Skip to content

Ethnic Divisions Set in Stone

June 29, 2013


‘Hero’ fighters, massacre victims and alleged war criminals are being commemorated with new monuments across the former Yugoslavia, many of them reinforcing the disputes that originally led to the conflicts.

Elvira M. Jukic, Sinisa Jakov Marusic, Milena Milosevic, Boris Pavelic, Edona Peci, Marija Ristic, Balkan Insight, 25.06.2013


Memorial to Muslim soldiers on Dobrovoljacka Street, Sarajevo

Dobrovoljacka Street in Sarajevo, May 3: on one side of the road, the Bosnian Army’s Muslim Green Berets units are holding a ceremony in front of a plaque that commemorates the deaths of eight of their soldiers on this day in 1992; on the other side, Bosnian Serb officials and families of Yugoslav Army troops are holding a rival commemoration for their men who died in the same clash.

The Serbs, protected by cordons of Sarajevo police, have brought their own temporary memorial, a piece of wood decked with white roses, while the Bosniaks’ plaque is permanently fixed to a wall.

Both groups also have their own version of the truth.

According to the president of Sarajevo’s Stari Grad chapter of the Green Berets, Vahid Alic, the clash between Bosnian and Serb-led Yugoslav forces 21 years ago was crucial in “resisting the aggression against Bosnia and Herzegovina”.

According to Bosnian Serb veterans minister Petar Djokic, it was “a war crime against Serbs”.

No court case has established the facts and the rival memorials are an indication of the bitterness of the dispute between the two ethnic groups about how many were killed and who started the violence.

Fights have sometimes broken out during the rival commemorations, but not this year, although emotions still ran high; a BIRN reporter was mistaken for a Serb mourner and spat upon.

New monuments have proliferated across the Balkans since the conflicts and, as the Dobrovoljacka Street conflict illustrates, have sometimes become the subject of bitter disputes themselves.

Since the start of this year, ethnic Albanians have taken to the streets of Presevo in Serbia after Belgrade sent in riot police to take down a memorial to their guerrilla heroes, a monument to fallen Bosnian Army troops has been blown up in a night-time attack in Mostar, Serbian gravestones and a Yugoslav World War II monument have been destroyed in Kosovo, while a row has broken out over the building of a Serbian Orthodox church near the Srebrenica genocide memorial.

BIRN’s cross-regional investigation has established that the hundreds of new monuments and memorials erected across the Balkans have often resulted in ethnic divisions being set, literally, in stone.

In a region where history is disputed, monuments are potent symbols of past conflicts. One person’s liberator is another’s aggressor; victory for one symbolises mass murder and ethnic cleansing for the other.

Monuments are also ideological symbols that mark public spaces and territory politically, and are often used by governments as a tool for nation-building, most spectacularly in the case of the expensive makeover of the Macedonian capital Skopje.

The problem is at its most acute where the ethnic divisions are at their most troubled, and where more memorials have been built than anywhere else, in Bosnia and Herzegovina.

Sarajevo-based professor of transitional justice Goran Simic said that of the several hundred memorials built in Bosnia since the 1992-95 war, he could not even count “just five which do not offend anyone”.

“It is better not to have monuments than to have those which call for another conflict and are not based on facts,” Simic said.

One of the most stark examples is in the north-western Bosnian town of Prijedor, in the Serb-led Republika Srpska entity.

Monument to Serb soldiers in Prijedor, Bosnia

Prijedor has several monuments to fallen soldiers from the Bosnian Serb Army, led during the war by General Ratko Mladic, who is on trial for genocide the Hague Tribunal.

But the Serb authorities refuse to allow families of Bosniak war victims to build a memorial to the several thousand Muslim civilians who died.

“We asked for a monument for all the civilian victims, but even that was not allowed over the years,” said Mirsad Duratovic of the Bosniak association of ex-detention camp prisoners, explaining that the monument would not state the ethnicity of the victims but commemorate all the civilians who died.

One of the most controversial memorials in Prijedor is a plaque honouring a Serb soldier who it says was the first war victim in the town in May 1992.

“The plaque says he was murdered by Muslim extremists or something like that,” Duratovic said, claiming that a Serb deserter from Croatia was actually responsible for the killing.

But Zdravka Karlica, the president of the association representing families of Serb military victims, insisted this was the truth.

“There is an old police report which says that the soldier was killed by Muslim extremists,” Karlica said.

