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Destroying Bosnia’s Partisan Past

In the city of Mostar, the graves of 700 fallen resistance fighters have been destroyed in a fascist attack. It is the latest assault by far-right forces confident of burying the anti-fascist legacy of building a better world.

The Partisan Memorial Cemetery in Mostar, Bosnia and Herzegovina, following an attack with sledgehammers in June 2022. (All images credit: Matt Broomfield)

Entering the partisan graveyard in Mostar, Bosnia and Herzegovina, I literally stumble on the remnants of a young life. From the fragment of stone I can tell the young anti-Nazi militant lived from 1923-1943, but not make out his name—nor, therefore, his religious or ethnic background. Like all 700 graves in the monument, his tombstone was smashed to pieces last week in a coordinated night attack conducted by Croat fascists.

Mostar lives in the shadow of its recent history. As the Yugoslav federation broke up alongside the collapse of the USSR in the 1990s, a socialist country known for decades as a site of relative tolerance between minority populations and uniquely open relations with both East and West underwent a rapid reversal. The region was plunged into ethno-nationalist war and ethnic partition imposed by both local actors and international powers. The conflict was marked by atrocities committed by all sides but particularly Serbian forces, principal among which was the Srebenica genocide conducted against (Muslim) Bosniaks by (Orthodox Christian) Serbs.

Graffiti at the partisan graveyard in Mostar, before the recent attack.

In modern-day Mostar, the Bosnian war is commemorated and used to underpin a burgeoning tourist trade in a fashion poignant and repugnant in equal measure. Just €1 will buy you a photo opportunity with a decommissioned AK-47 besides the UNESCO-listed Old Bridge, a seventeenth-century Ottoman construction blown up by Croat forces but since restored. Its heritage cannot be avoided. Less obvious to tourists, perhaps, is the city’s continued division along ethnic lines, with Bosniaks to the east of the river, (Catholic) Croats to the west, and the Serbian population mostly expelled to the Serbian state-within-a-state, Republika Srpksa.

When I ask Sead Đulić, head of the local chapter of the Association of Antifascists and Fighters in the People’s Liberation War (SABNOR) and for nearly fifty years a prominent theatre director, about the ethnic origin of the partisans buried in the monument, his response is clear: ‘First and foremost, they were partisans. Serbs, Croats, Bosniaks, Albanians, Slovenians… They were all famed for their bravery. But the memorial cemetery has been attacked multiple times since [the fall of communism in] 1992.’

His SABNOR colleague Mirad Ćupina points out that locals, too, are kept in the dark about this longer history of inter-ethnic cooperation against the fascist threat, both during WWII and under Yugoslav President Josip Broz Tito: ‘The local education system is ethnically segregated from kindergarten up, and history lessons stop at the outbreak of WWII.’ Murals in the city exhort passers-by to ‘never forget’, but this instruction is clearly selective.

Graffiti at the partisan graveyard in Mostar, before the recent attack.

Indeed, many of the streets in Mostar where tourists now sip Aperol Spritz still bear the name of fascist collaborators like Mile Budak, whose collaborationist, fascist Ustaše movement ruled Nazi Croatia under laws cribbed from Nuremberg, conducted genocide against the Jewish and Roma population, and forcibly expelled the Serbs; Jure Francetić of the fascist ‘Black Legion’, which implemented many of these policies; Ustaše Foreign Minister Mladen Lorković and Minister of Armed Forces Rafael Boban; and collaborationist Catholic cardinal Aloysius Stepinac.

These same streets lead through the Croat quarter to the Yugoslav-era WWII monument, prominently located yet hidden by greenery, accessible only along an unkempt and litter-strewn track. The contrast between the well-kept graveyards in the city centre housing Bosniak martyrs below Ottoman-style obelisks and kept open to tourist walking tours on the one hand, and the long-derelict partisan graveyard on the other, is clear. Swastikas and Ustaše ‘U’ insignia were daubed over the monuments even before the recent demolition. Flowers have been trampled underfoot.

The desecration of graves is a crime against history, what one might call necrocide or murder of the already-dead, denying their progress into memory and rightful commemoration. It is also an immediate statement to the present.

Sead Đulić, head of the local chapter of the Association of Antifascists and Fighters in the People’s Liberation War (right) and his colleague Mirad Ćupina.

