Macedonian Railway Ramble: the Underground Refugee Railway to Drama


Refugees heading for central Europe getting rounded up and put off the train at Mouries, Greece, near the Bulgarian border. Photo: Matthew Stevenson.

This is the tenth part in a series about a journey across what used to be called Macedonia, which is now divided among Albania, North Macedonia, Greece, and Turkey.

My train for Drama (in many ways) left at 15:20 from the main Thessaloniki station, which was a twenty-minute walk from the seafront and what’s left of the Jewish quarter. In the cold rain I cut through some housing project courtyards and jaywalked across some wide boulevards, fearing I might roll up late for my train, the last of the day toward the east.

I made it to the station by 15:01, which was enough time to buy water and snacks in a kiosk for the four-hour train ride. Then, still soaking, I climbed aboard the train, where I sat alone in an empty car until, just before the train departed, about twenty refugees climbed aboard and took seats all around me, as if maybe I was their sponsor.

All were young men, some fairly well dressed, but others had on combat fatigues and boots, as if on a military mission, as perhaps they were.

The Underground Refugee Railway

This train to Drama hooks north from Thessaloniki and runs along the Bulgarian border. The ride interested me as a panoramic train for the Second Balkan War (1913) and as one of the lines on that was shown on that museum map of Turkish railways (Chemins de Fer de la Turquie d’Europe).

I assumed that the refugees (perhaps from the Greek island of Lesbos, where there is a large camp) would ride the train to a station near the Bulgarian border, walk into the mountains, and declare themselves to be refugees in the European Union (and hope that they would be sent on to Germany).

Some were carrying blue bags that said, “United Nations High Commission on Refugees,” but most just had a small backpack or a grip (in the traveling spirit of Willy Loman, who once said: “I still feel—kind of temporary about myself”).

The conductor (an older, surly Greek with a buzz haircut) wanted nothing to do any one-world-ism. As he discovered the ticketless refugees in my car, I heard him shout in broken English: “You get out at the next station. You have to get off.” Few of the refugees had wasted any of their money on tickets.

Well, they stayed on two more stops until the train stopped at Mouries, a convenient border crossing point.

As the train pulled into the station, however, police were all over the platform and later the train.

I counted about fifty refugees who were removed from the train. It took a while to find them all, although no one tried running. Everyone—cops and fugitives—seemed to follow an established procedure. There was no shouting. All the refugees gathered in a circle at the rear of the train (see the photo above), and then the police made them kneel in a circle. Nothing seemed very threatening, although it was raining when they were formed into a knot.

Not everyone remained in the platform cluster, however. In an instant, one of the men ran back to the train and started talking to me (I was hanging out the vestibule door, taking pictures).

For a moment I thought he wanted me to help him to escape the police, but all he wanted to know was if I had found his stocking wool hat. I had not, but immediately both of us went back to the car. Together we searched for the missing hat, which he found under a row of seats. I said: “I think you will need that” and followed him back to the car door.

As the man (in his twenties) climbed down from the train, I asked him where he was from. “Afghanistan,” was his answer. I asked him where he was headed. He didn’t want to answer me directly. So I asked, “Germany?” He smiled. I didn’t know how he would get there, but I did think he would make it.

As the train was getting ready to leave, I saw him on the platform chatting up one of the policemen in a manner that suggested the gift of friendship or at least easy accommodation in tense situations. I am sorry now I didn’t give him money, but the hat search was over in a flash.

A few minutes later my train departed. From what had been a somewhat crowded train, I was now practically alone in the Greek rail car.

I asked the train conductor what would happen to the refugees. He wouldn’t answer me, but it would not shock me if the local cops who met the train co drop them somewhere near the Bulgarian border (along a line of tall mountains) in exchange for money. Why not? It would spare Greece more refugees, and the cops would turn a profit.

My guess is that the underground railway has better service than the Greek railways, although both were heading on the line toward Drama.

The British Lose at Lake Doiran

One of my goals on this train ride (I was heading overland toward Istanbul) was to spot the British war memorial near Lake Doiran, which was the scene of a stunning British defeat in World War I before the Serbian breakout in September 1918 (the reason few Brits visit it, or so I was told).

I had thought of taking time to visit the village of Doiran and the surrounding monuments, but after my extensive day around Bitola I decided the best that I could do in this sector would be to ride this train along the front lines. And, I must say, it did not disappoint.

From my Pullman seat I got an excellent view of the soaring wall of Bulgarian mountains, the lake, and some of the British war memorials (at some point they were moved close to the tracks).

Yes, I could come back again another time, rent a car, spend three days and 500 euros tooling around the high ground, but for now I was happy with what I saw—the day coach as World War I tutorial.

Toward Drama

The journey to Drama was scheduled to take more than four hours. By 16:45 it was dark outside, leaving me alone with my books and maps.

