Saturday, April 30, 2022


'Truth and memory [are] exceedingly fragile,’ writes Deborah Lipstadt in Denying the Holocaust, the Growing Assault on Truth and Memory. She is my hero, a crusader against historical revisionism. In standing against holocaust denial, she provides me with the scaffolding to challenge contemporary historical revisionism in Croatia and Serbia, and the legacy of Fascist Italy in my mother’s homeland of Istria (1).

In this post I am considering three things: firstly, that Croatia’s crusade to canonize Aloysius Stepinac is a smoke screen to divert attention from the worst religious massacre in European history. Secondly, whether the Serbian General Draža Mihailović, who was well known to British soldiers in wartime Yugoslavia as a poor leader and an Axis collaborator, can justly be celebrated as a hero in Serbia today. Thirdly, why there is an endless stream of Italians denigrating Slavs on Facebook. (I won’t mention the page.) It was Fascist Italy that invaded Yugoslavia, not the other way round.

We do not deny other countries the right of free speech, Lipstadt teaches me, but ‘opinion must be grounded in fact.’

Historical revisionism in Italy is the biggest problem of the three because it involved the desire of America and Britain to recreate post-war Italy as part of the Western anti-communist block. It is not often realized how powerful communism was in Italy during the war and how near Italy itself came to being a communist country. My Australian father-in-law, who fought with the Italian Partisans and spoke fluent Italian, said that their muscle was communist and they were disappointed after the war not to have achieved the power they desired.

Along with her mother, my mother-in-law from Turin worked for the anti-fascist resistance in northern Italy, among other things housing Allied soldiers. The two women were betrayed and subsequently imprisoned for two and a half months, during which time they were assaulted and tortured. After her release, my mother-in-law received further harsh treatment from the Italian Partisans who were suspicious of the interest the fascists had taken in her. In 1945, she married and left Italy, returning only once in the next 55 years of her life, hating the country so much that she never went back a second time.

That there was a personal component to her distress is clear but, well before Mussolini founded the Fascist Party in 1919, the violence that was to have its full flower in fascism was part of Italian ultra-nationalistic doctrine. ‘Hatred is indeed no less necessary than love for nurturing civilization,’ wrote Luigi Federzoni, ‘a key figure in the fascist regime’ (2).

That the Italian war criminals who embraced this philosophy were never punished had as much do to with preserving Italy’s traditional place in the Western imagination as it did the fear of communism. In his book Piazza Oberdan the Slovenian writer Boris Pahor wrote an eye witness account of Fascist Italian crimes against Slovenes (3). This and other stories were refused an English translation by Pahor’s American editor. The reason? ‘The collection prints an anti-Italian mindset’ and Pahor’s ‘description[s] could damage the political coexistence’.

The first Prime Minister after the fall of Mussolini was General Badoglio . Although he had committed war crimes in Libya and Egypt, the British approved of him because he was anti-communist. Notable Italian war criminals were Generals Roatta (Slovenia and Dalmatia) and Graziani (Libya, Ethiopia), Giovanni Ravalli (Greece) and hundreds of others. As Britain, America and Russia argued about how to bring them to justice, ‘Italy… made it abundantly clear that it would not collaborate willingly with any attempts to extradite its citizens to face trial in Yugoslavia or any other country for that matter.’ (4) America dragged its feet until eventually Churchill shrugged his shoulders and walked away.

Needless to say, the Italian government took full advantage of Allied disinterest, and modern Italians know little about their dark past.

My mother came from the village of Tar in Istria, about two kilometres from the sea. She remembered Croatian-speaking people coming to Tar to buy fish in the 1920’s, which suggests that, before refrigeration, they couldn’t have lived far away from the coastal strip where the language was Venetian. It certainly supports the advice of Woodrow Wilson that, in the cause of the national self-determination of the Southern Slavs, the eastern bulk of Istria not be given to Italy in 1919, as it unfortunately was. My mother, who later gave her nationality as Yugoslavian, resented Fascist Italy for Italianising her family name from Mikatović to Di Micheli and for ruining her uncle’s and father’s careers because their professional qualifications were Austrian and not Italian. Her relative Paolo Mikatović from the next village, Dekovići, died in the notorious Jasenovac Concentration Camp run by the Croatian fascists, the Ustaša.

These genocidal maniacs and their twisted relationship with the Catholic Church are the subject of my previous post in which I reviewed Balkan Essays by Hubert Butler (5). This is not an easy book to forget. Whenever I reopen its pages, I have the superstitious sense that if I show too much interest, I will contaminate myself with something sinister. Indeed, the Vatican itself spent much of 1941 and 1942 puzzling exactly what was going on in the Independent State of Croatia (Croatia and Bosnia) as that devout Catholic Ante Pavelić littered his Nazi puppet state with the bodies of hundreds of thousands of Serbs and tens of thousands of Jews and Gypsies. In 1945, as the Ustaša leaders fled across the Atlantic, Croatians may have wanted nothing more than to put the horror behind them and get on with their lives, just as Italians had done after the fall of Mussolini (2).

It was at this point that Archbishop Stepinac embraced his most important mission, protecting his church from communism. Hubert Butler, who interviewed him, described him as a brave and kind man, yet one who had made errors of judgement (6). The fact that the hagiographers are in full swing at present (and the rightness or wrongness of that) obscures the main issue, that Stepinac did not separate church and state during the reign of the Ustaša and seemed unable to perceive that this could be interpreted as collaboration. His slip was effectively exploited by the post war Yugoslav government at his trial (7).

Their lengthy document outlines the relationship between the church and the Ustaša that existed before World War 2, attributing the growth of the terrorist organization to ‘too great a centralization under Serbian hegemony’ which resulted ‘among other things, in a corresponding separatist sentiment in Croatia’. As noted by others, ‘divisive feelings’ between Yugoslavs had long been fostered and exploited by European empires. Between the wars they were ‘kept alive’ by Germany and Italy for the benefit of those countries. For instance, in return for nurturing the Ustaša, Mussolini claimed the entire Dalmatian coast and Montenegro for Italy.

In November 1946, Pavelić’s Minister of the interior, Andrija Artuković, who had dedicated himself to ridding the state of Serbs, Jews and Gypsies, met a professor of theology from Zagreb ‘who was touring the post war [internment] camps with a Vatican passport. He had secured the release of many hundreds of Croatian priests who had fled with Pavelić.’ (6). A website of the Croatian Catholic church in Sydney (8) likewise states that its members emigrated to Australia from refugee camps in Italy and Austria.

Regarding why they might have fled, Fitzroy Maclean, the British liaison officer to Tito, who was in Yugoslavia from 1943 until March 1945, wrote: ‘Owing to the sympathy which many of the Catholic clergy had shown for the Ustaša movement, there were a number of priests among those imprisoned or executed as collaborators or war criminals. Although the charges brought against individual priests were frequently unfounded or exaggerated, there was often an element of truth in them which provided a ready-made pretext for repressive measures (9)’.

There are twice as many Croatians in Australia today than Serbs, even though Serbia has twice the population. Proportionally, this is a factor of four. If the Yugoslav communists persecuted Christians with vigour, why didn’t the Serbs emigrate as well? Were there simply more frightened Croatians after the war, and was this connected to Maclean’s ‘sympathy’ for the Ustaša?

I wonder why the Ustaša massacres against Serbs aren’t better known, because they should be. Which, of course, brings me to Serbia.

Deborah Lipstadt writes, ‘mythical thinking and the force of the irrational have a strange and compelling allure for the educated and uneducated alike.’ I don’t believe that what has been termed the ‘mystical nationalism’ of Serbia is necessarily irrational, but I suggest that it is a significant factor in its government rewriting its World War 2 history since 1985. 

