The following letter reached the Daily News office without date.
A two hours' drive from Philippopolis over a very fair road that led through the rich and fertile valley of the Maritza, brought us to what had formerly been the village of Perustitza. This village was attacked and burnt by the Bashi-Bazouks led by one Achmet-Aga, who must not be confounded with another Achmet-Aga, still more infamous, who destroyed Batak. It was a prettily-situated little place, built, as it was, on a low hill that dominated the valley of the Maritza, and enabled its inhabitants to command a view over the rich and luxuriant valley, miles in extent. It was, however, like so many other places that we have seen, in ruins, not one house remaining standing. We found about a thousand people, of whom the greater part were women and children, who were living in the nooks and corners of the walls, where they had constructed temporary sheds of straw capable of sheltering them from the sun, but not from the rain. Their present means of existence were principally the new harvest, which they were gathering slowly and painfully, without the aid of their cattle, which had been driven off by their Turkish neighbours, and partly some assistance that was given them by the Governor of Philippopolis. This is the only case we have heard of where the Turkish authorities have given any assistance whatever to the burnt villages. The cattle of the people here were all in the village of Ustuna, not more than three miles distant. They had been there in the possession of the Turks ever since the middle of May. Not a single head had been restored to the owners, and yet the kind, plausible, earnest, conscientious Mutle-Serif of Philippopolis, with whom we were to dine that night, had assured us only the day before that the cattle had been restored to their proper owners, that the houses were being rebuilt, and help distributed to the needy.
Nobody can understand the cool, plausible, conscientious way in which a Turk can lie until he has seen what I have seen during this trip through Bulgaria. I have travelled a good deal, and seen something of the world; but I am willing to confess that until I came here I had no idea of the extent to which human duplicity could be carried. The honest, straight-forward way in which these people will lie to you is simply past belief, and will impose upon the most incredulous and sceptical mind. There is an honesty, an earnestness, a seriousness in the tones of the voice, an evident knowledge of the necessities of the situation, which carries conviction with it, and convinces you that they see and know and feel about it exactly as you do. The right is so evident to their mind as well as yours, that it is impossible they should go wrong : and it is not until you see with your own eyes that they have been coolly, deliberately, and with premeditation, lying to you in the most shameless manner, that you begin to fathom the depths of their duplicity. There are cases like the present, in which one finds out the truth; but generally you have no means of verifying what has been said to you, and of necessity you are obliged to believe. It requires a special habit and training of mind to be able to disbelieve every word which is said to you ; a habit of mind which Europeans as a rule have not got, which they cannot get, unless brought up in it from infancy, and which is rarely obtained in Europe. This is why Europeans are continually deceived and overreached in their dealings with Orientals. The reader will say, perhaps, that I, the writer of these lines, seem to have learnt it pretty well already. Not at all. I know that the Mutle-Serif of Philippopolis, or any other Turk, can make me believe any number of lies, unless I have ready to hand the means of disproving them. I feel I am a perfect child in their hands. I could no more have doubted Kiana Pacha and Edib Effendi when they said there was nobody killed at Batak than I could have doubted that the sun would rise to-morrow, had I not been to Batak and seen 6,000 or 7,000 bodies lying there. So far from returning the cattle to the destitute villagers, the Turks of Ustuna, hearing that we had been to Perustitza, and fearing we might make urgent representations on the subject, drove them all off to another part of the country, and sold them.
