli, Veli bey Klissura, Zeman Mashkullori, Idriz Jakova, Thanas Nasto, Naum Trebicka, Hasan Toleri and Mihal Grameno. The next evening at the same time, Ahmet turned up with the ship and announced he was ready to sail. He asked all of the men to hurry. Veli bey who had gone to Bari to get weapons did not return, but telegraphed that he would certainly be there in the morning. Ahmet was impatient and insisted that we all get on board that evening and wait there until the next day for Veli bey. Thus it was decided, and Çerçiz, Mihal, Idriz, Zeman and Thanas gathered their weapons, cartridges, clothes, food and whatever else was needed for such a perilous journey. Everything was piled into the rowboat and soon thereafter we were on the ship. We waited until noon the next day but, unfortunately, Veli bey and his companions, Naum and Hasan, did not show up. We were very worried that something might have happened to them. Bajo then sent us a note to tell us that Veli bey and his companions had changed their minds, so we set sail for Albania. As agreed, Bajo remained behind and sailed to America to gather aid. But before describing our arrival in Albania, I must digress on the beginnings and organisation of the Committee. The Beginnings of the Committee In 1905 Bajo Topulli from Gjirokastra was the deputy principal of the Turkish secondary school in the town of Monastir [Bitola]. There he came into contact with many nationalist- minded Albanians with whom he discussed the dreadful situation with which the Albanian nation was faced. There was great despair at the time because the Turkish government was doing everything it could to wipe out the Albanian language and the spread of nationalism among the Albanians. In addition to this were the Greek andartes, organised in Greece by the Greek government, who created a climate of terror among the Albanians by persecuting and killing people every day. The poor Albanians looked to the West for their salvation because there was no sign that anything would get better. Everyone sensed the peril and wanted a committee to be set up to defend the country, but no one dared to express this opinion openly. It was a time when even brothers were afraid to speak candidly to one another. There is and will never be a parallel to the tyrannical rule of the bloody Sultan Ahmet. Bajo Topulli was more courageous than most and expressed his opinions to Fehim bey Zavalani. Together they discussed the situation with Gjergj Qiriazi, Jashar Bitincka, Nuçi Naçi, Riza bey Velçishti, Grigor Cilka, Qani bey Ypi and others who welcomed them with open arms, and together they decided to establish the first Albanian Committee for rebellion. The Committee began its work and expanded quickly with more and more members. For this reason, Bajo went to Korça and Kolonja to create new branches. Membership rose by the day. The objective of the Committee was to spread, to strengthen its internal organisation and then to begin with concrete activities, but the Turkish government caught wind of the Albanian movement and endeavoured to discover where the offices of the branches were and what the programme and intentions of the Albanian Committee were. For this reason, and due to the terrible murder by Greek andartes of the great patriot Papa Kristo in Negovan and his brother Papa Theodhosi, they decided to begin with concrete activities before the organisation was complete. On 23 March 1906, Bajo and Riza bey Velçishti, as well as Qamil Panariti, Pertef bey Rusi and Selim bey Pojani who were secondary school students left Monastir and hastened to Kolonja, where they were met by Hysen bey Dishnica. In Kolonja, where they were joined by Qani bey Starja Ypi and others, they began to form and equip a band of fighters. Word of this event spread quickly throughout Albania and indeed to Europe, so that everyone was eagerly awaiting an opportunity to see the hodja (as Bajo Topulli was called) and join his men. The Turkish government set out in his pursuit and caught Fehim bey Zavalani who was exiled to Acre in Syria. Others were exiled elsewhere. Unfortunately there was some treachery – always a problem in Albania – from students who sought to be pardoned. Bajo therefore flew to Gjirokastra to set up a new branch there and to gather forces, whereas Qani bey Starja and Riza bey remained in Kolonja, waiting for his return. While they were in Albania spreading the word for the indefatigable patriot, the hodja, Grigor Cilka left Korça and worked in Sofia, Bulgaria, and then in Bucharest to organise the Albanians there in line with the needs of the Committee. Everyone welcomed the members of the Committee and the national movement with great joy. There they set up branches and began to gather aid for the Committee. In Bucharest, activities were managed by Pandeli Vangjel Shalisi, Vasil I. Zografi, Rafail Shule, Andre Alilozi, Mihal Grameno, Pandeli Durmishi and others. A branch of the Committee under Thanas Tashko, Jani Vruho and Milo Duçi was also formed in Egypt. At that time, three young men, Lambi Bimbli, Kolë Rikashi and Miçë Papanastasi, all ardent patriots, left America where they lived and travelled to Sofia to sneak into Albania from there. Unfortunately, despite the endeavours of the Committee in Sofia, they were unable to get back to Albania. Winter was approaching