(I say 1985 because I was in Belgrade that year, and they were still celebrating Tito and the Partisans.)

Serbian national identity is powerful and rooted in some interesting topics. Chief among them for me are the Mediaeval Serbian Empire of Stefan Dušan, the Battle of Kosovo in 1389, Serbia’s nineteenth century success in liberating itself from the Ottoman Turks, and its brave fight against the Austrians in World War 1. But the historical revisionism I am referring to concerns the Serbian 
General Draža Mihailović.

Mihailović was the Yugoslav Minister of War from 1941 to 1945 and contemporary references to him are legion – British, German, Italian, even Australian – easily enough to write a character study of the man during the war.

People seem to have liked him. Writes Maclean: ‘I was interested to find that some of those who knew him best, while liking him as a man, had little opinion of Mihailović as a leader (10)'. At his trial for treason and war crimes 'he spoke without oratory, without rancour towards political opponents or private enemies, lucidly and in detail (9).' Even Tito said that 'he had nothing against [him] personally' (11). The claims, however, of modern Serbian historians that Mihailović and the Četniks were victorious in the anti-fascist fight are contradicted by contemporary sources.

Matteo Milazzo’s book, The Chetnik Movement and the Yugoslav Resistance, published in 1975 (12), was based on newly released German and Italian documents. They relate that early in the confusion of occupied Serbia, Mihailović appears to have played the fascist field in order to supply his troops, with the aim of retaining Serbian hegemony in post war Yugoslavia by the planned defeat of the Partisans. From German documents, we learn that ‘either at the end of May [1941] or beginning of June, for example, Radivoje Jovanovic travelled to Chetnik headquarters to confer with their leader and was told [by Mihailović] that the strategy was to "organize, not to fight, and when the Germans begin to withdraw, then to move in and seize power"…to "preserve order in the country and to permit no brutal measures or robbery.”’

The most heinous German crimes against Serbian civilians were committed at Kragijevac and Kraljevo in October 1941 when thousands were killed, but dozens of other villages and towns were also destroyed and Serbians murdered as Nazi Germany used terror to gain control of the country. British commando Captain Christie Lawrence who fought with one group of Četniks and wrote his account in Irregular Adventure (13), reports witnessing half the sky in flames. It was the Germans systematically burning Serbian villages. The following week, Mihailović prepared to attack Partisans Headquarters at Užice. Lacking ‘sufficient guns and munitions…he turned to the Germans… offering as well ‘his services in the anti-Partisan struggle’ (12).

In December 1941, the Yugoslav Government-in-exile promoted Mihailović to General and made him Minister of War, and in April 1942, he was interviewed by Lawrence.

'That morning I met Mihailović, I was shocked at his appearance, for he looked an old man...He was small and slight with grey hair, a thin, lined face and gold-rimmed spectacles. His voice was tired and he spoke with a worried preoccupied abstraction.

'“You have heard," said Mihailović, “of the results of my revolution last autumn...I resolved that I would never again bring such misery on the country unless it could result in total liberation. We cannot, for the moment, maintain large illegal guerrilla companies. The misery which they cause to the peasants is too great....It is far better that my men should stay at home, work on the land, and look after their weapons if they have them. When the day comes for us to rise, we will rise."

'"Then, until Germany's final collapse, you intend to do nothing more active than organize?" I asked.

'"I did not say that. I said, until the Germans are too weak to deploy sufficient forces against us to retake what we shall have taken from them. In future, I do not intend to capture a town until I know that I can protect its inhabitants."' (13)

In February 1943, the British Colonel Bailey witnessed Mihailović telling a church gathering that ‘the Italians remained his sole adequate source of benefit and assistance…his enemies were the Partisans, the Ustaša, the Moslems and the Croats. When he had dealt with them, he would turn to the Italians and the Germans…the Serbs were “completely friendless” and the “English were now fighting to the last Serb in Yugoslavia.”’ (14) Bailey writes that Mihailović’ was ‘willing to compromise himself in order the defeat the Partisans’ and he trusts that 'the general joy and relief at the end of the war will conceal and pardon his misdeeds.'

In response, Churchill wrote, ‘His Majesty’s Government cannot ignore this outburst’… nor justify to the British public or to their other allies their continued support of a movement, the leader of which does not scruple publicly to declare that their enemies are his allies…and that his enemies are not the German and Italian invaders of his country, but his fellow Yugoslavs and chief among them men who …are giving their lives to free his country from the foreigners yoke.’ (14)

The result of losing one’s temper.

Colonel Bailey was the object of Mihailović’s wrath after he relayed this speech to London (14). In November 1941, Captain Bill Hudson, a British liaison officer fluent in Serbian, cancelled ‘all further consignments of arms’ to Mihailović upon observing his men fighting the Partisans (11). Mihailović was ‘furiously angry’, had to be restrained from shooting him, excluded him from meetings, and eventually abandoned him to the winter snows (11, 13). Likewise, Mihailović responded in anger to the British General Wilson's command: 'you are to advise Mihailović that the British General Headquarters in the Middle East requests that he, as an ally, stops all co-operation with the Axis and that he goes towards the east into Serbia. There he is to establish full authority and personal influence in order to continue the attacks on enemy communication lines' (14). This was just before the Allied Invasion of Sicily in July 1943, when the Allies needed the distraction of the resistance effort in Yugoslavia to keep as many Germans out of Italy as possible.

Helping the Allies invade Sicily was not Mihailović’s focus and he didn't appreciate being told what to do by the British.

The tale of the various Četnik bands would fill another article. Rather than a fighting force against the fascist Germans, fascist Italians and fascist Ustaša, Milazzo reports, ‘The Četnik officers …schooled in a tradition which identified Serb military prowess and political hegemony with the Yugoslav idea, not only tolerated but took part in a campaign of revenge against non-Serb civilians who had nothing to do with the Partisans or the Ustasi.’ (12) Marcus Tanner reports ‘the loathing they inspired among non-Serbs’ (15). Island of Terrible Friends by Bill Strutton refers to them as ‘the hated Četniks’ (16). ‘Mihailovic … evidently did little to restrain the prevailing mood of national revenge. His own appointees, like Petar Bacovic, a former reserve officer and lawyer and then commander of the Chetniks in Herzegovina and eastern Bosnia, openly announced plans to destroy whole Muslim villages. (12)’ In Irregular Adventure, the local bands of Četniks sound like the Mafia, and a female Slovene Partisan advises Lawrence to take care which of them he supports lest in the power struggle he gets caught in the crossfire. ‘Have you seen how these petty little local leaders squabble about a man and a gun?’ (13).

‘At his trial, When Mihailović came to speak of his commanders, it was a sad tale of disorganization, disloyalty and petty ambition’ (9). Milazzo wrote, ‘The argument will be developed that the failure of the Mihailovic movement was basically internal, and that the collapse of their relations with the British was of secondary importance. (12)’

On 6th February 1946 Mihailović wrote that “Under no conceivable circumstances will I leave my country and my people.” But ‘by March 1946 [he] was left with only four companions…one evening, early in March, he crept out of his hole and went, as usual, to this house. But this time he found waiting for him, not his friends, but Tito’s police…He was led off, handcuffs on his wrists, filthy and in rags, his steel rimmed spectacles awry, his hair and beard tangled and matted, to the car which was waiting to take him to Belgrade.’ He said at his trial: ‘A merciless fate threw me into this maelstrom. I wanted much. I began much, but the gale of the world carried away me and my work (9).’
It's a sad story of Serbia contra mundum, yet, despite all this, the modern Serbian government has rewritten the history of World War 2 in which Mihailović and the Četniks are victorious against the fascist invaders. One revisionist polemic was so unscholarly as to commence with a quotation from the well-known poem The Pit by Ivan Goran Kovačić, the very poet whom the Četniks had murdered (20).

