The Thief Who Couldn't Sleep Page 20


“I will also make you my brother-in-law. You will marry Annalya. You like her?”

“Todor, what do we do when they send in the tanks?”

“What tanks?”

“They used tanks in Budapest in fifty-six. What can your people do against tanks?”

He thought this over. “What did they do in Budapest?”

“They used Molotov cocktails on them.”

He brightened. “Then we will do the same!”

“It didn’t work in Budapest. The revolt was crushed.”


“The rebels were shot down by the hundreds. The leaders were executed.”

While he tried to think of a reply to this dismal bit of news a man burst in with some information that took the edge off what I had said. Reports were coming in of sympathetic risings throughout Macedonia. Skopje, the provincial capital, was in flames. Kumanovo had gone to the rebels almost without a shot. There were rumors of rebellion in Britolj and Prilep in the south.

Todor rocked me with another bear hug. “You see? It is not one city in arms, like your Budapest. It is a nation taking its place among nations. It is an entire people rising as one man to throw off their chains and capture their freedom. And we shall triumph!”

Annalya and I left him. We ran around town, planning the defense of Tetovo. If it were true that other cities were in arms, we might have a little more time to prepare for the assault from Belgrade. We ranged barricades around the entire town, blocking off every road in and out of it and concentrating the bulk of our defenses across the main road in the north and the smaller roads immediately to either side of it. I was fairly certain the initial assault would come from that direction. If we were properly prepared, we might be able to break even in the first attack.

After that, when the tanks came down and the fighter planes dived overhead, was something I did not want to think about.



“Do we have any chance?”

I looked at her. I decided that she wanted me to lie to her, so I told her that there was a good chance we could win if every man fought as hard as he could.



“Tell me the truth.”

“There is no chance, Annalya.”

“I thought not. We will all be killed?”

“Perhaps. They may not want a massacre. The Russians got a fairly bad press after Hungary. They may just kill the leaders.”

“Like Todor?”

I didn’t answer her.

“It would be horrid if we lost and they spared him.”

“I do not understand.”

She smiled. “My brother wishes to be a hero. He is a hero already. He has fought like a hero and he will fight like a hero again when the troops arrive. It is only fitting that he die like a hero. Do you understand?”


“Where will the worst of the fighting be?”

“In the center.”

“You are certain?”

I nodded. “The other streets are too narrow for heavy traffic. Even if they want to spread out for strategic reasons, the heavy weapons and the mass of men will come right down the center.”

“Then I must be certain that Todor is here,” she said. “In the center. May it please God that he dies before he learns that we are to be defeated.”

I had spotters stationed a mile out on the main road to the north. When the revolution was just a hair under two hours old, they rode back full speed to announce that the troops were on their way. I asked what sort of vehicles were coming, but they had not noticed. In their eagerness to bring the news to us as fast as possible, they had neglected to determine just what sort of troops were headed our way or how many of them we could expect.

The first wave, as it turned out, was an afterthought. Evidently a mass of troops had been dispatched to the capital, and some major had decided it might be a good idea to find out what was happening in Tetovo. They sent four truckloads of infantry and two units of mobile artillery at us, and that wasn’t enough to storm the city. We were properly deployed behind our barricades, we were fairly well armed, and we fought like cornered rats. The government troops threw everything they had at our center, and I told our men on the east and west to move in and engulf them.

We brought it off. The two small cannons never got to do us much damage. A batch of our sharpshooters knocked off the two gun crews before more than four or five rounds had been fired, and the few shells that looped over the barricades at us had little effect. Bottles of flaming gas had the trucks in flames before the men had finished pouring out of them. We suffered casualties-over a dozen dead, almost as many wounded. But we completely destroyed the government forces.

Half an hour later they brought in an attacking force five times the strength of the first, and they rolled right over us.

Chapter 14

Tetovo is one hundred twenty-five kilometers from the Bulgarian border. I crossed the border an hour before dawn in the locked trunk of a small gray two-door sedan that had been imperfectly manufactured in Czechoslovakia in 1959. In the front seat of the car were two IMRO members from Skopje. They crossed the border frequently and anticipated little trouble. The Bulgars, whatever their official position, had always been sympathetic to Macedonian separatism. The driver, a thickset, neckless man with two stainless steel teeth, insisted that our car would get only a cursory check at the border.

The other passenger was not so confident. The revolt, though history by then, would have put everybody on edge, he said, and the border officials would almost certainly insist on opening the trunk. He wanted me to ride beneath the rear seat, but I simply would not fit into that small space. So I wound up sitting in the trunk with a Sten gun across my knees, ready to start firing the minute the trunk opened.

