Graphic Description of the Exodus From Serbia of the Serbian Settlement in Corsica
With the Serbians in Corsica
Graphic Description of the Exodus From Serbia of the Serbian Settlement in Corsica
SAVE for one event of historic importance —the birth of Napoleon — the Island of Corsica has been little more than a name to the majority of travellers; but the town of Ajaccio and two inland villages in its neighborhood have lately become the scene of a most interesting experiment in war relief, and, more important, a centre of Serbian homes and Serbian national life, till the refugees are able to return to their own country. Kathleen Royds, in The Contemporary, tells the story in part thus: —
It was in the autumn of 1915 that a number of English workers, sent out by various societies to help Serbians, found themselves stranded in Salónica. Those who had been destined for hospitals in Serbia—mainly Scottish Women’s Hospital workers—had arrived just as the line to their various destinations was cut by the enemy. There was nothing for them to do but await developments, with the prospect of a return to England if the enemy advance continued. As all the world knows, it did continue, and step by step the Serbian army retreated before its onslaught until the whole of the country was in enemy hands, and it became clear that no work would be possible in the country itself. But the opportunity to give aid came in an unexpected way. As "the Serbians fled before the German advance they divided into two main streams. One of these, travelling chiefly on foot, went with the retreating army through Albania. The other group, chiefly Southern Serbs and Macedonians, who from their position had longer warning, fled to the uncut portion of the line to the south. In the early weeks of December these began to arrive in Salónica. During that month Salónica station yard witnessed the strangest of strange sights. From the night trains the refugees poured. They filled the cafes round, sitting or lying at full length on benches, tables, and floor —men, women, and children huddled together. They overflowed from the cafes out into the square, and there, unwilling to leave, and unable to remove their baggage, they camped in the wintry rain and slush and waited for the dawn. A family's bundles, rolled up in brightly colored Serbian rugs and carpets, were pitched in circles, arranged as beds, and then and there put to use. Boxes of all shapes and sizes, bedsteads, perambulators, stoves—things, it seemed, seized at random at the moment of flight—littered the ground. The weirdness of the scene was enhanced by the light from the camp fires, round which sat soldiers even then singing Serbian songs, while others lay anywhere about the square, wrapped in a
blanket, and slept. The passer-by had to go warily to avoid treading on weary, prostrate forms. Here and there a few Macedonian peasants, with oxen and a wagon, formed a little group by themselves. They had “trekked” all the way with what possessions they could load behind the halfstarved cattle.
As might have been expected, a good many of the arrivals in the camp were in need of medical attention. Sore feet, high temperatures, exhaustion, became more common as people came in who had travelled on foot a great part of the journey. A hospital tent was therefore started under the direction of a lady doctor who was waiting without work in Salónica, and regular visiting was carried on throughout the camp. Presently sanitary arrangements were completed and baths set going, so that it became possible to do a good deal to ameliorate the condition of the occupants. From its nature, however, the camp could not be a permanent solution of the refugee problem. Salónica already promised to become not the safest of places, and in any case it was not likely that the military authorities would be content to allow some thousands of refugees to stay within its walls. Various proposals were considered and finally an offer of accommodation made by the French Government was accepted, and it was decided to take the refugees to Corsica.
The generous offer of the French Government included that of free transport to Ajaccio. It was on liners deflected from Atlantic service, converted into transports for troops on the way to Salónica, that the exiles were taken to their destination, through the months of December, 1915, and January, 1916. From 400 to 800 passengers were generally sent on each ship, and for each of these a passport with a photograph had to be prepared.
It was on Christmas Eve that the first boatload of expectant travellers sailed into the hill-encircled Gulf of Ajaccio. Owing to necessary formalities the disembarking was delayed until Christmas Day, the whole of which it occupied. The French had ready as shelters three large establishments, formerly a barracks, an agricultural college, and a convent respectively. A certain number of the refugees were taken into these, and the remainder were placed temporarily by the Serbian Relief Fund into all the available hotel space in the town. All day cabs and carts drove to and fro. to and fro, through the streets between docks and hotels, packed with refugees and luggage—a seemingly endless stream. It must have been the strangest of Christmas days to the Ajaccio people, curious to the finger-tips over the friendly invasion from a foreign land. Those who knew the history of their beautiful island perhaps went back in imagination to that earlier invasion of Greeks whose descendants have become Corsican. The Serbs have one and all the firm resolve to return to Serbia at the first possible opportunity, but one wonders, if the war continues longer than our fears anticipate, whether there will be
any absorption into the Corsican nation, and what traces will be left of their peaceful, occupation in 200 years. Already in the shops notices are seen here and there in Serbian, and certain words such as “nema,” “there is none,” and “sutra,” “to-morrow,” are common usage. Amid the babel of tongues one’s own speech becomes polyglot and grammar goes to the winds as long as one can make oneself understood!