My biggest beef with this aspect of modern Serbian historical revisionism is that it’s mean-spirited. When I think of all the young men and women Partisans, so many of whom were Serbian (17), who gave their lives in the anti-fascist fight, you might as well spit on their graves.

‘I am honoured and proud of these young lives,’ wrote the poet Andrija Nemit, ‘They stood up for freedom and justice. They did their courageous duty before the world for the homeland. They gave their lives for the freedom of the people.’ (18)

I like the Yugoslav Partisans because they were a genuine peoples’ movement. Whatever your sex, race, or religion, in the fight against fascism there was a place for you and, as Basil Davison pointed out in Partisan Picture, they weren't interested in politics, they just wanted their land back. (21) I’m sick of the attitude that, because Tito was a communist (and because he won), therefore he was the devil incarnate – case closed – and that his nasty Bolshevik beliefs doomed poor Yugoslavia until it fell apart at the seams: which would never, ever have happened had that nice Draža Mihailović not been unfairly shot on the former gold course of Topčider. Frankly, if I had come from Tito’s poverty-stricken village of subsistence farmers, bled dry by a tithing church and blood sucking Hungarian aristocrats too mean to pay for a school (19), I’d be a communist, too.


If it were merely a matter of revealing history, this article might be seen by some as unnecessary. My theme, however, is that the continual lying has created sour relations in our modern world, and that this could be fixed.

I congratulate Deborah Lipstadt for her endurance in wading through acres of puerile publications to write her landmark book. Unscholarly doesn’t begin to describe holocaust deniers. They are the most pathetic bunch of aggressive idiots I’ve ever read about, yet ‘a sober, scholarly effort’ is often their effect on a gullible public. Perhaps this is a testament to the power of print and, latterly, to the internet.

Their effect on me, who can diagnose nonsense, is different from the man on the street who may relish the buzz that controversy provides. From my science background, I proceed as follows: observation, inferences, hypothesis, test the hypothesis and from it make a theory. Holocaust deniers work in the opposite direction: theory first, then look for the evidence to prove it, a common fault with historical revisionists.

It is bad science.


1   Cresciani, G    A Clash of Civilizations? The Slovene and Italian Minorities and the problem of Trieste. Italian Historical Society Journal Volume 12 #2 2004 July/December

2   Duggan, C    Fascist Voices, Vintage Books 2013 

3   Pahor, B    Piazza Oberdan, Kitab Vienna 2009   

4   Pedaliu, EGH    Britain and the 'Hand-over' of War Criminals to Yugoslavia 1945-48
5   Margaret Walker - War in the Balkans: MURDER FROM THE PULPIT? (

6   Butler, H   Balkan Essays, The Irish Pages Press 2016

7   Kosanović SN  Yugoslav Ambassador, Washington.  The Case of Archbishop Stepinac, 1947

8   HKC Summer Hill - Croatian Catholic Centres

9   Maclean, F   The Heretic. The Life and Times of Josip Broz Tito.  Harley and Brothers, NY 1957

10  Maclean, F   Eastern Approaches, Penguin Books 1991

11  Deakin, F   The Embattled Mountain, Oxford University Press 1971 

12  Milazzo, M   The Chetnik Movement and the Yugoslav Resistance, John Hopkins University Press, 1975 

13  Lawrence, C    Irregular Adventure, Faber and Faber 1947 

14  Catherwood, C    Churchill and Tito, Frontline 2017 

15  Tanner, M    Croatia, Yale University Press 1997 

16  Strutton, Bill, Island of Terrible Friends, Hodder and Stoughton, London 1961

17  The BRUTAL Execution Of Lepa Radic - The Teenage Girl Executed By The Nazis - YouTube

18  Po šumama i gorama, poems of the fighters of the National liberation War, Zagreb, 1952

19  Brkljačić, M     Pig's Head, Stories of Tito's Childhood,  
      Alltag und Ideologie im Realsozialismus  23/2005

20  Kovačić, I G   The Pitt, Matica Hrvatska, 1961  

21  Davidson, B  Partisan Picture   Bedford Books 1946




Tuesday, December 21, 2021


     The BALKAN ESSAYS of Hubert Butler

             The Irish Pages Press, 2016

I bought Hubert Butler’s Balkan Essays specifically to read The Artuković File. Naturally, I finished it first but after I had read everything else, Butler’s effect of understated horror was just as strong. In the restrained style of the scholar, he allows the reader to create his own vision of Croatia during World War 2. The writing is beautiful but unimpassioned, its strength lying in the absence of concessions to any collective subconscious, Croat, Serb, Communist or Catholic, that might lure the reader down a prejudiced path.

Andrija Artuković was the Minister for the Interior under Ante Pavelić, the leader of the Ustasha, the Croatian fascist terrorist organization that, with the blessing of Hitler and Mussolini, governed the Independent State of Croatia, as it was called, that also included Bosnia. Artuković was a ‘desk-murderer’ wrote Butler, who preferred the Nazis’ disciplined approach to genocide to the savagery of the Ustasha. Butler’s attempts to pick up his trail as he fled through Europe after the war, through Ireland to the USA, include anecdotes from good Catholics who had assisted his flight and, knowing nothing of his past, assured Butler what a nice man he had been.

‘So evidently we in Ireland had sheltered this notable man for a whole year. He was…a maker of history, dedicated to the extermination not of Jews alone, but also of his fellow-Christians, the Serbian Orthodox. He was a member of the government which in the spring of 1941 introduced laws which expelled them from Zagreb, confiscated their property and imposed the death penalty on those who sheltered them. Some twenty concentration camps were established in which they were exterminated. Did we cherish him because he presented himself to us as a Christian refugee from godless Communism? That seems to me rather likely.’

‘I spent a part of last summer in Yugoslavia, which I knew well before the war, because I was a teacher in Zagreb and held a travelling scholarship from the school of Slavonic Studies.’

Butler was fluent in the language and returned in 1947 and 1950 when he investigated the wartime genocide committed by the Ustasha. After time spent in the public library in Zagreb 'looking up the old files of the newspapers that were issued in the occupation period, particularly the church papers', Butler concluded that Pavelić was supported by the Croatian people with as much adulation as Hitler in Germany.

The relationship between church and state is the crux of the essays. The church is no longer the Kingdom of Heaven that Jesus brought to earth, but the vehicle of such protagonists as Pavelić and Artuković who ‘believed that the interest of their churches could be forwarded by wars, coups d’etat and physical force. They were champions of that militant and political ecclesiasticism which it is our duty to condemn.’ Indeed, in the current dispute around the proposed canonization of Aloysius Stepinac, Butler, as a Christian, asks a very relevant question: What is the church?

Here in Australia the church has never needed to be the nationalistic body that it had become in Croatia. We have not been suppressed by empires. We have not had to struggle against a hostile government. Stepinac, as Archbishop of Zagreb, was the head of a church whose history had molded it to represent the Croat. Yet, this ‘wide-scale convergence of patriotism and piety’ was a dangerous development, and to what extent it encouraged ‘the extraordinary alliance of religion and crime’ under that devout Catholic, Ante Pavelić, the reader must judge. Butler’s research led him to conclude that the Church was indeed involved with the murders and forced conversions of Serbs far above the exceptional case 'of a mad priest' or 'isolated instances of priests blinded by national and party passions' as was later claimed by the bishops.

Butler visited Archbishop Stepinac in Lepoglava Prison after he was convicted of collaboration with the Ustasha by the Yugoslav Government. Butler liked him, describing him as brave, kind and simple (which I understand to mean socially unsophisticated). Yet the archbishop was compromised by his errors of judgement. When Butler asked him why he had collaborated with a fellow priest who had shown such enthusiasm for the Serb conversion campaign, ‘the archbishop gave the stock reply he had so often given at his trial (which incidentally has become the stock answer among the flippant of Zagreb to any awkward question): “Our conscience is clear”.’