When we stopped, a guard tapped on the trunk experimentally, then tried to open it. The driver gave him the key, but we had broken one of the teeth, and it didn’t work. I heard two of the guards arguing. One insisted that they ought to shoot the lock off or at the very least pop the trunk open with a crowbar. The other, older and evidently more tired, said that he knew the driver, knew there was nothing in the trunk, and was not about to shoot up a man’s car. For a while it looked as though the younger guard would get his way, and my finger was right on the trigger, but finally they sent us on through.

We stopped a few miles from the border. The driver had a spare trunk key in reserve and let me out. I left him the Sten gun. We each had a drink of brandy, and he told me to take the flask along with me. I closed it and tucked it away in my leather satchel.

“You know where to go now, brother?”


“Good. Do not concern yourself for Annalya. She is safe, and we shall see that she is kept safe.”


“And do not blame yourself for what has happened. Is that what you have been thinking? That it was your arrival that began the rising?”


“It would have come regardless. The time was right. Todor knew you brought no help from America. He used you, you see. Your coming was a sign, like a comet in the heavens. It fired the people and put steel in their courage. But there would have been a rising without you, although it would not have been so great a success.”

“A success? We…your people…were butchered.”

“Did you expect us to win?”

“No. Of course not.”

“And did you think we were such fools that we expected victory?”


“The reprisals will not be great. The Belgrade government is not that stupid. There will be concessions to us: perhaps a bit more autonomy, the removal of some of the more objectionable Serb ministers in Macedonia. That is one gain. And the other good result is just that action has been taken, that men have stood up and fought and died. A movement feeds on its own blood. Without nourishment it withers and dies. This has been a night of triumph, brother. We fought bravely, and you fought bravely with us. You are safe in Bulgaria?”


“You know the country?”

“I can get around well enough.”

“Good. You are sure you do not wish the Sten gun?”

“It might be hard to explain if I get arrested.”

“True. But handy in a corner, no? God protect you, brother. It was a good fight.”

“It was.”

I went eastward on foot, walking toward the emerging sun. The night had been very cold, but the morning was warm in the sunlight, the air very clean and fresh. The hillside was green, but a deeper and much darker green than the fields of Ireland. I was in no hurry and had no special fear of being noticed. My clothes were the same peasant gear worn by the men I saw working in their fields or walking along the road. I knew that they wanted me in Yugoslavia-the last moments in Tetovo, when Annalya and I had huddled together in the storm cellar waiting for a car to spirit us out of town, the army loud-speakers kept demanding that the villagers turn in the American spy. The Yugoslavs wanted me, and by now they might have a fair idea I had gone to Bulgaria, but I couldn’t honestly believe they were on my trail. And the morning was too beautiful and the countryside too calming for me to be worried.

It was already growing difficult to believe that the revolution had really happened, that I had been in it and of it. For years I had read avidly of rebellions and coups and risings, of barricades in the streets and gunfire from the rooftops and homemade bombs and savagery and heroism and gutters awash with blood. I read contemporary accounts. I caught the flavor of what happened and what it was like. But it had always been something of which one read.

A girl I once knew took a trip to California and stopped to look at the Grand Canyon. Telling me of it, she said, “My God, Evan, you wouldn’t believe it, it looks just like a movie.” That, perhaps, is our framework of reference in today’s world, our touch point for reality. Life is most lifelike when it best imitates art. The rising in Tetovo had been like a book or a movie, and already it was beginning to feel like something I had read or something I had watched upon a screen. Before that night I had fired guns only in the shooting gallery on Times Square. Now I had shot men and watched my bullets strike them and seen them die. There had, wondrously, been no sense of wonder at the time. And now I could barely believe what had occurred.

The major government assault on Tetovo had crushed our main force of defense and left Todor and a few dozen others dead at the onset. Then there was a stretch of time lost to memory, a confused and hectic bit of fearful scurrying. It never occurred to me to attempt to escape-not, I think, because of a profound emotional commitment to our now-lost cause, but because I was too involved in the mechanics of the fighting, the regrouping of forces, the gunplay, the few pitiful defensive tactics of which we were still capable. It was Annalya who decided that I had to escape and who dragged me away from the fighting, brought me and my leather satchel to relative safety in the cellar, and finally got us a ride south and east of Tetovo.

“You wanted to make sure your brother was killed,” I said. “Why are you making sure that I get away?”

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