Through the collapse of the former Yugoslavia – through a decade of infection of pervading nationalism and through the storm of the worst battlefield on the European soil ever since World War II – the number of victims was the easiest topic for bickering among local politicians in post-Tudjman-Milošević era.
“The best period was when Croatia was still entering the European Union. Everything was possible then and they couldn’t do anything as they do now. While the EU today is powerless against the blows of neo-ustasha ideology. That awaits Serbia as well, you’ll see, just wait till you enter the community. You get to do what you want because you will no longer have an aim.”
-an acquaintance from Zagreb
Since I live in Belgrade, I know that for decades now in the minds of Serbian generations, mentioning the word “Jasenovac”, that place of former inferno in the Balkans, causes foaming at the mouth, fuming, threatening with a finger, banging on the table- so much that a person would think, Dear God, they would go with their bare hands to today’s Croatia.
That, more or less, happened in 1991, when the RTS Dnevnik was doing it successfully.
Anyway, watching Aleksandar Vučić – the Serbian prime minister, now the future president of the Republic – in the city of Donja Gradina last year waving his hands before the general public that came to give “honor” to the opening of the concentration camp, Donja Gradina, which is now on the territory of the Republika of Srpska. The warmongering rot in the state of Denmark was felt again.
His thunderous words that resembled those inflammatory ones of the nineties, how “the Serb will never go in the pit again”, resonated in Serbia and Republic of Srpska last year.
The whiteboard with a magical black, round and flat number of, a total of 700,000 dead, killed, missing, and deceased was appearing on tv screens on those days.
Then, this figure is further distributed equally and roundly to 500,000 dead Serbs: 40,000 Roma, 33,000 Jews, 20,000 children, and then 127,000 antifascists- which gives a round number somewhat shy of a million.
But, not to be cynical, what these numbers hide, while they secretly pile up in the years to come, is a much deeper evil- so muddy, slippery and sticky, that you can barely approach it normally without accidentally getting injured, poisoned or lost it in forever.
Highway to Hell
In my travels to Croatia, for a project I was working on, visits to Jasenovac and Donja Gradina were also included in the itenerary.
For those who are unfamiliar: all of the area was once a large concentration camp called Jasenovac, which, unfortunately, ran from 1941 to 1945. Donja Gradina was just one part of the complex, and now parts of the remnants of the separated camp belong to Republic of Croatia, while the other to the Republic of Srpska.
For the first time in my life, for this 23 years, I have gone to the place about which I’ve heard so many times, watched documentaries, listened to the news and various inflammatory rhetorics about it, and even explored it myself, as a occult site on which a common man was a demonized enemy of the Independent State of Croatia (NDH).
Serbian children have been taught from youth, in all possible ways, that today’s Croatia has Ustasha heritage; that nothing has changed there, that the Croats continue to kill the Serb infants and that “we” have nothing to look for there.
In front of the Jasenovac memorial center, one of the curators was waiting for us and for an hour he took us through those green fields, where once the devil’s dungeon stood.
Pushed away from nationalistic manipulations – of which, I admit, I was a part of in the past – I was trying to assess whether our guide is yet another attempt in this twisted wave of historical revision.
Did the population of the NDH know what was happening in these camps? I probed.
“Of course they knew, it’s just that nobody was allowed to do anything. Just a word against them, and they would be brought here. For example, the Ustashas would just ran in a nearby village and kill a few hundred people. So, everything was known, everybody just kept silent “, he said.
When asked about officially confirmed number of dead people found in the camp area, he answered that the figure reaches some 84,000. On the website of the Jasenovac Memorial Center, there is a number of 83,145, which was last updated in March 2013.
“I don’t believe that the number of victims will ever be final, because many have already died, some, who are still alive, were very young then and can barely remember anything, but we think that it’s about 100,000. But I would not want to play with such numbers,” the curator pointed out.