Pavelić's actions upset Stepinac, but did not cause him to break his rule of supporting the government of the day. Under very different regimes, he fought against the Serbs in World War 1, then fought with them, upheld the government of King Alexander and, after that, the government of Pavelić who had arranged the King's assassination. He tried to save the life of Father Franjo Rihar whom Pavelić arrested and shot for refusing, as Stepinac had not, to celebrate High Mass and sing the Te Deum Laudamus at the anniversary of the founding of the Independent State of Croatia. '[Stepinac] stands surely for the principle of the State-controlled church,' wrote Butler. 'Unquestionably his conciliatory attitude influenced others who were not capable of his restraint.'

Because I have a perverse sense of humour, I would love to know what Hubert Butler might make of today's opposing posts about the archbishop on the internet. Butler is a writer of great insight – as well as actually meeting the man – and I have to say that contemporary views For and Against Stepinac are so vastly different to anything in the Balkan Essays that the bloggers themselves must have taken lessons in either Hagiography or Indictment.

I will let Mr Butler have the last word.

In 1988 he wrote, 'As for Mgr Stepinac, I believe he underwent martyrdom in order that the truth should be misrepresented.'


His Most Italian City

Through Forests and Mountains

Friday, August 27, 2021


This article first appeared in Total Croatia News.

Dubrovnik 1985

Hats off to Slovenian author Goran Vojnović! I have just finished reading his best-selling novel Yugoslavia, My Fatherland which he creates with great literary skill and the insight of an excavator. He exposes human foibles down to their bedrock, and I hope he never writes about Australia because I'll be ducking for cover. The guy's a genius, but he has made me sad.

For the cynical, war-weary people he describes are not the Yugoslavs I remember when, as an adopted Croatian searching for the half of myself that originated there, I visited from Sydney in 1985. I desired to like Yugoslavia, I hoped that it would welcome me, and it is wonderful how often expectations like this bear fruit. To me Yugoslavia seemed fresh and new, its people warm and welcoming. After our trip, as the train trundled towards the Greek border and the magic still lingered, I watched these men and women tending their fields in the twilight and willed myself to retain that final image. Though Vojnović might argue that I saw only what I wanted to see, Yugoslavia in 1985 was no more an illusion to me than if I had mistaken a lush Bosnian valley for the dry eucalypts that soar from the river beds at home.
Mostar 1985

I'll tell you why: because, one October afternoon three years ago, in a second hand book shop along a dusty street in Rijeka, I bought a book of poems written between 1941 and 1945 by Croatian Yugoslav Partisans. In these verses I rediscovered the country I had loved.

During those years, Yugoslavia was again at war – again divided along ethnic grounds – but there was one crucial difference from the war of the 1990's, and that was the stated aim of the winners: to create a pan-Slavic army to replace the old regional fighters. When I wrote my own novel about Yugoslavia, I named it after the book, Po Šumama i Gorama, Through Forests and Mountains (Penmore Press, 2021). It is the first of a trilogy about World War 2 in Yugoslavia and is set in Montenegro, Serbia and Bosnia. The second and third books are set in Croatia, in Split and Vis. I wrote Through Forests and Mountains to investigate the story my adoptive mother told me in 1970 about the Partisan women who fought alongside the men, and to reflect the Croatian Poems that had so captivated me.

What are their themes?

The most frequent is freedom. Running parallel to it are camaraderie and sacrifice for a cause higher than one's self. Beneath these, and most important to me, was love of the land the Partisans were fighting for, and that land is described in beautiful terms, just as I remembered it.

The forests have become the graves of our fallen comrades, the sons of our land, and on them flowers have sprouted. We twitch the gentle stems, we roll up the small flowerets and think it takes us back to the warm streams of our childhood.

Cyclamen by Anđelka Martić, August 1943

The column of soldiers walks into the blizzard of angry ice with blistered feet and swift, firm steps. In their hearts they carry spring blossoms and their deadly rifles are loaded with freedom.

The Battle at Twenty Below Zero. VIII Dalmatian Brigade

The words of the old oak from At the Grave by Andrija Nemit

Dear comrades,

I am honoured and proud of these young lives. They stood up for freedom and justice. They gave themselves for the freedom of the young. They did their courageous duty before the world for the homeland. And little birds will give them glory in the summer. Let them glory in who they are. They gave their lives for the freedom of the people.

Lastly, some memorable lines about women from A Woman Under Arms by Franjo Mraz

I hate the days of my leaden past and my unhappy youth. Now that I have a gun in my arms, you who burn my house and kill my sons, I promise I’ll pay you back, because I am no longer a slave. Oh my rifle, I will never part with you! You will be with me at the end of my wrist until my last day. Tremble, look, and listen to the woman warrior, the woman Partisan.

One of the pitfalls in translating the surges of the heart that are at the root of poetry is that one becomes involved with the poets themselves, takes them home, so to speak, and thereafter commences a meditation on who they were and what their lives were like. I, their advocate, suffered righteous anger on their behalf, I rose to the justice of their cause, debated with the sceptics, fought the fascists until, at last, from sheer emotional exhaustion, I extricated myself from their embrace and returned to the twenty-first century. But I did not return alone. The Partisans came with me. 
Plitvice 1985

Some of them were famous Croatian poets and artists, Josip Cazi, Anđelka Martić, Franjo Mraz, but most, I suspect, were people like you and me. Perhaps they fell in battle, ‘the holy sacrifices of our heroic column’, as Cazi wrote. Some may have been Enslaved in Istra - Porobljeno u Istri - from a note found in the pocket of a fighter named Čiković. Other are verses composed by Branko Đipalović of the Eleventh Dalmatian Brigade just before he was hung, that I found both moving and frightening: ‘when this poem rises from the earth let out a great shout as the hero falls, to those who gave the righteous life.’

The poems and my own experience tell me not to accept war and ethnic hatred. I was adopted in 1960. When fifty years later I discovered my birth mother's history, it was a mixture of Slovenian, Croatian, Italian and Venetian. My mother herself identified as Yugoslav, and later as Croatian. She was born in Tar, Istra. She told me that the family name Mikatović came from an island down the far south coast and meant ‘son of Michael’. Recently I discovered that Mikatović is a contraction of the Greek, Michael Taxiarhis, or Michael the Brigadier, the archangel, the commander of the armies of heaven. This island my mother spoke about was the Island of Flowers in the Bay of Kotor, upon which once stood an Orthodox monastery dedicated to this saint. Thus we have, Mikatović, son of Michael the Archangel.
Belgrade 1985

‘In recent centuries,’ wrote the Australian Ambassador Malcolm Booker in 1994, ‘European…Empires that have competed for access to the Balkan corridor have constantly provoked dissension…in pursuit of their own interests. This has created a social and political climate in which every community fears and distrusts every other.’ He concludes, 'The only hope for peace among the Balkan peoples is for them to be left develop their uniquely beautiful and productive region.'

           by Ivo Kaleb, 1944

For many summers, dear brother,
Our land has cried bitterly.
She has been in slavery
And her bitter tears have flowed.

You are a Serb, my dear brother,
But to I, a Croat, you extended a hand.
In the fight we went together
And to the bulwark of our land we came,
Scattered darkness and confusion,
Stifled tyranny,
Strengthened brotherhood and love,
Killed the traitors.

We are the children of one mother,
Therefore we bind our many faceted fists,
and make the final attack marching one way.

Wherever you are fighting, brother Serb,
I send you a warm greeting.
To the end I will be with you
To complete the holy struggle.


