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1913: Scutari

Quay and Caravanserai in Scutari - Copyright © by Institut in Hidlburghausen
Quay and Caravanserai in Scutari

The Balkan wars of 1912 and 1913 radically changed the shape of south-eastern Europe, as the Ottomans were pushed out of Albania, Kosovo and Macedonia and indeed virtually back to the gates of Istanbul. The Great Powers determined that in the new dispensation the newly born Albania should have what was then known as Scutari which is Skadar in Serbian and Shkodër in Albanian. But King Nikola wanted the old capital of Zeta for Montenegro and besieged the town. His forces entered it on 24 April 1913. Edith Durham, whom Roberts quotes here, was a famous writer on the Balkans.

Edith Durham, who entered the city on the same day in the company of a Mr Loch of The Times described the scene that awaited them: 'In the poorer houses [the occupants] lay on the ground in the last stages of misery. Tortoises, frogs, hedgehogs, dandelions had all been used as food. […] I saw a man drop in the street, and I fed a skeleton child.' Another eyewitness, Joyce Cary, was one of the first three over the bridge in Scutari after the surrender. Cary, who unlike Durham was sympathetic to the Montenegrins, nonetheless recalled: 'The crowds peered in silence from the dark caverns of the open stalls, Every man and woman of them expected massacre at nightfall, but their attitudes and looks expressed for the most part nothing but indifference made easy by famine.'

The expected massacre by Montenegrin soldiers did not take place, a fact uncharitably ascribed by Nikola's detractors to his awareness that the eyes of the world were upon them. Elsewhere, in Peć, Djakovica and Gusinje, Montenegrin troops carried out a widespread policy of forced conversions, to which the alternative was generally death. The Montenegrins were especially feared for their practice of facial mutilation. As a Montenegrin schoolteacher explained to Edith Durham on the eve of the war, 'It is our old national custom…how can a soldier prove his heroism if he does not bring in noses? Of course we shall cut noses; we always have.

Austria was prepared to go to war to force Montenegro out of Scutari but the Powers were nervous as to whether Russia would just stand by and allow this.

Then at the eleventh hour on 4 May 1913 Nikola, correctly calculating that the odds were irrevocably stacked against him, backed down and agreed to evacuate Scutari in exchange for a substantial foreign loan. Europe reacted with relief. As the Russian foreign minister was reported to have said, 'King Nikola was going to set the world on fire to cook his own little omelette.' But now the extraordinary period throughout which Montenegro on its own had confronted the Powers and brought Europe to the brink of war was drawing to a close.

[pp: 291-292, 293-294]

Realm of the Black Mountain: A History of Montenegro. 2007. [C.Hurst & Co]

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