In the Eagle’s Heights
We, the generation that has ruined so much, and that has left to its descendants far less than it had received from his ancestors, have only began to clear the weeds and wild grass and catalogue the cemeteries of heroes whose exploits we rest. And there, at 2,521 meters above sea level and above the world, makes your heart stop. From somewhere, the words thunder: ”To all commanders, leaders and soldiers: the fate of the Fatherland depends on the speed of your penetration! You must penetrate boldly, without rest, to the very limits of human and horse power. To death, do not stop! With unwavering faith and hope, heroes, go ahead to the Fatherland!”

Text and photo: Matija Vojinović, Milutin Stančić

From Poreč to Prilep, over a hill, then down into the valley of Pelagonia. As a stamping of alien marks, as tacit symbolic violence, in the abandoned villages of the central parts of present-day Macedonia, all over there are traces of the Islamic marking of their conquered areas. New concrete fences as bunkers, more mosques than believers. The old monument on the left: the head lowered, one does not know where to look. The true image of present day Slavic Macedonia.
We travel with a group of experts engaged to have an insight into the true state of Serbian military memorials and cemeteries from World War One in these regions – from the time when here, in what was then Southern Serbia, exactly one hundred years, the Thessaloniki front was broken, resolving what was then the largest armed conflict in the history of the world. This small team is led by architect Aleksa Ciganović and historian Nenad Lajbenšpreger from the State Institute for the Protection of Cultural Monuments in Belgrade.
Bypassing Prilep, we arrive in Bitola. The old house of the former Serbian consulate looks sad We spent the night, and at dawn we head towards the mountain Nidže, to visit Serbian memorial chapel and ossuary at Kajmakchalan, the highest peak, as well as other marks, at the foot of the mountain range, along the Mariovo, next to the Black River, along the bloodiest line of the former Thessaloniki front. Towards the Gate of freedom.
Tome Apostolic drives us in his SUV. An experienced hunter and wise farmer, with great knowledge of the paths and trails on the high mountain. With us is Rade Knežević from the hiking society ”Kopaonik” from Leposavić, a frequent visitor Kajmakchalan and a hard working benefactor.
The country road if furrowed and damaged, almost non-existent. Every year it is harder and more dangerous to go this way. The terrain is sometimes almost impassable. Still, we progress towards the destination Malo Nidže, deep in the mountains. We pass by the memorial in Bač, Skočivir. Gorničevo. Živojno. These names resonate in us, known from history lessons and war reports. It is here that Duke Vuk jumped out of the trench and ordered... There you see that sharp groove, it is there that Milunka Savić managed to... A little further: on that slopes, lying on his back against the rock, Stasa Krakov...
We were accompanied by the waters of two rivers until the last hamlets. It is still summer, we can smell the plants in bright morning under clear sun. A monument, almost on the road: ”Private of the Second Drina infirmary Milisav M. Vasilјević from the village of Bajevac, Tamnav of Valjevo, killed at the age of 29, leaving his brother and mother.”
”I visited our military cemeteries in the area of the district of field Morihovo, and it is my honor to submit a report”, writes the priest Milan Panić in 1929. We are ashamed to admit: this is the last accurate official record from this area.


We go on. Our next destination is Vlaška koliba. There was once a summer guard tower of the Yugoslav army at the border with Greece. From there you can see Malo Nidže and the line that used to be the front exactly a hundred years ago, the scene of the bloodiest battle. It looks close, but our approaching it is slow, taking a long time, roundabout. God, what it must have been like approaching it before the battle?
We come near the place where the foot of the Serbian soldiers, after the ordeals through Albania, after Corfu and Thessaloniki, touched the Fatherland for the first time. Touched the sacred ground. We approach the Gate of Freedom.
– Here, this is the place – says historian Nenad Lajbenšpreger. – This is where the history strikes with all his might. One of the most famous sites of Serbian history, known and unknown. The level with the ossuary of the fallen Serbian soldiers, those who left here everything they could, everything still had, for the threshold of the fatherland to be crossed.
The heart trembles. One prefers to lay down on this ground, on this rock, and cry. We, the unworthy descendants. Representatives of the generation who has managed to destroy so much. Wind blows from somewhere, summer, mountain wind. Suddenly, the words resonate in us:
”To all commanders, leaders and soldiers: the fate of the Fatherland depends on the speed of your penetration! You must penetrate boldly, without rest, to the very limits of human and horse power. To death, do not stop! With unwavering faith and hope, heroes, go ahead to the Fatherland!”
Here, at Kajmakchalan, the Gate of Freedom, in the Memorial Chapel of St. Elijah and Ossuary, 2,521 meters above sea level and above the world, we read a prayer for the dead warriors. For the heroes and martyrs, sacrificed on the altar of freedom. For the immortal ancestors, who did not ask: ”Why us?” And who did not peek through the gate to see what the scum was doing, just to find an excuse not to carry their burden. And they did not have a backup faith, backup motherland, backup nation, backup fate. They did not mention the business for which they were ”justifiably absent”.
We offer incense from the Holy Mountain, and light candles. In the front: a drop of plum rakia on brown stone. Peace to the soul the best of all Serbias in the new century.