In the continuation of the visit, he was thoroughly trying to explain to young students why the Jasenovac was commemorated in three lines for the second year in a row, why we have monstrous revisions, relativization and revitalization of the NDH and whether there are some other historians who will stand in the way of the schizophrenic force of Ustasha.
“Annually we have about 12,000 visitors, perhaps not so much, and as far as schools are concerned, in the past year there were, I think, 12 grades. And that is it.
On the level of whole Croatia”, he recalled. You could see on his face that he didn’t knew what else to say. He would have probably cried if he could.
As we talked, word by word, he said: “This madness should be put to an end. For once we will really have to draw a line that we must not cross. The whole revisionist team, including the one that filmed “Jasenovac – the Truth”, the former Minister of Culture, and others, if it continues like this, we will have to say to them: “Okay, you claim there were no casualties. Then we’ll put out that figure of 700,000, as 84,000 is obviously not enough for you, so we’ll see what it will do, because all they do is find our mistakes, and so far they have not given any argument or proof”, he said.
“You know how someone said: ‘They came for the communists, I was not a communist. They came for the social democrats, I was not a social democrat. They came for the Jews, I was not Jewish. And then they came for me.'”
The whole time he was trying, as rationally as possible, to explain how the camp functioned.
“5000 Ustashas received salary here. And they all fled when it was time to run. Do you think any of them were caught? All those poor, ordinary people who were used as a human shield were all killed at Bleiburg, to which they so zealously allude. They all fled, and now they are trying to, as Tuđman called it, ‘mix our bones!’ Well, they can’t! Victims from Jasenovac and Bleiburg are not the same, and they never will be,” he finished, visibly agitated.
In the tour of the memorial museum, different opinions can be noted in the book of impressions.
“It’s a shame how the largest death camp is shown. Insufficient display of what really happened here,” it was written, while the second comment was: ”Stop slandering Croatia and its people with such disgusting lies and untruths. There is no evidence for anything that is claimed here”.
It was time for Donja Gradina. Nightmare in Republika Srpska Street
If I was only ten years younger, a hundred percent crazy, cut off from the entire planet and came from a place where water and electricity are only just being introduced, then maybe I would say that what is displayed in Donja Gradina is normal, but I really can not.
I tried to understand the pictures I saw on the white walls. I honestly wanted to understand what kind of an Goebbels-like mind you need to have, so that you force a child to draw anything disgusting on the topic of “Jasenovac”.
I imagine how the art professor is entering the class where she says that today’s topic is “Jasenovac” and that the best works will be sent to the competition. And then all kids rush to their parents, who expect it with a ready creativity, to draw the abstract, surreal, baroque, and all other possible directions of the idea on how hell on earth looks.
What’s going on?
After a short drive, the crossing of the Bosniak-Serb-Croat border, on the left curve we headed for the over-Sava region, where the Ustasha led the detainees into the woods- where they killed, butchered, choked, tortured and buried them in the end.
And here, of course, we are being awaited by another curator who addresses us, briefly explains where we are and what actually happened here.
After a short speech, we stop in a small cottage, which should be something like a small museum, as the paintings are displayed on the walls, and in the middle of that room there are various archival data and information about the criminal state and its camp. We soon scatter around, exploring another part of inferno.
Wires, blood, knives, dungeons, hanging, choking, raping and slaughtering children and old women, are just some of the fascinatingly disturbing postcards drawn from the Jasenovac nightmares. Our second curator kept silent while we were quickly looking. On the table, next to the door where we entered, there was a huge book of impressions. I browse through the pages, and I don’t see any comment, glorification, praise, criticism, as in Jasenovac, but only the names of some children and in which school grades they were enrolled.
The spark of the sixth sense roamed the corridors of my consciousness. At the same time, I looked back at the pictures that hung on the wall, and fixed my eyes on the barely visible papers on which the author’s names were written. And right next to them, it was written in which grade the creator was in and in which school is he enrolled.
“Wait, these are primary school kids?” I asked.
“Yes, yes they are,” he replied.
“Is this a competition?” I continued, bewildered.
“Well, yes, it’s on every year,” he answered.