Such divisions are replicated across Republika Srpska, according to Duratovic.

“In Trnopolje for example, where a [notorious prison] camp was located during the war, there is only a monument to Serb soldiers and not the victims,” he said.

Even memorial sites like graveyards can be seen as ‘enemy’ symbols.

In Vukovar in Croatia, which was battered by a devastating siege before it fell to Serb forces in 1991, a military graveyard first became a symbol of Serb triumphalism, then of a resurgent Croatia’s grievances.

Every first Saturday in September, Vukovar’s Serbs lay wreaths and burn narrow yellow orthodox candles under the cross in the middle of the cemetery in the city centre, remembering Serb soldiers and civilians buried there, most of whom were killed in a Croatian attack on a Yugoslav Army barracks in on September 1991.

The tombstones used to be topped with marble renditions of traditional Serb caps and decorated with inscriptions that read: “Died for the homeland.”

But after Zagreb reasserted control over Vukovar in 1998, all of them were removed by Croats who saw them as symbols of Serb aggression.

Calls for the cemetery to be destroyed completely were rejected by the Croatian authorities, one of whom insisted that “all graves are sacred”.

But the dispute goes on, as the owners of the private land on which the cemetery is built attempt to evict the unwanted graves, while Vukovar’s Serb minority try to ensure that their dead are not exhumed – yet another symbol of how problematic the issue of remembering wartime victims remains.

Idolising heroes

 KLA monument at the Adem Jashari house in Prekaz, Kosovo

For the Serbian authorities in the 1990s, Kosovo Liberation Army Adem Jashari commander was a terrorist. For many Kosovo Albanians however, he was a freedom fighter known as ‘Uncle Adem’ who became a martyr when he died during a Serbian police siege that also killed around 40 members of his family in March 1998.

Jashari’s house in Prekaz is now part of one of the most visited memorials in Kosovo and the only one protected by a special law.

On the approach road to the huge memorial which covers hundreds of square metres, there is a graphic image of the guerrilla’s face with the words “Bac u kry” – “Uncle, it’s done”, a reference to Kosovo gaining independence.

The house now serves as a museum while some 100 metres away, beyond a garden ornamented with fountains, are the Jashari family’s graves.

“There are lots of visitors from all around Kosovo and the region. During weekends up to 50 or 60 buses arrive here,” said one of the Kosovo Security Forces servicemen who guard the memorial.

The three Jashari family houses have been left as they were at the time of the siege, pockmarked with bullet-holes and scarred by grenade fire.

Similar monuments of wartime guerrilla ‘heroes’  have been erected all over Kosovo; in the centre of Mitrovica, for example, there are three within a square kilometre area, although some critics have complained that symbols of a ‘glorious war’ are being manipulated by politicians for their own advantage.

“In practice, political parties and individuals who mostly rely on war values are paradoxically the richest people in this society, who created their wealth after [the end of the war in] 1999,” said Hajrullah Ceku, executive director of EC Ma Ndryshe, an NGO that aims to protect cultural heritage.

Statue of Adem Jashari in the village of Radusha, Macedonia

Ethnic Macedonians were also unhappy when a statue of Jashari was erected in the village of Radusha near the Macedonian capital Skopje in November 2012.

The bronze statue shows Jashari holding a rifle and standing on the turret of a tank that once belonged to the Macedonian army, but was captured by ethnic Albanians fighters during the brief armed conflict in the country in 2001. Jashari didn’t fight in the conflict because he was already dead.

Many were additionally upset by the presence at the unveiling ceremony of the entire leadership of Macedonia’s junior government coalition party, the ethnic Albanian Democratic Union for Integration.

Artan Grubi, the party leader’s cabinet chief, refused to answer whether the fact that the statue stands on top of a Macedonian tank is bad for inter-ethnic reconciliation.

“I did not see what the statue was standing upon, but I did see that it is a very beautiful monument,” he said.

Monuments have also proved controversial when fighters are honoured with the same statue as victims.

A monument dedicated to ‘victims of war and homeland defenders from 1990-99’ was unveiled in Belgrade on the 13th anniversary of the NATO bombing in March 2012.

The memorial in St Sava Square, which cost the Belgrade city authorities 62.5 million dinars (625,000 euro), drew protests from campaigners who felt that civilian victims had been insulted.

Among the protesters were the anti-war group Women in Black who carried banners with slogans like “Don’t equalise victims and butchers” and “We want a monument to the victims of Srebrenica”.