On the relief side, the most obvious necessity at the beginning was to lessen the congestion in the Prefecture Houses by removing first those on whom such a communal life was inflicting the greatest hardships. Two methods were immediately adopted. Rooms were rented in the town for separate families, who were provided with absolute essentials immediately, and in one case a hotel (emptied by the war), in another a large villa, was taken by the S.R.F. In these, families were placed with a common kitchen and dining hall. A continuation and extension of this method has been found on the whole the best way of helping the refugees in Ajaccio. As soon as the Serbs began to receive a daily “allocation” for living expenses from the French Government they paid to the Mission some portion of what they cost. Later, when Governmental salaries were adjusted, the payments were fixed according to a scale, with a maximum and a minimum limit. Serb servants do the general work of the houses, and for this it has been found possible to employ several reformes, able to do a little, and pleased not to feel entirely useless though they could not volunteer for heavy work. The Serbs look after their own rooms and two of the women each week help in the kitchen, while an English worker supervises generally. Four of these Hostels are now opened, the last being specially intended for offering hospitality and rest to convalescents who have been invalided to Corsica from workshop, school and college in France.
There is a small but steady stream of these arrivals in Ajaccio, nearly all young men. and nearly all suffering from consumption in some form. Many of them passed through the island with the bands of students in the early days of the work. In too many cases they return already past hope. Those who have only been attacked by the disease in its early stages spend what time is necessary in the Isolation Hospital and then pass on to the special Hostel. Here they live a healthy open-air life, with good food, sunbaths and suitable exercise, and only return to work and studies when completely cured. These youths are the hope of Serbia; disease has already terribly thinned the ranks of those who have never been in the army. To save the remainder is to do a work of the utmost benefit for the nation—while for those who come here to die, the kindly sympathy and attention which surround them for the last few months of their life are surely not gifts given in vain.
Excellent as the Hostels have proved in Ajaccio, the most important and interesting part of the housing scheme has been the development of Serbian colonies a little way inland. In two villages, under hills snowcapped most of the year amid scenery not unlike the most beautiful parts of Serbia, rooms have been taken in numerous cottages. In these chiefly families, small groups of single women, and occasionally single men have been established. Two or three S.R.F. workers stay in each centre, supplying necessities in the way of furniture and a certain definite amount of relief, and looking after the general welfare of the colony. The homely life of a village community is thus open to the refugees, and the centres have acquired quite a Serbian atmosphere. In the village street Serbian weavers may often be seen at work setting up their looms; the children go to the school, where they have their own master for lessons in Serbian in the mornings, and French in the afternoons. Besides this a Kindergarten has been started for the babies in each village, and Serbian girls who have been given a short training are in charge under the S.R.F. helper. The Serbian children are
particularly charming; they have the most natural and taking manners and are delightfully spontaneous; it is a real pleasure to go into the Kindergartens and hear them
sing and recite, or see them at their games. Otiler features in the villages are reading rooms open for general use and seldom empty, and churches with Serbian priests.
The Serbian woman is at her happiest at the loom, and practically every Serbian woman can weave. The peasant at home makes all the garments for her family, and adorns her walls with many-colored carpets of her own weaving. Over the various processes— combing, washing, spinning and dyeing—the national songs are sung, and are handed on from generation to generation. The garments are picturesque to the highest degree. Characteristic are the gaily-striped stuff aprons worn by the women, and the long woven girdles carried by the men, wound several times tightly round the body. It will be a thousand pities if contact with Western Europe kills this home industry or largely modifies the national costume, and an incidental use of the workrooms is to keep alive the women’s interest in their national products and to maintain their skill.
Besides the workrooms for women, there is a workshop for carpenters, and from time to time a number of men have been employed making the picturesque peasant shoe, the “opanka.” A market garden also has been most successfully developed in one of the colonies, and has* been able for some months of the year to keep the Hostels supplied with vegetables.
Most fortunately the Serbs have a keen sense of humor and this often acts as a solvent where all else would fail; they bear few grudges for real or imagined injuries, and they have an astonishing power of enjoying the present. The light-hearted way in which, in the midst of all their troubles and anxieties, they can enter into the celebration of their national fete-days, for example, is little short of marvellous. To see them dancing the Serbian “kolo” is to forget that they have a care in the world. Yet talk to them and you discover at once the strain of Slav melancholy, accentuated by circumstance—a fatalism whose keynote is resignation, whether it is thrown off with a iest or accepted with inevitable submission. While on the other hand it is weakness, from another point of view it is this passivity which is the strength of their endurance.
In contemplating the story of how any one of these refugees came to Corsica and of their life in the island, one feels that in these days it is not true that “romance died the day before yesterday.” Contact with them brings home more than any statistics how the stuff for tragedy is woven by war out of the lives of the humblest individuals. One is in a perpetual state of wonder that people can lose so much and recover so rapidly. Here is life stripped of the unessentials—hitherto regarded as essentials— and to meet the need springs eternal the hope which enables even the older men and women to face the prospect of beginning to build up their lives again when the day of peace dawns and brings with it the day of return.
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