We vaguely see the terrain, find the shells, remnants of rifle stocks, military accessories. Experts are doing their thing. They measure, inventory, evaluate.
On the way back, descending down the mountain, we stop at the former hospital of Archibald Reiss. At Reder, there is a military cemetery, right next to the road, but unmarked and barely visible.
On the way, our driver Tome talks about the origin of his ancestors from the village of Mramorec between Kčevo and Ohrid, from where they later moved to Bitola. He speaks about his uncle Paun Milošević (later, under duress, Miloševski) and about his grandfather Miloš, who passed Cer and Kolubara. About his patron saint day.
In the SUV we go down the flooded road as if sailing down the river. Then we take a parallel route, which is called King's Road. They say that the unfortunate king Aleksandar Karađorđević personally ordered to clear and pave this road. He did not want to climb up Kajmakchalan on the old route, along which the Bulgarian army troops were positioned.
In the place called Petalino, there is a cemetery. Despite heavy rain, we mark the mounds.
At the foot of the mountain, we visit the cemetery in Skočivir, now maintained, and the one next to the church, neglected again (a few years ago, members of the Society ”Srma” from Bitola worked on its clearing).
The next day we visit the Memorial Novaci, then Suvodol, Dolno Orehovo... Then place called Makovo, then Rapeš... Next to the church is the resting place of Stevan Sokolović, in a separate grave. In the famous Grunište, Russian soldiers rest on two cemeteries, along with the Serbian ones. In the Church of St. Demetrius from 1880, we chant the hymn to the Thessaloniki miracle maker and we offer incense from the monastery of Saint Prohor of Pčinja. The burial pyramids made of cut stone, the fence knocked down. Another ten warrior graves are in the village cemetery. This was also cleared by the members of the Society ”Srma” from Bitola last year, together with hikers from the Society ”Kopaonik”.
Right here was the front line. At the elevation at Seleška mountain and the Black River, we arrive at Gruniški, and then Staravinski elevation, then Budimirački elevation and Budimirci.


According to the description, the second cemetery in Grunište is over the creek, beside the road. People used to say that the French soldiers, when leaving to the front, would sew a one coin in their overcoat. Some in the village thought the Serbian were doing the same, and so they ”searched through the graves”. There are seven stone tombs here now. In the village there are three men. One of them, Risto Stepanovski, approached us with a donkey in whose saddle a rifle was pinned. He talks of a difficult life far away from the city. In the city, his sons run a butcher shop, and here wild animals slaughter his cattle. He reveals to us the well preserved Serbian bridge on the outskirts of the village. He remembers a lot, talks a little. Carries suppressed memories in him as the loads on the donkey.
In Staravina, near the church, according to the story, 62 graves, plus 158. The construction of the ossuary began in the 1930’s, and it has remained unfinished. In the eastern part, under the altar, is the entrance, with just the trash inside. The church overgrown with wild grass and weeds, the surrounding fields full of vipers. The cemetery enclosed with an old wire fence, with the occasional gravestone protruding through the tall grass.
We move on, clear the weeds, count, record in the map: Bač, Živojno, Dobroveni (two cemeteries). We are now led by Dragiša Strahinjić from Bitola.
 – This is the snatching from the final cosmic oblivion – says Aleksa Ciganović, with a pen in his hand and a map in front of him.
It is raining again. A thunder bursts from the belly of the mountain, full of warning and hope. We carry it as a piece of bread in our bag.


The Last Farewell
The front stretched along the wreath from the White and Big River, to Malo Nidže. And the cemetery was there. At the very end, a monument, the letters are hardly legible: ”Farewell, my dear mother and dearest Serbian people”. Here lie the soldiers of the Fifth battery of the Moravia brigade of the Artillery Regiment.


Memory of the Stone
In Budimirci, in the churchyard, is the grave of the officer Jovica M. Kačarević: ”The homeland of the young hero, Lieutenant from Valjevo. He lived 24 years, was killed on 8 November 1916. Erected by brother Ljubiša”. In Studena voda, on a hill, stands a well preserved monument: ”To the comrades of the 7th infantry regiment of King Peter I, 12 June 1917.”


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