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Published 04/24/97

Slovenia's Dark Secret

Brad Collis

Ursula's History Web

The return to power of communists in several former Eastern Bloc countries has left unhealed many of the scars from their brutal assent to power 50 years ago. Brad Collis writes of a history given only a brief moment of light and which continues to haunt its survivors:

High in a valley above a misty patchwork of vines and white stone houses, we tapped a barrel of pungent red wine, chewed on home-cured pork and admired the tranquil Balkans vista that slipped away beneath our feet.

A thunderstorm had drawn in the valley's breath, leaving only the fluted cry of a cuckoo seemingly suspended in the still air. It was beautiful; picture-perfect for the brochures and postcards being used to attract tourists to the former Eastern Bloc.

But scratch the surface of this idyllic facade and you find a history still raw with acrimony, injustice and unresolved conflicts. Pointing from house to house the old man who had returned 'home' to reclaim his family's heritage and property, spoke not of the people now farming the land below us, but of their predecessors -- his boyhood friends and neighbours ... people from his previous life, who were murdered or gaoled to make way for the incumbents whose vines and quaint houses we were admiring.

This is the legacy of the 45 years of communism which tore Europe in two, which institutionalized mass murder as a political tool and which with the return to power of former communists under new guises, has only been thinly papered over.

The authenticity of new democracies, like Slovenia where this story unfolds, is now being tested as aging emigres who fled to exile in countries such as Australia, are returning to reclaim their birthright.

It has created a complex legal and moral dilemma for the new "open" governments as they come face-to-face with ghosts from a history that was officially expunged. How do they balance the rights of historic owners with the proprietorship of today's occupants of farms, factories and dwellings -- most of whom are now a generation removed from the brutal means of acquisition?

The government's tactic in Slovenia has been to bog down such claims in the courts in the hope the claimants will either tire or die before their cases can be completed.

From the picturesque valley we drove to Novo Mesto, a southern Slovene city near the Croatian border. The area was a Partisan stronghold during the 1941-45 civil war in which the communists, with British and American help, were able to wrest control of Yugoslavia.

As we walked the streets, the old man -- 83-year-old Franc Erpic, now an Australian citizen living in Canberra -- pointed to a fashionable looking boutique: "I remember this as a small shoe factory. It employed about 30 people ... but the owner and his wife and children were shot because he was classified as a capitalist."

We strolled into a residential area and he pointed with a shaking hand and moist eyes to every fourth or fifth house, remembering names and faces from his boyhood -- all liquidated in the post-War purges.

People who were active or perceived opponents of Tito's government were murdered, along with their family. The definition of "political opponent" was broad, encompassing anyone intellectual who also owned a business, was educated, was a Catholic, or had sided with the royalist (anti-communist) forces during the 1941-45 civil war. Franc Erpic was a commander in the Slovene home army, the Domobranci, formed in late 1943 to try to stop communist forces filling the vacuum left by the weakening German presence.

The Tito government's paranoia about the potential for organised opposition in the post-War years also made 'informing' an expedient means for people to settle personal feuds or acquire neighbouring property.

Because these events are within living memory, the sense of injustice and betrayal among those who were dispossessed, but have survived to tell, has not been diminished by time.

Mostly by luck, sometimes by pluck, they escaped the midnight call and the bullet in the nape of the neck -- the mechanics of what modern historians so glibly call "political cleansing".

We drove south to a small village called Podturn to meet a local woodsman who had agreed to take us into the isolated and heavily timbered hills called Kocevski Rog (pronounced Kocheska Rogg). The official records pertaining to this area were destroyed when the communists were toppled from power in 1991, but at four known sites are the sickly reminder of what happened to people who dared to think aloud.

The site was chosen for its many limestone caves; typically about five to 10 metres in diametre and which drop vertically to depths of 50 to 100 metres. It was first used in 1945 after pro-Tito British commanders duped the Domobranci into surrendering their weapons so they could be re-equipped as a stronger anti-communist force. But instead of the trains taking the men to Italy to the supposed regrouping area, they carried them back to Slovenia and Tito's waiting army. Over a two month period 12,000 men, betrayed by a country they had naively embraced as an anti-communist ally, were executed and thrown into the caves.

After failing to convince his compatriots that the British were about to betray them, Franc Erpic escaped and finally emigrated to Australia as a stateless refugee. His comrades were marched, manacled in pairs with telephone wire, to the remote sites and as they reached the cavernous openings, were shot in the head. Later as Slovene civilians and Croatian refugees swelled the numbers to be liquidated, grim efficiencies were devised. The victims, including women and children, were made to walk onto logs felled across the openings and were machine-gunned into the black pits beneath their feet. If they resisted they were tossed in alive.

