Barbarous Serbia

By Palmer Smith

[The Independent; October 25, 1915]

A party of twenty-three Columbia students in charge of an instructor went to Serbia in June under, the auspices of the Committee of Mercy to engage in relief work during the summer. The men drove automobiles and formed a special transportation service for the purpose of distributing medical and food supplies under the direction of the Red Cross. Palmer Smith is a student in the Columbia School of Journalism who was a member of the expedition.—THE EDITOR.

What does Serbia need to put her abreast of Europe? "First of all, an American roadmaster and a few American train crews—that was my impression as I journeyed into the country on the "Oriental Express," the best train from Salonica to Nish. We reached Gheuvgeli, the border station, about noon, and did not arrive at Uskub, eighty miles north as the crow flies, until nearly ten o'clock in the evening. This single track, third class railroad is Serbia's only connection with the outside world at present, and to see the warehouses full of food, implements, munitions, and the like, at Salonica, one would suppose that there would be a more rapid system of transportation on a government railroad, as there might, easily be if the equipment were, worked up to its capacity.

Serbia is building more railways, even during the war. She is using the labor of Austrian prisoners in building a track west from Nish, their chief railway center, to Port St. Michael on the Adriatic. During the whole of her national existence she has been cut off from the rest of the world by hostile tariff boundaries. She expects an outlet to the sea as one of her rewards in the war, particularly as she has conquered northern Albania. The army did not enter Durazzo during the summer because of possible complications with Italy.

A railway to an open market; where the produce of the farmers may compete with the rest of the world on even terms, may prove such an economic stimulus to the country that it will be able to throw off its archaic methods of cultivation, and do some real farming. The soil is tilled with primitive wooden plows, drawn by oxen, which do not even turn a furrow. They merely stir the ground for three or four inches. The soil must be very fertile, for even with such primitive methods I saw fields that would yield as much as many in this country. If properly farmed, they ought to be highly productive, and considering the excellent markets along the Mediterranean coast should be very profitable.

During the war the Serbian Agricultural Relief Committee and other charitable organizations have sent over huge quantities of good modern American farming implements. The Serbs have been too busy fighting to get these very well distributed, but they are in the country, and when peace returns they will be used. Their superiority ought to make itself manifest immediately and should stimulate further purchase and a more enlightened system of tillage With a resulting betterment of crops and economic conditions generally.

The Serbians also need an injection of the push and vim of the western world: They are slow to learn, and conservative in their opinions. Nearly all the hospitals and relief agencies now operating in the country have given up trying to use Serbs as helpers. Every orderly in the American Red Cross Hospital at Belgrade is an Austrian prisoner. They are more obedient and learn very much more rapidly. Dr. Eyan, head of the hospital, complained that the Serbs were almost useless because of their utter inability to learn or even comprehend the simplest rules of sanitation and cleanliness, which suggests what to me is the most imperative need of the nation.

There is seemingly absolute ignorance or wanton disregard of the primary rules of sex hygiene among all except the wealthier and more, cultured classes of the nation, which form only a very small proportion of the population. Several doctors who had been working thru different parts of the country were unanimous in the opinion that an amazingly high percentage of the population were suffering from the ravages of venereal diseases, a condition which seems to arise more from ignorance than from viciousness. It is only the healthful outdoor life which all classes of the people lead which enables them to survive the curse.

They seem to have an almost bestial disregard for vermin. Hotels and lodging houses simply swarm with bedbugs, fleas, and even lice. I have sometimes wondered whether according to the Darwinian theory all those who disliked vermin have either died or lost their reason from the constant torture of the bites, so that the children as they were born tended to be immune to the vexation of the insects, altho fortunately or unfortunately, as you please, not immune to the toxins they carry.

Education is the only thing that can help Serbia. And how can education best be accomplished? Not by teaching the older people. They are too conservative. They regard the American doctors who are employed by the Serbian Government to supervise the sanitation in the principal cities and towns as flying in the face of providence. They have a fatalistic belief that if disease is coming it will come anyway, and if precautions are taken it is a sign of cowardice and an endeavor to escape your fate. The only angle of attack that seems to offer any real prospect of success lies in taking the children at an early age and giving them a good education. This seems entirely feasible if money is forthcoming either from the government or from private sources.

The Balkan wars left a great number of orphan children. The present war and the typhus scourge of last winter increased the number tremendously. If these orphans could have the advantages of' instruction under English or American methods with a degree of separation from the surrounding sloth, and constant examples of Anglo-Saxon initiative and enterprise, they might prove a leaven that would cause the whole mass to rise somewhat in the course of the next generation or two.

One such institution was expected to get under way this fall at Kraguevatz. It was to be called the Madam Gruetz Baby Hospital, and is sponsored by the mother of the present secretary of foreign affairs, a very capable, well educated, and cultured woman with an eye for the future of the country. Such an institution is not an absolute novelty in the Balkans, but Serbia needs many of them. A school with a similar object has been in successful operation for several years in the neighborhood of Salonica, Greece. Boys are taught on a farm. The day is divided between the class room and the field. Modern methods of farming are demonstrated and it is hoped that these boys will spread the gospel of good cultivation of the soil. The school is not primarily religious and consequently does not run counter to the established church, altho the scholars are under a Christian influence. If any charitable or missionary institution desires to take tip such a work there is a great fleld open to them. This from my observation is what Serbia needs most.

Columbia University

© J. Fred MacDonald, 2013

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