Snezana Tabacki from Women in Black said that the soldiers and paramilitary volunteers who fought battles outside Serbia’s borders “cannot be [seen as] defenders, but conquerors”.

“These ‘defenders’ went to war in other states, but we still have a monument for them,” she said.

Dobrivoja Stanic, a refugee who fled Croatia in 1995, said that the memorial encapsulated the state’s attitude towards war victims.

The plaque had already gone rusty, he said, and the letters on it were so small as to be almost unreadable. “And then when you see the letters, you realise the horrible truth – to this country, perpetrators and victims are the same,” he concluded.

Foundations of a nation

Alexander the Great at the main square in Skopje

Monument-building has become a favoured pastime for governments that are trying to give their young and historically troubled states a renewed sense of identity.

Contemporary heroes and historical figures are picked out to create an idealised image of a nation united, but often reflect the political ideas of those in power and ignore the values, or sometimes even the existence, of ethnic and religious minorities; projects intended to unify can also prove divisive.

Nowhere in the Balkans has there been such a concentrated and lavishly-funded campaign of monument-building as in the Macedonian capital.

The grand government-financed revamp of the city known as ‘Skopje 2014’ has so far cost 208 million euro, with 10.5 million euro spent on a statue of Alexander the Great alone.

Designed to change the appearance of the shabby-looking city, and drawing inspiration from the architectural styles of classical antiquity, the Skopje 2014 project has seen the erection of some 30 tall bronze and marble statues so far, with more on the way.

But some critics have condemned the project as a waste of public money while nearly all leaders of the country’s ethnic Albanians, who make up around a quarter of the population, deemed the project to be discriminatory because it only profiled heroes from the ethnic Macedonian majority.

Greece was also upset with the Alexander the Great statue and the use of the ancient warrior in the promotion of a new vision of Macedonian national identity.

“The [Skopje 2014] project is both a polarising force internally and damaging to international credibility; yet, despite criticism, the governing elite continue to pour concrete and commission statues,” said Sofia Harwell, a lecturer at the University of Washington’s Jackson School of International Studies and the author of a study of the project entitled ‘Building National Anxiety’.

Harwell concluded that almost 20 years after Macedonia became independent, it was still in the process of nation-building.

“The sustained conflict with Greece [over the country’s name], a still-unresolved Albanian ethnic minority question, and Macedonia’s history of statelessness combine to drive the current compulsion of Macedonia’s governing elite to lay claim to national symbols in their public spaces,” she said.

The Macedonian government, led by the centre-right VMRO DPMNE party of Prime Minister Nikola Gruevski, launched the controversial revamp back in 2009.

In 2011, the government responded to its critics by including some monuments reflecting Albanian history in the capital’s makeover plan. Albanian writer Pjetr Bogdani, Catholic priest Josif Bageri and Nexhat Agoli, a minister in the first Macedonian government in 1945, were the figures chosen to be incorporated in the revamp, although none have been erected so far.

Praising friends, damning foes

Serbian Army headquarters, bombed by NATO in 1999

Some governments build monuments to the foreign friends who came to their aid in times of crisis, or to indicate that they belong to, or would like to join, certain international political alliances.

The statue of Bill Clinton in Pristina is such an example, giving thanks for NATO’s 1999 bombing campaign and expressing hope for continued US backing; the sculpture of the Western military alliance’s logo in Prizren in Kosovo is another.

However the statute of the Tsarist-era pro-Serb Russian consul Grigory Stepanovich Scherbina in Mitrovica in Serb-dominated northern Kosovo symbolises resistance to Pristina’s rule and an attempt to send the message that Serbs have their own powerful allies – in this case Moscow rather than Washington.

Past grievances against foreign foes are also commemorated: the NATO air strikes on Serbia are remembered in a series of tributes to those who died across the country: at a bridge in Grdelica Gorge in the south of the country where 14 were killed when NATO missiles hit a train and in several other towns including Nis, Aleksinac, Leskovac and Valjevo, a plaque behind the Radio-Television Serbia building in Belgrade where 16 died in another NATO bombing, and most spectacularly, by the ruins of the Yugoslav Army headquarters in the centre of the capital which were attacked twice, in April and May 1999.

The bombed-out shell was put on Serbia’s list of protected buildings in 2005, but it is now to be sold to investors from the United Arab Emirates who may develop it into a luxury hotel complex.