“Are there perhaps some of the best works?” I asked, slightly ironically.
“Yes, yes, just the one you stand in front of,” he pointed with his finger.
Frozen from the nothingness that appeared before my eyes, I just walked alongside a multitude of these pictures, not looking at them, but at the names and surnames of those children who were at their arts class, or at home, with their parents above their heads who were surely helping them in the picturesque construction of how their grandmothers, grandfathers, and other relatives were killed by the Ustasha knife.
“But is there a higher goal for all this?” I asked.
“There is – a culture of memory,” he cemented.
Coming out of this “memory factory”, we headed for the forest where all these crimes took place. On the way there, I spoke a few words with a woman from the French Embassy in Croatia, who was with us all the time.
“Is that not a bit too much?” she said in English.
“I don’t know what to tell you,” I smiled sadly.
In front of us, in the midst of the forest, those whiteboards from the television appeared, with those even blacker numbers. All so big, so round and so full of everything and anything. We sat in a circle around our curator who began his regular speech for everyone who came.
“And who are those 128,000 antifascists?” I interrupted him.
“Well, these are other ethnic minorities”.
“They are not just Croats, there are Slovenians, Macedonians, Montenegrins, but none of them have suffered like the Serbs”.
“So they are mostly Croats?” I was persistent.
“Um, not only them, there are Macedonians, and Slovenians …” he repeated as a broken record.
After a short story about the “butchering endeavor”, the curator first answered that there was a list of all 700,000 murdered, but then, only when slightly more pressed by us, he nearly said to “keep it between us” that the number on the board is not exact at all.
“There is an official figure in Belgrade of about 84,000 people, probably over 100,000, but I can not say that,” he whispered to everyone.
“Why is this board here then?” Someone asked, as he only shrugged and shook his head desperately.
“I don’t know what to tell you,” he smiled sourly.
Back in Black
As soon as I was coming back to Zagreb, a lightbulb of suspicion in the hell I felt there light up in my head. On the Croatian side, the museum was exhaustively empty, shy and wrapped in whitish-diplomatic gloves. The fact is that it’s a permanent exhibition since 2006, but what has not been noticed, is how the perpetrator actually looks. Such a site needs a direct framework of evil, or it will, as it is widely done, be dispersed and switched to different forms.
So today, like Serbia, Croatia has criminals, bloodsheders and executioners who got off free, only to spite each other in all of this, while the victim ultimately pays the most. Serbian part of “Donja Gradina” neither warns, nor imposes, nor sees, nor frames, but in a passionately masochistic manner employs evil that, unfortunately, happened here. A miserable exhibition hanging on the walls of a house will not produce any normal culture of memory.
On the contrary, it is a systematized indoctrination of children throughout the Republic of Srpska that will not see a clear distinction between NDH and today’s Croatia. And what is most prominent here is a primitive system of vengeful character.
However, this exhibition was preceded by a whole series of decisions. Literally written: first it was an idea, then an accepting of the idea by the state institutions, then finding the money for it, announcing the competition, the date of submission, then a bunch of children who create everything, then forming the commission, and commission reviewing, taking the best works, opening the exhibition, and organizing excursions and exhibitions, then … A whole branch perfected to the last end.
In the end, what should be expected from the people who, instead of marking the liberation, mark the opening of Jasenovac? And this is precisely what the “memorial exhibition” serves. To create hatred and to cast an anathema of evil in the eyes of their children towards all people, who, incidentally, live in a neighboring country. There is also a problem with those alleged 128,000 antifascists, because – if it is the exact figure, I won’t go there, there is certainly someone who is competent – they are majority Croats and Muslims, but that’s, god forbid, not politically correct to say.
What Slovenians and Macedonians?
And that’s why, unfortunately, Jasenovac still works. Because there is constant “killing” of new people, and creating new monsters. On one side of the Sava, this vile black hole arouses Ustasha ghosts, while on the other, it creates bloodthirsty avengers. It turns out that it had never been shut down