Fact and fantasy collide at the Penang War Museum in Malaysia.
The Balkans have known horrors that most of us would struggle to imagine. During WWII, local populations were tortured, dismembered, raped and burned. The Nazis and their allies built camps here – Jasenovac, Sisak, Jadovno and others – to facilitate suffering on an industrial scale. Hundreds of thousands were detained, many of those were killed, and the memory of these events would leave deep scars across the psyche of the region.
After the war, the peoples of a now-unified Yugoslavia raised monuments to the dead above the ruins of concentration camps; and monuments to the victors in the fight against fascism, on the same fields where blood had been spilled. They called them ‘spomenici,’ from the Serbo-Croat word for ‘memory’: memorials, or memory places. Places that would not forget.
Last year I visited 37 of these Yugoslav memorial sites on a month-long road trip through the Balkans. The experience left a lasting impression on me – in particular, I was moved by how colourful these places of suffering had become. Many have slipped into decline since socialism’s heyday, but even these semi-derelict monuments felt full of life: with flowers and graffiti, children and families, picnic benches, camping sites and joggers. Compared to Western Europe, where tourists are publicly shamed for having fun at places of remembrance, the Yugoslav attitude struck me as quite the opposite. These playful monuments seemed to be giving death the middle finger; they were telling dead partisans, “Here’s the life you bought us with your sacrifice.”
But there was one memorial in particular where it felt like death had won; where new life failed to blossom and an overwhelming sense of sadness – a feeling difficult to put into words – lay heavy in its place.
Memorialisation is sometimes defined as the process of taming, domesticating past horrors; but here that process had failed. This WWII memorial park had been poisoned by subsequent conflict, its message of peace and resilience subverted by its own tragic history. For all its good intentions – the swaggering post-war optimism of its architectural vision – there was something nasty about the monument on Grmeč Mountain.
The Road to Mount Grmeč
There were five of us in the car, a full berth. David and Steve had flown from Perth; Rachel and Tom from New York. We had met a few months earlier, on a tour I was running in Bulgaria. Now I was photographing monuments in the nations of former Yugoslavia, and they’d all decided to join me on the research trip.
But on this particular day, in Bosnia, things had already got off to a difficult start.
We took the backroads from Banja Luka to Sanski Most, with Google Maps directing us along a route that gradually disintegrated, one mile after the next. Two lanes became one. Then we lost the tarmac, and so on. By mid-morning, the road beneath us was a dirt track but we kept pushing on, always hoping to find tarmac just around the corner.
Instead we found a map – a huge signboard beside the road, marking all the potential locations of unexploded landmines. We were in the middle of a red swathe right now, a danger zone. Fortunately the road ahead showed evidence of recent traffic; but beyond that, on either side, hidden death lurked in the long grass.
The road got worse, deteriorating into a churning, mud-chute rollercoaster; a trench pockmarked with digger tracks and walled on either side with several feet of hard, displaced earth. Turning around would be impossible and so we kept going. One of our group grew sick from the vehicle’s shuddering, jolting movements through the dirt ditch, and when we stopped to let him out the air smelled heavy with the scent of rotted meat. It was overwhelming, very close by, and I wondered if perhaps a cow had trodden on a mine.
Eventually we hit tarmac. The road became a road again, and as we picked up speed we passed through a small village perched on the edge of the danger zone. In the village green, yellow hazard tape hung from trees to cordon off a little square of grass between the houses. Danger! Mines! read a sign attached to the tape.
After all that, the memorial in Sanski Most was underwhelming: a broken metal form, smaller than it looked in pictures, sat crumbling in an overgrown memorial plot. But it didn’t matter – today was a travel day, a long drive from one trip highlight to the next, with a couple of lesser targets pinned to the map along the way. Soon we’d be in Croatia, exploring a derelict airbase inside a mountain… anything we saw on the way there was a bonus.
The next pin on my map was at Mount Grmeč: the Korčanica Memorial Zone, and at its centre, a white monument in the shape of an opening flower. As we navigated towards the marker, driving into the valley beneath the mountain, it soon became clear that this region had seen some heavy conflict. The roads were fine, but they were lined on either side with ruined houses. We saw more, and I began spotting holes punched through brick walls, scars caused by something quite different to abandonment and natural decay. I had an image in my mind of tanks driving through this valley, hellfire raining on rural cottages.
The map guided us down into the valley basin, through a wide landscape strewn with broken houses; some patched up just enough to be habitable. Eventually we passed a turnoff to the north, and the map advised us to follow. The track didn’t appear to go anywhere though, and after a few bumpy minutes we reached a dead-end in the drive outside a farmhouse. There was no monument here.
