Near the parched garden of the Serbian Orthodox monastery, where garlic hung out to dry radiates a pungent aroma in the unrelenting sun, a polished black marble headstone towers incongruously over its humble surroundings.
The memorial honors eight Orthodox monks assassinated by Croatian fascists in August, 1941. Their bullet-riddled bodies were dumped into a nearby cavern along with Serbian villagers who were buried alive and left to suffocate. But, like thousands of other victims of Yugoslavia’s last civil war, the monks’ remains have been exhumed. They were reburied in a recent spate of religious ceremonies with a political echo.
Croatian Catholics also have dredged the bones of their victims from caverns and dried-up wells in the desolate rockery, engaging in a grisly exchange of pointed reminders of how each faith has suffered.
The craggy hills along the Neretva River are riddled with mass graves and painful memories. It was here, in the western reaches of Herzegovina, that the worst Yugoslav atrocities of World War II were committed. Hundreds of thousands died in the fascist massacres and Communist reprisals.
And as Serbs and Croats throughout the splintering federation again descend into bloodletting, many fear that here--in the Bible Belt of Yugoslavia, a region that is a wellspring of religious intensity and hair-trigger emotions--history is most at risk of repeating itself.
Religion long has been the dominant force among the peoples of the heat-baked highland extending from the Neretva north to Knin, a backward stretch of the Dinaric mountain range shared by three different faiths long accustomed to violent acts in the name of their God.
It is here that devoutly religious Catholics claim to have experienced numerous divine apparitions, transforming the remote region into a place of pilgrimage, especially the village of Medjugorje, where the Virgin Mary is said to speak with six local youths almost daily.
The territory also has produced some of Yugoslavia’s most fervent nationalists, spreading the region’s seemingly indigenous extremism to the corridors of political power in Belgrade and Zagreb. The fanatic leader of Croatia’s wartime Ustasha regime, Ante Pavelic, came from western Herzegovina, as does the self-styled duke of Serbia’s militant Chetnik guerrillas, Vojislav Seselj, who now lives in Belgrade.
Some attribute the area’s religious fervor and often fevered temperaments to the surrounding mountains that cut off the locals from modern European civilization. Others suggest that it is the punishing heat, as in the turbulent Middle East, that is behind the centuries of uprisings and extremism. A few espouse more far-fetched theories about the regional peculiarities, such as attributing the apparitions to gaseous emissions from the natural caverns where victims of wartime slaughter were left to decompose.
But few argue that in this area, where the rugged peaks grudgingly part to let the murky Neretva flow, an excess of passion has taken root in a stingy soil that lets little else grow.
“I don’t understand it, but there is a kind of hatred here,” says Jovan Nedic, a Serbian Orthodox monk who oversees the Zitomislici monastery and the sparse onion and garlic garden that helps sustain it. “These are the Balkans, and the historical burden is heavy for both sides.”
It is no coincidence that religious devotion and nationalist passions have for centuries found a flash point in this desolate valley. Poverty and isolation have bred a ferocious resentment that has made its backward peoples quick to incite.
The Dinaric region was fought over for centuries by the great empires of Hapsburg Austria and Ottoman Turkey. It hosted many of the uprisings against both powers during the 500 years before Yugoslavia was formed.
The late Serbian historian Jovan Cvijic wrote about the “Dinaric type,” a race of fierce warriors quick to lash out at any imagined threat to their Spartan, deeply religious way of life. A prominent Croatian academic, Slaven Letica, espouses a similar theory that the true conflict in Yugoslavia is one of “mountain people versus plains people,” suggesting the former are more likely to do battle for land, while the latter place a higher value on their time and money.
“This region has an inferior culture to Europe. The standards of civilization never passed over the church fence,” said Milorad Ekmecic, a Serbian historian and professor in Bosnia-Herzegovina’s capital of Sarajevo.
“The mentality of the Dinaric type is very conservative, mistrustful of progress and development and neighbors. It is an inferior mentality,” said the professor, who was born along the Neretva in Prebilovci, a Serbian village wiped out in 1941 as Croatian fascists sought to eradicate the rival faith.
Remains of the Prebilovci villagers were among the bones of 3,000 Croatian Ustasha victims unearthed from mass graves in the Neretva’s hillsides and reburied in early August in a service conducted by the head of the Serbian Orthodox church, Patriarch Pavel.
“The guilt of thousands and thousands of innocent men, women and children . . . was that they had a different faith and alphabet,” the patriarch told 20,000 Serbs who journeyed to the remote mountain village along a new span of roadway paved especially for the occasion.
A day later, 20 miles to the east in the Roman Catholic village of Donje Hrasno, Croats mourned 465 of their own, killed later in the war in retaliation for the massacres of Serbs.
Religious leaders from the area defend the exhumations and heralded the reburials as God’s will.
