MOSTEC, Slovenia — Below Slovenia's cornfields, ski slopes and school yards lie skulls, bones and teeth — the remains of thousands of people whose fates have been lost for decades.
In 1945, enraged anti-Nazi fighters slaughtered suspected collaborators, fascists and panicked civilians who tried to flee through the region to the West, leaving graves scattered from a spree of vengeance that turned the tiny country into what historians call the biggest post-WWII killing site in Europe.
Slovenian officials have a list of about 600 suspected graves, at least
one in each community, daunting in its sheer scope and amounting to
perhaps 100,000 bodies. The government has promised to find them all,
but progress has only inched along. Most will never be identified.
"It marks you for your whole life," said Zdravko Vekic, whose family
joined the flight from his native Bosnia-Herzegovina when he was just a
10-year-old boy. On a torturous, grueling journey, his uncle disappeared
somewhere along the way.
"Even today, I shiver thinking of my uncle's bones lying somewhere
underground instead of in our family grave, where I can lay some flowers
for him, too."
Digging up the past is difficult work, and critics say there is little
political will to investigate — because of the costs, but mostly because
of a long taboo on the subject, the presumed guilt of many victims and
decades of teaching that the antifascist killers were the good guys.
Unlike its neighbors, Slovenia — the first country to secede from
Yugoslavia in 1991 — largely escaped the bloodshed of the 1990s Balkan
ethnic wars. Its mass graves are older, and its youngest war survivors
are nearing 70-years-old. Some wonder why they should dig up a painful
past that has been buried so long.
"Whenever we find a mass grave, there are some saying: 'Let go off the
past, you want to turn around history, to make winners look like
villains,'" Mitja Ferenc, a historian who has worked investigating mass
graves told The Associated Press. "No one talks about victims. They all
get into political wrangling over who started the war, who finished it,
who killed more."
The victims "were never prosecuted and tried. Maybe they were guilty, but they too have a right to a grave."
Slovenia, which during the war was occupied by Italy and Germany, became
a killing field in May and June of 1945, as thousands in the newly
formed Yugoslavia — including Germans, Italians, Hungarians, Croatians,
and Serbs — tried to escape to Austria.
Some made it. But others were turned back by the British-led Allied
forces and handed over to the partisans, the antifascist troops of
iconic Yugoslav leader Josip Broz Tito, who ruled over the communist
country until his death in 1980. The partisans killed most of them in
the country's woods, fields, and canyons.
For years, communist authorities denied that the executions happened and
crushed any attempt to reveal them. Evidence was destroyed. No
exhumation ever took place. That changed in name with the fall of
communism in 1990 and the disintegration of Yugoslavia.
Slovenia is now run by the Social Democrats, the successors to Tito's
party and the antifascists. Some in the rightist opposition and the
Roman Catholic church are seen as sympathetic to the Home Guard, a
wartime militia that collaborated with the Nazis.
The legacy of the antifascists is still cherished, if controversial. The
capital, Ljubljana, changed the name of one of its main boulevards
after the 1990s when Tito's repressive methods were no longer a secret,
but City Hall recently decided to name another street after the leader.