Monday, June 7, 2021


                IRREGULAR ADVENTURE   by  Christie Lawrence


This absorbing book must rate as the greatest war story never heard of. It is the memoirs of British commando captain, Christie Lawrence who, having been taken prisoner at the Battle of Crete, has a series of adventures in and out of occupied Serbia commencing in June 1941. He escapes from the Germans at least twice, travelling across Serbia, Greece and Bulgaria by foot, train and truck. While on the run, he veers between starvation and abundance, in one day in a village of hospitable peasants south of Belgrade, consuming more food than I eat in a week and more alcohol than I drink in a month. The soil in Serbia must be very fertile and there seems to have been an inordinate number of plum trees, most of which were used to make slivovitz.

At one stage in his travels, Lawrence actually lays eyes on the very border of Turkey he is trying to reach before being recaptured and put on a train to Germany. After braining his guard with a wine bottle, he abandons the bread, cheese and salami in his backpack and leaps from the train, crossing two rivers, nearly drowning both times. Eventually he is rescued by yet another village of well-fed Serbs, and here he is nursed back to health in the home of a government forester.

‘[The forester] found you about half a mile from the river…He held you upside down and a lot of water ran out.’

Three other men present were Chetniks under the leadership of Kosta Pećanac, two from the Royal Yugoslav Army and the third was,

‘tall with aquiline features and a beard. He had gaily coloured peasant’s dress with elaborate embroidery. Round his waist and over one shoulder he wore a bandolier full of rifle cartridges, and from his belt hung three Mills bombs. A rife was slung over his back and at his side was a revolver in a big black holster. A large knife in a brass sheath completed his armament.’

Lawrence explains that there existed various Chetnik groups in rural Serbia at this time, each under the command of a local vojvoda, or warlord. They were a tradition left over from the days of the Ottomans, against whom they had waged guerrilla warfare. 

After he has recovered, Lawrence meets Kosta Pećanac himself who formally enrolls him as one of his Chetniks. Pećanac sends him to meet a further Chetnik general, Ljubo Novaković and, once at the general's headquarters, a company of Partisans turns up.

'What do you think of Serbian soldiers?' [Novaković asked me.]

'I think they have very little discipline and are not well trained,' I replied.

'Why do you say that?' asked a Partisan leader.

'Because they take no precaution against being seen from the air...they leave their arms in the open and stand about as though they were at a fair.'

'Perhaps you are right,' said the Partisan. He went away and made his men move under the trees and take their arms with them. The Chetniks watched them scornfully.

'Only the Partisans are afraid of a bomb or two,' [they] said. 

At this point, matters become disjointed, and the fragmentation is accompanied by Lawrence's philosophical treatise on why. Throughout the first half of the book, he takes a fiendish delight in portraying Chetniks as colourfully dressed relics of a glorious past, and Partisans as 'tough and sullen', silently 'watching everybody black eyes.' I suspect that, as a representative of the British Empire, he felt justified in this deprecation, but I almost retorted that British interference in the Balkans had created resentment in Bosnia, started World War 1, orchestrated the coup d'état in Belgrade in World War 2 – and so on and so forth.

Kosta Pećanac, 'always half Fascist', announces his intention of collaborating with the Germans and decamps along with the men loyal to him. The Germans pay them a salary. Lawrence marches off with Novaković and eventually arrives at the town of Kruševac in time to witness an assault against the Germans by two companies of Chetniks, a large company of Partisans, 'and the usual huge force of semi-armed peasants.' This is followed by dramatic observations of Chetniks and Partisans together fighting the Germans for the town of Alexandrevac. The first battle Lawence was actually involved in was a joint Partisan/Chetnik assault on Kaljevo in the second week of October, 1941, against the Germans and those of Pećanac's men already on their payroll.

Lawrence eloquently captures the bewilderment of an occupied country before adequate resistance has been organized: the savage German reprisals, the power play between the various Serbian leaders, of whom there seems to be a revolving number, the infighting and arguments. Various peasant goups follow one leader blindly, while others just want to go home.

'These communists, what do they want? They want to attract recruits and be that when Yugoslavia is liberated they will be able to seize power. They are only working with [General] Draža Mihailović because he is too strong for them at the moment. And he is as bad. He wants a Serbian dictatorship over the rest of the country. He is not a Yugoslav, he’s a Serb.

‘Have you seen how these petty little local leaders squabble about a man and a gun? Novaković went away because he wanted to be a commander and Đurić let him go because he wanted to be commander. And Jakšić prefers Đurić to Novaković because he is the stronger man….Then you look out, [Lawrence]…They will fight for your support and try to murder you if they don’t get it.’

I was never entirely sure who was on whose side, what proportion of the many Mafia-like local warlords were accepting German money for personal gain, and which side the poor peasants caught in the middle might be persuaded to choose next. 

Draža Mihailović appears to have made a critical error in late 1941 following the battles at Kraljevo and Kragujevac. These battles resulted in terrible German reprisals against the civilian population.

'In order to save the lives of his men and preserve the skeleton of an organization, he was forced to disband most of his companies. [Some went home,] many others he sent to serve nominally under the Germans in the companies which Nedić (the quisling prime minister) was raising to fight against the Partisans and ...Draža himself. Draža did not intend [for them to serve under the Germans] His idea was to preserve himself and a certain number of his companies...He meant that they should serve with Nedić's militia long enough to get arms and clothing, and then escape to the woods and hills.'

'Are they still serving with Nedić? I asked.

'Far too many. It was a good idea when Draža thought of it, and provided it could have been carried out as he intended.

'How could it have been a good idea? I insisted.

'Because it provided Mihailović with groups of men whom he could use for his defence against the Partisans, if they attacked, and who also kept him informed about German intentions...They always use a screen of Nedić's men as advance guard. And more than half of the men they use are, in fact, Draža's own.'

Lawrence asked why it had ceased to be a good idea.

'Because hundreds of officers and men...have heard that some of Draža's officers have been sent into Nedić's militia and have, of their own accord, joined without orders. Draža has, in fact, no control over them, and yet, whatever they do, they do in his name, and often openly collaborate with the Germans.'

Lawrence concludes:

'Mihailović's order, after his defeat in the autumn [of 1941] to stop fighting the Germans seemed reasonable enough, for one cannot fight effectively until one's organization is powerful enough.'

Upon hearing that a British officer is staying with General Mihailović, Lawrence sets out once the winter snows have melted to locate his compatriot. After a southerly walk of a week and a half, he arrives at Milanovac, one of the Serbian towns destroyed by the Germans, and here learns from Mihailović's chief-of-staff the cost of revolting against them.

'The total result of our revolution was that we killed about seven or eight thousand Germans, and lost 125,000 men and women shot by them. Three towns and fifty-three villages ...were burned out, and our organization was virtually destroyed...we are now rebuilding it on different lines...Sabotage is our aim and it must be so arranged that subsequent reparations...will be kept small.'

If Lawrence's aim is to confuse me then, by the spring of 1942, he has succeeded. For example, as he proceeds south he is accompanied by two men whose names he has changed to Ivanović and Milenković. They inform him of their plans to organize guerrilla warfare in the Toplica province of southern Serbia and their personal reasons for doing so.

'I want you to understand,’ said Ivanović, 'that we owe no especial loyalty to Draža Mihailović.

'Are you,' I asked, 'in fact, a communist?'

'No,' said Ivanović. 'I have never been a communist. But I am an enemy of the present regime, though a personal friend of the King.'

He took out of his wallet some photos of himself and the young King bathing together on the Dalmatian coast.

'Tell me, I said, 'has Mihailović really a strong following all over the country?'

'Theoretically yes, practically no,' said Milenković.

'It is the British radio which has given him his reputation,' said Ivanović.

Lawrence asks them how they plan to proceed.