“Until now, you couldn’t even mention these victims,” said Father Joze Ancic, pastor of the Catholic Church in Dracevo, in the region of western Herzegovina populated almost entirely by Croats. “We have no intention of starting the conflicts again. But we could in no other way have honored our victims as God would have wished.”
Nedic, the Zitomislici friar, views the marble tombstone at the edge of his garden to be the marker of a moral rectification. “This is necessary to take care of the bodies as God would want us to,” he said. “It’s a shame that the bodies had to wait for 50 years for an honorable burial.”
Intellectuals in more developed parts of Yugoslavia, as well as many Western observers, see the penchant for revisiting the scenes of atrocity as a dangerous attempt to force followers back to the belligerent mind-set of 1941. “This is typical of what is going on as a whole, the digging up of old wounds,” a Western envoy said of the reburials. “This can in no way be interpreted as an effort at reconciliation.”
Caught in the spiritual cross-fire are the region’s Muslims, the largest ethnic and religious group in Bosnia-Herzegovina. They are still greatly outnumbered by Catholic Croats along the Neretva.
Extremism again threatens to flourish in the region because religious expression was stifled for more than 40 years under the Communists, according to Sakib Kadric, imam in the village of Visici where about 25% of the 800 families are Muslim. “There was fear that pluralism would resuscitate nationalist feeling and, in general, this is what has happened,” he said.
Kadric blamed the Serbian leadership in Belgrade for rekindling wartime hysteria and said he fears violence could consume the religious heartland again.
Nationalist leaders of Serbia and Croatia have secretly talked about dividing Bosnia-Herzegovina between them as a means to avoid further bloodshed in their undulating civil war. More than 200 have been killed in clashes in the ethnically mixed regions of Croatia, although violence has somewhat subsided since Serbian militants seized huge tracts of Croatian territory then declared their commitment to a cease-fire.
Many see the role of religion in the current Yugoslav conflict as vastly reduced from the last war, when Croatia’s Catholic church was closely aligned with the Nazi-installed Ustasha regime in what Serbs claim was a plot to eradicate Orthodoxy. In addition to the massacres, whole villages of Orthodox adherents were forcibly converted to Catholicism.
Ekmecic, the Serbian historian, theorizes that Soviet suppression of the Russian Orthodox Church after the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution inspired the Vatican to support Croatian participation in the new Yugoslav federation created a year later. With the Serbian church weakened by lost support from Russia, there was seen to be a chance of spreading the Catholic faith throughout the Balkans. With the resurgence of the Russian church in the wake of Soviet reforms, Catholics have abandoned hopes of predominance and now seek independence for Croatia, the professor claims.
Croats reject such views as Serbian propaganda, aimed at tarnishing the Catholic church by resurrecting misdeeds of the past. They cast their moves toward secession as an attempt to break free of Serbian communism and economic disaster.
“You don’t see us going around writing on our memorials, ‘Killed by the Serbs,’ complained Zlatan Zubac, a Croatian Catholic from the city of Mostar. “They (Serbs) go around invoking the name of the Ustasha as though it were in Zagreb today.”
Inscriptions on both the monks’ headstone at Zitomislici and the mass crypt at Prebilovci note that those being remembered were “killed by the Ustasha.”
Aside from the political undertones of the war-victim remembrances, Yugoslavia’s church leaders are blamed more for neglecting to make a positive contribution to inter-ethnic relations than for deliberately setting Serbs and Croats against each other.
The archbishop of Zagreb, Cardinal Franjo Kuharic, sought a meeting with Patriarch Pavel in the Bosnian town of Banja Luka in mid-August. But the Serbian church leader failed to show up.
Kuharic, however, is often reported to be equally inaccessible. One envoy of the Anglican Church said he has been seeking a meeting with Kuharic for more than a year to deliver an appeal from the Archbishop of Canterbury for a bolder effort by the church to discourage further bloodshed.
Ancic, the priest in Dracevo, contends that there is no conflict between the religious groups, although he concedes that “the national conflicts are defined by religion.”
“Given that there is no conflict, there is no need for dialogue,” the priest replied when asked why he has not met with Serbian religious leaders to smooth relations, strained for ages.
Nedic and the Orthodox sisters who now inhabit Zitomislici likewise claim there is no need to meet with the Catholics because there is no problem between the religions.
In Prebilovci, where most of the crumbling stone houses stand empty in ghostly testimony to the 1941 massacre, residents say they are fearful of the current conflict in Croatia spreading to western Herzegovina.
“Here, people tend to think and act too quickly, probably because the life is so hard and the land so infertile,” says Milan Dragicevic, a 36-year-old truck driver in the Serbian enclave of 250. “But this is not always the case. Serbs, Muslims and Croats all live together in this region. Everyone has always thought the next conflict would start here. But that didn’t happen.”