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Remembering the Good in Evil Times

In the Balkans, memorials have long helped keep tensions alive. That could be changing. by Uffe Andersen 24 October 2013

In mid-October, the Belgrade city council named a street after Srdjan Aleksic, a Bosnian Serb soldier who in 1993 tried to stop fellow soldiers from attacking a Bosnian Muslim in the southeastern Bosnian town of Trebinje. Aleksic was killed for his pains, but two decades later he has become an increasingly popular symbol throughout the region of a person trying to do good in evil days.


In Bosnia, Serbia, and Montenegro, streets have been christened for or monuments erected to Aleksic. A Serbian film about him was warmly applauded in Belgrade and Sarajevo this year, and in 2012 he received a posthumous medal for bravery from the government of Serbia.


A new memorial to Hungarian victims of Yugoslavia's partisans stands in the northern Serbian village of Curug. Photo by Nikola Barbutov/SETimes.


Aleksic’s heroism is “an eternal road sign for the young,” said Olga Manojlovic-Pintar, a researcher at the Institute of Contemporary History in Belgrade. That he and others like him are finally getting the spotlight in the former Yugoslavia, she said, could “help build a new system of values based on the ideas of solidarity, empathy, and tolerance.” 


Those were the values promoted in June when the presidents of Hungary and Serbia unveiled memorials to each other’s people. The Serbs being commemorated had been killed by occupying Hungarians during World War II, the Hungarians by Yugoslav anti-fascists in its aftermath. Manojlovic-Pintar said such memorials to others are “a sign of a new political culture built on dialogue.”


Manojlovic-Pintar has done extensive work on collective memory and the meaning of memorials. In recent years, she said, “discussions about the unpleasant and problematic past have taken society into the complicated process of facing crimes and the difficult heritage of the 20th century.”


Several stages of that process are manifest in the history of a monument in a cemetery in the southwestern Serbian town of Cacak.


The Four Faiths memorial was built there in 1934 to honor 914 soldiers killed in the wars of 1912-1918. The dead fought for both the Serbian and Austro-Hungarian sides and had originally been buried in two distinct places. On the common grave was raised a pyramid bearing the symbols of Orthodox and Catholic Christianity, Judaism, and Islam.


The last two were removed during World War II by the occupying Germans, not to be restored until 2007, and then by an artist. But in late 2011, what is popularly called the tolerance memorial was declared part of Serbia’s cultural heritage and given protected status.


Likewise, efforts are under way across the Balkans to restore memorials to the World War II anti-fascist movement that were abandoned or damaged in the 1980s and 1990s.


These are tangible examples of a more abstract and fundamental shift in the region, in which the ideals of tolerance and a stress on shared values are no longer just crusades for civil society groups, intellectuals, and marginal political parties but have become a government affair. 


“One cannot but notice the change in atmosphere,” Manojlovic-Pintar said.


Which is not to say that people across the Balkans have given up erecting monuments to their own heroes, who are usually villains in someone else’s eyes:


  • In May, two Croatian towns put up memorials to the country’s first president, Franjo Tudjman, whom Bosniaks and Serbs hold responsible for much of their suffering during the wars of the 1990s. 


  • In southern Serbia, Macedonia, and Kosovo, ethnic Albanians erect scores of monuments to those whom they revere as freedom fighters in World War II and the conflicts following the breakup of Yugoslavia, but whom their neighbors often regard as fascists or terrorists.


  • Private memorials are going up in Serbia to honor Draza Mihailovic, who led the royalist Chetnik movement during World War II and was executed by Tito’s Yugoslavia as a war criminal. That is still how he is viewed by most of Serbia’s neighbors and by many Serbs, but a Serbian court is hearing a case filed by Mihailovic’s grandson that seeks to legally rehabilitate him.


  • In Novi Pazar, in southwestern Serbia, the Bosnian Muslim (Bosniak) majority last year erected a plaque to honor Acif Hadziahmetovic, who they say protected Bosniaks from the Chetniks. Serbs point out that Hadziahmetovic governed Novi Pazar for the occupying Germans during World War II and that after the war he was executed as a collaborator responsible for the deaths of thousands of Serb civilians. 


Still, Manojlovic-Pintar said a corner has been turned and the public seems more open to a critical assessment of nationalism, including the exclusivity that in the 1990s made former Yugoslav leaders insist it was impossible to live in peace with “the others.” 


The realization that the region’s people have historically spent much more time living together than at war is gradually dawning, she said.




Perhaps ironically, it is outside the epicenter of the fiercest post-Yugoslav fighting that such openness and political maturity is lagging in the region.


In 2011 the government of Macedonia thumbed its nose at Greece by erecting a huge statue of Alexander the Great, a figure claimed by both countries. Now Skopje is planning an even larger memorial to Mother Teresa.


The famous nun was an ethnic Albanian born in the Macedonian capital, which might suggest that authorities have found a story uniting the country’s two largest ethnic groups. It’s true that both Albanians and Macedonians agree on celebrating Mother Teresa – but only insofar as each nation regards her as exclusively its own, said Biljana Vankovska, a professor of security, defense, and peace studies in Skopje. (The same holds for Alexander, to whose mother Albanians lay ethnic claim.)


”It’s about claiming for oneself, and not about common symbols,” Vankovska wrote in an email. 


Even when Macedonian officialdom made a seeming gesture of reconciliation – annulling cases against leading ethnic Albanian politicians in 2011 for alleged war crimes during a short-lived conflict a decade earlier – its motives were purely political: the government needed to cement an alliance with an Albanian party. At the time, Amnesty International said, “The parliament’s decision [to drop the cases] is clearly inconsistent with international law and will leave the victims and their relatives without access to justice.”


Such ploys are a major hindrance to the work of REKOM, a regional truth and reconciliation project that Vankovska spearheads in Macedonia. 


“A politics of amnesia dominates in Macedonia,” she said, sowing mutual distrust and making it impossible to erect a peace memorial that speaks to both sides.


”No matter who erects them, memorials are expression of collective frustrations in society,” she wrote. “There’s an obsession with the past, war heroes, and grand people, and every ethnic community has created its own narrative, crying at its own graves, celebrating its own heroes.” 


Manojlovic-Pintar, the historian, agrees that tolerance memorials cannot be built without a basis of genuine empathy and trust. Declaring Aleksic a hero is fine, she said, “but it’s very important not to forget the role of those who started the wars, and to punish the crimes.”  


That is much more difficult than putting up a statue. But at least a statue could have the power to make people wonder how times turned so evil that they killed the good, and how they shouldn’t fall for tricks like that – again.

Uffe Andersen is a freelance journalist in Smederevo, Serbia.
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