The troubles seem to have arisen here as follows ; and I will only preface the relation of what occurred with the remark that the same atrocities and horrors, the same scenes of pillage, violence, and massacre occurred here as elsewhere. If I do not dwell upon them more in detail it is because I think I have already given the reader a sufficiently clear idea of what the pillage of a village and the massacre of its inhabitants really means, and it is useless to go on repeating these harrowing stories to infinitude. Perustitza was a place of 350 houses and from 2,000 to 2,500 inhabitants. It was nearly the only village where any real resistance was offered, the Bashi-Bazouks, and the people here defended themselves with far more vigour unprepared as they were, than did the inhabitants of Otluk-kui, who had gone to the trouble of making fortifications. But, in spite of the assertions of the Turks, I do not think that Mr. Schuyler has obtained any evidence to show that there was anything like a real insurrection here. All that can be made of the mass of conflicting evidence is that the country was in a state of great agitation and excitement owing to the circulation of rumours about the intended declaration of war by Servia; that the Christians and Mussulmans were about equally afraid of each other, and that the former especially were in a state of panic, only too well justified by subsequent events. The inhabitants of Perustitza deny that there was any insurgent committee in the village, or that any insurrection was organized here. The only proof the Turks offer of the contrary, was that many of the people had buried their valuable effects early in the spring, and had planted their crops over them so as to effectually hide them, thus giving evidence that they knew an insurrection was preparing weeks before it actually broke out. This is simply no proof at all. These Bulgarians are so accustomed to lawless acts of violence, to spoliation and robbery by Turkish officials, as by thieves and brigands, that they always keep whatever little money they may have put by buried in the ground, and upon the slightest alarm they bury everything valuable that they have no immediate use for and that will not spoil by being put in the earth. This fact is rather an evidence of Turkish misrule than of anything else, and only shows the general state of insecurity in which people live here. The people who live north of the Balkans, and who cross the mountains every year, and go south to help to get in the harvest, always bury their valuables before starting ; and when the war broke out last year in Bosnia and Herzegovina, the whole population of Bulgaria buried their money, jewels, and other valuables immediately, to be ready for the worst. A custom which is really an evidence of Turkish misrule, and nothing more, is impudently offered by the Turks as an exceptional thing, and as evidence of a regularly organized revolt.
The people assert, and I have no reason to doubt their word, that until they heard of the massacres in other places, and saw from the hills above the town, the fires of other burning villages, there was no thought of insurrection or even of defence. When however, they saw these sinister tokens they immediately sent one of their head men to Philippopolis to the Governor, Aziz Pacha, to ask that some regular troops might be sent to protect them. To the first application they received no answer; and the next day they sent the same man back again to demand protection. This is not denied even by the Turks. The only difference in the story as told by the Turks and Bulgarians is, that the former say that Aziz Pacha promised them protection, while the Bulgarians assert, in the most emphatic manner, that he wrote them a letter which was read to all the men of the village assembled together, telling them that he had no troops to send them, and that if they were attacked they must defend themselves. But he advised them to remain quietly at home, not leave the village for a few days, and allow nobody from any other village to come there. They all maintain so stoutly that such a letter was written them by Aziz Pacha that I cannot doubt it. We could not find the letter, because the man who had brought it—the same who had gone to ask for protection— had been arrested upon returning to Philippopolis a third time upon the same mission, and thrown into prison. He told us one of the head men of the place had possession of the letter when arrested, and the Turks had of course seized it. In the meantime, between the second and third appeals for help, Aziz Pacha sent two zaptiehs, or rural policemen. These zaptiehs, however, only remained a few hours, at the end of which time they said they would go to Ustuna and see what was going on there, borrowed two horses, went off, and never came back. Then there arrived two Bashi-Bazouks, with a message from Achmet-Aga, the chief of the Bashi-Bazouks, saying he was coming with 200 or 300 Bashi-Bazouks to protect them, as he had heard they had asked for protection. They, however, did not relish the protection of the Bashi-Bazouks, and told the two emissaries that they did not want to be protected, and that they were going to protect themselves. The two Bashi-Bazouks insisted, however, that Achmet-Aga should come and protect them and refused to take back the message. Whereupon there was an altercation, in the course of which the two Turks were seized and killed. These facts were related to me by an Armenian woman, whose husband kept a kind of cafe in the place, and in whose house the interview with the Turks took place. The Armenians and Jews, I may remark, are the only people here who may be considered really impartial, as they are neither Turk nor Bulgarian in language or religion, and both parties treat them as friends. She said there was evidently no ill-feeling towards the two Turks when they arrived, as the Bulgarians had given them coffee in her house.
As Mr. Baring talked to this woman, I presume he will have obtained the facts from her very much as I give them.