As each cave was filled, the rim was dynamited to close over the entrance. An estimated 30,000 people were killed at the Kocevski Rog caves known as Macesnova Gorica, Pod Krenom, Rugarskin Klancin, and Dvojno Brezno. Only four men are known to have escaped by feigning death and climbing from the pits at night before they were closed over.

To visit the sites, even after the passage of half a century, is distressing. They are in deep forest gloom and the cave entrances have subsided to form steep bowls. In recent years someone has erected crude wooden crucifixes at the openings, and flickering funereal lanterns testify to the vigilance, still, of anonymous mourners.

Rosary beads have been draped over branches and boulders, but there remain even more tangible reminders of what took place. The remnants of leather clothing protrude from the rocks at the opening of Dvojno Brezno. The woodsman climbed down, but the bones which were partially obscured by a boulder the last time he was there had been removed. Not so at another site, Pod Krenom. I peered into a hole that had opened in the moss-covered rubble and human leg bones protruded from beneath a ledge just a few feet down.

Standing where he too could have been rotting instead of being blessed with a new life and raising a new family in Australia, Franc Erpic lowers his head. So many impossible questions about fate and human behaviour: "I didn't understand then and I don't now. I know some of the people who did this later shot themselves ... but others are alive today, protected by the government and living on special pensions."

In Slovenia the Kocevski Rog massacres are seldom talked about in public. The young don't want to involve themselves in their grandfathers' war, pointing to Bosnia as an example of what happens if the past is not put to rest. Of course, most of the survivors of the "political cleansing" fled the country, making it that much easier for the rest of the population to suppress any collective guilt.

But Kocevski Rog should be remembered and confronted -- not only by Slovenes, but by every person who believes in the preciousness of human life and the evil inherent in political ideologies that impose their will by force.

This has been one of the dark features of the 20th Century -- the mass murder and mass graves produced almost as mechanical by-products by nazism, fascism, communism ... nationalism. In the first decade after World War II an estimated four to six million people caught on the eastern side of the Europe divided by Stalin, Churchill and Roosevelt were systematically murdered to remove any political or cultural opposition to bolshevism. They included tens of thousands of Hungarians, Poles, Czechs, Danube Germans, "Yugoslavs", Ukrainians, Romanians, and much of the proud and colourful Cossack nation.

As I walked slowly down the path from the first cave, Macesnova Gorica, now almost obscured by forest regrowth, I started thinking a lot about the people whose bones fill these black forest pits. An attempt was made to wipe them from time, to deny that they had ever existed, so no one could challenge the orchestrated truths and official history.

If we now continue to turn our backs on the evidence presented by their crude burial sites are we not perpetuating the crime, and sanctioning future atrocities in the name of some passing political fantasy?

If the West -- through its media and its parliaments -- had dealt severely with the political and ethnic "cleansing" in Eastern Europe, in particular the Balkans, during the post-War years there is a strong argument for saying the same perpetrators may not have acted with such contempt for world opinion in Bosnia during recent years.

If the purpose of life is to progress the human experience, then surely it is every person's responsibility to speak out whenever this fundamental tenet is threatened -- a tenet that so often is buried by political expediency. At Kocevski Rog lie the bones of an entire army of young men who had been fighting to prevent a communist takeover of their country. Because of a political agreement (the Treaty of Yalta), they were knowingly sent to their deaths by British and American commanders who just months later were cynically executing German officers for the same crime -- that of "knowingly" allowing people to be dispatched to places of mass execution.

Though back in Australia, a lifetime and a world away from the events at Kocevski Rog, the images from those sites will never dim. Kocevski Rog is not well known outside Slovenia, but its massacre sites are unique in that they can be pointed to on a map. They are accessible.

It becomes possible for every person who places humanity over nationalism or religion to stand on the moss-covered rims of these caves and bear witness to the men, women and children slaughtered there and in countless other killing fields that have been hidden from history. To do this would not only give back some meaning to these stolen lives, but might also make it more difficult for such acts of barbarity to be perpetuated in the future.

Perhaps it is a naive hope. But there is a strong argument for saying that until we are prepared to face up to these histories there will be more Bosnias and Rwandas and Kocevski Rogs ... and be sure that each time they will be nearer to home.

This story was written by Brad Collis, an Australian author and journalist who has been visiting Slovenia to research a book on the 1941-45 civil war, and the effect the political aftermath in Eastern Europe has had on people who fled to exile in western democracies. Click here to send Brad your questions or comments.
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