and their money ran out. Newspapers in Europe began to write more about the Albanian movement, and very favourably. Soon thereafter Qani bey Starja was persuaded by some treacherous companions to give himself up to the Turkish government and did so. He was soon thereafter imprisoned in Monastir. He suffered greatly until he was released. Riza bey Velçishti and his men, few though they were, continued to resist in Kolonja and in the area of Albania between Përmet and Leskovik. When Bajo returned from Gjirokastra and learned what had happened, he was furious and set heroically into action. In Gjirokastra he had founded a branch and then took his brother, Çerçiz, with him, as well as Zeman Mashkullori and others. Not intending to meet up with Riza bey Velçishti, they continued on to the region of Korça and Devoll where the nationalist movement had now spread. In that region, they were accompanied by Fejzo bey Dishnica and Apostoll Plasa, so they were eleven men in all. At that time, the Greek andartes were terrorizing the Albanians and the pro-Greek forces, with the support of the government, were severely persecuting Albanian nationalists. The Committee therefore decided to carry out a counterattack. It set up several ambushes to assassinate Karavangjeli, the Despot of Kastoria, but could not catch him. It happened therefore that they assassinated Photis, the Despot of Korça, instead. This assassination took place above Brandvica on 9 September 1906. When Despot Photis was killed, the government initiated a wave of persecution against Albanian rebels and against many nationalist figures. Dozens of men were arrested and imprisoned, among them being Jovan Kosturi and his children, Salih Butka, Grigor Cilka, Ohran bey Pojani, Ibrahim Qesaraku, now the baba of the tekke, and Lazo Progri. Fejzi bey Alizoti, the government’s representative in Korça, tried desperately to convince Bajo to give himself up, but when he realised that Bajo would not submit, he sent him a message to tell him to flee for he would otherwise be pursued and arrested. Bajo gathered his men to discuss the matter and they decided to accept Fejzi bey’s advice. At the same time, there was a great rainstorm so they decided to set off for Gjirokastra and sent Bajo on to Europe to gather weapons. […] One evening, Abdyl Mersini, who was the cleverest and most experienced of the band in Gjirokastra, decided to go back to his village of Kardhiq, thus leaving the group, consisting of Apostol, Zeman, Hasan Nikolica, Malo Çami and Rapo Mashkullori, without a leader. One night, Rapo Mashkullori stole the guns of Apostol and Zeman and fled. When his companions awoke and saw what had happened, they were horrified so they fled, taking Zeman with them to show them the way. Poor Zeman returned to Gjirokastra all alone to tell Bajo and Çerçiz what had taken place. Zeman was the one who was in the greatest danger because, by staying in town, he risked being caught by the guards of the tobacco agency who would turn him over to the police. Fortunately, the head of the guards was Raifi, a cousin of the Topulli family, so they let him pass through town and get to Bajo’s house. When they discovered what had happened, Bajo and Çerçiz were so shocked and infuriated that they hastened through town, armed in mid daylight, to find the companions who had fled. They searched everywhere but could find no one, so they returned home that night, cursing their luck. It was evident that staying in Gjirokastra was too dangerous for them, so they decided, the three of them, to go to Sofia in Bulgaria to spend the winter. The next day, they said farewell and set off for Palavlia near Delvina, to the home of the patriot Nazif Aderi, who received them with great joy. There they spent several days until an Austrian steamboat arrived. Nazif helped them get passage for the ship and they sailed to Kotor. There they dressed up in local costumes and continued on to Sofia where Albanian nationalists welcomed them heartily. After spending some time in Sofia, Bajo and Çerçiz continued on to Bucharest where the nationalist community received them hospitably. It was at this time that the tragic news of the assassination of Spiro Kosturi in Salonica became known, and all the nationalists were horrified since it was a political assassination. The Greeks had slain him to terrorize the Albanian community. Bajo did not spend much time in Bucharest since Aladro Castriota wanted to meet him in Paris. I, the author of this work, was in Romania at the time, where I had lived for twenty years since leaving my homeland as a child. Over the years I had taken an active interest in the nationalist struggle, so when Bajo and Çerçiz arrived, my heart beat quickly and I longed to do something to serve my country, even with rifle in arm, but unfortunately I was physically weak and untrained. I had never climbed a mountain until then. There was no way to change this because my lungs were in bad condition. Anyway, I begged Bajo to take me with them when they left, asserting that I would be proud to die in the mountains of Albania. Bajo was hesitant because he saw clearly that I was accustomed to an easy life. On the other hand, many Albanians had joined them, so he said that Albania belonged to all Albanians and if I wanted to go, I should join him in Sofia