There was not, so far as we can learn, any sufficient reason for killing these two Turks. It is true that they were Bashi-Bazouks, and that several villages had already been burnt by the Bashi-Bazouks, that they had come with what could only be regarded as a threatening message, but this was no excuse for killing them. It has been impossible to learn under exactly what circumstances they were killed, as it was not done in the village, and we do not know whether it occurred in a fight, or whether it was done in cold blood. What seems probable, however, is that they were asked to deliver up their arms, that they refused, and that they were then fired upon and killed. The villagers appeared to think they were simply carrying out the instructions of Aziz Pacha, who told them to allow nobody to come to their village ; for it was after killing these two Bashi-Bazouks that they sent the third message to him asking for his protection, and informing him what they had done. But the Turks say that the messenger only delivered a part of the message, and said nothing about the killing of the two Bashi-Bazouks, and this is why he was arrested a day or two later, when the truth was known, for he had remained in Philippopolis and never returned to the village. Be that as it may, there is no doubt that the villagers sent the message, for they made no secret of killing the two Bashi-Bazouks, and do not now. In the meantime the villagers, having received no answer to their third appeal for protection, and justly fearing the vengeance of the Bashi-Bazouks, of whose ravages in other villages they were receiving daily reports, began to prepare for defence. Some of them, however, decided to fly to Philippopolis and the other villages, and did so, leaving all their property behind. The rest determined to defend themselves to the last. They collected provisions for several days in one of the churches on a little eminence overlooking the town, a place very well suited for defence, as it was in a commanding position and surrounded by a good heavy stone wall. They made loopholes in this wall, put several barrels of water in the church, and made ready for a siege. It will be observed that they never went out of their own village, nor made the slightest attempt to molest their Mussulman neighbours. Finally, on Tuesday morning, the 29th of April (old style), corresponding to our May 11th, the day before the massacre of Batak, the Bashi-Bazouks were reported to be coming from the direction of Ustuna. Everybody—women and children as well as men—immediately abandoned their houses and took refuge in the church. But some, whose courage failed them at the last moment, determined to go out and surrender. They did so, and after having given up their arms, were massacred. This did not, however, entourage the others to follow their example, and they resolved all the more sternly to resist to the last.
Among those who went out of the village at this time was a Frenchman, engaged in some commercial enterprise in Philippopolis, who, hearing of the troubles, had come home the day before in search of another Frenchman, a comrade who had been absent some days, and to whom he was afraid something had happened. He went with a number of the villagers to meet the Bashi-Bazouks, was received by Achmet-Aga, to whom he explained his business, as he spoke Turkish very well, at the same time telling him he was a Frenchman. There was in fact no need of an explanation, as be was well known all over the country. He was retained a prisoner for a while, and then killed, probably because they thought he had money about him. The comrade he was in search of had been already seized and killed before. The French Consul, having established the facts, has made a complaint, and the French Government has probably by this time made a demand for the payment of an indemnity to the families of the two men. This is an important fact bearing upon the affair of Perustitza, which cannot be overlooked, for it shows the murderous spirit which actuated the Bashi-Bazouks. Many of the people who had not sufficient confidence in the goodness of the Turks to go and surrender, and who nevertheless were not disposed to take their chances in the church, fled to the fields, and were pursued by the Bashi-Bazouks and killed wherever overtaken. Having thus terminated their connection with the people who fell into their hands, they proceeded to pillage the abandoned houses, to which they afterwards applied the match. They did not make any direct attack upon the church, further than firing upon it from a safe distance. They were brave enough when it was a question of fighting women and children, but as soon as they found armed men before them they were by no means so anxious to try their sabres.
During Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday they amused and enriched themselves by pillaging and burning the villages, occasionally firing at the people in the church at long range, while the poor villagers remained in the churchyard all this time and watched their burning houses with despairing eyes. They could do nothing. There does not seem to have been more than two hundred of them armed, while the Bashi-Bazouks numbered a thousand. I have talked with an Armenian girl, the daughter of the woman above referred to, who remained in the church throughout the siege. The story she tells is a most curious and interesting one. Her father and mother being Armenians thought they could risk leaving the village, and went to meet the Bashi-Bazouks with the others who went out to surrender. Their nationality and their poverty saved them, for they were not harmed. But they had not chosen to take their daughter with them, because, as she said, they feared she would be outraged if she fell into the hands of the Bashi-Bazouks, and they preferred to leave her behind with the people in the church, to take her chance of life and death in the impending fight. She says the women and children were all put in the church, which was as full as it would hold, and that the men remained outside the churchyard, sheltered behind the wall, watching the movements of the enemy, and occasionally firing through the loopholes when the occasion offered. She said the men showed themselves very cool and brave at this time, and did not seem to be in the least afraid of being able to make good their defence against the Bashi-Bazouks. There was nobody in particular who seemed to command them, or who appeared to direct the operations, but they gave out rations, posted sentries at night, and kept up a very bold front from Tuesday until Thursday. She relates a most curious fact with regard to the girls of the village. It was decided as soon as the people had assembled in the church, that all the girls over ten should be dressed in boys' clothes, so that in case the worst came to the worst they might have a better chance of escaping the brutality of the Bashi-Bazouks. Nearly all the young girls put on a suit of their brothers' clothing, cut off their long hair, and did their best to make-up as boys. She says they offered her a suit, but she was ashamed to put it on, and had gone through the siege in her own apparel. She says that these girls showed themselves very brave, and that many of them would have been glad to handle a gun had there been any for them. But even the men were not all armed, and there were, of course, no weapons to spare for the women.
