The grave of three men: Jobo, Cabo, Baco. They all look alike. Two could be brothers, the third could be the son of one, or a nephew, or a much younger brother. This youngest man (Cabo) died in 1943 at the age of 23.
The 23-year-old man of a different family looks thoughtful and resolute. His mother is dressed as if in mourning and her face is life-worn and resigned. Her hair is middle-parted and caught by a scarf. The man died in 1944; his mother died in 1977.
Another grave holds a mother, a father and their adult son. The son died before his parents, in 1993.
Rain comes. Baskets of fake flowers get wet. The view over the bay is beautiful.
In this Montenegrin cemetery overlooking the Bay of Kotor, deciphering the cyrillic script on tombs is impossible for me. However, I can make out key dates, and portraits set in gravestones help make individuals and their families more accessible. But it’s still guesswork.
About twenty churches are scattered across the Luštica peninsular, an area of 47km2. It’s a landscape that’s threaded with ancient olive groves and vines and dry stone walls, and nowhere is far from the meandering bay or the open seascape of the Adriatric. One day I get close to a monastery, tucked away at the far reach of a long winding track. A pastoral scene with a chapel, a vegetable patch and low stone buildings. And no sign of life until for a brief moment a monk emerges from behind the chapel, only to vanish into a doorway that I can’t quite see.
An alternative vision at the crest of a hill showcases ambitious plans for development. And a former concetration camp, situated on an island close by, is being transformed into a luxury resort, a project that promises: “.. calm mornings, chic evenings, and revitalising days. Rise with the sun at yoga. Dance beneath the stars at night. Life is beautifully simple when you’re with the right people, in the right place, doing the right things.” Families of those who suffered incarceration on the island have articulated their profound concerns. (The trailer of Mamula Inclusive is at the end of this post.)
More modest projects are also creeping up the coastline, although a disused submarine bunker remains undisturbed. Inland, villages overspill old boundaries (and I have an unexpected encounter with Yuri Gargarin) while at their historic hearts, buildings lie in ruins and cement mixers wait for property owners to return and create something new.
The churches and cemeteries of Luštica offer a semblance of peace and stability. However, the Orthodox church in the country is not without its own issues. According to the 2011 census, the majority of Montenegro’s population (72%) identify as Orthodox Christian, 70% of whom belong to the Serbian Orthodox Church. The much younger Montenegrin Orthodox Church (est. 1993), to which the remaining 30% belong (a 2020 poll suggests this figure is closer to 10%) is unrecognised by other Orthodox churches.
All of this seems to be bound up with politics and the question of national identity which is not yet resolved. The 2006 referendum that resulted in an independent Montenegro was a close contest; 55.5% voted in favour of ending the federation of Serbia and Montenegro. Today, a third of Montengro’s population still identify as Serbs. And across the countries that once consitituted Yugoslavia, there are those who want the federation back.
But it’s not just about statistics. While the victims (particularly Partisans) of war crimes committed during the Second World War have long been commemorated throughout the former Yugoslavia, a policy backed by Tito, efforts to address atrocities committed by all sides are ongoing. However, calls for investigations into the war crimes of Communists are freighted with problems, and many point out the difficulties and pitfalls of categorising the different sides in wartime and post-war Yugoslavia. Emily Greble notes that:
“People like war stories that have easily identifiable groups and clear-cut good guys and bad guys. The multi-sided, unnamed, ethically complex, shifting movements of post-war Yugoslavia are harder for us to understand and to connect to.”Conflict in Post-War Yugoslavia: The Search for a Narrative, by Emily Greble (September 21, 2021)
To the lay-person tourist, this complex, multi-faceted history can be confusing. And a superficial analysis is, of course, inadequate.
So I return to the tranquil plots of Luštica’s cemeteries, surrounded by olive trees, pomegranates and figs, and rely on Google Translate to add details to the names and dates – and faces – that I see.
Jobo, Cabo and Baco were the ‘sons and nephews‘ of loving parents. They died in the name of ‘freedom‘, one of them on 9. IX. 1943. The same date is inscribed on the grave of another young man, whose remains lie nearby. His ‘grieving parents‘ also lost their son ‘in the name of freedom‘ in the 22nd year of his life. The date crops up on two further graves. These men were killed when Nazi Germany occupied Montenegro.
The words beneath the image of the thoughtful and resolute 23 year old (whose mother is dressed in mourning) reveal that he was ‘brave‘ and died in combat in Crkvice on 10. X. 1944. His name was Uroš.
Google has its limitations when it comes to translating tragedies, but there are visible clues that these young men died for the Partisan cause (the five pointed star) – although it feels like it shouldn’t matter which side they were on. At the very least they, unlike countless others, have a place to rest with words and images by which they can be identified and commemorated in this beautiful and complicated part of the world.
A cartographical course in the history of the Balkans:
‘Mamula All Inclusive’ trailer.