The Bulgarian Drama of 1903
On 20 July O.S./2 August N.S. 1903, Ilinden or St Elijah’s Day, the Bulgarian population in Macedonia mounted an uprising against the Ottoman Empire led by the Internal Macedonian and Adrianople Revolutionary Organization (IMARO). A few hours after its outbreak in the heroic village of Smilevo in the region of Bitola (Monastir), the rebellion spread across the area of Bitola, Ohrid, Struga, Prespa, Lerin (Florina), Prilep, Kichevo, Demir Hisar and Kostur (Kastoria). The towns of Krushevo, Klisura, Neveska and dozens of villages in Southwest Macedonia fell into the hands of the insurgents. The Krushevo Republic was proclaimed.
On the night of the 5th/18th August (Preobrazhenie or the Feast of the Transfiguration) the flames of rebellion spread across Eastern Thrace spanning the whole Strandzha Mountain. Armed bands liberated the coastal towns of Vasiliko (Tsarevo) and Ahtopol and defeated a Turkish garrison at the village of Gramatikovo near Malko Tărnovo, the Turkish military units were driven to Malko Tărnovo and Lozengrad (Kırklareli). The Strandzha Republic was proclaimed. There were also armed clashes near Mustafapaşa (Svielengrad) whith guerilla raids near Dedeağaç (Alexandrupolis) and Gümülcine (Komotini).
Large areas in Macedonia and Thrace included in the organizational territory of the IMARO, which six Bulgarians in Salonika had established in 1893, were drawn into the vortex of the uprising. On 14/27 September (Krăstovden or the Feast of the Holy Cross) the Serres Revolutionary District joined the rebellion where the armed bands of the IMARO and of the Supreme Macedonian and Adrianople Committee achieved the long desired unity of action. Insurgent activities were carried out in the town of Mehomia (Razlog), the villages of Bachevo and Belitsa.
Among the leaders of the uprising were Damyan Gruev, Boris Sarafov, and Anastas Lozanchev in the Bitola Revolutionary District, Mihail Gerdzhikov, Lazar Madzharov and Stamat Ikonomov in the Adrianople Revolutionary District, Yane Sandanski and Gen. Ivan Tsonchev in the Serres Revolutionary District.
Despite the heroic resistance and self-sacrifice of the thousands of Macedonian and Thracian Bulgarians, the uprising was drowned in blood. The 26,000 poorly armed and inexpert rebels yielded to the enormous Turkish army with its modern armament, transport, and communications. The uprising ended in horrible atrocities against civilian population – about 5000, mainly old people, women and children killed or burnt alive, 200 villages with over 12,000 houses torched, 3300 women and girls raped or abducted. At this moment the Bulgarian state was unable to help the struggle for liberation of the oppressed but accepted over 30,000 refugees who found in the mother-country not only shelter and subsistence but also protection of their Bulgarian national identity and culture. Wishing only human rights which had been promised to them in the Treaty of Berlin (1878), in 1903 the Bulgarians in Macedonia and Thrace had to pay for the pursuit of freedom the price of terrible violations and extermination.
Today, 111 years after the Ilinden-Preobrazhenie Uprising it is even more evident that this was not a spontaneous revolt but the result of purposeful efforts and decades of work to build a united organization of a common goal, program, leadership and members consisting of thousands of conspirators who did not hide their Bulgarian origin. This was also stated by public figures, scholars, intellectuals and politicians from abroad. By this attempt to throw off the foreign domination the Macedonian and Thracian Bulgarians showed one more time to Europe and to the world that they did not give up their common struggle for national liberation and that the trial of strength with the Ottoman Empire was only put off!
Assoc. Prof., Dr. Alexander Grebenarov
Dr. Vania Stoyanova