The reader will have much satisfaction in learning that such of these brave girls as escaped death during the siege likewise escaped outrage. Many of them were killed, as wherever they showed themselves they were taken for men and ruthlessly fired upon, but those who remained alive escaped dishonour, and among the crowd of three or four hundred people who gathered around us when we arrived in the village I saw many a bright pair of eyes that met our gaze as proudly and saucily as ever, in spite of the missing tresses. Many women were outraged here as elsewhere, but they were principally those who had given themselves up in the beginning, or had tried to escape into the fields on the approach of the Bashi-Bazouks. The Armenian girl describes the nights passed in the church here as something fearful. The continued alarm, the apprehensions of a night attack, the crying of children, the weeping and mourning of the women watching their burning homes and dreading what was yet to come, the firing and shouting, the crackling flames that lit up the night and rolled off great volumes of smoke which hung over them, and threw back the glare from on high, so that the people in the church could see to read their prayers, made up a scene of terror which, told in the energetic, interjectional, excited language of this peasant girl, was full of a thrilling interest. They were so closely packed that it was impossible for them to lie down, and those who slept did so sitting or standing. Indeed there was little inclination to sleep except among the children, the excitement and terror were too great. This continued until Thursday afternoon. Then there came a change; Achmet-Aga, who commanded the Bashi-Bazouks, had sent to Philippopolis to say that the village had risen in revolt, and that he was attacking it. These people would not come quietly out, deliver up their arms and be slaughtered as they had done at Batak. They were therefore insurgents, and must be dealt with accordingly. The fact is that this was a revolt of the Bashi-Bazouks, and not of the Christians, and in any other country in the world but Turkey it would have been regarded as such. Aziz Pacha, who was so friendly to the Bulgarians that he has since been removed, and who had paid no heed to the repeated demands of the people for protection, now that they were attacked as they had foreseen they would be, instead of going to protect them, inarched against them at the head of regular troops and a battery of artillery.
He arrived at the village on Thursday afternoon, and without summoning the place to surrender, opened a bombardment. The first intimation the people had of his presence was the roar of his cannon. I know the Turks assert that he sent a summons to them to surrender before opening fire. This, however, the villagers deny stoutly; and as the Turks themselves admit that the village had sent to Aziz Pacha three times demanding his protection, it does not seem probable; it is altogether past belief to suppose that they would have refused to surrender when he arrived at the head of regular troops. I know that Mr. Guarracino tried hard to get evidence to show that Aziz Pacha sent them a summons to surrender, and to show that they refused. I am convinced that he will have obtained no trustworthy evidence to confirm these assertions, because the facts that are acknowledged by the Turks themselves are against it. These facts are—first, that as soon as the artillery opened upon them the men, who up to that time had maintained a bold front, became panic-stricken and did not offer afterwards the slightest resistance. They immediately abandoned this church, which they had stored with provisions and prepared for defence, which was in an excellent position for defence, and all—men, women, and children—fled.