'We must make friends with [both Chetniks and Partisans,' replies Ivanović.] ' the thing. We shall tell the Chetniks that there is no difference that matters between ourselves and them – that our one difference is that they co-operate with the Germans to fight the Partisans, and we fight them on our own. We shall offer to collaborate with them at every turn, whereas, in fact, we shall co-operate with them not at all. One day they will wake up to the fact that we are much too strong for them, and then we shall destroy them.'

'And the communists?'

'The communists will have nothing to fear from us. With them we can work, but we shall eventually be their masters.'

Here follows a spiel of convoluted reasoning involving England, Russia, Partisans and Chetniks which so frustrates Lawrence that he accuses his friends of 'running with the hare and with the hounds'. Yet, despite feeling that he is 'being used as a pawn in a semi-political intrigue' he likes them better than any leaders he had so far met because 'they were unquestioningly working against the Germans.' They then eat a meal together in a café in the town of Kuršumlija alongside enemy Bulgarian officers, Chetniks, officers of Kosta Pećanac working with the Germans, and four officers of Nedić's militia, none of whom take any notice of them. That night, they eat ghoulash at another café and exploit two drunken Germans to escort them safely home in case the occupying Bulgarians shoot them for being out after curfew. When at long last Lawrence meets Mihailović at the end of April 1942, and the general remarks 'you cannot understand the intricacies of Serbian politics,' I was inclined to agree with him.

Mihailović seems overtaken by matters generally.

'That morning I met Mihailović. I was shocked at his appearance, for he looked an old man...He was small and slight with grey hair, a thin, lined face and gold-rimmed spectacles. His voice was tired and he spoke with a worried preoccupied abstraction.'

Lawrence asks him why he has forbidden his generals to take action against the Germans.

'You have heard,' said Mihailović, “of the results of my revolution last autumn...I resolved that I would never again bring such misery on the country unless it could result in total liberation. We cannot, for the moment, maintain large illegal guerrilla companies. The misery which they cause to the peasants is too great....It is far better that my men should stay at home, work on the land, and look after their weapons if they have them. When the day comes for us to rise, we will rise.'

'Then, until Germany's final collapse, you intend to do nothing more active than organize?' I asked.

'I did not say that. I said, until the Germans are too weak to deploy sufficient forces against us to retake what we shall have taken from them. In future, I do not intend to capture a town until I know that I can protect its inhabitants.'

Lawrence's adventures come to a sticky end when he is betrayed to the Gestapo by a mad Serbian warlord dying of tuberculosis, and accused of being Jewish.

The lives of the people he meets paint a picture of Serbia at this critical early stage of its occupation. Daniele, 'a very good machine gunnist', is a Slovene who had joined the Partisans 'partly from fear and partly from hate' after Belgrade was invaded and her husband left her because she was a Jew. A Serbian merchant accepts pay from the Germans in order to feed his village and fund resistance activities. The Orthodox priests of the monastery on Mount Rudnik regard 'it as their duty to offer aid to anyone who was willing to fight the invader...sometimes to the communists, sometimes to the Chetniks, and always to fugitives from German “justice"'. A peasant pulls out his flint box to light Lawrence's cigarette, and down in the valley we hear the sound of women batting linen.

I have been unable to find Irregular Adventure for sale anywhere, but there are copies in university and state libraries.










Wednesday, May 12, 2021

A TOUR OF YUGOSLAVIA 1985 - part 2: Dubrovnik, Budva, Sveti Stefan and Split.


Wednesday 15th May

Vivaldi’s Four Seasons was performed last night in a church in old Dubrovnik which is part of a square-cloistered Dominican Monastery. The concert also included Vivaldi’s Gloria. The church was large and full, the orchestra well-tuned and together. An energetic conductor, good acoustics and an enthusiastic performance combined to make a splendid evening.

The Old City is surrounded on three sides by the sea. On one side is the port, protected by a huge stone wall – originally wood – which, with its steps, levels and lookouts, looks like a miniature version of the Great Wall of China. There is also the occasional canon pointing to the sea lapping upon the rocks far below. Tourists can't yet walk all the way round, but we went as far as we were able. From the land side there are two gates in the wall with draw bridges, and I think we saw a few barred gates coming from the water. Outside the walls are forts and, once upon a time, an underwater chain was drawn across the port at night to prevent enemy ships from entering. But the real interest is inside the walls. The town here is supposedly the most perfectly preserved Mediaeval town in Europe. The main reason for this is that, from Dubrovnik’s foundation in the sixth or seventh century to the time of Napoleon, who conquered it in 1808, the town was free. Consequently, it is a museum in itself, although it is still the living quarters of many people including shops, kafanas, washing strung out on lines from the windows, and open markets. And, guess what? No cars! The streets are cobbled, worn smooth by the centuries, but the cross streets go up the hill and are composed almost entirely of steps. Cars can’t drive up steps yet! In 1667 an earthquake all but destroyed the city. The people must have been very proud of Dubrovnik and fairly courageous themselves because they rebuilt the city to the same design as the old, even buildings that had been levelled by the disaster.

Thursday 16th May

At 8am this morning we piled yet again into our new German bus and headed south along the winding Dalmatian coast. For every kilometres, as the crow flies, you travel ten by road, according to Saša. As you cross the border from Croatia to Montenegro, you notice many tall cypress trees in the thickly wooded forests. They stand out from the other trees because of this noble shape. Well, I call it noble.

In 1979, an earthquake badly damaged this area and repairs on modern and ancient buildings are still being carried out. In some cases, this is impossible, and the buildings have just been left, instead of demolished. One such case if the Mediaeval town of Budva, which is surrounded by another splendid stone wall. People lived in it as they do in Dubrovnik, but today it stands empty. A ghost town. The buildings are so weak since the quake that they could fall down without warning, and it is really quite eerie to see it – a whole town deserted, yet still standing. 

Up the road, another ancient town is being reconstructed. Note the Venetian forts. At one time, Venice and Dubrovnik were the two most powerful ports in the Adriatic.

From 12.00 until 2.00, we stopped for lunch at Sveti Stefan. This little island is connected to the mainland by a narrow isthmus of sand on which is built a pedestrian causeway. There is a church on the top and a collection of fishing huts, which have been updated into a modern resort. This, too, is surrounded by a sea wall, and is compactly built using bricks, stones and tiles to make quite an architectural maze. There are steps all over the place connecting the various levels and gardens, and small plots of grass are built into the stonework. There also trees, where they will fit, but with all the houses it’s a tight squeeze. It’s a lovely little place, and well worth the visit.

This picture is part of a royal collection in a museum decked out with original furniture, crystal and china. It was the Royal Family of Montenegro, of course, because Montenegro was a country before Yugoslavia was united in 1918. There are also many medals, guns, flags and uniforms from their wars with the Turks, and some lovely examples of National dress.

Going back to Dubrovnik, we cut an hour off the trip by catching a huge punt, or ferry, across the largest bay. I thought it was great fun, but one of the older ladies wasn’t too impressed when I asked if she could swim.

Total on board: 3 coaches, 3 trucks, 8 or 9 cars and about a hundred people.

Friday 17th May

We slept in this morning and caught the local bus into Old Dubrovnik with the rest of the unwashed masses. Once here, we climbed the steep stairs to the walkway on the thick wall, and completed our circumference that we had started on Wednesday. From here you get a bird’s eye view of the sixteenth century town (and some parts are even older). It’s just superb! Did you ever wonder what a mediaeval chimney looked like? See the oldest grape vine in Croatia, with a stem like a tree trunk. Just change the clothes the people wear and here you are, back in pre-Renaissance Yugoslavia! Nowhere else have I seen things like this.