We were just trying to turn around when I saw a woman watching us from the house. She was dressed in a chaotic outfit of mismatched shawls and jackets, framing a weathered face and dark eyes.
The woman approached the car and I tried asking her directions to the Grmeč Spomenpark. Something in her face changed. It was clear that she knew the place – she began shouting at us, waving her hands about in wide arcs. She didn’t seem angry so much as passionate, and I wished I could understand what she was saying.
It didn’t make for particularly helpful directions. I had already picked up some basics of the language: if she’d answered with words like “left,” “right” or “straight on,” I could have worked with that. But by the time we got back on the road we were none the wiser. Behind us, the woman stood on her porch to watch us go.
Rachel pulled her phone out. Her map looked different to mine – she had roads that I didn’t – and the same co-ordinates brought up a very different route; leading us out of the devastated valley, to approach the mountain from the other side.
Soon enough, we were turning off the main road onto a track marked with a faded sign saying ‘Spomenpark.’ I glanced at my phone. There was nothing on the map, no turning, and the blue location marker on my screen left the roads behind altogether as it made its way into uncharted green space. I put my map away – it would be no use to us here.
We began to ascend the mountain. For just a few minutes the views were incredible – right across the valley, back the way we’d come – and then suddenly they were gone; swallowed by trees, as the road levelled out and we set a course towards the heart of the forest.
Korčanica Memorial Zone
The car radio was playing folk music; wild and tragic melodies. As we climbed the signal began to fade though, it crackled and then died. The sun was bright, but here the canopies were too thick and tangled to let any of it through; we were walled in, a grey-green curtain closing over us.
A battered sign announced our arrival, and around the next corner we came upon a building in the forest clearing. It was chaotic, a stacked brick triangle that might once have been a hotel… it looked long-since abandoned though, gutted by fire and frost. For the briefest moment I thought I glimpsed a clothes line, fresh laundry hanging across an open corridor inside, before we passed on by and the building rolled out of sight.
That’s when we saw it up ahead: a pale orb, just visible between the peeling bark of tree trunks. We followed an unmarked turn-off in the direction of the structure, a rough track that stopped beside a derelict visitor centre. Leaving the car parked by the ruins, we continued on foot.
There was a sound like a waterfall, crashing torrents that echoed about the glade. As I passed beneath the trees however, it stopped; and before me lay a stagnant pond, its surface as smooth as dirty glass. Silence surrounded us – no birds, no waterfalls, only a trick of the wind.
The monument was larger than I expected, but for all its curves the shape did not feel welcoming. Two petals peeled open to the sky above and as I followed the concrete path between them, thick, decorative glass crunched beneath my feet.
Inside this dead flower, a split-level sanctum that had once contained a memorial museum was now torn open, stripped to leave little more than ragged concrete. A once-grand staircase spiralled down into darkness and decay.
Nearby I noticed a dead toad, its small body twisted in a position of struggle. Then I saw another one, and more; there were dozens of them, I realised, dried-out corpses scattered about the ruined memorial space. I couldn’t tell if something was killing them… or if perhaps, by some strange instinct, these amphibians had chosen the monument as the place they went to die. The air was scented with the stale-water smell of sun-dried algae.
This place had been a hospital once.
In 1941, on St Elijah’s Day, the Croatian Ustaše massacred between 7,000-10,000 Serbs and Jews from the province of Sanski Most. Over the following years the local partisans pushed back – and in 1942 they built a hospital here in the forests of Mount Grmeč. This partisan hospital treated thousands of people, from all over the region; the largest of its kind, a complex of some 19 buildings including everything down to a bakery and power station. In 1943 however, the complex was overrun by the enemy and Axis forces burned the hospital to the ground.
The Korčanica Memorial Zone was created much later, designed by the Serbian architect Ljubomir Denković and opened in 1979 to commemorate the old partisan hospital.
Đuro Trkulja, former curator of the Korčanica Memorial Zone, describes an audio archive created from his interviews with WWII veterans; people who had seen firsthand the war-time atrocities committed around Mount Grmeč. This library of memories was preserved in the memorial space beneath the flower-shaped monument. A place of “enchanting magnificence,” Trkulja called it.
In the 1990s, conflict broke out again – another round of atrocities – and the memorial park at Grmeč would never recover from the wounds it suffered during the Bosnian War.