This one would think sufficient evidence for Mr. Guarracino that there was no resistance offered to the regular troops; but he tried hard to obtain proof that they resisted even after this. They took refuge in another church which was down in a little hollow on the other side of the village. No defence was possible in this church. We all went together—for it happened that Mr. Baring and Mr. Schuyler went to Perustitza the same day —and examined this church; indeed, the investigation was carried on for the most part in the churchyard. It was dominated on all sides by the rising ground around it at easy musket range. The churchyard was surrounded by a wall ten feet high, which indeed offered a shelter, but over which it was impossible for anybody inside to fire. No loopholes had been made in this wall; no scaffolding had been erected inside to enable the people to fire over it. The church was equally incapable of defence. There were only two windows from which shots might have been fired. These were two round windows high up on the gable ends of the building, which was like all the Bulgarian churches, very low, with the floor sunk below the ground. We could not learn that any scaffolding had been constructed up to these windows to enable people to fire from them. It does not appear that there was a single shot fired from this church. The very fact that the people left a place like the other, capable of defence, and came and took refuge in a slaughter-pen like this, is sufficient evidence to show that they had abandoned the idea of resistance. Mr. Guarracino did not think so. He tried to get the people to say that Aziz Pacha had sent them a summons to surrender; that they had fired on the bearer of the summons, and continued the fight; and when they refused to admit this, he bullied and browbeat them, called them insurgents, and told them they had brought it on themselves. In addition to this, there was the evidence of the Armenian girl, who said that the majority of the men escaped over the walls the next night after coming here, and fled into the country, leaving only about fifty or sixty men in the place, with the women and children—very good proof that no defence was intended against the regular troops, and none really offered.
Now, what did Aziz Pacha do when the people fled here for shelter from his artillery ? There is no evidence to show that he sent them a summons to surrender even then, for if he had done so they would have surrendered. He simply changed the position of his artillery, and on Friday morning opened upon this church as he had done on the other. When we were there the ground of the churchyard was ploughed up with shells, and there were marks where the shells had struck all over the walls of the church. The Armenian girl said that here, as before, the women and children were put in the church, and that it was packed so full that they could not lie down nor even sit. She said that three shells came into the church through the round windows in the gable ends and exploded among this packed mass of women and children. We ourselves saw the marks of two shells within a foot of one of these, windows, showing that it had been the target aimed at. The people of the village said that five had come in, two at one end and three at the other. It may be that this girl was fainting when the two others came in, and that she did not know it, or it may be that only three really came in. But three are enough. Those who have seen it know the effect of a shell exploding in the open air among armed, stern-faced men, who, carried away by the excitement of battle, scarcely heed it. But the effect of a shell coming in through one of these high gable windows, with its terrific thunder, and exploding among this mass of shrieking women and children—there were only women and children in the church—is beyond the power of imagination to conceive.
It is difficult to find out how the siege ended, or to get anything like a clear account of what took place on Saturday morning. The villagers say that all day Friday the Turks were around the place, and that everybody who showed himself at the gate was immediately cut down by the Bashi-Bazouks, who were waiting and watching outside, without daring to enter—for they are not brave, these Bashi-Bazouks. They do not care to attack people until they have, by fair promises, obtained their arms, and they simply stayed outside and waited for the people to come out one by one. On Saturday morning, however, it seems they were withdrawn, and replaced by regular troops.
The Armenian girl says that on Saturday morning she looked out of the church and saw the gate of the churchyard slightly open, with a soldier standing before it. She immediately ran out to him and begged him not to kill her. He told her not to be afraid, and to call to the others to come out, and that they would not be harmed. This she did, and they all followed her out, altogether about two hundred and fifty or three hundred people, principally women and children. They were conducted before Aziz Pacha, who was really only waiting to receive them with open arms. He praised the Armenian girl for having taken the lead and indticed the others to follow, and he told them it was all their own perversity that they had not come out and surrendered sooner. He had only been waiting for this step on their part to raise the siege and stop the bombardment. He was astonished at the stubbornness of these women and children, who would insist upon being bombarded and shelled in this way, when all they had to do was to come out and throw themselves upon his mercy. Really, the perversity of some people is beyond all calculation. It does not appear that anybody was killed after this surrender, and the Armenian girl says that none of the women who surrendered at this time were maltreated or violated. This is probably the reason why the Turks demanded the removal of Aziz Pacha, as being too friendly to the Bulgarians, and made such efforts against him that they finally obtained his recall. As to the number of people killed here it is very difficult to form an estimate. There are no trustworthy census statistics. Each village makes up its own returns ; they always understate the population, the number of houses, and families, in order to avoid increasing taxes, so that it is almost impossible to ascertain the exact population of any place before the massacres. The returns for this village, as I have already stated, showed the number of houses to have been three hundred and fifty, which at the very moderate calculation of six to the house would give a population of over two thousand. It would probably be found to have been somewhere between that and twenty-five hundred. The people estimate the number of those remaining at one thousand, which would show that between one thousand and fifteen hundred people had been killed here. Mr. Baring and Mr. Schuyler both, I believe, put it at a thousand.