The Unbroken Chain

BROPHY O'DONNELL

July 23, 1993|By BROPHY O'DONNELL

For a quick insight into Balkan savagery, past, present and yet to be, listen to what Pencho told Alya. Pencho was a Bulgarian with an ancient Renault motorcar. Teen-aged Alya and her father, Russians, were touring Bulgaria with Pencho during her winter break from school.

But Alya was bored. ''Why did we come here?'' she complained. Her father himself didn't know. Pencho had invited them. So they came. After all, you had to go someplace. In a dimly lighted cafe where old men sat smoking and staring silently at one another, Alya gazed gloomily from a window.

Her father proposed seeing ''the smallest town in Bulgaria, always growing smaller and smaller . . . its population steadily declining, . . . a town expiring like a person.''

'' 'So what!' sneered Alya.'' But nevertheless they set out for it.

The highway climbed into the mountains. As they drove now along the Struma river, through a canyon, to the sound of the water, Pencho, who felt that he had to entertain his passengers, said, '' 'And when Tsar Samuel saw his soldiers whom the Emperor Basil had released he fell to the earth and died from grief.' ''

Then Pencho revealed why the sight of his troops felled the tsar. ''They had made their way along the valley of the Struma out of Byzantine captivity, clinging one to the other, and those who dropped were left to lie. Basil II, nicknamed Bulgar Killer, had blinded Tsar Samuel's soldiers, all who were defeated at Belasitze, 15,000 Bulgarians, leaving every hundredth blind in only one eye. ''Alya, drowsing on the back seat, suddenly awoke and asked, 'But why every hundredth? Blinded in only one eye?'

'' 'Why, yes!' Pencho said enthusiastically. 'So that those who were blind in only one eye might see the way and lead the others. Do you understand? The fellow who could see out of one eye went ahead, and the 99 blind, holding one to the other, followed him in single file. That was a thousand years ago. In the autumn. They went through the mountains, the forests, along the river . . .'

'' 'Through this canyon also?'

'' 'Through this canyon also. . . . Samuel had moved his capital to Okhrid. Farther south. In today's Yugoslavia.'

'' 'And yet, they still wanted to live?' asked Alya.

L '' 'Why, yes,' Pencho said. 'Of course they wanted to live.'

'' 'I couldn't have. I'd have thrown myself in the river.'

'' 'No!' Pencho said. 'A chap can endure. You don't yet understand. God forbid you'll ever have to understand.' Alya didn't reply. Pencho was silent for a moment, then said, 'They went home, those who hadn't died on the way, and their wives met them, and they had children. They were able to produce JTC many children, these blinded fellows. Perhaps I'm descended from some blinded soldier. If he had given up from grief and thrown himself in the river I would never have been born. Ah, yes!' Again he was briefly silent, then said, 'That chain formed by Tsar Samuel's blinded soldiers, hand clutching hand, it has never broken and reaches to us. And we grasp their hands, those blinded Bulgars.' ''

Pencho in his old Renault is a character out of a story, ''The Smallest Town,'' by Yuri Trifonov that was published in the Soviet literary magazine Novy Mir in January 1968. So Pencho is fiction. But Tsar Samuel and Emperor Basil II are fact, 10th-century rulers of the Bulgarian and Byzantine empires respectively, who fought a lifetime war. And Samuel's 15,000 men taken prisoner by Basil and blinded on his orders with every hundredth left sighted in one eye, are also fact.

Another fact: Tsar Samuel's former capital, Okhrid (now Ohrid) is in Macedonia, which broke away from Yugoslavia and is ringed by Albania, Serbia, Bulgaria and Greece. A steaming caldron that soon may boil. In recognition of this possibility a few days ago several hundred American soldiers were installed in Macedonia wearing the blue berets of U.N. peace keepers.

When Trifonov's story appeared in Novy Mir a measure of serenity reigned in the Balkans. Yugoslavia was firmly held together by Tito. Albania, Bulgaria and Romania were coexisting in forced brotherly love under the heel of Moscow. Ostensibly the only fly in the Balkan ointment then was the troublesome hostility between Greece and Turkey over Cyprus and other matters, but their both belonging to NATO exerted a cautionary brake here.

Still, as Alya's father mused, ''The rocks along the Struma lay in the same heaps at the time of Tsar Samuel. And yet earlier. Before Tsar Samuel. At the time of the Thracians, the Greeks, the Romans, the Goths . . .''

And as Pencho affirmed, ''That chain . . . hand clutching hand, it has never broken and reaches to us. And we grasp their hands . . .''

Ancient wrongs to right! Ancient defeats to avenge! Ancient hands to clutch! Unbroken human chains! The Balkans! Pencho's words tell it all.

Brophy O'Donnell writes from Catonsville.

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