On a train map of the Greek rail system, I was able to chart our course across eastern Macedonia, with stops in towns such as Strymonas and Serres.

At most of these stations only a handful of people got on or off. The stations, bathed in lamp light, had the forlorn qualities of an Edward Hopper painting, but there was always a stationmaster on the platform, waving a railroad baton at the ghost train.

When I asked the grumpy conductor with the buzz haircut why the train wasn’t running through to the the port of Alexandroupolis (aka Dedeagach, fought over by Greeks, Turks, and Bulgarians), he became a little friendlier (at least than he was with the refugees) and said that the shuttle bus was running because of track work. He didn’t know when the repair work (or Macedonia for that matter) would be finished.

The Endless Balkan Wars

For my reading, I was done with Alan Furst. (As Costa Zannis heads to the front lines of World War II, one of his friends says, “The Nazis are vicious and criminal but, thank God, they are also venal. The ideology, for many of them, is only skin-deep – they like power, and they love money.”)

Next up on my list was Jacob Gould Schurman’s short history, The Balkan Wars: 1912-1913, which was published in 1914. I had a copy on my Kindle, but became so fond of the out-of-print book that I later ordered a reprint edition.

Originally from Canada, Schurman served as the American ambassador to Greece in 1912-13 during the time of the Balkan Wars. Later in his career he was the U.S. minister in China, ambassador to Germany, and president of Cornell University.

I am sure part of the reason I so warmed to his book is that it includes a passage of a trip he took during the war that reminded me a lot of my own travels. Schurman writes:

The difficulty comes when we attempt to give the racial character of Central Macedonia, which is equally remote from Greece, Bulgaria, and Servia. I travelled through this district last summer. On June 29, when the war broke out between the Allies, I found myself in Uskub [now Skopje]. Through the courtesy of the Servian authorities I was permitted to ride on the first military train which left the city. Descending at Veles I drove across Central Macedonia by way of Prilip to Monastir [now Bitola], spending the first night, for lack of a better bed, in the carriage, which was guarded by Servian sentries. From Monastir I motored over execrable roads to Lake Presba and Lake Ochrida and thence beyond the city of Ochrida to Struga [it’s near Ohrid] on the Black Drin, from which I looked out on the mountains of Albania.

Early in his book Schurman asks: “What was the occasion of the war between Turkey and the Balkan states in 1912? The most general answer that can be given to that question is contained in the one word Macedonia.” But the wars were also about the Ottoman succession in southeast Europe, a division of spoils that began with the Russo-Turkish War in 1877 and the treaties of San Stefano and Berlin in 1878.

And the Balkans Wars, while often viewed separately, should also be regarded as the opening acts of World War I, as—more than any other event, including the assassination of the Austrian archduke Franz Ferdinand—they established the coming conflict between Austria-Hungary and Serbia.

The 1878 Treaty of Berlin Divides Europe

In denying Serbia control over Bosnia-Hercegovina, the 1878 Treaty of Berlin awarded control of the restive province (largely muslim) to Austria-Hungary. And it extended that domination to a sliver of land between Serbia and Montenegro, the Sandzak [aka administrative unit] of Novi Pazar, so that Austria-Hungary could achieve several strategic ends: it could deny the territorial union of Serbia and Montenegro, and it could allow Austria-Hungary to build a rail link from its imperial outpost in Bosnia to Salonika, giving it a base for trade and military operations in the Aegean Sea (a development that alarmed Britain, France, the Ottomans, and Russia).

The Treaty of Berlin was a victory for Austria-Hungary (which had not fought in the 1877 war) and a defeat for Turkey, which managed to hang on to its European possessions only through the intervention of Bismarck and the great powers. (Bulgaria and Russia were other losers, notably Russia which had won all the battles but saw themselves and their proxies tossed out of Macedonia.)

Another wrench in the international system in the late 19th and early 20th centuries was the acknowledgement that Albania belonged to the Austrian and Italian spheres of influence, which had the effect of cutting off Serbia from the Adriatic sea and limiting the expansion of Greece in Epirus. As Schurman writes:

As a necessity of practical politics, therefore, there emerged the Austro-Italian policy of an independent Albania. But natural and essential as this policy was for Italy and Austria-Hungary, it was fatal to Servia’s dream of expansion to the Adriatic; it set narrow limits to the northward extension of Greece into Epirus, and the southward extension of Montenegro below Scutari; it impelled these Allies to seek compensation in territory that Bulgaria had regarded as her peculiar preserve; and as a consequence it seriously menaced the existence of the Balkan Alliance torn as it already was by mutual jealousies, enmities, aggressions, and recriminations.