I made my way down to the pool. It looked more like a jelly than water, a congealed soup of broken glass and toadspawn. Out near the middle, I spotted a dead toad floating on the surface – then suddenly it moved, diving out of sight beneath the muck.
Walking carefully around the stone border, I tiptoed between the forest and the water’s edge. There were bones in the grass, tiny fragments scattered all about. I found one half-decayed carcass that was still moist, slimy, the bones in the process of being picked clean by a troop of black beetles.
Three-quarters of the way around the slime pool, I found another toad in the water. This one was laying eggs – a dark chain of spawn dangling from its body, a tentacle trailing down into inky green darkness.
Steve, meanwhile, had found a newt. He held it in his hands, and the tiny amphibian left a translucent trail behind as it moved from one palm to the other. Only slimy things lived here anymore, I concluded.
Meanwhile the wind continued to switch on and off, howling about the clearing like a waterfall, then abruptly cutting out to leave us in silence.
I moved back towards the dome, passing between dry corpses on the way. The monument made me nervous. There was something uncanny about the shape of it, something quietly alarming. The sunlight bathed the glade in harsh contrast, so that it glowed with almost supernatural zeal: a bone white flower amidst a forest of shadows. Even the graffiti looked tired.
Ljubomir Denković had designed this monument as a symbol of life. A new flower opening above a memorial pool; freedom grown out of sacrifice. Somewhere along the way however, that symbolism had been inverted. Slimy things were breeding in the waters of death now, and then crawling to the flower bud to die.
Behind the monument, an overgrown path led deeper into the forest. Every so often it opened into a plaza, flagstones just visible beneath the weeds, flowerbeds spilling over with wild creepers. Stone boulders sat like way markers in the clearings and I followed them, one after another, into the trees.
It was clear that the Korčanica Memorial Zone had been quite massive; more than just the flower at its heart, it was composed from a network of paths that cut through the forest to link together smaller monuments and shrines. With all this undergrowth however, it was impossible to get a feel for the size of the place. We explored – walking to the next boulder to investigate, then spotting one more in the distance. We’d walk to that one, and then beyond it someone would point out another white marker, barely peeking out above a sea of weeds.
We could never tell how big, exactly, only bigger: however far we walked there would be one more, like breadcrumbs luring us deeper into the forest. Around the path meanwhile, large potholes gaped open like craters and I wondered if there had ever been landmines deployed here.
I stopped beside a stone wheel, propped up at an angle in the centre of what had once been a circular plaza. It looked as though there had been metal panels attached – panels that might have held names, information, meaning. Now though, stripped bare, the message was unintelligible. Past the wheel, deeper in the trees, the next white boulder beckoned in the distance; but I resisted the call, and turned back to the monument instead.
Back through those petals, and down the staircase I went. A glass dome from the upper floor now lay as broken shards on the level below. Some kind of insulation lagging, rotted and damp, spilled out through wounds in the walls.
A doorway behind the staircase fed into a series of pitch-black spaces, the last of them squashed beneath a curved, bulging ceiling. I put my hand to it by torchlight: the surface was wet, the concrete slimy to touch.
I made my way back outside. David was setting up his drone for a flight around the monument. I stood to watch it take off: the machine rose between the trees, into the upper currents, and then suddenly it turned and fired off into the distance. The drone flew away from the monument, as fast as it was able… while David swore and thumped the controls, apparently unable to stop it.
“It’s programmed to return if it loses signal,” he said hopefully, then switched the control pack off and waited. Sure enough, a few minutes later the drone re-entered the clearing, sheepishly coming in to land beside its master. He didn’t try flying it again.
The other Australian turned to me and said, “Fuck this place, hey.” I wanted to disagree but found I couldn’t. Korčanica felt hostile, unnaturally so, and oppressive in ways that defied rational explanation. I had a deep, almost instinctive desire to leave; we all did.
On the way back to the car, someone joked that the vehicle might no longer be where we’d left it… that we’d find ourselves trapped on Grmeč for the night. Nobody laughed.
We drove away from the monument and as we passed that abandoned hotel, I watched carefully for signs of life: sure enough, this time I spotted two coats hanging on hooks beside a door. A pair of boots sat on a shelf beside the entrance. Somebody lived here with the toads.
A mile or so further down the road, the radio suddenly crackled back to life. Tragic folk songs filled the car once more, and then the canopies parted: green valleys folded out ahead of us and we drove into spring sunlight, leaving the gloom and decay of the Korčanica Memorial Park behind us.
The Exclusion Zone.
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