Locals say a group of twenty to thirty street fascists destroyed the graves, working through the night with sledgehammers. As Đulić observes, ‘They would not be able to do this without the complicity of the police and local government.’

He accuses Mostar’s mayor Mario Kordic, representing the right-wing nationalist Croatian Democratic Union, of fanning ethnic tensions ahead of the Bosnian general election scheduled for October 2022. ‘The local government confirms to ideas defeated in 1945, and the local quislings and Hitler copy-cats are growing strong in this fertile soil for fascism.’

One trigger for the attack is the fact the Yugoslav government expropriated (and paid for) the cemetery plot from the Catholic Church: more broadly, attacks on pan-Yugoslav communist heritage and its multiethnic ideals bolster sectarian ideologues in the region. But these issues cannot be explained away as a matter of outdated local chauvinisms, with no place in a modern Europe.

As Yugoslav anarchist Andrej Grubačić argues in his essay collection Don’t Mourn, Balkanize!, the Balkans should properly be remembered for a history of tolerance despite difference—both prior to the rise of nineteenth-century nationalisms in a pre-modern patchwork of ‘Bogomils, klephts, heretics, pirates and rebels’, and in the imperfectly-realised ideals of Tito’s Yugoslavia from 1945 to 1992.

A fragment of a grave.

‘The entire world is against similar actions conducted by ISIS in Syria and Iraq, yet silent in the face of this attack,’ says Ćupina. ‘The international community is open to deal with nationalists who are de facto fascists.’

In Imagining the Balkans, Maria Todorova demonstrates that ‘balkanisation’ is not the inevitable product of tensions on a backward and fractured peninsula. Rather, in this contested territory, both East and West have sought influence through nationalist strongmen, presenting ‘balkanisation’ as an inevitability in order to justify their policies in the region. Today, Bosnia and Herzegovinia lies at the bottom of the international food-chain, as Russia exerts pressure via Serbia, and the US via Turkey. ‘Those on the corruption black-list are invited to Brussels, and our country’s three leaders are perpetually in Istanbul, Zagreb, and Belgrade,’ adds Ćupina, sketching this triumvirate on the table surface.

With irredentist ethnic tensions on the rise, it is possible the next blows will not only strike at the dead. Serbian nationalist Milorad Dodik recently sparked Bosnia’s worst crisis in years by virtually withdrawing his community from the country’s power-sharing system in protest at the proposed criminalisation of Bosnian genocide denial. Calls for fresh ethnic partition have never been louder.

A roadside mural in Mostar.

In response, Đulić and Ćupina call for public education on the evils of fascist nationalism, but state educational programmes will remain meaningless absent economic reform. Otherwise, young people will continue to leave the country for the EU, emigration and death will continue to far outstrip birthrates, and the country will be left with a dwindling population and no demographic to push for change. There are committed young antifascists in the country, where official buildings still bear scorch marks from major anti-government protests in 2014, but local activists state this movement dwindled due to lack of political organisation or serious alternatives.

For his part, Grubačić argues in favour of ‘Balkanisation from below’—‘replacing ultra-fine ethnic partition imposed by the West in favour of an anarchistic participatory society built from the bottom up’ celebrating and enshrining local difference. It is a utopian vision, harder still to implement in the face of aggressive neoliberalisation of the economy and generational indifference. In practice, resistance to conservative nationalism in Mostar takes the form of a waning metal scene, NGO-sponsored social programmes, and US-facing trap music escapism.

A continued tradition of leftist football hooliganism notwithstanding, in Mostar anti-fascist feels synonymous with what one young local terms an ageing and nostalgic Yugoslav ‘boomer’ generation, rather than the youth. ‘It’s sad, but I want to say this attack is nothing to do with young people,’ says the barman and would-be MC at a local youth centre. ‘We just want to smoke weed and party.’

Someone has, at least, been up to the monument to cover up the swastikas and fascist insignia with spray-paint. But the partially-obscured markings are the palimpsest of a tired political culture, a negative approach to history in which each side endlessly attempts to wipe the other out but no alternative is proposed. The tradition of each dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brain of the living, and though Ćupina and Đulić bravely assert ‘no pasaran’ at the close of our interview, there is little sense of what better future might come to pass in fascist nationalism’s stead.