The working day here is unusual. The shops open from 8.30 to 12.00 and then again from 4.30 to 8.00 with some variations. The hours in between are lunch and siesta time. Understandably, this is a bit irritating for Western tourists, but we’re not in the west now.

The highlight of the day was a two hour concert of dancing and singing from all areas of Yugoslavia. It was held in a huge sports stadium which was filled mostly by tourists from about 20 coaches. The items were announced in Serbo Croat, English, French and German. I think there was nobody in the thousand or so guests that didn’t enjoy the evening. I was in heaven, as usual, and Lyn liked it so much that she bought a cassette.

In particular note: the costumes: really beautiful and certainly made in any colour you could think of. Lovely lace for the hems of the garments, embroidery even on the girls’ boots, headscarves and boleros. The most amusing costumes for the men were these long and full divided shirts down to their ankles with lace at the bottom. It looked so funny over black boots and they did a dance like the Can Can which almost bought the house down. There was a lot of stomping of boots with bells to keep the rhythm. Some dances had no music but kept the beat by this means. The boys, of course, danced the most vivacious and exciting steps.

Saturday 18th May

There are now two buses on our tour, a 7 day tour of parts of Yugoslavia has joined us from Dubrovnik to Zagreb. We journeyed along the Adriatic coast to Makarska for lunch. Although Saša kept on telling us about the lovely beaches below on the road, we were on the wrong side of the bus to see them. Makarska was a pleasant seaside town with a beach and a small marina. We stopped here for an hour, during which one of the Americans contacted his cousins by looking them up in the telephone book. Both his parents were Yugoslavs, but they have been dead for many years. The also drove after us to Split to spend the afternoon with them. Very exciting! And he was very nervous!

The most prominent historical building in Split is the Palace of Diocletian, which was built between 295 and 335 AD, Diocletian was a Roman Emperor who was noted, among other things, for dying a natural death – unusual in those blood thirsty times – and also for splitting the Roman Empire into East and West sections.

The modern town had been built within and without the old palace. Three of the original four corner pavilions are still standing and during the centuries houses have been built into the huge walls. Remarkably, the enormous subterranean basement areas of the walls have been preserved just as they were when built. This is probably because in Mediaeval times all the sewage was tipped into them, making them unable to be pillaged for stone. This area has been excavated by archaeologists and is interesting in its cavernous, hollow rooms, the cold, and the huge pillars curved concave to support the roof.

A short digression in praise of the virtues of Prošek: a heady Dalmatian desert wine, but hoenstly we drakn it at toher times, as well. Not juts after diner. We were wanerd to expect nothing until ½ way thru teh secnod glass. After that, it was qyite hard to peele the label from the obttle to apste it in my dairy, & I misdse the widdle bits at the botom.

Through Forests and Mountains - Kindle edition by Walker, Margaret. Literature & Fiction Kindle eBooks @

Wednesday, April 21, 2021

A TOUR OF YUGOSLAVIA 1985 - part 1: Belgrade and Sarajevo.

 Friday 10th May 

Greek trains are dreadful. From experience I can tell you that the Hellas Express was not a patch on the Vienna Express from Belgium to Vienna. Both offered identical facilities, but the Hellas Express is old, dirty, and the bedding needs repair. Still, Lyn and I had a couchette to ourselves that usually slept six. In Athens, we had been provided with two sheets, a pillow, pillow case and blanket, and I, at least, slept like a log. The Swedish couple and daughter who were with us managed to move to the next compartment, and have it all to themselves.

At midnight, we crossed the Yugoslav border and were affirmed of the fact by an enormous guard waking us up to demand our passports in a very gruff voice. His sheer size was alarming. During the night we had passed through Macedonia, and early the next morning pulled into its capitol, Skopje, near the border with Kosovo. The countryside in Yugoslavia is very pretty. More lush, I think, than Greece. The houses are not square with flat rooves, but made of brick and plaster with red tiled sloping rooves.

About 8.30am our carriage filled up with people travelling to work, and I had this amazing conversation with a girl next to me, half in Serbo-Croat and half in German, because she knew no English. It was my first attempt at Serbo-Croat – I had chickened out with another couple an hour before – and was achieved with my head in the textbook most of the time and the girl writing down what I couldn’t understand. We got a little way with much laughter and gesticulation and I, at least, felt more confident.

The scenery is very much like Austria. Green and lush, lots of trees, houses which look pretty from a distance, market gardens, cows, sheep, pigs, and horse-drawn ploughs instead of tractors! I think it is a very poor land, judging by the farms and villages. The people wear drab, shapeless clothes, and headscarves. The old ladies, as in Greece, are often dressed in black.

Saturday 11th May

We dropped off some carriages along the way and picked up others, so the train was eventually very long indeed, and too high off the ground to get our luggage down easily. The third class sections filled up with many young men dressed in green khaki uniforms all leaning out the windows, so that by the time we pulled into Belgrade, the Hellas Express looked like a train from ‘Bridge over the River Kwai.’ The station itself was covered, and long enough to match the train. There were a number of very tall men waiting around, not thin, as tall blokes often are in Australia, but well-proportioned without being overweight. Several taxi drivers standing on the platform asked Lyn if she wanted a lift – notice, no one asked me; maybe they thought I was a local – so we finally chose one, and were whisked off to the palatial Hotel Jugoslavia where we were waited on hand and foot.    

Although Belgrade looks a bit grotty near the station it is, later on, a nicely laid-out city with wide streets, a big river crossed by many fine bridges, and green lawns, shrubs and trees everywhere. This morning, we went for a walk into town – about three kilometres – along the Sava River and over one of its many bridges. Apart from the gardens along the bank, there was also a large space of grass and woodland down from the hotel, and on this was staged a military display to mark Europe's 40th Independence Day (8th May 1945). It was a huge turnout. I haven’t seen crowds like it since Queen Elizabeth came to Australia in 1970 and we went to see the fireworks. To make matters worse, many of the locals are very tall and well-built, so for once in my life, I couldn’t see over the crowds. There were jet displays with stunt flying, and red, white and blur tail flares, missile exhibits. On the river zoomed speed boat tactics, tanks on barges and pontoons. The land contents was a series of deafening explosions, soldiers climbing up trees, radio controlled planes, tents and other equipment. All this was accompanied by brass and military band music and a male chorus that sounded for all the world like the Red Army Choir. There was dancing in National Dress, too, so I took some photos.

The city is cleaner than Athens and the buildings are nicer to look at, but to us it was still fairly drab. The older buildings have an interesting architecture and would look attractive with a bit of care.

Our planned tour of Yugoslavia began at the hotel at 6pm in fine style: red carpets, room service, chandeliers, beautiful blue and white damask table cloths and serviettes. Drinks were followed by a speech from Saša, our guide, and a four course dinner.


        Cheese and cured meat with bread.

         Tomato Soup.

         Skewered pork, beef and sausage, carrots, beans and French Fries.

        Chocolate layer cake with an uncooked meringue topping.

I’m trying to eat half of everything so I don’t waddle off the bus when the tour ends. There are many Americans touring with us who can be, in some cases, overbearing. They think money can buy the world and the earth is America’s oyster. Joan and Don Taylor are a nice couple from Bendigo whom we have teamed up with. As with us, he works in a hospital.

Sunday 12th May

Today is Sunday and I haven’t been to church for three weeks, which I regret. At eight we sat down to breakfast preparatory to two and a half hour tour of Belgrade showing the old and new parts of the city. Belgrade was extensively bombed during the war, and a lot of older buildings were destroyed. “Belgrade” means “white city”, a name given to it because of the white stone it was made of. Yugoslavia has had a long and checkered history. It was settled by the Celts in the third century BC and then taken over by the Romans in the second or third century AD. From then there have been Slavs, Turks, Austrians, Germans, Hungarians and the modern people fighting for domination. The history is long and complicated and needs a detailed study to understand it correctly.