Finally the internal collapse of the Ottoman Empire in these years put Macedonia in play, and it was where Bulgaria, Greece, Turkey, and Serbia in particular saw a chance to win hearts and minds. But the confusions of race, ethnicity, and religion that define who or what is a Macedonian made it impossible to say with certainty in which national box the region belonged. Schurman writes:

Of all perplexing subjects in the world few can be more baffling than the distribution of races in Macedonia. The Turks classify the population, not by language or by physical characteristics, but by religion. A Greek is a member of the Orthodox Church who recognizes the patriarch of Constantinople; a Bulgarian, on the other hand, is one of the same religious faith who recognizes the exarch; and since the Servians in Turkey have no independent church but recognize the patriarchate they are often, as opposed to Bulgarians, called Greeks. Race, being thus merged in religion—in something that rests on the human will and not on physical characteristics fixed by nature—can in that part of the world be changed as easily as religion. A Macedonian may be a Greek to-day, a Bulgarian to-morrow, and a Servian next day. We have all heard of the captain in the comic opera who “in spite of all temptations to belong to other nations” remained an Englishman. There would have been nothing comic in this assertion had the redoubtable captain lived in Macedonia. In that land a race is a political party composed of members with common customs and religion who stand for a “national idea” which they strenuously endeavor to force on others.

Bulgaria Loses Again in Macedonia

The easy part of the Balkan Wars was round one (1912), in which the allied nations—Greece, Montenegro, Bulgaria, and Serbia—attacked Turkish outposts in the southern Balkans (largely around Macedonia) and reduced the Ottoman presence in Europe to a fragmentary presence northwest of Constantinople.

The harder question, however, was how to divide up the conquered lands, especially as Serbia, Bulgaria, and Greece all claimed to be “liberating” their citizens in Macedonia. And both Greece and Bulgaria wanted to control Thrace.

The clear loser of the second Balkan War (1913) was Bulgaria, which saw Greece and Serbia make gains in Macedonia and which saw Greece awarded much of Thrace. Schurman writes:

Greece fared still better under the treaty; for it gave her not only all the Macedonian lands she had already occupied but extended her domain on the Aegean littoral as far east as the mouth of the Mesta and away into the interior as far above Seres and Drama as they are from the sea,—thus establishing the northern frontier of New Greece from Lake Presba [near the eastern boundary of Albania] on a northward-ascending line past Ghevgheli and Doiran to Kainchal in Thrace on the other side of the Mesta River….

This assignment of territory conquered from Turkey had the effect of shutting out Bulgaria from the Western Aegean; and the littoral left to Bulgaria between the Mesta River and the Turkish boundary has no harbor of any consequence but Dedeagach, which is much inferior to Kavala.

Serbia’s 1914 Fateful End Game

As I read these passages, my train was meandering between Serres (a second ‘r’ was added to the name at some point) and Drama, and that night, assuming I found the bus connection, I would be sleeping in Dedeagach.

By that point the train had less than thirty passengers, and the buzzed-cut conductor seemed to be spending most of the ride in the company of his cell phone, although at the intermediate stops he would rouse himself and salute the station master on the platform.

I was trying to ration the food supplies I had bought at the station in Thessaloniki and at the same time (by marking off the stops on my maps) trying to imagine how the Balkan Wars fought often over this very train line had later plunged Europe into World War I.

The fatal legacy of the Balkan Wars is that they lined up Austria-Hungary and Serbia for a military showdown. As a result of the 1912-13 wars, Vienna was determined to keep Albania (and its coastal ports, such as Durrës) out of Serbian hands, just as it was determined to push through a rail link from Sarajevo to Salonika, forever dividing Serbia from Montenegro, and limiting its access to Macedonia (where it had won important victories in the Balkan Wars, especially at Kumanovo).

Schurman writes fatefully of the political situation at the war’s end:

The controlling force in politics, though not the only force, is self-interest. Austria-Hungary had long sought an outlet through Macedonia to the Aegean by way of Saloniki. It was also the aim of Servia to reach the Adriatic. But the foreign policy of Austria-Hungary, which has millions of Serbs under its dominion, has steadily opposed the aggrandizement of Servia. And now that Servia and her allies had taken possession of Macedonia and blocked the path of Austria-Hungary to Saloniki, it was not merely revenge, it was self-interest pursuing a consistent foreign policy, which moved the Dual Monarchy to make the cardinal feature of its Balkan programme the exclusion of Servia from access to the Adriatic Sea.

It was Serbia’s fate to be caught between two empires (Austrian and Ottoman), both of which it feared as an existential threat.

Next: The trains to the Turkish border. Earlier installments can be found here.

Matthew Stevenson is the author of many books, including Reading the Rails, Appalachia Spring, andThe Revolution as a Dinner Party, about China throughout its turbulent twentieth century. His most recent books are Biking with Bismarck and Our Man in Iran. Out now: Donald Trump’s Circus Maximus and Joe Biden’s Excellent Adventure, about the 2016 and 2020 elections.