“On that spot will be an exclusive building in the city centre, instead of these ruins. Serbia, will, on the other hand, build a monument to all those who died during the NATO aggression,” Serbian defence minister Aleksandar Vucic promised in February.

Serbia’s infrastructure ministry has applied to take the building off the list of protected monuments, arguing it is dangerous and could fall down in bad weather, although the culture ministry insists that it should remain on the heritage register.

But the memorials to those killed by NATO in Serbia only show that the country values its own victims over those for whose deaths it was responsible, said Sandra Orlovic, director of the Humanitarian Law Centre in Belgrade.

“With the monuments dedicated to the NATO bombing of Serbia is not showing that it respects all the victims. When we see the monument dedicated to all those [ethnic Albanians killed by Serbs in Kosovo] who were buried in a mass grave in Batajnica just a few miles from here, then this will be a real way of facing the past and remembering the victims,” Orlovic said.

What hope of reconciliation?

Vandalised ‘reconciliation’ memorial in Podgorica

While many of the post-war monuments in the Balkans represent divisive views of history, there have been some attempts to create memorials which actively promote reconciliation.

One such is the glass memorial in Pobrezje Park in the Montenegrin capital Podgorica. Its inscription reads: “To the civilian casualties of the wars in the former Yugoslavia in the period between 1991 and 2001 – never to be repeated.”

The memorial was inaugurated on July 11, 2011, on the anniversary of the Srebrenica genocide. According to the culture ministry, it expresses “the entire society’s commitment to the generally accepted principles of justice” and Montenegro’s determination “to build itself as a state based on the respect for the principles of the rule of law, tolerance and human rights”.

But in the year that followed its inauguration, the memorial was vandalised three times and the glass is now cracked and scored with scratches.

A reconciliation attempt by the current pro-European authorities in Croatia, distancing themselves from the nationalist stance of the previous government as the country moved towards the EU, also ran into trouble.

In July 2010, Croatian President Ivo Josipovic unveiled a monument to a well-known anti-fascist uprising in the small village of Srb near the Bosnian border, an event that used to be celebrated annually in the former Yugoslavia.

A previous monument to the rebellion was destroyed by vandals in 1995, but the Croatian government financed its restoration with around 400,000 euro, while private donors from Serbia provided the stone and about 100,000 euro.

But when the monument was inaugurated by Josipovic, standing alongside Croatian government officials and representatives of the country’s Serbs, dozens of right-wingers in black shirts demonstrated nearby, claiming that Srb rebellion was “a joint Chetnik and Communist mutiny against the Croat state”.

In Macedonia meanwhile, despite the current wave of state-funded monument-building, there has been no significant effort by the authorities to erect a memorial that would in any way unite rather than divide the two main communities.

However a Facebook campaign called on mayoral candidates at April’s local elections in Skopje to build a memorial to a 19-year-old ethnic Albanian, Muhamed Ali Jashari, who was killed in April 2011 while trying to protect his Macedonian friend from attackers.

Preserving his memory would “contribute to unity between all the people who live in Skopje and in Macedonia”, the campaign page suggested.

“It will set an example to other children, an example of their peer who did not succumb to nationalistic propaganda and ethnic divisions,” it said.

Jashari died when he was hit while confronting three bullies who attacked his friend Darko Jancev outside a school in Skopje.

But after initially agreeing that a memorial was a good idea, none of the local election candidates, including re-elected Skopje mayor Koce Trajanovski, took any more interest.

A similar campaign was also launched in February in Belgrade to name a street after another young man who died confronting ethnic prejudice, Srdjan Aleksic.

Aleksic, a Bosnian Serb, was killed during the war in 1993 in his hometown of Trebinje when he tried to help his Bosniak friend who was being beaten up by Serb soldiers who had been hunting for Muslims in the local market.

“He is already an informal hero in the region,” said Suzana Milosavljevic, who initiated the Belgrade petition.

The story of Aleksic’s wartime stand, at a point when Serbs and Bosniaks were bitter enemies, spread right across the former Yugoslavia; there is already a street named after him in Pancevo in Serbia, among other places, and memorials in Trebinje and Sarajevo.

Aleksic’s plaque in the Bosnian capital is one of the most poignant tributes to the idea of inter-ethnic peace in the Balkans, and an example of how memorials can promote reconciliation rather than reinforcing the divisions that led to war.

It reads: “Without people like Srdjan Aleksic and his heroic deeds, one would lose hope in humanity, and without it our life would have no meaning.”

Leave a Comment

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: