Enter the Bloody History

POLITICS,  03 Apr 2009  / By Barbara Štor

At the beginning of March, a mass grave in Barbara Rov, a mine tunnel near Laško, was discovered. Investigators and historians estimate that there were approximately 300 people killed in the aftermath of the Second World War in the cave.

The investigation of the Huda Jama cave started last August. The victims are believed to be Nazi collaborators who sought to escape from the former Yugoslavia’s communist regime in 1945. “We’ve found the mummified remains of between 200 and 300 people,” explained Marko Štrovs, the head of the government’s army cemeteries sector. According to Štrovs, the victims bore no visible wounds, suggesting they had been “killed with gas.”

“Current information, based on oral testimony indicates that the slain people could have been Slovenian or Croatian citizens,” said Andreja Valič, the head of the Slovenian Research Center for National Reconciliation. State Prosecutor Barbara Brezigar, who visited the site, described seeing the remains as “horrible.”

“It is one of the most shocking things you could see in your life,” stated deeply moved the prosecutor, who added that any investigation into the crimes will be difficult since most of those responsible are likely dead.


Hidden and Destroyed

So far, approximately 600 secret mass graves have been registered across Slovenia, believed to be holding up to 100,000 bodies; thus far, no one has been charged or brought to trial in connection to the crimes.

The Tezno forest, in north-eastern Slovenia, is presumably the grave of approximately 15,000 victims executed after World War II by the former communist regime. According to Slovenian officials, this mass grave, found near Maribor, might be the largest in Europe, surpassing even that of the Bosnian town of Srebrenica, where the Serbian militias killed estimated 8,000 Muslim men and boys in 1995.

“The killings that took place here have no comparison in Europe. In the two months after the war, more people were killed here than in the four years of war,” said Jože Dežman, a historian who heads the committee for registering hidden graves.

Figures differ as well as the opinions on whose all these bodies could be. While there is no doubt thousands of Slovenes ended up in pits without a trial, some say that we should keep in mind that Slovenia was a place where many defeated armies and militias retreating from Balkans towards north came to the mercy of Allies.

In November 2005, the Commission on Concealed Mass Graves was established. Its task is to find and document mass grave sites. More precisely, until 2008 Mitja Ferenc, the chief historian in charge of grave research registered 581 graves: Kočevski Rog, the Tezno forest, Lancovo, Škofja Loka are just some of the locations that have been hiding the forgotten victims for decades. Summary executions were a more or less closely guarded secret and people only spoke about it in closed circles. For almost five decades, people were also not allowed to visit the graves, while many of them were destroyed or covered by waste. Even today, people do not feel comfortable revealing this dark chapter of the history.


Who Did It?

Crimes from the years following 1945 are still unaccounted for and so far, none of the executioners has been brought to trial. There was an attempt in 2005, when a former Slovenian communist leader, Mitja Ribičič was charged with genocide for his role in the killings but the charges were dropped because of lack of evidence. According to Jože Dežman the evidence was gathered, “...but the fact is that most evidence was systematically destroyed in the past.”

However in the connection of the Huda Jama killings the president of the Slovenian Association of WWII Veterans Janez Stanovnik said that the murders took place under the leadership of Josip Broz Tito. “The Partisan army was dissolved in March 1945 and joined the Yugoslav Army. It acted under the leadership of Josip Broz Tito, and not the Slovene headquarters,” Stanovnik explained.

In response, Anton Drobnič, former state prosecutor replied that Slovene partisans were behind all the crimes headed by the communists. “Tito was his commander, commander of Janez Stanovnik, the partisans and the communists,” he said.

It seems that even after more than six decades, post-war events still divide the Slovene nation and reconciliation appears to be impossible. Endless debates weigh the motives between revenge and ideological cleansing, staining the image of Partisan fight against Nazis.

Perhaps the best illustration of how strongly history separates the people is the case of Janez and Justin Stanovnik, who often appear in public commenting on the post war executions. They are cousins; however Janez Stanovnik is the president of the Slovenian Association of WWII Veterans, while Justin Stanovnik was a member of the collaborationist Domobranci (Home Guard) militia, whose brother was among those secretly killed in 1945. Two cousins found themselves on opposite sides during the war and, after all this time, they remain so.


President’s Slip

As if the discovery of the mass grave alone had not upset the Slovenian people enough, the statement of the Slovenian president Danilo Türk added fuel to the fire. When asked about the discovery of Huda Jama, he replied that he would not comment on second-class issues. When challenged whether post-war executions are a second class issue, he answered that this was referring to political manipulations of the subject, since the question was made on the occasion of the international women’s day, which was supposed to be the main topic then. The agitated Slovenian People’s Party (SLS) immediately demanded president’s apology or his resignation. However Türk later clarified his position saying that post-war executions were not a second-class issue, but that political manipulations were.


Remembered Victims

The first commemoration in memory of post-war victims was held at Kočevski Rog in July 1990. The event, known as the reconciliation ceremony, was addressed by Milan Kučan, the then president of Slovenia, who stressed, that such a symbolic act of reconciliation “could have or should have happened before.”

However, according to Kučan, “New times had to come first for the Slovenians who were at the opposite sides in WWII to be able to reconcile with our past in order to let it become history.”

Besides the one in Kočevski Rog, another monument to the victims was established at the village of Teharje in eastern Slovenia, which is also an important step towards national reconciliation. Another step closer to the reconciliation would be the adoption of a long-disputed war victims law. The differences in opinion persist over Article 6 of the act, which says that collaborators of occupying forces in WWII cannot be considered as victims of war violence.

However in the middle of March, the ruling Social Democrats (SD) put forward the latest coalition-sponsored war victims bill, which would extend victim status to children whose parents were killed or who suffered any other form of damage as a result of actions by Partisan or the Allies during WWII.

The proposal is yet to be discussed with the opposition and if the debate would be successful, Slovenia just might close an important chapter of its history and bring this nation closer to reconciliation.


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