in Bulgaria in March. The days seemed like months until March when I hastened to Sofia. We all gathered there and then set off for Brindisi, except Vasil Trebicka who was sent to Korça to avenge the killing of Spiro Kosturi. The Korça Committee, however, intervened and prevented the revenge attack because they knew that the Turkish government would carry out acts of severe repression on the Albanian nationalists. To get to Brindisi, we took a roundabout way via Zejmun [Zemun] on the border between Hungary and Serbia. There we were stopped by a policeman, an evil ruffian, who returned us to Belgrade. In Belgrade, the police station sent us, under police escort, to the prefecture, and I was beaten on the way because I asked for a glass of water. We were interrogated and said that we were on our way to America, but they did not believe us and ordered that we be imprisoned. They also informed the Turkish Embassy to send someone. We were horrified when we heard this, but there was nothing we could do. After quite some time, two officials and a dragoman of the Turkish Embassy arrived and got us out of the underground cell where he had been kept. They asked us in Turkish who we were and where we were going. Bajo and Shahin Kolonja had already escaped across the border from Zejmun to Vienna. Çerçiz replied in Turkish that they should ask the Serbian government and when this was done, we were informed curtly that we were to be sent back to Turkey. Fortunately, I had an old Romanian passport with me and said I did not belong in Turkey because I was a subject of His Majesty, King Carol. They took a look at the passport and saw, however, that I had been born in Turkey. I replied that I had left at an early age and had served in the Romanian army and acquired right of residence there. The Serbs released me immediately. Çerçiz, Idriz and Zeman remained in prison until the documents were ready and they were then handed over to the Embassy to be sent to Turkey. Once released, I went into town and met Thanas who had not been imprisoned because he had shown his passport from the start. We discussed what we could do for the others. To our fortune in Belgrade, we met up with the patriot, Alexander Balltadori. He recommended that we contact Naum Kristof, a Bulgarian patriot. Together, we went to the embassies of Italy, Austria and Romania to let them know that our compatriots refused to be returned to Turkey because they had fled for political reasons. I visited the men in prison. The next day they were informed that they were to be sent to Turkey, but because they had fled for political reasons, the police would accompany them to the Bulgarian border. I spent much money to achieve this compromise because the imprisoned men had no money of their own. As such, we were lucky to arrive, safe and sound, in Sofia and not to be handed over to Turkey. From Sofia we sent telegrams to Bajo who then returned from Vienna and spent some time with us until we were ready to depart. I should not forget to mention the assistance provided by our patriotic friends in Sofia: Shahin Kolonja, Kristo Luarasi, Dhimitër Mole and Adem Shkaba, who were the heart of the Albanian nationalist movement in Bulgaria. When we were sent back to Belgrade, Kristo Luarasi put us up at his home and Dhimitër Mole sent us 2,000 francs from Philippopolis [Plovdiv]. We obtained forged passports for our companions and set off for Brindisi where, as mentioned above, we boarded the ship of Ahmet Ulqini for Albania. […] The Killing of the Binbashi While things were going on at the Monastery of Driano, the binbashi [Turkish army major, head of the local gendarmerie] of Gjirokastra reinforced the crackdown on the population of the town, terrifying all those who were suspected of nationalist sentiment. The Gjirokastra Committee was in great despair and sent Idriz Guri to inform us that thirty men from the district of Përmet had been put in prison, among whom were Haredin’s father and brother. Dressed up as a military officer, Idriz arrived at the Monastery of Driano at sunset. What had happened depressed us all terribly. We discussed the problem at great length and resolved to assassinate the binbashi. Idriz returned directly to Gjirokastra while we hiked up the mountain trail to take up position at a site above the town. Turkish soldiers camped out in the fortress of Gjirokastra, Albania (photo: Petro Dhimitri, 1907). Haredin and Asllan went into Gjirokastra twice to kill the binbashi but they had no luck as they couldn’t find him. When they were about to return a third time, something happened. Our companions from Laberia had discussed the matter among themselves and resolved that the men of Laberia ought to be the ones to kill the binbashi because they would otherwise be put to shame if they had to ‘sing the song of the Tosks.’ Of necessity we accepted their decision, so it was Hito and Bajram Pergjia who were selected as the hitmen. It was on Monday, 25 February 1908, a market day, that Hito and Bajram set off for the centre of Gjirokastra dressed up as merchants. According to the plan we had worked out, they were to be in town by eight o’clock in the morning. Selfo and Haredin were to slip into town by nine o’clock, and Qenan and Asllan took up position at the Christian cemetery in order to protect the assassins on their return. Çerçiz, Abdyl, Myftar, Pirro and I remained up on the hillside to defend our men from the army, should it pursue them. The plan was well prepared so we all watched and listened closely from our position above the town, waiting impatiently to hear the echo of bullets. Every second seemed to last an age, and every small movement in town made our hearts beat faster. At lunchtime, around 11:15, we hear gunshots and a few seconds later we could see Hito and Bajram running out of town, with their six-shooters in their hands. When Haredin and Selfo caught sight of them and learned that the binbashi was dead, they took up position across from the government building and shattered the windowpanes with gunfire. Then they fled in our direction. Zeman and Asllan for their part fired from the cemetery above the government building, forcing the poor employees to take shelter to avoid the bullets. It was not long before gendarmes, soldiers and policemen rushed out in great haste to pursue the assassins. They could have shot them on the spot because the latter were running in an open space, but we were above them to protect them. As soon as we saw the soldiers, we opened fire on them and forced them to stay where they were. In the meantime, our companions managed to get up into the hills where we were safe. Monument to Çerçiz Topulli in Mashkullora near Gjirokastra, Albania (photo: Robert Elsie, 17 May 2015). The fighting lasted for two hours. When we were back together we threw our arms around the heroes who had brought honour to us and our nation. Everyone rejoiced, and then we set off up a steep trail for the pass to get over to the Kardhiq Mountains where we would be in safety. We hiked all that night and all the next day without anything to eat, just a bit of snow. We arrived in Kardhiq as the sun was setting and were taken in by the people of the village. Everyone was delighted at the assassination of the binbashi and they all expressed their heartfelt thanks and congratulations that we were able to escape from the evil and tyrannical Turks who were terrifying the population simply because they were Albanian nationalists. We discussed our options and decided to stay in the Kardhiq Mountains for the moment to see how government forces would react. We set off up into the hills, but had to cross a very narrow stretch. This was the path that the local people used to hide their animals from the livestock tax collector. It was not only narrow but very dangerous because of the twenty-metre precipice. One small mistake and you would never see the light of day again. We had no choice but to cross it because we would otherwise be captured by the army and be killed. It was 25 December 1907. I managed to get over the narrow stretch with the help of Asllan and Zeman who held me by the hand. However, do not think that I was the most frightened one in our group. There were other men, raised in these mountains, who were nonetheless terrified to cross other, easier stretches where I had not been afraid at all. When we got across the narrow stretch, we found ourselves on a broad, tree-covered slope with lots of natural caves and tunnels. It was the perfect place to put up a defence, for even if 2,000 soldiers had attacked us, they would not have achieved anything, just wasted a lot of ammunition. It was here that I fell ill, but thank God, Asllan and Zeman took care of me like a mother for her child. Poor Abdyl Mersini went down to Kardhiq to get some dry beans for me to eat. A wonder then occurred. I recovered as soon as I ate the beans. We spent three days there and it rained all the time. We thought it better to carry on in two separate groups. We could not impose on families to spend the night because there were too many of us. We also thought it would be safer to split up. We agreed to cross the forests and the alpine pastures and meet again in Çajup to make further plans. I learned that the army had set out in pursuit of us but, after much futile searching, had returned to Gjirokastra. With great emotion we separated. Çerçiz went with a group of six men, and Abdyl with three. We shook hands one last time and said farewell, praying to God that he protect us and bring us back together as soon as possible. Çerçiz and my group hiked down to Mashkullora to take Zeman home and, what is more, to get some tobacco because we did not have any more cigarettes. We spent two hours there and were about to leave at dusk, but it was windy and rainy out and Mërte, Zeman’s father, promised us that there would be no danger if we spent the night there. So we stayed. The Battle of Mashkullora I should not really have taken part in the Battle of Mashkullora because I do not have the capacity to describe and record what happened. The quill of a real historian would have been needed, the pen of a true master, a specialist in military history and keen observer, for only such men can describe the truth. Only such men could have described and recorded the details of the battle which would fill a whole book. Only with such works can future generations understand what took place and know about the men who fulfilled their duties in battle towards their homeland so that their children could grow up in freedom and see the sacred flag of the nation flying over Albania. However, it was my fate