There are six states: Serbia, Croatia, Slovenia, Bosnia, Macedonia and Montenegro. Belgrade is the capital and there are three religions: Orthodox, Catholic and Muslim. Near the hotel two rivers converge, the Danube and the Sava, and a walk along the Sava towards this confluence immediately identifies the strategic importance of Belgrade for its conquerors throughout history. Here is built the fort, which dates from Roman times.

Belgrade is dominated in the new section by large areas of parkland, un-kept, usually, dotted with huge housing complexes and sky scraping offices rising out of the greenery. The parkland was once swamp which has been filled in by sand and built on since 1948. In the older city are many large public buildings and beautiful churches creating some interest in the otherwise grey, straight streets.

The next stop was an interesting, if exhausting, hike to the tomb of President Tito. This is a very sacred place for the Yugoslavs and they come in large numbers to pay homage, often bowing before the simple white marble rectangular tomb. There is a guard of four soldiers there 24 hours a day, and the whole tomb, as we walked around it, was surrounded by beautifully coloured, cultivated flowers. The effect is very nice and certainly reverent. Tito obviously meant a lot to them. The hike, by the way, is because the tomb is at the top of a hill in a densely wooded park. Since the weather is so humid and the older members of our party so slow, I was pretty wacked going up and down.

This evening we went to a lively and traditional area of the city where crowds of people go to eat both traditional food and dishes borrowed from other countries, inside or al fresco. Our restaurant was a lovely oak-panelled room with frosted and patterned glass doors and soft romantic lights. Very like something from the Orient Express. The band moved around the room, playing as they went to various sections of our party, some of whom decided to dance. As the band played, they often sung in rich voices and beautiful harmonies. There was an excellent violinist, a guitarist, a dark ukulele, a double bass and a piano accordion. All men. All the bands, inside and out along the cobbled streets, were unamplified. Needless to say, the atmosphere inside our restaurant, with the band and superb male singing was as near to heaven as I could imagine. They sung fast, they sung slowly, loud and soft, mournful and exciting. I was so wound up in thoughts and the spirit of the night that, when the party rose to leave, I got such a surprize that I almost didn’t follow them.


Cheese, cured meats and polenta.

Salad, bread and sauerkraut.

Veal stew and red and yellow capsicum, with rice.

Apples stuffed with nuts, with meringue and cream.

Monday 13th May

We left the hotel at 9am and headed south west from Belgrade to Sarajevo where the 1984 Winter Olympics were held. Initially the fields were flat, cultivated by hand and horse-drawn ploughs, or occasionally primitive tractors. I don’t remember very much of the trip because I kept nodding off. Not because I was tired but because I was sitting in the sun and the bus was very comfortable.

During the last half of the journey, we passed through hilly country, and the road and the railway through the mountains near Sarajevo pass through tunnels cut into the rocks. When you consider that I’m used to seeing hills covered in dark Australian gum trees, the vivid green of these local trees was a striking contrast. The land is, apart from anything, very green, so different to home. Everything looks fertile. Among the hills nestle little towns with one, two or three storey houses and sloping rooves, very much like Austria. The difference is, again, that the people are poor and their houses are not terribly well kept. However, it is so green and relaxing, that I prefer it to the high rise dwellings in Belgrade. Notice how hay is stacked in tall, peaked domes, maybe six or seven feet high. Also note the many farm animals inside the rickety hand-made yards: cows, pigs, big black boars, chickens, dogs, ducks. Without the highways, these little towns and farms with their hand made buildings and fences, and especially the hand drawn ploughs, could be taken straight out of the seventeenth century.

The whole landscape is terribly pretty and scenic. Villages are set into the greenery of deep gullies and the caps of the distant mountains are snow-covered. In fact, there was still snow by the side of the road, although it had turned to ice.

Our hotel, the Holiday Inn Hotel, is even grander than the Hotel Jugoslavija in Belgrade. It is very modern with grand entry lobbies and stairs, even a series of small shops. The rooms have bigger beds than ours at home, with huge pillows, bionic showers that blast you with water – a bit violent maybe – and everything that opens and shuts. Even a fully equipped mini bar in each room.


Ham dumpling soup with bread.

Deep fried pancakes with tartare sauce.

Stuffed onions, capsicum, spinach leaves, plus two meatballs in stock, with salad.


In one area of Sarajevo there has been, and still is, a heavy Turkish influence. Firstly you notice the mosques, but secondly, the dress of the women. They wear long skirts or billowy pantaloons down to their ankles and often little coloured slippers on their feet. While driving in, I saw a woman dressed like this drawing a wooden plow through a field – by hand!

Where was her husband?

Tuesday 14th May

This morning we had a short tour of Sarajevo including the Turkish mosque, a Serbian orthodox church, and the old markets. The mosque was painted inside and out with frescoes and contained beautifully shaped candle holders, now replaced by electricity. However, the most memorable things were the lovely Turkish carpets in intricate patterns and bright colours. One was so complicated that we were told it had to be done by children’s nimble fingers. The clock tower outside was built in the seventeenth century and inscribed with Turkish numbers. It is designed to read twelve o’clock at sunset, so does not read in the same way as ours. Note the two mausoleums as big as a lounge room, for one man each. Turkish women get little graves with a single headstone. So much for equality of the sexes!

The Serbian Orthodox church was founded originally in about the sixth century AD. It has been destroyed by fire several times since. Today’s edifice dates from 1730. Again note the beautiful interior with marble candle holders and many icons, like the Greek Orthodox. There are also small lit candles to offer prayer for the living and the dead. The atmosphere in the church, which was reverent and holy, was shattered by crowds of tourists, of which I, unfortunately, was one. The open markets were very interesting, and contained a lot of leather work and other traditional arts like macramé, copper work and wood work.

Back in the bus we journey south, stopping for lunch at Mostar. This is a unique and charming town featuring a sixteenth century white marble bridge. Although it has raised ridges to walk on – so the cattle wouldn’t slide back the way they came – the marble, polished by centuries of wear, was incredibly slippery. Lyn had to take her shoes off to get over. There are young men who will jump off this bridge at a price gathered from the tourists. I took a photo of one, but he wouldn’t jump. Drats!

There are two drawly Americans behind me in the bus who express wonder and amazement at EVERYTHING and laugh at all the jokes from Saša, our guide, whether good or bad. I shall make a second determined attempt not to let them disturb me. 

Saša is a very talented man where languages are concerned. His English is excellent and he makes jokes in it, which I always feel shows that you have the hang of a language. Mind, the jokes are usually about Communists, Russians, exiles in Siberia and, of course, the national airline.

Joke 1: A JAT passenger jet was on its way across the Adriatic when engines one and two failed. ‘Ladies and gentlemen,’ said the Captain. ‘All those passengers who can swim, please move to the right side of the plane. All those who can’t, please move to the left.’ Shortly after, engines three and four failed. ‘Ladies and gentlemen,' said the Captain. ‘Those on the right hand side, good luck! Those on the left, thank you for flying Jugoslav Airlines.’


Joke 2: An Irishman, an American and a Yugoslav were drinking and discussing the best thing that could ever happen to them. ‘Gorgeous girls and an endless supply of whiskey,’ said the Irishman. ‘Enough money so that I would never have to work again,’ said the American. The Yugoslav said, ‘A big black car drives up outside and shortly there is a knock on my door. I open it to find two large threatening men from the KGB standing there. “Are you Ivan Ivanovich?” they demand. “Not me,” I say. “He lives next door.”

This unfortunate Ivan Ivanovich came in for a lot of teasing on the trip.

Late this afternoon we arrived in the Adriatic town of Dubrovnik, and are planning to hear a performance of the Four Seasons by Vivaldi after dinner.