Monthly Archives: November 2018

From Tjentište and the Valley of Heroes to Foča…..the valley of horrors

IMG_3212The road from Tjentište to Foča

From the battlefield of the Second World War and scene of the bravery of the Yugoslav army as they resisted the onslaught of the Axis powers; I rode up and out of the valley, and followed the course of the Drina River; and onwards towards the town of Foča. 

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Along the Drina river

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BRIDGE

 

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Foča, on the Drina River

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Photograph provided courtesy of the ICTY

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A modern-day spomenik? Memorial to the Foča massacres; victims of utter barbarism

As I rode, on my bike, through this tranquil valley, crossed and re-crossed the river on semi-derelict or new footbridges, and meandered along the quiet bucolic narrow riverside dirt tracks, I was travelling from the Sutjeska battlefield of 1943 through the scene of the horrors of a more recent past.

During the period from April 1992 till January 1994, the madness and true barbarity of the Serbian military and paramilitary forces was unleashed upon the Bosniak population of this valley; especially the women and girls, and to a lesser extent, boys, in a frenzy of ethnic cleansing, by the systematic use of rape.

Bosniak women and girls were held captive, in houses and detention centres, where they were repeatedly visited by Serbian military and police forces, and raped repeatedly. Some of the girls were as young as 14. That the Serbian forces of law and order were actively involved in these atrocities is beyond my comprehension. This was the most shocking example of the use of rape as a weapon of war; as an instrument of ethnic cleansing.

During this period, 13 mosques were destroyed, and virtually every Muslim was forced to flee. Since the war, a few have returned. The latest figures I can find are for 2013, and show that there were approximately 1300 Bosniaks and nearly 17,000 Serbs at that time.

The Dayton Accords, imperfect as they are, at least drew a tortuous line between the warring factions, and allowed a simmering peace to survive, and endure. My anxiety is that the peace is  fragile, and that undercurrents still flow.

It takes the vile and devious motives of the likes of Slobodan Milosevic, to rattle the cages of rabid nationalists, to fabricate divisions and to foment hatred, and to further partisan political ambitions. I truly hope that the healing and reconciliation which so many ordinary people hope and pray for, will be allowed to endure.

It would be naive and ignorant of me to suggest that the former Republic Of Yugoslavia was a harmonious and unified state. It was far from it, and the sense of perceived inequities within Tito’s communist paradise, were amplified upon his demise, by those who harboured grievances.

However, the former unity that fought against the old tyranny of the Axis powers must be found again to fight the new tyranny of discrimination and internecine hatred. I hope it can be found.

 

 

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Tjentište and the Battle of the Sutjeska

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Sutjeska River, Bosnia

In May 1943, during the Second World War, the Battle of Sutjeska took place in this nationally revered place. By all accounts, this was a most extraordinary, but phyrric victory for the Yugoslav Partizans, led by Josp Broz Tito. Axis forces totalling over 120,000 were held for some weeks by a force of a little over 20,000 partizan troops of the Yugoslav National Liberation Army. This stalemate ultimately contributed to enabling the Yugoslav forces to drive the Axis troops out of Eastern Bosnia.

I did not find out till I got home, that Richard Burton played the part of Tito, in the movie Sutjeska , made in 1973. I mean to watch it!

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View from the balcony of the derelict hotel in the Park

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The Hotel Sutjeska; seen better days

It is impossible to imagine what took place here; nearly 80 years ago, and how the sacrifices during those events have become a part of the national psyche. To understand what is taking place in the Balkans today, one has to understand the struggles which have gone on here for hundreds of years; and The Battle Of Sutjeska is one of the most important. I had ridden eastwards from Tebinje, and onto Gacko, still in Republika Srpska, before riding into the Sutjeska gorge, and then into the Sutjeska National Park on my way eastwards.

It was here that I first came across the astonishing  phenomenon of the spomenik

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Tjentište Spomenik; Sutjeska Memorial

When I arrived in early September 2018, work was near completion to repair damage to the site around the massive concrete memorial, which had been erected in 1971. Unfortunately, in February 2018, a massive landslide had occurred which threatened the stability of the site surrounding the monument. I cycled up the muddy track to the west of the memorial and up onto the paved area between the magnificent concrete monoliths. They are truly wonderful! I was in awe of these symbolic and abstract sculptures. 

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Museum

Spomen Dom Museum 

Also in the same valley; The Valley of Heroes, is the museum complex. Made almost entirely of concrete ( including the main doors ) , its design borrows from the classic wooden shingle roof typical of mountain woodland cabins.

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Unfortunately, the Museum was not accessible. Because as this blog shows; the interior is a glorious and graphic depiction of the events being commemorated. 

This site in this beautiful valley, was my introduction to the spomenik(s) of Yugoslavia. The wonderful resource that Donald Niebyl has compiled, together with his beautiful and concise and informative recent book, The Spomenik Database, has opened up to me a fascinating  exploration of these extraordinary memorials; together with their distant and recent historical connections. 

 

 

 

 

 

The cave olm; the canary in the coal mine?

It was while I was visiting the very interesting Museum in the old town of Trebinje, trying yet again to grasp the history of Serbs in Eastern Hercegovina, that I received my first introduction to the cave olm, or proteus anguinus. Sometimes also known as the cave salamander, this extraordinary creature is supremely and specifically adapted to the environment in the caves in the Dinaric Alps.

It was my luck to be in town, and to be able to attend a presentation about the Proteus Project.

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Poster in the window; Trebinje Museum. 

…..and this video  ( with a great soundtrack ) really shows this amazing creature in its habitat. The Devon Karst Research Society was jointly responsible for organising the evening. 

A committed group of volunteers, some of which were present at the Museum that evening, have done so much work to try and educate local people about the olm’s vulnerability and also the interconnectedness of its habitat and theirs. It has been hard work. 

Why I titled this little section as I did, is because of what I see as the vital role of the olm, as an indicator of how well or badly we care for our environment. 

To begin with, the range of  temperature of the water that is required is very narrow – generally between 8 and 14 degrees Celsius. The alkalinity level is vital too, and these qualities of water  – clarity, alkalinity, temperature and level of oxygenation – are specific features of the karst of this part of Europe, and hence the vital ingredients for the survival of the olm.

However, all kinds of pollution are increasingly challenging the quality of the water in these subterranean habitats. Agricultural runoff; be it pesticides and fertilisers, heavy metals, leachates from industrial processes, and from legal and illegal waste-tipping, are all extremely toxic to the cave olm.

The project volunteers have been working hard not only to educate local people about the value of maintaining the cleanliness of their environment for the value it gives to them, but also how safeguarding this rare, and iconic creature, can bring with it a sense of pride in the astonishingly beautiful landscape they share with it.