to be there and to take part in the battle for freedom. I must therefore ask forgiveness of the reader for I am not able to fulfill the task in all detail. It must be left to others more capable than I to describe and narrate what happened at the Battle of Mashkullora. I will, nonetheless, endeavour, as far as I am able, to summarise the events of this battle that will never be forgotten in the annals of the history of the Albanian national awakening. The heroism shown will be exemplary for future generations and the arms of Albania brought back honour as they did at the time of Scanderbeg. It was Tuesday night, just before dawn on Wednesday, 5 March 1908, that we lay down to sleep, ensured that there was no danger. There was no indication all night that we had been followed. When Çerçiz got up, he looked out the window and said to me: “Mihal, look over there. Are those schoolboys or adults?” I had a look but could not distinguish anything in particular. Çerçiz then had a look with his field glasses and exclaimed: “Men, companions! The army has surrounded us!” All rose terrified and ran to get their bags, coats and weapons. Some had their shoes on, others were barefoot, as we poured out of the hut, jumped over a wall and ran out. From there we could see that we would be in great danger if we went any farther into the open. We therefore took a little path down into a deep ravine, full of cliffs and water. Initially, the army did not notice we were gone because they were focussing their attention on the house. We would have got away entirely, had we not been betrayed by someone who called out and pointed to the path we had taken. The fine young man who betrayed us had gone to Gjirokastra and notified the army that had sent the forces under the command of the officer Nexhadin and another. As we ran down the ravine, we could hear the blaring of the trumpets and soon thereafter, bullets began to whizz over our heads. It was a situation I cannot describe. The sound of the trumpets, that we knew only from times when buildings in town were on fire, terrified us because it had a frightening echo, to make your hair stand on end. It was like the voice of death. At the same time, we were deafened by the whistle of the rifles firing over our heads in endless volleys, but we gave courage to one another and, ducking here and there, it ceased to terrify us. The soldiers hurtled down the steep ravine to block our path and would have killed us all, had not Çerçiz and Asllan, who ran the fastest, managed to find the ruins of a building with only the foundation walls remaining. From there, they opened fire on the soldiers and shot two of them. Their military attack was thus slowed down and we were able to get away. Unfortunately, not all of us reached the building. Haredin Tremishti fell for Albania and for freedom, two steps away from me. An enemy bullet shot him through the head and his soul flew to heaven. I bent over to pick him up and carry him, but his body was lifeless. I had a final look at him. It was as if an angel had come down upon him from heaven. I moaned and raised my eyes to heaven to beg God to accept the soul of Haredin, that courageous, heroic and sage young man who gave his blood and his life for the freedom of Albania. May the annals of our national history record the name of this fallen hero, and may Haredin Tremishti serve as an example for young people, he who fell on the altar of the nation, for the freedom of Albania. When I reached the others, they asked me where Haredin was and were distraught at the news of his death. We are all in tears. But Çerçiz soon recovered from the shock and proclaimed, “Long live Albania. Let us all be killed like Haredin, but let us first, oh comrades, stand in formation and fight courageously.” Çerçiz, Zeman and Myftar led the formation, and Asllani and I took up the sides to defend our band from the enemy. Hito, for his part, was ambushed by the soldiers at a wall surrounding a field and fled on his own. At seven o’clock the firing began, and it was merciless. The army was all around us and was shooting from all sides. There is no need to stress that we were hopelessly outnumbered. There were about 150 soldiers and only about five of us. We also had to make sure that we did not waste any ammunition. Çerçiz was always shouting: “Do not waste a single bullet, comrades!” The hail of enemy fire kept us unmoved, like statues, where we were. We responded with potshots and by singing nationalist songs. I must, once again, ask the reader for forgiveness because I am not able to describe, paint and adorn the events as I should to show off the courage and heroism of our captain, that great and undaunted fighter who was an honour to Albania. Our sacred captain, Çerçiz, was like a dragon in battle. Our national history will record his name with pride. He was a great figure in Albanian history. […] The Anatolian soldiers tried to demoralise us. This is why Çerçiz often stuck his head out above the protective wall to shout at them and tell them we were the descendants of Scanderbeg and would not surrender. We would fight to the end because, according to custom, Albanians preferred to die for the honour of their country. But the soldiers knew what they were doing. The moment Çerçiz stuck his head out, they all took shots at him according to the orders they had received. The last remains of the famed plane tree of Mashkullora (rrapi i Mashkullores) near Gjirokastra, Albania (photo: Robert Elsie, 17 May 2015). — Link: Oral Verse: At the Plane Tree of Mashkullore. Even today I can remember the horror that gripped me when I saw Çerçiz’s forehead covered in blood. He was as pale as a candle. I cried out: “Why did you do that? I told you not to stick your neck out. Why didn’t you listen to me? The Turks are lying and only want to kill you.” I ran to get aid, but Çerçiz simply wiped the blood off his brow and said: “I am not injured, I just got hit by a flying stone.” He got up furiously and shot at the soldier who had taken aim at him, and killed him. Çerçiz was an excellent marksman, one of the best. […] The battle went on until two o’clock in the afternoon when we heard the trumpets blaring again. Eight soldiers had been killed and the sound of the trumpets was a sign for the men to reassemble. We thought they were going to withdraw and were relieved, but the officers reassembled their men to give them new instructions. Soon thereafter, a new attack began to the sound of more trumpets, an attack that was worse than the first. Volleys of fire flew around our heads, like hailstones in a storm. They were so intense that we could not even respond with our rifles. The officers’ plan was for the main body of the troops to keep up the fire, and for a small group, under the protection of the bullets, to approach and force us to surrender or be killed. The plan was well prepared but our Captain Çerçiz with his six-shooter was like a cornered lion. He told us to keep on firing, in any direction, to frighten the soldiers off so that they would not get any nearer. The fighting did not let up until the late afternoon. When they realised that their plan was not getting them anywhere, the firing gradually subsided and they withdrew in small groups, drenched, exhausted and in despair, leaving two more men dead. […] At five  o’clock the mutesarrif (prefect) of Gjirokastra appeared, surrounded by military officials, doctors and pharmacists to provide help to the wounded. Behind them were more military forces and gendarmes to replace the men already there, who were exhausted from the fighting and the rain, with ten of their comrades dead. The exhausted men withdrew to a village without any problem. We could easily have shot and killed the mutesarrif, officials and military men as they were coming in our direction but we did not do so in view of all the suffering. However, one by one and then in little groups, these new men took up position and began to fire at us. We were forced to react with gunfire, even though we shouted and told them not to begin the fight again. Unfortunately they would not listen. The fighting carried on until dusk, and three more men died. This was the end of the Battle of Mashkullora on 5 March 1908. Among the guiltless, poor soldiers who were killed far from their homeland was the fellow who had betrayed us. He was shot in the forehead by Çerçiz for his act of treachery. It was now dark and we could still hear gunfire now and then to keep us where we were until daybreak. This would have meant certain death so we came to the conclusion that we had to get away at all costs, even if we were to be ambushed by the army on our way. Zeman and Asllan who had fought heroically all day long went out first to inspect the terrain. Çerçiz, the wounded Myftar and I followed until we got to the river. So as not to leave any traces of our movements, we waded down the middle of the river, with Myftar being carried by Asllan and Zeman, until we got to a hut, the property of Dino Çiço, that was inhabited by a gypsy family. The gypsy and his wife received us with great relief as they thought we had been killed. Such was the news of us in Gjirokastra. They told us about the number of dead in the battle, at least twice what he had thought, and of the injured. We were able to warm up and were each given a cigarette while the wife made dinner for us. I undressed Myftar and washed his wound with carbolic acid. I then applied iodine and dressing. The wound was not dangerous because the bullet had not gone deep, but he needed treatment by a doctor. We had now recovered from the cold and the table was set. I cannot describe the pleasure of that meal. We had not had anything to eat for thirty hours. The full pot of beans was gobbled up in no time although it was probably the only food that this gypsy family had for themselves and their children for a whole week. It was such a hospitable reception that I will never forget it. I don’t think I have ever enjoyed food more than on that evening. When we were finished, we got up to leave. The poor gypsy gave us a pair of sandals, his own, because we were barefoot, as well as a pouch of tobacco and bread and onions to take with us. [Extracts from: Mihal Grameno, Kryengritja shqiptare (Vlora: G. Direttore, 1925), reprinted in: Mihal Grameno, Vepra, vol. 2 (Prishtina: Rilindja 1979), pp. 115-125, 167-179. Translated from the Albanian by Robert Elsie.]
Robert Elsie Texts and Documents of Albanian History
The Albanian rebel and writer, Mihal Grameno (1871-1931).
The dapper rebel leader, Çerçiz Topulli (1880-1915) of Gjirokastra (left) with Mihal Grameno (right).