An Illustrated History of Slavic Misery: Kragujevac

Posted on June 29, 2013

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I always thought I’d be a good father. I always liked to say that I’d be one of those ones that gets up in the middle of the night to look after the baby when its upset. Well, there was a baby in a private room here the other night, and I can hereby confirm that I’ll be a terrible father. Seriously, I began to resent the poor thing really quickly. I need to rethink my fatherdom. Still, I worked it to my advantage, took my 5am start and turned it into an 8am bus to Kragujevac. Where the hell is Kragujevac you say? Read on fair child!

The 4th largest city in Serbia, Kragujevac is situated right in the heart of the country, in the belly. Despite being relatively unknown in the rest of Europe, it is an immensely important city in the history of Serbia and thus the Balkans. Meaning ‘Hawks Nesting Place’, Kragujevac was actually the first capital of modern Serbia, from 1818 to 1839. Not only that, but it had the first fully fledged university in Serbia, the first grammar school, military academy, national theatre and much more. Whilst Belgrade has gone on to surpass the city in terms of national importance, Kragujevac still has its powers and its relevance, mostly due to Fiat. Yes, the car.

I arrived in the city at around 10am, and decided to find Spomen Park (Memorial Park) first and foremost, using my time honoured ‘walk in the direction of your hunch’ technique. It’s a solid technique that has had some mishaps I suppose (https://penguinorchestra.wordpress.com/2013/04/25/bratislava-castle-is-the-worst-type-of-castle/), but usually it does me right. I set out from the bus station, and one thing became really clear, really quickly. Kragujevac has a heck of a lot more road rage than Belgrade. This was initially strange, Belgrade is obviously a much bigger city with many more cars, but then it became clear. Kragujevac, as mentioned earlier, is home to a big automobile industry, and I’m told is home to lots of Italians. If you have experience of Italy, can you confirm anything about road rage? When I was there I was too scared (or poor, I can’t remember) to cross the road.

My technique worked, as it should. I must admit though, this was particularly easy as it was essentially just a straight line for 40 minutes or so. I was pleased to have made it though, pleased to have reached my destination with tired legs and a rapidly burning neck. What I didn’t bargain for, however, was the size of the park. There was a lot more walking to be done. Uh oh. I’m young, its fine.

To give it its whole name, the Kragujevac October Memorial Park is situated in Sumarice and is a huge complex commemorating the horrific events of October 21st, 1941. As World War 2 began to blaze through the Balkans, the Nazi generals issued an order that for every German soldier wounded 50 communists must be killed. If a German soldier was killed, this number would rise to 100. This doesn’t explain the massacre in Kragujevac however, as there had been no attacks on Germans there, the popular thought is just that enough victims could not be found elsewhere. Over a few days at that time, an entire generation of people were rounded up, herded to the park and exterminated. Whilst the number of dead has never been truly established, the current figure stands at about 2800. Pupils were taken straight out of school and shot. In an act of incredible defiance, a number of teachers chose to face the firing squads with their pupils.

Broken Wing Monument

Broken Wing Monument

The massacre was a particularly brutal one in a war full of then. It also had an immensely profound effect on the war in the Balkans, and subsequently the modern history of what would become Yugoslavia. Up until this point, the Allies had been putting their support being the Chetnik Resistance, mostly Serbian fighters who were loyal to the crown. When the brutal disregard for civilian life was shown by the Nazis, the Chetnik leaders decided to alter their strategy in an attempt to avoid further massacre. The Partisans, led by Tito, weren’t as bothered by all this, and obviously the Allies just wanted dead Nazis. Therefore, all the support was switched the the Partisans, and the rest is history.

That’s enough history though, let’s get on with the tourism part. The park is pretty darn big, covering 352 hectares. It is home to around 30 mass tombs, 11 monuments and a museum dedicated to the events of October 21st. There are also a number of military cemeteries. To say it is a sobering place is an understatement. There were plenty of people there as I walked around, but there was no noise to be heard. It is difficult to avoid taking in the sheer scope of history as you wander around. The monuments themselves are a thing to behold as well, in particular the ‘Broken Wing’ monument. There is also a pretty little church situated in the middle of it, which was unfortunately closed when I attempted to go inside. Picture-esque without doubt, but it is difficult to appreciate the aesthetic when the spectre of history is suffocating it.

I couldn’t walk anymore, and my skin was getting increasingly tasty to the mosquitoes, so I headed back towards the city. My bus wasn’t too far away, but I figured I had time to get something to eat and a pivo, naturally. I’m a glutton for predictability, so obviously I got me some pljeskavica. Naturally. The waiter was friendly as usual, but it always reminds me how little I speak of this language. Now, we had the standard greetings, and when he ventured further I told him I was learning slowly. Now, this would usually lead to him saying something easy to understand and simple, but good lord I had no idea. I really need to buckle down with learning this stuff.

I wandered around the city after this, but the early start and burning neck were beginning to weigh heavy, so I decided to head back to Belgrade. The bus back was super crowded, which made it kinda entertaining in a masochistic sort of way. Kragujevac is well worth a visit, for the park alone. Such an important and distressing part of a regions history, remembered in a beautiful and poignant way.

My evening was pretty lazy after that, a couple of hours scaring Una’s cat and a couple of hours shepherding Danes around the city. The standard really. Much the same tonight, except with none of the above, before the big Kobasice half year Christmas party tomorrow. Yes, you read that right. Awesome awaits, in the form of Yuletide Sausage.

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